Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Gordian Knot

The Gordian Knot is a metaphor for an intractable problem, solved by a bold stroke ("cutting the Gordian knot"). The knot associated with the growing legend of Alexander the Great was a knot of cornel bark (Cornus mas) which tied the components of a yoke to a chariot. The chariot was an emblem of power and constant military readiness that stood in the palace at Gordium of the former kings of Phrygia, which in the fourth century BCE had been reduced to a satrapy of the Persian Empire. The chariot, dedicated to the Phrygian god Sabazios—whom the Greeks identified with Zeus—was linked by legend with the accession to power of a local king Gordias. This "chariot" of later imagery was the ox-cart in which Gordias came to the temple that housed the oracle of Sabazios, at Telmissus, in the eastern part of Phrygia that became part of Galatia.

When Alexander 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").

Alexander's myth-makers encouraged the spread of a legend that whoever untangled the knot would rule the world.

The knot may in fact have been a religious knot-cipher guarded by Gordium's priests and priestesses. It may have symbolized the ineffable name of Dionysus (Robert Graves opined) that, enknotted like a cipher, would have been passed on through generations of priests and revealed only to the kings of Phrygia.