What Does the Phrase “to Cut the Gordian Knot” Mean and Where Does It Come From?

Gordius was the king of ancient Phrygia, in Asia Minor, during the times of Alexander the Great.

He had, according to tea legend, tied the yoke of his chariot with an exceedingly intricate knot; so intricate that, by promise of the oracle, all of Asia would become the subject of whatever man could succeed in loosening it.

When Alexander reached Phrygia, wishing to leave nothing undone that might inspire his army or impress enemies with his invincibility, he took his sword and, with one blow, severed the cord that tied the yoke to the chariot of Gordius.

Thanks to the Roman historian, Justin, known almost only by his works, the legend has come down to us. And even now we “cut the Gordian knot” whenever we refuse to become enmeshed in a difficulty and use bold tactics in overcoming it. Shakespeare knew the term and used it in Henry V, Act I, scene 1.

Therein, the Archbishop of Canterbury, pleased by the unsuspected virtues of Henry V, newly made king, says to the Bishop of Ely, “Turne him to any Cause of Pollicy, The Gordian Knot of it he will vnloose.”

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