I count him braver who overcomes his desires than he who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self – Aristotle
Phrygia, Western Anatolia, 850 BCE
The Phrygian King was dead.
The council of elders called a hasty assembly to discuss the tricky matter of succession. The monarch had died suddenly, leaving behind no heir. Such a thing had never happened before and Phrygian custom made no allowance for this eventuality. The lobbying for power had already begun among the council members and, if the matter was not soon resolved, civil war would surely follow.
Disaster loomed, and there was but one in the entire kingdom who could prevent it.
Adrasteia was the most revered woman in all of Phrygia. Her wisdom was unrivaled and it was said she could concoct magical potions and cast powerful spells. She was also an oracle; her prophetic proclamations were believed to come directly from the gods.
As such, she occupied a lofty position in Phrygian society and played a vital role in governing the affairs of the kingdom. Being a woman, Adrasteia was barred from serving on the council or holding any official seat of authority, but her influence was nevertheless significant.
When the Oracle spoke, people listened.
Upon hearing of the king’s death, Adrasteia hastened to the temple to address the council, hoping to avert calamity.
The elders fell silent as she entered the council chamber. All heads turned to her expectantly.
“Oracle, who among us is to be the new king?” the chief elder asked. “Have the gods made their will known?”
“They have,” she confirmed. Looking over the gathered men, Adrasteia knew that none among them was suited to royal office. If civil war was to be averted an outside candidate was required. They would not like her next words, but, if she purported to speak on behalf of the gods, none would dare argue. “The man who shall be our new king sits not in this room.”
A collective gasp of astonishment went up.
Adrasteia continued, “The gods have decreed that the next man to enter the city gates driving an oxcart is to be crowned the new King of Phrygia.”
This was met with stunned silence.
The oracle then sealed the divine decree with the customary sacred words: “By the power the gods have vested in me, so it is spoken so shall it be.”
“So shall it be,” the councilmen affirmed as one, thus settling the matter.
The long journey was finally nearing its end. Gordius sighed contentedly as, at last, the city gates came into view. He spurred the twin oxen pulling his cart onwards, eager to get back to his hearth and looking forward to a warm fire and a full belly.
A peasant's life was a brutal one, and often all too brief. Gordius was proud that he’d made it to early old age and wanted only to live out his remaining days in peace.
He was unprepared for the fanfare that greeted his arrival in the city. Cheering people thronged the streets and they all seemed to be focussed solely on him. It was as if they thought he was…
“King! King! All hail the new Phrygian King,” the crowd roared.
Barely able to comprehend what was happening, Gordius was lifted bodily off his cart and carried to the clearing before the temple. There, a golden crown was placed on his head, an amaranthine cloak draped over his narrow shoulders, and a gleaming scepter thrust into his hands.
The elders knelt, swore him their undying allegiance, and proclaimed that Gordius was officially the new King of Phrygia.
The city was renamed Gordium, in his honor.
Gordius’ first act as king was to sacrifice his oxen as an offering to the gods. Then, on the steps before the temple, he addressed his subjects for the first time. “I was a mere peasant this morning and now I stand before you, King of Phrygia! Such is the mysterious will of the gods, which no mortal can comprehend. Praise be to them!”
The crowd roared in agreement.
Gordius then took the yoke which had bound the oxen and, with a length of rope, tied it to a stout wooden pole nearby. “Let this yoke symbolize my sudden elevation and the everlasting bond between all Phrygian people. No man can untie this knot, and if ever one is able, he shall go on to rule over all of Asia!”
Again, the crowd cheered their approval.
The king singled out a lone figure in the front row, saying, “Come, Oracle, I command you to declare my words as prophecy of the gods.”
Adrasteia was disinclined to acquiesce. She knew that, above all else, absolute power corrupted absolutely. No individual should ever be granted leave to rule over the entire continent. Yet she also knew that to refuse a royal command was unwise. So, reluctantly, she stepped forward and proclaimed, on behalf of the gods, that any man who untied the knot would go on to rule Asia.
Later that night Adrasteia returned alone to the steps before the temple. She knelt in front of the pole upon which the yoke was tied. “Oh wise, ancient ones,” she whispered into the silence, “I beseech you: allow no mortal man the strength of hand to untie this knot. And if any should succeed by other, less scrupulous means, be it by flame or by blade, I pronounce him cursed by the 13th number. His rule shall span no more than 13 years, his heir will perish at that same young age, and his empire shall crumble to dust.” She then sealed her words into the customary way. “By the power the gods have vested in me, so it is spoken, so shall it be.”
The proud nation of Phrygia flourished under Gordius’ rule and he was succeeded by his son, Midas, who governed his kingdom with his legendary golden touch.
All things must eventually come to an end, however, and Phrygia was no exception. A century and a half later it was overrun by Cimmerian invaders; her citizens fled West, to the shores of the Mediterranean, and Gordium was left in ruins, never to be rebuilt.
The famed Gordian Knot remained securely fastened, waiting for one worthy to loose its intricate bonds.
It would be a long wait indeed.
The ruins of Gordium, 333 BCE
The young Macedon King rode proudly at the head of his formidable army. His pride was well justified. Only 22 years of age and already he’d achieved more than any ruler in history. Immediately after his father’s death, Alexander had united the warring Greek city-states into one, powerful force. The citizens of Thebes had thought they could defy him, but so brutally had he dealt with the rebellion that thereafter, all others had fallen into line.
He had led his forces into battle against their age-old enemy, the Persians, and despite being outnumbered, Alexander’s troops had won a famous victory on the shores of the Aegean Sea. King Darius III had been humiliated and had fled for his life.
The Macedon King planned to march South, to Egypt, and then East, to the unexplored lands of India and beyond. He had declared himself Lord of Asia, and few doubted he would succeed in conquering the continent, if not the world.
Already, his legend was spreading. He was directly descended from Zeus himself, some said. Others claimed he was immortal. There could be no mistaking that his keen intellect, honed at the feet of his childhood tutor, Aristotle, coupled with his fearsome battlefield ability would raise him to dizzying heights, the likes of which had never before been seen.
Alexander had heard of the Gordian Knot and had detoured to the ruined city with the sole intent of loosing the bonds and affirming, once and for all, that he was the rightful ruler of the Asian continent. There was no doubt in his mind that he would succeed where no many before had failed.
Alexander was not the only one who was eager to reach the ruins of Gordium. Aileethia, bound hand and foot along with the other slaves in the king’s personal entourage, had longed to see the city of her forebears all her life. She had been born and raised in the Greek city of Thebes, but her lineage could be traced back to ancient Phrygia: to Adrasteia herself. The legend of the Gordian Knot was known by all, but only the direct decedents of the Oracle knew of the curse.
As Aileethia marched in line, regarding the regal figure on his mighty horse not far away, hot bile rose in her throat. She hated Alexander with a venomous passion. The Macedon King had swiftly dealt with the Thebeian rebellion early in his reign, putting all who dared offer resistance to the sword, including Aileethia’s husband. Never before had she witnessed such carnage. And her children… that did not bear thinking about. She’d been taken into slavery and from that day on, the sole focus of her continued existence had been the unlikely possibility of revenge.
But, perhaps unlikely no longer, she thought, as the ruins of Gordium, and the cursed knot within, drew near.
Alexander of Macedon reigned in his horse before the crumbling temple within the city. He dismounted and approached the knot, studying it carefully from all angles. He then turned to address his gathered troops. “I, Alexander son of Phillip, the third of my name, King of Macedon and all the Greek lands, conquerer of the Persians and the Thracians, future King of Asia, have brought you many leagues further than any other ruler in the history of the world!”
The soldiers cheered and stamped their feet.
“But,” Alexander continued in a dangerously lowered voice, “there are those among you who dare whisper treason behind my back. Let any who still has doubts cast them aside this day, for behold, I shall now untie this knot and prove myself worthy of ruling all of Asia.” He then bent swiftly to the knot and began working at it with his bare hands.
As the king struggled with the bonds, his troops grew restless. The silence was punctuated by mutterings of dismay as the futility of his efforts became apparent.
Aileethia took her chance. Stepping nimbly around the guards, she approached the king, falling on her knees before him. “B-beg pardon,” she stammered. “A w-word, if it p-please your m-majesty?”
“Insolent slave!” Alexander roared. “Guards, away with her!”
“W-wait! I k-know the s-secret to undoing the knot,” Aileethia cried in desperation. “I c-can help you.”
The king signaled the guards to halt. He then approached Aileethia. As he bent down, a lock of blond hair fell into his boyish face, but Aileethia was not fooled by his benign appearance. Within, she knew, lurked a monster. “Are you suggesting I’m incapable of untying the knot on my own?” he whispered in a voice so full of malice that Aileethia knew she was but moments away from death.
“No, your majesty! I w-wish only to save you t-time. This knot, you s-see, none before have been able to untie it. P-perhaps it is n-not meant to be untied. Perhaps it need be loosed by other m-means.” She darted a glance at the sword on his hip, hoping he’d take the hint.
He did. It made perfect sense to Alexander. Had he not advanced so far in so short a time thanks only to the might of his blade? There was no problem that couldn’t be solved at the point of a sword, he knew, and the troublesome knot was no different.
Alexander ordered the guards to remove Aillethia and punish her for speaking out of turn – he could never have it said he was advised by a mere slave and a woman besides. He then drew his blade, approached the knot, and cut clean through it with one, vicious stroke.
The soldiers cheered. As she was being dragged away, Aileethia smiled with savage satisfaction. So it is spoken, so shall it be.
A terrible thunderstorm shook the city that night. The soldiers and their king declared it a sign that the gods approved of Alexander as the rightful ruler of Asia. Fools, Aileethia thought to herself as she lay alone in the dark, her back still bleeding from the whipping she’d received at the king’s command. As the thunder boomed out and the rain lashed down, she marveled at how anyone could mistake the storm for anything less than a sign that the gods were enraged.
Babylon, June 13th, 323 BCE
The Macedon King was dead.
Crowds of mourners gathered on the streets of Babylon on hearing the news. How could it be? they wondered. Alexander had swept all before him, had conquered all of Asia, and founded the greatest empire ever to exist. And now he was dead in just the 13th year of his reign.
Speculation was rife as to what had caused the downfall of the great man. It was fever, contracted in the East, some said. Others whispered that he had been poisoned by his rivals. No one knew for sure, and the mystery would remain for all time.
To all but one. Aileethia alone was dry-eyed in the city that day. She knew the truth. Alexander of Macedon had never been bested in battle but, in the end, he’d fallen prey to his own greed and boundless ambition. And a certain wise woman of Phrygia and her proud line.
There was much discussion as to who would take over the reins of power. Alexander’s son, when full-grown, would make as fine a ruler as his father, all agreed. The empire was in good hands. They could not know that Alexander’s heir would not live beyond the age of 13 years and that, after his death, his father’s mighty empire would crumble to dust.
Aileethia chose not to enlighten them. No one would have believed her and, besides, her kind preferred to operate from the shadows of anonymity. She had her revenge and the world was rid of a tyrant. There would be others in the centuries to come, she knew, but that didn’t trouble her. Her kind would be there too, always watching, ready to intervene if so required. The world was in good hands.
Aileethia bowed her head in prayer with all the other mourners, but she didn’t ask for Alexander the Great’s safe passage to the afterlife. Instead, she thanked the gods for their wisdom in allowing her to so subtly steer the momentous course of history. So it is spoken, so shall it be.
And that is where our tale ends. Or perhaps not. The decedents of Adrasteia of Phrygia have influenced history countless times since and, some say, continue to do so to this day.
If any proof is required, consider this: 13 is still regarded as an ill-fated number; a superstition perpetuated by certain wise old women whose forebears were persecuted and burnt at the stake throughout history, and whose lineage can no doubt be traced back to ancient Phrygia. A saying favored among them is Do not cut what you can untie, and there can be no doubt what fateful event these words reference. What they are surely thinking when uttering this truism, but which remains unsaid, is the corollary: And if you can’t untie the knot, then perhaps it is best soon forgot.