The Gordian Knot is a legend associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem, solved by a bold stroke ("cutting the Gordian knot").
According to a Phrygian tradition, an oracle at Telmissus, the ancient capital of Phrygia, decreed to the Phrygians, who found themselves temporarily without a legitimate king, that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. Midas, a poor peasant, happened to drive into town with his father Gordias and his mother, riding on his father's ox-cart. Before Midas' birth, an eagle had once landed on that ox-cart, and this was explained as a sign from the gods. Midas was declared a king by the priests. In gratitude, he dedicated his father's ox-cart to the Phrygian god Sabazios, whom the Greeks identified with Zeus, and either tied it to a post or tied its shaft with an intricate knot of cornel (Cornus mas) bark. It was further prophesied by an oracle that the one to untie the knot would become the king of Asia (today's Asia Minor).
The ox-cart, often depicted as a chariot, was an emblem of power and constant military readiness. It 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.
In 333 BC, wintering at Gordium, Alexander attempted to untie the knot. When he could find no 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"). Plutarch disputes this, relating that according to Aristobulus, Alexander pulled the knot out of its pole pin rather than cutting it. Either way, Alexander did go on to conquer Asia, fulfilling the prophecy.
The knot may in fact have been a religious knot-cipher guarded by Gordium's priests and priestesses. Robert Graves suggested that it may have symbolized the ineffable name of Dionysus that, enknotted like a cipher, would have been passed on through generations of priests and revealed only to the kings of Phrygia.
Unlike fable, true myth has few completely arbitrary elements. This myth taken as a whole seems designed to confer legitimacy upon a dynastic change in this central Anatolian kingdom: thus Alexander's "brutal cutting of the knot... ended an ancient dispensation." The oxcart seems to suggest a longer voyage, rather than a local journey, perhaps linking Gordias/Midas with an attested origin-myth in Macedon, of which Alexander is mostly likely to have been aware. To judge from the myth, apparently the new dynasty was not immemorially ancient, but had widely remembered origins in a local, but non-priestly "outsider" class, represented by the peasant Gordias in his oxcart. Other Greek myths legitimize dynasties by right of conquest (compare Cadmus), but the legitimizing oracle in this myth suggests that the previous dynasty had been a race of priest-kings allied to the oracle deity.
- ^ Arrian, Anabasis Alexandri (Αλεξάνδρου Ανάβασις), Book ii.3).
- ^ Robert Graves, The Greek Myths 1960, §83.4.
- ^ "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," Ernest A. Fredricksmeyer, "Alexander, Midas, and the Oracle at Gordium", Classical Philology 56.3 (July 1961, pp. 160-168), p. 165.
- Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 1993. ISBN 0-14-017199-1
- Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 1973, pp 149–151. ISBN 0-14-008878-4
- Plutarch, Lives
- Arrian, Anabasis Alexandri (Αλεξάνδρου Ανάβασις), Book ii.3).
- Robert Graves, The Greek Myths 1960, §83.4.
- "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," Ernest A. Fredricksmeyer, "Alexander, Midas, and the Oracle at Gordium", Classical Philology 56.3 (July 1961, pp. 160-168), p. 165.