Gordian Knot

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For other uses, see Gordian Knot (disambiguation).
Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1743–1812)
Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot" (1767) by Jean-François Godefroy
Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot by André Castaigne (1898-1899)

The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (disentangling an "impossible" knot) solved easily by loophole or "thinking outside the box" ("cutting the Gordian knot"):

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


At one time the Phrygians were without a king. An oracle at Telmissus (the ancient capital of Phrygia) 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. His position had also been predicted earlier by an eagle landing on his cart, a sign to him from the gods, and, on entering the city, Gordias was declared king. 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 (Cornus mas) bark. The ox-cart[2] still stood in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia at Gordium in the fourth century BCE when Alexander arrived, at which point Phrygia had been reduced to a satrapy, or province, of the Persian Empire.

Several themes of myth converged on the chariot, as Robin Lane Fox remarks:[3] Midas was connected in legend with Alexander's native Macedonia, where the lowland "Gardens of Midas" still bore his name, and the Phrygian tribes were rightly remembered as having once dwelt in Macedonia. So, in 333 BCE, while wintering at Gordium, Alexander the Great attempted to untie the knot. When he could not find the end to the knot to unbind it, he sliced it in half with a stroke of his sword, producing the required ends (the so-called "Alexandrian solution").[4] However, another solution is presented by Aristobulus, which indicates "he unfastened it quite easily by removing the pin which secured the yoke to the pole of the chariot, then pulling out the yoke itself."[5] That night there was a violent thunderstorm. Alexander's prophet Aristander took this as a sign that Zeus was pleased and would grant Alexander many victories. Once Alexander had sliced the knot with a sword-stroke, his biographers claimed in retrospect[6] that an oracle further prophesied that the one to untie the knot would become the king of Asia.[7]

Alexander is a figure of outstanding celebrity and the dramatic episode with the Gordian Knot remains widely known. Literary sources are Alexander's propagandist 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.[8]

While sources from antiquity agree that Alexander was confronted with the challenge of the knot, the means by which he solved the problem are disputed. Both Plutarch and Arrian relate that according to Aristobulus,[9] Alexander pulled the knot out of its pole pin, exposing the two ends of the cord and allowing him to untie the knot without having to cut through it. Some classical scholars regard this as more plausible than the popular account.[10]

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


The knot may have been a religious knot-cipher guarded by Gordian/Midas's priests and priestesses. Robert Graves suggested that it may have symbolized 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.[11]

Unlike fable, true myth 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."[12] The ox-cart suggests a longer voyage, rather than a local journey, perhaps linking Gordias/Midas with an attested origin-myth in Macedon, of which Alexander is most likely to have been aware.[13] Based on the 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 "Gordias"[14] or the locally attested, authentically Phrygian "Midas"[15] in his ox-cart.[16] Other Greek myths legitimize dynasties by right of conquest (compare Cadmus), but the legitimizing oracle stressed in this myth suggests that the previous dynasty was a race of priest-kings allied to the unidentified oracle deity.

Use of the phrase[edit]

  • The Gordian knot is alluded to in the motto of Ferdinand II of Aragon, Tanto monta ("It amounts to the same, (cutting as untying)")[17] and in the yoke representing Isabella[18] in the emblem of the yoke and arrows.
  • Brian Coless has suggested that Donald Wiseman "cut the Gordian knot" of "the intractable problem of identifying King Darius the Mede" in the Book of Daniel, by identifying Darius with Cyrus the Great.[19]
  • Honoré de Balzac makes a reference to the Gordian Knot in his novel, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, in which he likens it to the relationship Lucien de Rubempré makes with Vautrin and French society.[20]
  • W. G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn recounts the episode of Joseph Conrad who was shot or shot himself in the chest allowing him to "Cut the Gordian Knot" of, in Sebald's telling, a stormy love affair. (Conrad did attempt suicide at age 20, in a severe depression most probably precipitated by his financial situation.)[21]* Lord Upjohn, speaking of the allocation of beneficial interests between the parties under a constructive trust in National Provincial Bank Ltd v Ainsworth,[22] said that the parties' affairs are sometimes so inextricably intermixed that "an equitable knife must be used to sever the Gordian Knot".
  • Gottfried Leibniz argues in his essay On Nature Itself that refusing to acknowledge an active force in things and instead "simply to absorb this force into a command of God’s - a command given just once in the past, having no effect on things and leaving no traces of itself in them - is so far from making the matter easier to grasp that it is more like abandoning the role of the philosopher altogether and cutting the Gordian knot with a sword."[23]
  • Henry Purcell, an English composer, wrote a piece of music entitled "The Gordion Knot Unty'd", Z. 597[24]
  • Charles Spurgeon, preaching at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, England, made mention of the "many gordian knots which wicked men may cut, and which righteous men may try to unravel, but which God alone can untie."[25]
  • Albert Camus, in his lecture at the University of Uppsala on December 14, 1957, used the Gordian knot as a metaphor for the civilization falling apart at the sword of rampant politics of power and nihilism of the 20th century. He called for the newborn artists, the "anti-Alexanders", to heal the wound and repair the knot: "Yes, the rebirth is in the hands of all of us. It is up to us if the West is to bring forth any anti-Alexanders to tie together the Gordian Knot of civilization cut by the sword. For this purpose, we must assume all the risks and labors of freedom."[26]
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, "In Sein und Zeit Heidegger seems to have profited by study of his predecessors and to have been deeply impressed with this twofold necessity: (1) the relation between "human-realities" must be relation of being; (2) this relation must cause "human-realities" to depend on one another in their essential being. At least his theory fulfills these two requirements. In his abrupt, rather barbaric fashion of cutting Gordian knots rather than trying to untie them, he gives in answer to the question posited a pure and simple definition." (from "Being and Nothingness", Wash. Sq. Press, 1956, p330)[27]
  • The graphic novel Watchmen features a fictional Gordian Knot Lock Company, with a running gag of the locks being easy to break with a single kick. The name of the company also alludes to its true owner, Ozymandias, who at one point styled himself as a new Alexander.[28]
  • The card game, Android: Netrunner, which simulates computer hacking, features a program card called "Gordian Blade". The card's flavor text says that "it can cut through the thickest knots of data".[29]
  • A gold brooch in the shape of a Gordian Knot features in the origin of the Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, an American school that features in J.K. Rowling's Pottermore writings. The brooch belonged to the mother of Isolt Sayre, who founded the Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Massachusetts. An image of the knot is set into the middle of the stone floor of the school's entrance hall, and all Ilvermorny student robes are fastened by a gold Gordian Knot.[30]
  • In the Phineas and Ferb episode Knot my problem, Phineas, Ferb, and their friends recreate the Gordian Knot with large strands of licorice, and Candace eats it after being shot by Dr. Doofenshmirtz's All-You-Can-Eat Inator.
  • In Submachine 8 - The Plan, someone references the Gordian Knot by saying, "It's not a toy. It's a knot. You have to untie it. Unless you're Alexander."

See also[edit]


  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. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 1973"149–51).
  4. ^ Plutarch, Life of Alexander, pg 271
  5. ^ Plutarch, The Life of Alexander, pg 271
  6. ^ The theme of inevitability of victory after victory must have originated with Alexander's prophet Aristander, a man whose "prophecies he always liked to support", reported by Callisthenes, Alexander's court historian and panegyrist, as Robin Lane Fox observes (Alexander the Great 1973:149ff).
  7. ^ Today's Asia Minor would have been the ordinary connotation of "Asia" in the fourth century; "nobody, least of all Alexander, would have dared to claim that within eight years Asia would mean the Oxus, the crossing of the Hindu-Kush and a fight with the elephants of a north-west Indian rajah," remarked Robin Lane Fox in this context (Alexander the Great 1973:151).
  8. ^ 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 149–51.
  9. ^ Arrian, "The Campaigns of Alexander", p. 105, Penguin Group. 1971, and Plutarch, Life of Alexander, p. 19, The Modern Library. 2004 are secondary sources; Aristobolus' text is lost.
  10. ^ Fredricksmeyer, E. A. "Alexander, Midas, and the Oracle at Gordium" Classical Philology, Vol. 56, No. 3 (July, 1961), pp. 160–168 citing Tarn, W.W. 1948, [1]
  11. ^ Graves, The Greek Myths (1960) §83.4
  12. ^ Graves 1960, §83.4.
  13. ^ "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 1961:165).
  14. ^ Trogus apud Justin, Plutarch, Alexander 18.1; Curtius 3.1.11 and 14.
  15. ^ Arrian
  16. ^ Lynn E. Roller, "Midas and the Gordian Knot", Classical Antiquity 3.2 (October 1984:256–271) separates out authentic Phrygian elements in the Greek reports and finds a folk-tale element and a religious one, linking the dynastic founder (whether eponymous "Gordias" to Greeks, or Anatolian "Midas") with the cults of "Zeus" and Cybele. Both Roller and Fredricksmeyer (1961) offer persuasive arguments that the original name associated with the wagon is "Midas", "Gordias" being according to Roller a Greek back-formation from the site, Gordion.
  17. ^ page 121, El libro de los proverbios glosados: (1570-1580), Sebastián de Horozco
  18. ^ Yoke and arrows
  19. ^ Colless, Brian (1992). "Cyrus the Persian as Darius the Mede in the Book of Daniel". JSOT. 56: 114. 
  20. ^ Balzac, Honoré de. Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. 
  21. ^ Sebald, W. G. (1998). The Rings of Saturn. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation. ISBN 978-0-8112-1413-1. 
  22. ^ [1965] AC 1175
  23. ^ Leibniz, G.W. (1698). On Nature Itself. 
  24. ^ "PURCELL: Theatre Music, Vol. 1 - Amphitryon / Sir Barnaby Whigg / The Gordian Knot Unty'd / Circe". 
  25. ^ Spurgeon, Charles (1908) God's Providence
  26. ^ Camus, A. (1960). Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. 
  27. ^ Sartre, J.P. (1943). Being and Nothingness. 
  28. ^ Stewart, Bhob. "Synchronicity and Symmetry". The Comics Journal. July 1987.
  29. ^ "Gordian Blade". NetrunnerDB. Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  30. ^ Rowling, J.K. (June 28, 2016). "Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry". Pottermore. Retrieved July 5, 2016.