The term “Gordian knot,” commonly used to describe a complex or unsolvable problem, can be traced back to a legendary chapter in the life of Alexander the Great.
As the story goes, in 333 B.C. the Macedonian conqueror marched his army into the Phrygian capital of Gordium in modern day Turkey. Upon arriving in the city, he encountered an ancient wagon, its yoke tied with what one Roman historian later described as “several knots all so tightly entangled that it was impossible to see how they were fastened.”
Phrygian tradition held that the wagon had once belonged to Gordius, the father of the celebrated King Midas. An oracle had declared that any man who could unravel its elaborate knots was destined to become ruler of all of Asia.
According to the ancient chronicler Arrian, the impetuous Alexander was instantly “seized with an ardent desire” to untie the Gordian knot. After wrestling with it for a time and finding no success, he stepped back from the mass of gnarled ropes and proclaimed, “It makes no difference how they are loosed.” He then drew his sword and sliced the knot in half with a single stroke.
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In another version of the legend, he simply pulled out a lynchpin running through the yoke, loosening the knot enough that he was able to unfasten it. Whatever method he used, the young king was immediately hailed as having outsmarted the ancient puzzle. That same night, Gordium was rocked by a thunder and lightning storm, which Alexander and his men took as a sign that he had pleased the gods. True to the prophecy, he went on to conquer Egypt and large swaths of Asia before his death at age 32.
Thanks to the enduring popularity of the Alexander fable, the phrase “Gordian knot” has entered the lexicon as shorthand for an intricate or intractable obstacle. One of its earliest appearances came in the Shakespeare play Henry V, where the titular character is praised for his ability to “unloose” the Gordian knots of politics. Likewise, the saying “cutting the Gordian knot” is now commonly used to describe a creative or decisive solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem.