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Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1743–1811)

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"):

"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)

Contents

Legend

At one time the Phrygians were without a legitimate 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. This man was a poor peasant, Gordias, who drove into town on his ox-cart. He was declared king by the priests. This had been predicted in a second way by a sign of the gods, when an eagle had landed on that ox-cart. In gratitude, his son Midas dedicated the ox-cart[1] 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. The ox-cart[2] 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.

In 333 BC, while wintering at Gordium, Alexander the Great 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"). Once Alexander had sliced the knot with a sword-stroke, his biographers claimed in retrospect that an oracle further prophesied that the one to untie the knot would become the king of Asia.[3]

Alexander was a figure of the most outstanding celebrity, and the episode of the Gordian Knot was known to every literate person—and doubtless to many as well who were not—from the third century BC to the end of Antiquity and beyond.

The 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.[4]

Plutarch disputes the claim that Alexander sliced the knot with his sword, and relates that according to Aristobulus,[5] Alexander pulled the knot out of its pole pin rather than cutting it. Either way, Alexander did go on to conquer Asia as far as the Indus and the Oxus, fulfilling the prophecy.

Interpretations

The knot may in fact have been a religious knot-cipher guarded by Gordian's priests and priestesses. Robert Graves suggested[6] 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 to a dynastic change in this central Anatolian kingdom: thus Alexander's "brutal cutting of the knot... ended an ancient dispensation."[7] The ox-cart 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 most likely to have been aware.[8] 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 ox-cart. Other Greek myths legitimize dynasties by right of conquest (compare Cadmus), but the legitimizing oracle stressed in this myth suggests that the previous dynasty had been a race of priest-kings allied to the oracle deity.

See also

Notes

  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 as a chariot, and was an emblem of power and constant military readiness.
  3. ^ 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).
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Plutarch, Life of Alexander, a secondary source; Aristobolus' text is lost.
  6. ^ Graves, The Greek Myths (1960) §83.4
  7. ^ Graves 1960, §83.4.
  8. ^ "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.

References

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