What Is a Gordian Knot?
“Cutting the Gordian Knot” is an expression describing the solution of a problem by quick, decisive action. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (disentangling an “impossible” knot) solved easily by finding a loophole or thinking creatively.
In ancient Greek mythology, the Gordian knot was devised by Gordius, King of Phrygia, the ruins of whose capital lie near Ankara in Turkey. He had bound his chariot yoke so tightly and with such intricacy that it was impossible to loosen. An oracle foretold that he who could untie the Knot would go on to conquer Asia.
When the Greek King Alexandar the Great (356-323 BC), one of the supreme soldiers and statesmen of history, invaded Asia Minor in 334 BC, with the object of defeating the Persians, he came to the ancient capital of Gordium.
According to the story, King Gordius’s chariot still stood with the Knot unbroken. Alexandar is said to have resolved the problem in characteristic fashion by drawing his sword and cutting through the Knot at a stroke! The conqueror went on to bring the empire of the Persians, 50 times larger than Greece, under his dominion.
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, 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. 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. Alexander later went on to conquer Asia as far as the Indus and the Oxus, thus fulfilling the prophecy.