What is the Gordian Knot – History and Meaning

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Although we use the term Gordian knot to refer to complex and unsolvable problems, according to ancient Greek legend, the Gordian knot was an actual knot known for being impossible to untie. Here’s the story behind the term and the symbolism it carries today.

History of the Gordian Knot

In 333 B.C, Alexander the Great marched to Gordium, the capital of Phrygia (part of modern-day Turkey). There he found the chariot of Gordius, the founder of the city, with the yoke of the chariot tied to a pole by an elaborate and involved knot, with no visible ends. This knot was believed to be impossible to untie by human hands.

It was believed that whoever was able to loosen the knot would go on to conquer Asia. Many had tried and failed to untie the knot.

Legend has it that Alexander, never one to walk away from a challenge, immediately desired to undo the Gordian knot. When his initial efforts at untying the knot failed, he took out his sword, stating that the method in which the knot was loosened was unimportant. What mattered was that the knot was removed.

Alexander then raised his sword and easily cut through the knot. He was hailed as having solved the ancient problem and, as per the prophecy, he eventually went on to conquer Egypt and many parts of Asia before his untimely death at the age of 32.

Meaning and Symbolism of the Gordian Knot

Gordian knot symbol

The symbol that represents the Gordian knot features three interlocked oval shapes with no end or beginning, much like the infinity symbol. While there are several variations, this is the most common representations.

This shape is often thought to have the following meanings:

  • Creative Thinking – the knot represents out-of-the-box thinking and confident and decisive action when solving a difficult and involved problem. As such, it’s a symbol of creativity, confidence and the overcoming of adversity.
  • Unity – the shape symbolizes the idea of unity and the connectedness of everything in the universe.
  • The Holy Trinity – the three interlocked ovals is said to represent the Holy Trinity of the Christian Church, as they are one and yet separate.
  • Three Forces – the ovals represent positive, negative and neutral forces found in the universe.
  • Eternity – there is no beginning or end to this shape, which makes it a symbol of eternity.
  • Sacred Geometry – this refers to sacred meanings being ascribed to certain geometric shapes. The Gordian knot is considered to be sacred geometry, imbued with meaning and symbolism.

In terms of language, the phrase the Gordian knot is used to describe an extremely difficult and complex problem that can be solved only by decisive and bold action. It’s often used in sentences as follows:

  • He forged through the Gordian knot of research papers during his doctoral studies.
  • The scientists cut the long-standing Gordian knot of DNA testing.
  • Let’s find a way to cut this Gordian knot or we’re going to be in trouble with the manager.

Gordian Knot Jewelry and Fashion

Because of its meanings and symmetrical shape, the Gordian knot is frequently used in jewelry and fashion. It’s a popular design for pendants, earrings and charms. It’s also frequently used in tattoo designs, with many variations to the pattern. Gordian knot patterns are also used on decorative items, such as carpets, wall hangings and clothes. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the Gordian knot.

In Brief

The Gordian knot has become a popular phrase and symbol in our lexicon, jewelry and fashion today, with origins that can be traced back to ancient times. The symbol has several meanings and variations, but the main representations are eternity, unity, creativity and overcoming adversity.

To learn more about knot related symbols, check out our articles on Celtic knots, the endless knot and true lover’s knot.

Gordian knot meaning and symbolism


Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.

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