Ancient Greece

Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot

The Gordian Knot, a complex tangle with the prophecy of Asian rule, challenged Alexander the Great. He faced the knot, seeking to fulfill his destiny.

alexander the great and the the Gordian Knot

Upon conquering Anatolia, Alexander the Great arrived in Gordium, an ancient city in Phrygia. Renowned for his military prowess, he was presented with the challenge of untying the legendary Gordian Knot. This intricate knot secured the yoke of a Phrygian oxcart, possessing immense political and religious symbolism. Legend foretold that the person capable of unraveling the knot would become the ruler of Asia.

The Legend of the Gordian Knot

Map Showing the Kingdom of Phrygia, Gonen et al. 2018. Source: Researchgate.net [Statue of a man in Phrygian Dress, 3rd-1st Century BCE Hellenistic. Source: Wikimedia Commons]

The Phrygians, an Indo-European people, inhabited Western Anatolia following the Bronze Age collapse. Migrating from the Balkans, they clashed with the Hittites. Despite maintaining a distinct identity, the Phrygians interacted with both Assyrians and Greeks. Raids by Cimmerian nomads during the late 8th and early 7th centuries BCE ravaged their kingdom, leading to Gordium’s destruction (c.696 BCE) and the death of their king. Smaller Phrygian kingdoms persisted until absorbed by the Lydians and Medes in the 6th century BCE. Phrygia later became part of the Achaemenid Empire following Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Lydia (546 BCE).

Ancient historians attributed the Gordian Knot to the Phrygian kingdom’s earliest days. Lacking a king, the Phrygians consulted an oracle. The prophecy declared that the next man to enter Gordium on an oxcart would assume the throne. A peasant named Gordias fulfilled this, leading to his coronation. In thanks, his son Midas (of “golden touch” fame) dedicated the oxcart to the god Sabazios. An oracle later proclaimed that whoever could untie the complex knot securing the cart would rule all of Asia.

Modern Interpretations of the Gordian Knot

Head of Dionysos, Gandharan 4th-5th Century CE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]
Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot, by Maturino de Firenze c.1510-1527. Source: Art Institute Chicago

Scholars have sought to untangle the complex tapestry of cultural influences within the Gordian Knot myth. Its primary function appears to have been the legitimization of a Phrygian dynasty, implying recent origins rather than an ancient lineage. The presence of an ox-cart hints at possible external origins, while the prominence of oracles suggests a priest-king lineage connected to a divine power. Some theorize the Knot itself symbolized a sacred cipher, an ineffable name of a deity known solely by the priest-king.

This myth, with its emphasis on legacy-building, was common in the Ancient Near East, though its focus on problem-solving rather than conquest is unique. Scholars posit a possible connection between the Knot and a Macedonian myth known to Alexander, perhaps associating it with Dionysus. In Greek lore, Dionysus led a conquering force across Asia – a parallel to Alexander’s campaigns. The link is further solidified by Dionysus bestowing the “golden touch” upon Midas.

A Clever Approach

Historical accounts describe Alexander the Great’s encounter with the Gordian Knot, an intricate puzzle tied to an ancient oxcart. Legend promised that whoever unraveled it would rule Asia. While sources concur on the challenge presented by the knot, they differ on Alexander’s method of resolving it.

The most widespread version depicts Alexander faced with the frustrating knot and opting for a bold solution. He decisively draws his sword and severs the knot with a single stroke, demonstrating his impetuous character and foreshadowing his swift conquest of Asia. This image of forceful action resonates deeply with the legendary warrior-king’s personality.

A less popular, but perhaps more plausible, account suggests that Alexander first attempted to untangle the knot conventionally. Upon failing, he declared that the method of untying was irrelevant and simply cut it apart with his sword.

Another version, supported by Plutarch and Arrian, proposes a more ingenious solution. Instead of brute force, Alexander keenly examines the entire oxcart. He removes the linchpin connecting the pole and yoke, exposing the knot’s ends. This strategic approach showcases Alexander’s intelligence, suggesting he untied the knot traditionally and perhaps with wisdom that seemed almost divinely inspired.

The Legacy of the Gordian Knot

Alexander the Great famously cut the Gordian Knot, a complexly intertwined fastening said to promise dominion over Asia. His dramatic solution, while ultimately not securing rule over all of Asia, nonetheless established his command over much of the ancient world. Through a combination of military prowess and strategic brilliance, Alexander fulfilled the prophecy associated with the Knot.

Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot, by Antonio Tempesta 1608. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot, by Antonio Tempesta 1608. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The theme of Alexander and the Gordian Knot found enduring popularity among artists and writers throughout history. Today, the term “Gordian Knot” symbolizes an intricate challenge solved by a bold, unconventional approach. Shakespeare himself invoked the legend in “Henry V,” underscoring its timeless power. The story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot continues to inspire those facing complex obstacles, reminding us that sometimes, the most effective solution lies in an unexpected, decisive action.

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Emma Clarke
Emma Clarke received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Cambridge. She writes about the social and political structures of ancient Greece and Rome.

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