The Gordian Knot

Market Watch reports on the on-going attempts to resolve the economic crisis in Greece. Greece: Can the Gordian Knot be severed? states that

Greece has… become the Gordian knot of ancient mythology.

In that enduring legend Gordius, a peasant who became king in Asia Minor, tied his wagon to a post with an intricate knot. An oracle said whoever untied the knot would rule all of Asia. Young Alexander the Great 100 years later came through and after a futile effort to untie the knot drew his sword and severed it with a powerful swing. That night a violent electrical storm told the people the gods were pleased. Alexander went on to rule much of the known world.

You can read the article here.

The legend of the Gordian Knot appears in four of the five principle sources on Alexander’s life (Diodorus omits it).

Arrian II.3-4
Curtius III.1.14-18
Justin XI.7
Plutarch Life of Alexander 18

Here is how Market Watch‘s interpretation of the story compares to theirs:

… Gordius, a peasant who became king in Asia Minor…
Arrian – States that it was Gordius’ son, Midas, who became king
Curtius – Does not confirm or deny that Gordius became king
This agrees with Justin
Plutarch – Does not confirm or deny that Gordius became king, referring only to ‘king Midas’

… tied his wagon to a post with an intricate knot…
Arrian – The knot ‘fixed’ the yoke to the wagon
Curtius – Says that the yoke ‘was strapped down with several knots’. The use of the word ‘down’ suggests to me that C. means it was attached to the shaft that connected it to the wagon – which C. calls the ‘carriage’ – rather than to a post
Justin – Says no more than that the knots were attached to the yoke. No mention is made of a post or anything else (J. refers to the wagon as a ‘car’)
Plutarch – The knot attached the yoke to the chariot

An oracle said whoever untied the knot would rule all of Asia.
Arrian – Makes no reference to an oracle but says that the belief (which the Notes to my edition of Arrian’s Anabasis say that, in Alexander’s day, Asia ‘meant the Persian Empire’) was a traditional one
This agrees with Curtius, though he says that ‘the local people claimed that an oracle had foretold mastery of Asia for the man who untied this impossible knot’ (my emphasis)
This agrees with Justin, who refers to oracles in the plural
Plutarch – States that ‘the fates had decreed that the man who untied the knot was destined to become the ruler of the whole world’ (my emphasis)

Young Alexander the Great 100 years later came through…
Arrian – Does not say specifically when Gordius lived though refers to it as being ‘in the ancient days’
Curtius – Makes no mention of when Gordius lived
Justin – Makes no mention of when Gordius lived. He does, though, refer to the oracles who said whoever undid the knot would rule Asia as being ‘the oracles of old’
Plutarch – Does not say when Gordius lived but refers to Midas as being an ‘ancient king’
By-the-bye, Alexander was 22-23 when he arrived in Gordium

… and after a futile effort to untie the knot drew his sword and severed it with a powerful swing…
This agrees with Arrian and Plutarch and some of their sources, for A. and P. both note that – according to Aristobulos – Alexander worked out how to undo the knot
This agrees with Curtius and Justin

That night a violent electrical storm told the people the gods were pleased.
This agrees with Arrian
Curtius, Justin and Plutarch do not mention this part of the story

Alexander went on to rule much of the known world.
This agrees with Arrian, Curtius, Justin and Plutarch and everyone else who has ever studied his life

Categories: By the Bye, Of The Moment | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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