The term Gordian knot refers to a problem most difficult of solution. It is a metaphor for an intractable problem.
To “cut the Gordian knot” means to solve a problem in an entirely original way, perhaps with one swift action, by rejecting or violating conventional rules that define the problem and its accepted range of solutions. It also means to cut to the heart of a matter without wasting time on superfluous details.
Alexander the Great famously cut the Gordian knot, which nobody else had been able to undo, at Gordium, the capital city of ancient Phrygia located where the Royal Road crossed the Sangarius River 47 miles southwest of present-day Ankara, the capital of Turkey, thereby fulfilling the prophecy that whoever undid the knot would become master of Asia.
The Hittites (Turkey)
Phyrgia occupied a major region of what was formerly the Hittite Empire, the earliest known civilization in Asia Minor and northern Syria. The Indo-European Hittites, an agricultural people, invaded the central plateau of Anatolia, probably from the region of the Caucasus, around 1900 BC and imposed their language, culture, and rule on the earlier non-Indo-European-speaking inhabitants.
The Hittites were known for their advanced system of government. Their military, too, was leading-edge; their chariots were the lightest and fastest of the time. The Hittites were possibly the first people to smelt iron. Their building materials were mostly stone and brick, but wooden columns were also used. Palaces, temples, and fortifications were frequently adorned with intricate, stylized carved reliefs on walls, gates, and entrances.
Until the dawn of the 20th century the primary sources of information about the Hittites came from Egyptian records, particularly those of the 19th Dynasty, and certain passages in the Old Testament. But in 1906 the Hittite royal archives were discovered in excavations at Boğazkale, Turkey. These made it possible to decipher the Hittite language, revealing information about previously unknown aspects of the culture, including political organization, legislation, religion, and literature. According to Professor Roger Pearson’s Anthropological Glossary (1985):
The discovery of written Hittite records reveals the essentially Indo-European character of the upper classes, even though the indigenous peasantry retained their Hurrian language and customs. Practicing an essentially proto-feudal system, the Hittite kings granted large estates to members of the warrior nobility, who participated in the government of the empire by way of a council of nobles. As with other Indo-European societies, there was also a third political group which among the Hittites was known as the Pankus. This represented the assembly of the able-bodied heads of households [families!] of true Hittite descent. The subject Hurrians, who continued to live in their Zadruga-type collective villages, appear to have been without political representation.
Ancient Hittite records show that the language, literature, and system of government were all highly developed. The Hittites rarely employed the death penalty or bodily mutilation, both common in the Middle East. In the main, Hittite justice rested on the principle of restitution rather than retribution or vengeance. The myths were similar to the Greek myths contained in the Theogony of the Greek poet Hesiod, and may have served as their prototypes.
By 1380–1346 BC the Hittite Kingdom had become a great empire rivaling those of Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria. It fell shortly after 1200 BC to Indo-European invaders known as the Sea Peoples, and Aryan Phrygians from the west. Many Hittite cultural elements survived until the Roman penetration into Anatolia in 190 BC, a century and a half after Alexander.
The Phrygians (Turkey)
The satrapy (province) of Phrygia was part of the Persian Empire in 330 BC. The empire’s center, the Iranian plateau, had been settled about 1500 BC by Aryan tribes from the Eurasian steppes, the most important of which were the Medes and the Persians. The empire itself, founded c. 550 BC, grew into the most powerful and extensive in the ancient world. Persians adhered to their own religion, Zoroastrianism, the central feature of which was dualism.
The Persians constructed a vast network of roads to unite their sprawling kingdom. Gordium, the capital of the Phrygian satrapy, was situated on the Persian Royal Road that led through the heart of Anatolia. This sophisticated road network enabled mounted couriers to travel 2,000 miles in only seven days; an army on foot might require three months to traverse the same distance. In his Histories, the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC) described the Persians’ extraordinary courier system utilizing these highways, akin to the famed Pony Express of the American West:
There is nothing mortal which accomplishes a journey with more speed than these [royal] messengers, so skillfully has this been invented by the Persians. For they say that according to the number of days of which the entire journey consists, so many horses and men are set at intervals, each man and horse appointed for a day’s journey. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness of night prevents them from accomplishing the task proposed to them with the very utmost speed. The first one rides and delivers the message with which he is charged to the second, and the second to the third; and after that it goes through them handed from one to the other, as in the torch race among the Greeks, which they perform for Hephaestus. This kind of running of their horses the Persians call angareion.
A variation of Herodotus’ phrase inscribed on the New York City Post Office—“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”—is often thought of as the motto of the US Postal Service. A good account of the Persian Royal Road by a young scholar can be read here: “The Persian Royal Mail.”
The Phrygian kingdom supplanted the Hittite Empire in Anatolia. It was settled by the Indo-European Phrygians who entered the area from Thrace, the eastern Balkan Peninsula largely uncultivated and covered by forest, including parts of Macedonia and Bulgaria, seizing control of the whole central tableland around 1200 BC.
Early in the 1st millennium BC Phrygia encompassed most of the Anatolian Peninsula, but it subsequently split into Greater and Lesser Phrygia. Gordium was the capital of Greater Phrygia, a high, barren plateau, the most fertile part of which was watered by the Sangarius River. Grapes were cultivated extensively, and Phrygian marble, celebrated in antiquity, was quarried.
The first archaeological excavation at Gordium was conducted by the German brothers Gustav and Alfred Körte in 1900. Subsequently, Rodney S. Young of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology carried out extensive work between 1950 and 1973. Excavations have continued since then under the auspices of the Museum. Gordium is considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the Near East, on a scale rivaled by few others. The University of Pennsylvania maintains a website, Digital Gordion, containing a wealth of information about the excavations there.
Alexander the Great & the Macedonians
Alexander, the greatest general of the ancient world, was the son of King Phillip II of Macedon, a semi-barbarian, warrior state on the northern frontier of Greece.
Ancient Macedonians were an Indo-European people closely related to the Greeks, who lived in the area still known as Macedonia today and retained an essentially tribal monarchical structure long after Greece developed republican city-states. Though Macedonians proudly claimed to be Greek, they were considered somewhat uncouth and not fully part of the classical Greek culture by inhabitants of southern Greece. Thucydides and Herodotus regarded them either as northern Greeks, barbarians, or an intermediate group between pure Greeks and barbarians.
Attempts to classify the Macedonian language are complicated by the paucity of surviving ancient Macedonian texts, as it was primarily an oral language and most archaeological inscriptions indicate there was no dominant written language other than Attic and later Koine Greek. Ancient Macedonian speech is thought to have been either a peripheral Greek dialect, a separate but related language, or a hybridized idiom. Apparently spoken Macedonian and Greek were sufficiently different that communication problems arose between Greek and Macedonian contingents, necessitating the use of interpreters as late as the time of Alexander the Great.
Preserving their cultural and genetic homogeneity, the Macedonians succeeded in subordinating Greece to their control and establishing a short-lived empire under Alexander.
Alexander ascended the Macedonian throne at age 20 in 336 BC. Temperamentally he was quite unlike his father. Philip had been a cautious, patient, often devious man who planned carefully before striking, whereas his youthful, headstrong son preferred to settle problems quickly. Like Hitler, Alexander acted decisively and with great speed, taking extraordinary risks in the process.
Originally intending only to destroy the Persian army, his objectives changed as his military campaign progressed; ultimately he decided to take over the entire Persian Empire and merge it with the Greek world, which he did.
Though tutored as a boy by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, he retained little of the latter’s philosophical bent. Alexander ultimately created a political confederation designed to rule a vast, multiracial empire, whereas his teacher believed the city-state to be the ultimate unit of civilization.
One of the imperial devices Alexander employed was intermarriage between Macedonians and Persians. “Alexander’s brides,” William Pierce wrote in Who We Are (2012), “and presumably those of his officers as well, were of noble Persian blood, which, even as late as the fourth century BC, meant most of them were White.” However, Pierce believed the bulk of the Persian population by that time was primarily mixed-race Asiatic, Semitic, and Aryan.
The Gordian Knot
In prehistoric times the legendary Gordius, the poor peasant father of the equally legendary Phrygian King Midas whose touch turned everything to gold, became king of Phrygia due to a divine omen involving an eagle and the pronouncements of an oracle. He happened to drive into Gordium’s public square during a period of great civil unrest. An oracle had foretold a king would arrive in the people’s midst in a wagon. Shortly thereafter Gordius appeared and was chosen king by acclamation.
Gordius tied his wagon in the temple of the god of the oracle on the acropolis, dedicating it to Zeus. An exceedingly complex knot was made, so that it was impossible to find the ends. An oracle declared that whoever untied the knot would rule over all Asia. Many tried to undo the knot, but failed. Alexander also tried and failed to unravel the knot in the conventional manner before cutting it with his sword. The tale of the Gordian knot bears a certain resemblance to the Arthurian myth of the sword in the stone.
Nevertheless, there seems no convincing reason to doubt the historicity of the event. It occurred at a known time and place, and though details vary from author to author and the backstory and oracular prophecy are rooted in legend, there is nothing supernatural about the description of the event itself, which is reported in natural terms by ancient writers.
Arrian, for example, states in The Anabasis of Alexander that when the conqueror arrived at Gordium he had a strong desire to go up to the acropolis where the palace of Gordius and his son Midas was, to see Gordius’ wagon and the knot tied to its yoke. After recounting the “strong [prehistoric] tradition” of the farmer Gordius, the sign of the eagle from Zeus, the birth of Midas, and the establishment of the Phrygian dynasty on the basis of an oracular prediction, Arrian states that “there was [also] a story about the wagon, that whoever undid the knot of the yoke of the wagon was destined to rule Asia”:
Alexander was not able to discover how to undo the knot, but he did not wish to leave it still fastened, in case this provoked some disturbance amongst the many people there. Some writers say that he struck the knot with his sword and cut through it and claimed that it was now undone; however Aristobulus [a Greek historian who accompanied Alexander and wrote an account of his campaigns] says that Alexander took the peg from the pole, which was a bolt driven through the pole all the way, and which held the knot together; he then drew the yoke of the pole. I am not able to say for certain what exactly Alexander did about this knot, but he and his companions certainly returned from the wagon as if the oracle about the untying of the knot had been fulfilled. That very night there was thunder and lightning in the heavens; because of this on the next day Alexander offered sacrifice to the gods that had shown these omens and also how to untie the knot.
In his Parallel Lives the Greek biographer (but Roman citizen) Plutarch devotes a paragraph to the event:
After this, he overpowered such of the Pisidians as had offered him resistance, and subdued Phrygia; and after he had taken the city of Gordium, reputed to have been the home of the ancient Midas, he saw the much-talked‑of waggon bound fast to its yoke with the bark of the cornel-tree, and heard a story confidently told about it by the Barbarians, to the effect that whosoever loosed the fastening was destined to become king of the whole world. Well, then, most writers say that since the fastenings had their ends concealed, and were intertwined many times in crooked coils, Alexander was at a loss how to proceed, and finally loosened the knot by cutting it through with his sword, and that when it was thus smitten many ends were to be seen. But Aristobulus says that he undid it very easily, by simply taking out the so‑called “hestor,” or pin, of the waggon-pole, by which the yoke-fastening was held together, and then drawing away the yoke.
In sum, the episode of the Gordian knot is situated in history; it is typically not dealt with in books about classical mythology at all.
Cutting the Gordian Knot
The Gordian knot symbolizes an intractable problem, and “cutting the knot” means solving it in an unforeseen, unconventional, and, if necessary, arbitrary manner.
Despite the surprisingly nuanced historical background, in contemporary lore Alexander unquestionably fulfilled the prophecy by slicing the knot with his sword. That is how virtually everyone understands the tale. Indeed, Plutarch said that “most writers say” Alexander did cut the knot with his sword.
Consequently, the perception that Alexander’s cutting of the knot was illegitimate or underhanded is often expressed. As one online blogger put it: “To me this is at once brilliant—but also ‘cheating.’”
The 19th-century English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon referred to “many gordian knots which wicked men may cut, and which righteous men may try to unravel, but which God alone can untie.”
Popular science writer Martin Gardner, who specialized in mathematical puzzles and games, scathingly condemned the youthful conqueror’s “contemptible” “puzzle brigandage,” “the high-handed manner in which Alexander the Great, competing in a puzzle contest, proceeded to make himself the umpire and awarded himself the prize for his absurd solution.”
Similarly, the walleyed French Communist intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre alluded to German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s “abrupt, rather barbaric fashion of cutting Gordian knots rather than trying to untie them,” and French existentialist Albert Camus said that “It is up to us if the West is to bring forth any anti-Alexanders to tie together the Gordian Knot of civilization cut by the sword.”
While such views are easily understood, and make sense within the Alexandrian context, the more serious questions raised by the story in light of the necessity of a struggle against an enemy who refuses to fight fair are:
Who is the foe?
How does he think and behave?
Who specifies the crooked “rules” of the game? Is the enemy the only one who makes them—and then violates them as often as he pleases . . . i.e., most of the time?
What do you do when you are attacked by thugs, whether non-white criminal gangs, antifas, socially-sanctified Jewish destroyers elevated to the status of demigods, or authorities equipped with SWAT gear and military weapons backed by the full power of the state?
Our own partisans and problem solvers must deal, eventually, with the massive Gordian knot of genocide—for that is what it is—as well as the countless Gordian knots enshrouding it, all of which are impossible to unravel by conventional means following heads-they-win-tails-you-lose rules.
Ruthlessly cast out, exorcised before the knot can be cut and a new day dawn, must be the groveling mindset of the courtier, the bizarre conviction (even among atheists and anti-Christians) that Jews are demigods not to be treated like whites or members of any other race (Alexander, too, established himself as a quasi-divinity), reflexive conformity unto death, and blind obedience to perceived authority.
Desperately needed is the fortitude to see things as they are without illusions of any kind, intense outrage at gross injustice, old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity and creativity in the service of ideological-social-political objectives as opposed to technical, mechanical, or professional ones, and social and moral courage as opposed to the physical kind, which remains in such plentiful supply that it too often degenerates into simple foolhardiness and jack-asininity.
It has been said that Alexander justified his act by proclaiming that it did not matter how the knot was undone. While not true in his case, under different circumstances there clearly are situations where not unsheathing one’s sword and cleaving the Gordian knot is immoral.
Otherwise, you’re simply granting a license to evil.
Andrew Hamilton, “The No-Win Situation & the Kobayashi Maru Solution” (2014)
Andrew Hamilton, “The Racial Makeup of the Turks” (2011)
1. Instead of “in one swift action” I originally wrote “in one fell swoop.” The Phrase Finder informs us:
This is one of those phrases that we may have picked up early in our learning of the language and probably worked out its meaning from the context in which we heard it, without any clear understanding of what each word meant. Most native English speakers could say what it means but, if we look at it out of context, it doesn’t appear to make a great deal of sense. So, what’s that “fell”? [An example is provided of a hunting bird swooping to kill its prey.] It’s an old word, in use by the 13th century, that’s now fallen out of use other than in this phrase, and is the common root of the term “felon.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “fell” as meaning “fierce, savage; cruel, ruthless; dreadful, terrible.” We have rather lost the original meaning and use it now to convey suddenness rather than savagery.
Fierceness, ruthlessness, and terribleness matching those of our foes are crucial—regrettably, there is no way around it—to the successful slicing of our own Gordian knot(s). The enemy has defined the deadly nature of the conflict, leaving us no choice but to accept their terms.
2. “Asia” in the prophecy referred to present-day Asia Minor (Turkey), not the rest of Alexander’s conquests or Western Asia as we define the region today.
3. Arrian (c. 86–160 AD) was a Roman-era, ethnically Greek historian from northwestern Turkey. His Anabasis, not to be confused with the Anabasis of the Greek military leader Xenophon from the 5th–4th century BC, is probably the best and most complete ancient account of the military campaigns of Alexander.