A lot of myths swirl around the life of Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.), the Macedonian general who conquered most of the known world, including Persia, Syria, Phoenicia, Phrygia, Arabia, Egypt, most of the eastern Mediterranean coastline, and a good part of northern India. He built cities all over his empire and named a lot of them after himself.
According to the Roman historian named—and this is not a Monty Python joke—Quintus Curtius Rufus, in the spring of 333 BC, Alexander razed the Phrygian city of Gordium and entered the temple of Jupiter. There he encountered a carriage with a yoke strapped down with a large, tightly-entangled knot. Local legend held that the knot was impossible to unravel. An oracle had foretold that the man who untied this knot would rule Asia.
Evidently Alexander gave it a try, but quickly grew impatient. He drew his sword and lopped through it. Problem solved.
(Every time I see this scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark I am reminded of the Gordian knot.)
Variations on the expression “untying the Gordian knot” have since come to mean solving an intractable problem. Now that you have become aware of it, you’ll see the expression all over the place.
And don’t let anyone tell you Shakespeare didn’t know his history:
Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter;
(Henry V, Act 1 Scene 1. 45–47)