Variation: cutting the Gordian knot, untying the Gordian knot
Alternate phrase: Gordian knot — a very difficult problem
Origin: The phrase can be traced back to ancient Greek mythology. The story begins in the kingdom of Phrygia in Anatolia (what is now Turkey). Phrygia’s earliest mythical king was Nannacus who ruled for 300 years; after his reign, came king Manis (whose spectacular exploits, according to Plutarch, were called “manic”). After Manis, around 8 B.C., the rule of Phrygia became fragmented, and ultimately, kingless. Seeking guidance, the Phrygians turned to the oracle of Sabazios (known as Zeus to the Greeks) who instructed them to accept as their king the very next man who entered the city on an ox-cart. That man was Gordias, a peasant farmer (and the father of a future king, Midas, with the golden touch thanks to Zeus). Upon entering the city, Gordias was declared king; he then drove his cart to the palace and tied it to a post using an intricate knot (the now famous Gordian knot, a sort of ancient Rubik’s Cube). According to legend, Zeus had sent an eagle that landed on the cart’s yoke, imbuing the knot with a special imperial power; Zeus decreed that whoever could untie that knot would become the ruler of Asia — a generous reward for untying the Gordian knot. Gordias went on to found a new capital, named after himself — Gordium, in west central Anatolia.
Around 333 BC, Alexander the Great enters the story. Alexander, who was in the middle of his victorious campaign against Persia, stopped in Gordium. As one of the greatest military leaders in history, who had conquered mighty and fierce armies, Alexander was not going to walk away from the seemingly simple challenge of untying the Gordian knot. The historian Arrian, in his monumental Campaigns of Alexander (Anabasis of Alexander, Book 2, Chapter 3) describes what happened next: “Some say that when Alexander could find no way to loosen the cord and yet was unwilling to allow it to remain knotted, lest this should exercise some disturbing influence upon the multitude, he struck it with his sword, cutting it through, and proclaimed that it had been loosened… Both he and his troops left the wagon as if the oracular prediction concerning the loosening of the knot had been duly fulfilled.” So, facing a difficult non-military problem, Alexander cheated and put a positive spin to his solution to the crowd — dare we say he was being very naughty? The rest, of course, is history: Alexander went onto to conquer all of Asia and the legendary Gordian knot entered the English lexicon in the late 16th century.
William Shakespeare popularized the phrase in his play King Henry the Fifth (published in 1599). In Act 1, scene 1, the Archbishop of Canterbury observes that the king is faced with a difficult political situation: “The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,/ Familiar as his garter.”
For further reading: The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, J.R. Hamilton, Penguin (1976)
It’s Greek to Me! by Michael Macrone, Harper Collins (1991)