The Gordian Knot

The tale of the Gordian Knot is one of the best known stories told about Gordion, and one of the few that features Gordion in a popular figure of speech. The story recounts an episode that took place in 333 BCE during the campaigns of Alexander of Macedon against the Persian Empire. Alexander was advancing with his army across Anatolia and came to Gordion, probably because this was a natural stopping point on the road that led inland from the Aegean Coast towards Ankara (ancient Ancyra) and further east.

A drawing of Alexander the Great cutting the Gordion knot with a sword.

While at Gordion, the Macedonian king learned about a special wagon that was situated in the Temple of Zeus. The pole of the wagon was tied to the wagon body with an intricate knot of cornel bark, and a prophecy had foretold that whoever could unfasten the knot would go on to rule over Asia (or even the whole settled world, in one version). Seized by a longing to test the prophecy, Alexander tried to unfasten the knot by unraveling it, but when he was unable to do so, he drew his sword and cut right through it. From this comes the proverbial expression “to cut the Gordian Knot”, meaning to cut right to the heart of a matter without wasting time on external details.

For the site of ancient Gordion, however, this account owes its interest not only to the connection with Alexander, but also to the explanatory legend attached to it, one that describes the reason for the existence of the knot and the wagon, and its dedication in the Temple of Zeus. The general outline of the legend is as follows: there was once a poor Phrygian peasant named Gordios who was plowing his fields, when an eagle came and sat on the yoke of his plow, remaining there all day. Perturbed as to what this might mean, he consulted the Telmessian people, an ancient race of prophets. Gordios came upon a Telmessian woman, standing in a doorway, who ordered him to sacrifice to Zeus. Gordios did so and also married the woman, who produced a son named Midas. When Midas was grown, he happened one day to drive up into Gordion in his father’s wagon, while the city was in the midst of civil strife. The people of Gordion immediately proclaimed Midas as their king, since they had been told by an oracle that a wagon would end their civil war by bringing them a king. The newly proclaimed king Midas accepted the throne and dedicated the wagon in the Temple of Zeus as a thank-offering to the god and as acknowledgement of the sign of the eagle, the sacred bird of Zeus, that had predicted his kingship.

This legend can be found in several accounts of Alexander’s campaigns, although with some variations in details: in a few cases it was Midas who was proclaimed king, while in others, the honor was given to his father Gordios, and Midas followed him in the kingship. All variants are consistent, however, in connecting the legend with the foundation of royal hegemony in Gordion. The core of the story may well preserve a local Phrygian tradition recounting how Midas, and perhaps also his father Gordios before him, claimed the throne of Phrygia with divine aid. Gordios himself is a shadowy figure, little known outside of this story, but Midas is a well-known ruler whose reign, 738 – 696 BCE, as recorded by the early church historian Eusebios, coincides with the references to a king named Mita of Mushki in the annals of the Assyrian king Sargon II.

The presence of Zeus and his eagle strongly implies divine approval of Midas’s kingship, while the reference to the prophetically gifted Telmessian maiden in the doorway may well allude to the Phrygian Mother goddess, regularly depicted standing in a doorway, and her role in proclaiming Midas’s kingship. Several elements of the legend fall into well-known ancient Near Eastern story patterns of kingship foundation: the divine messenger (the eagle) from the gods, the use of the wagon as a symbol of kingship, the close connection between a new king and a prominent female divinity. But the legend as we have it from the Alexander historians seems to preserve a unique version that was local to Gordion and Phrygia, recording how the kingship of Midas was established in Gordion with the support of the dominant male and female divinities in the Phrygian pantheon. The legend gives us a small window into the Phrygians’ traditions of their own past that are otherwise lost to us.

Further reading

  • Burke, B. W. 2002. “Anatolian Origins of the Gordian Knot Legend,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 42, 255-261.
  • Frei, P. 1972. “Der Wagon von Gordion,” Museum Helveticum 29, pp. 110-123.
  • Roller, L. E. 1984. “Midas and the Gordian Knot,” Classical Antiquity 3, 258-271.