Gordian Knot

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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 finding a loophole or thinking creatively ("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


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.[1] Out of gratitude, his son Midas dedicated the ox-cart[2] 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.”[3]

The ox-cart still stood in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia at Gordium in the fourth century BC when Alexander 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.[3] Alexander wanted to untie the knot but struggled to do so without success. 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.[3] In an alternative version of the story, Alexander loosed the knot by pulling the linchpin from the yoke.[3]

Sources from antiquity agree that Alexander was confronted with the challenge of the knot, but his solution is disputed. Both Plutarch and Arrian relate that, according to Aristobulus,[4] 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.[5] Literary sources of the story include 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.[6]

Alexander 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 Gordian/Midas's 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 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."[8] 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.[9] 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"[10] or the locally attested, authentically Phrygian "Midas"[11] in his ox-cart.[12] Other Greek myths legitimize dynasties by right of conquest (compare Cadmus), but the legitimising 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]

  • Miguel Cervantes references the Gordian Knot in Part 2 Chapter 19 of Don Quixote when the eponymous protagonist is talking about marriage.
  • The Gordian knot is alluded to in the motto of Ferdinand II of Aragon, Tanto monta ("It amounts to the same, (cutting as untying)")[13] and in the yoke representing Isabella[14] 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.[15]
  • 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.[16]
  • 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.)[17]
  • Lord Upjohn, speaking of the allocation of beneficial interests between the parties under a constructive trust in National Provincial Bank Ltd v Ainsworth,[18] 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."[19]
  • Henry Purcell, an English composer, wrote a piece of music entitled "The Gordion Knot Unty'd", Z. 597[20]
  • 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."[21]
  • The Gordian knot is also alluded to in the fifth chapter of Nikos Kazantakis' "The Saint's Life of Alexis Zorba". On the way from Uncle Anagnostis's home to their hut, the writer (a.k.a. the Boss) and Zorba conversed for a while; at some point of the talk, the writer thinks to himself: "This man [A. Zorba] did not go to school, yet his mind is not impaired. He has seen, done, an suffered much; his intellect has been opened and his heart enlarged without losing its primordial stoutness. All the problems that are so complicated and unsolvable for us: he solves them with a single sword-strike, as did his compatriot Alexander the Great with the Gordian knot. It is difficult for him to fall into error because the whole of him, from scalp to sole, is planted in the earth. African savages worship snakes because their entire body touches the ground, enabling them to know earth's secret through belly, tail, testicles, head. They touch the Mother, join her, become one with her. Zorba is similar. We educated folds are blockheaded birds of the air." (Cf. pp. 77-78 of Peter Bien's translation of the novel.)
  • 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."[22]
  • 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)[23]
  • 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.[24]
  • 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".[25]
  • 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.[26]
  • In Disney's 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."
  • Progressive metal band Gordian Knot takes their name from the legendary knot, perhaps as an allusion to the complex, interwoven layers of harmony and counterpoint in their music.
  • In the film Batman v Superman (2016), Diana Prince is shown an artifact (later revealed by Bruce Wayne as a fake) described as the Sword of Alexander, which is said to be the one used to cut the Gordian Knot.
  • The Delta Sigma Phi fraternity features the Gordian Knot as one of its symbols. The Gordian Knot is also the title of its new member manual. The Gordian Knot is considered to be one of the first pledge manuals to be published on a fraternity-wide basis.[27]
  • The song Alexander the Great by Iron Maiden makes reference to the Gordian Knot.
  • Season 3 Episode 4 "The Mole" of Numb3rs shows the hardest brain teaser ever toy which requires 70 specific moves to solve. The toy is called Gordian Knot which actually requires 69 moves to disassemble and then requires reassembly for the complete solution.
  • Riverdale Season 1 Episode 8 - Jughead refers to the situation of the Coopers wanting Polly but not the baby and the Blossoms wanting the baby and not Polly as a "true Gordian Knot".
  • Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Wisconsin Humane Society - When the " tails of.. five juvenile Gray Squirrel siblings had become hopelessly entangled with the long-stemmed grasses and strips of plastic ... and with each other", the Wildlife rehabbers called the entanglement a Gordian Knot. It took 20 minutes of careful snipping with scissors to free the anesthetized squirrels.
  • Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Season 1 Episode 1

See also[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, 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".
  3. ^ a b c d Andrews, Evan (3 February 2016). "What was the Gordian Knot?". Ask History. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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]
  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 149–51.
  7. ^ Graves, The Greek Myths (1960) §83.4
  8. ^ Graves 1960, §83.4.
  9. ^ "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).
  10. ^ Trogus apud Justin, Plutarch, Alexander 18.1; Curtius 3.1.11 and 14.
  11. ^ Arrian
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ page 121, El libro de los proverbios glosados: (1570-1580), Sebastián de Horozco
  14. ^ Yoke and arrows
  15. ^ Colless, Brian (1992). "Cyrus the Persian as Darius the Mede in the Book of Daniel". JSOT. 56: 114.
  16. ^ Balzac, Honoré de. Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes.
  17. ^ Sebald, W. G. (1998). The Rings of Saturn. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation. ISBN 978-0-8112-1413-1.
  18. ^ [1965] AC 1175
  19. ^ Leibniz, G.W. (1698). On Nature Itself.
  20. ^ "PURCELL: Theatre Music, Vol. 1 - Amphitryon / Sir Barnaby Whigg / The Gordian Knot Unty'd / Circe".
  21. ^ Spurgeon, Charles (1908) God's Providence Archived 2012-02-13 at the Wayback Machine.
  22. ^ Camus, A. (1960). Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.
  23. ^ Sartre, J.P. (1943). Being and Nothingness.
  24. ^ Stewart, Bhob. "Synchronicity and Symmetry". The Comics Journal. July 1987.
  25. ^ "Gordian Blade". NetrunnerDB. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
  26. ^ Rowling, J.K. (June 28, 2016). "Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry". Pottermore. Retrieved July 5, 2016.
  27. ^ "Delta Sigma Phi". Wikipedia. 2017-05-12.