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Gordian Knot

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Alexander the Great cuts the Gordian Knot by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1743–1811)
Alexander the Great Cutting the Gordian Knot (1767) by Jean-François Godefroy
Alexander the Great Cutting the Gordian Knot by André Castaigne (1898–1899)

The cutting of the Gordian Knot is an Ancient Greek legend associated with Alexander the Great in Gordium in Phrygia, regarding a complex knot that tied an oxcart. Reputedly, whoever could untie it would be destined to rule all of Asia. In 333 BC Alexander was challenged to untie the knot. Instead of untangling it laboriously as expected, he dramatically cut through it with his sword, thus exercising another form of mental genius. It is thus used as a metaphor for a seemingly intractable problem which is solved by exercising brute force.

Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter

— Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 1 Scene 1. 45–47


The Phrygians were without a king, but an oracle at Telmissus (the ancient capital of Lycia) decreed that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. A peasant farmer named Gordias drove into town on an ox-cart and was immediately declared king.[a] Out of gratitude, his son Midas dedicated the ox-cart[1] to the Phrygian god Sabazios (whom the Greeks identified with Zeus) and tied it to a post with an intricate knot of cornel bark (Cornus mas). The knot was later described by Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus as comprising "several knots all so tightly entangled that it was impossible to see how they were fastened".[2]

The ox-cart still stood in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia at Gordium in the fourth century BC when Alexander the Great arrived, at which point Phrygia had been reduced to a satrapy, or province, of the Persian Empire. An oracle had declared that any man who could unravel its elaborate knots was destined to become ruler of all of Asia.[2] Alexander the Great wanted to untie the knot but struggled to do so. He then reasoned that it would make no difference how the knot was loosed, so he drew his sword and sliced it in half with a single stroke.[2] In an alternative version of the story, Alexander the Great loosed the knot by pulling the linchpin from the yoke.[2]

Sources from antiquity agree that Alexander the Great was confronted with the challenge of the knot, but his solution is disputed. Both Plutarch and Arrian relate that, according to Aristobulus,[b] Alexander the Great pulled the linchpin from the pole to which the yoke was fastened, exposing the two ends of the cord and allowing him to untie the knot without having to cut through it.[3][4] Some classical scholars regard this as more plausible than the popular account.[5] Literary sources of the story include Arrian (Anabasis Alexandri 2.3), Quintus Curtius (3.1.14), Justin's epitome of Pompeius Trogus (11.7.3), and Aelian's De Natura Animalium 13.1.[6]

Alexander the Great later went on to conquer Asia as far as the Indus and the Oxus, thus fulfilling the prophecy.


The knot may have been a religious knot-cipher guarded by priests and priestesses. Robert Graves suggested that it may have symbolised the ineffable name of Dionysus that, knotted like a cipher, would have been passed on through generations of priests and revealed only to the kings of Phrygia.[7]

Unlike popular fable, genuine mythology has few completely arbitrary elements. This myth taken as a whole seems designed to confer legitimacy to dynastic change in this central Anatolian kingdom: thus Alexander's "brutal cutting of the knot ... ended an ancient dispensation."[7]

The ox-cart suggests a longer voyage, rather than a local journey, perhaps linking Alexander the Great with an attested origin-myth in Macedon, of which Alexander is most likely to have been aware.[8] Based on this origin myth, the new dynasty was not immemorially ancient, but had widely remembered origins in a local, but non-priestly "outsider" class, represented by Greek reports equally as an eponymous peasant[9] or the locally attested, authentically Phrygian[10] in his ox-cart. Roller (1984) separates out authentic Phrygian elements in the Greek reports and finds a folk-tale element and a religious one, linking the dynastic founder (with the cults of "Zeus" and Cybele).[11]

Other Greek myths legitimize dynasties by right of conquest (compare Cadmus), but in this myth the stressed legitimising oracle suggests that the previous dynasty was a race of priest-kings allied to the unidentified oracular deity.

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ The ox-cart is often depicted in works of art as a chariot, which made it a more readily legible emblem of power and military readiness. His position had also been predicted earlier by an eagle landing on his cart, a sign to him from the gods.
  2. ^ Arrian and Plutarch are secondary sources; Aristobolus' text is lost.


  1. ^ Arrian, Anabasis Alexandri (Αλεξάνδρου Ανάβασις), Book ii.3): "καὶ τὴν ἅμαξαν τοῦ πατρὸς ἐν τῇ ἄκρᾳ ἀναθεῖναι χαριστήρια τῷ Διὶ τῷ βασιλεῖ ἐπὶ τοῦ ἀετοῦ τῇ πομπῇ." which means "and he offered his father's cart as a gift to king Zeus as gratitude for sending the eagle".
  2. ^ a b c d Andrews, Evan (3 February 2016). "What was the Gordian Knot?". History. Archived from the original on 21 January 2019. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  3. ^ Arrian (1971) [1958]. The Campaigns of Alexander. Translated by de Sélincourt, Aubrey (Revised, Enlarged ed.). Penguin Group. p. 105.
  4. ^ Plutarch (2004). Clough, Arthur Hugh (ed.). The Life of Alexander the Great. Translated by Dryden, John. Modern Library. pp. 18. ISBN 978-0812971330.
  5. ^ Fredricksmeyer, Ernest A. (July 1961). "Alexander, Midas, and the Oracle at Gordium". Classical Philology. 56 (3): 160–168. doi:10.1086/364593. JSTOR 265752. S2CID 162250370. citing Tarn, W.W. 1948
  6. ^ The four sources are given in Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great (1973) 1986: Notes to Chapter 10, p. 518; Fox recounts the anecdote, pp. 149–151.
  7. ^ a b Graves, Robert (1960) [1955]. "Midas". The Greek Myths (PDF) (Revised ed.). Penguin Books. pp. 168–169. Archived (PDF) from the original on 27 January 2018.
  8. ^ "Surely Alexander believed that this god, who established for Midas the rule over Phrygia, now guaranteed to him the fulfillment of the promise of rule over Asia", (Fredricksmeyer, 1961, p 165).
  9. ^ Trogus apud Justin, Plutarch, Alexander 18.1; Curtius 3.1.11 and 14.
  10. ^ Arrian
  11. ^ Roller, Lynn E. (October 1984). "Midas and the Gordian knot". Classical Antiquity. 3 (2): 256–271. doi:10.2307/25010818. JSTOR 25010818. Both Roller and Fredricksmeyer (1961) offer persuasive arguments that the original name associated with the wagon is "Midas", "Gordias" being a Greek back-formation from the site name Gordion, according to Roller.

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