The Legends of King Midas and the Gordion Knot

King Midas and the Gordion Knot:

We made a detour near the city of Polati to see the site of Gordian, the former capital of the Phrygian kingdom. What is left of this great capital is located in a small village in the middle of the Anatolian plain. The western road leading towards that village has several small gypsy communities scattered here and there, characterized by piles of garbage and flaps of tents blowing in the wind. The eastern road is desolate, aside from one lonely house sitting on a hilltop.

The Phrygians, who settled in central Anatolia around 1200 BC, are credited not only with having invented embroidery, the cymbals, the flute, the lyre, and the triangle, but also with having left us two legends. Those legends are of King Midas and of the Gordian knot.

The legend of King Midas says that Dionysus gave him one wish for having shown hospitality towards Silene, the leader of the satyrs. He asked that everything he touched be turned to gold. At first, he was enthralled by his new power, but became dismayed when even his food turned to gold. Begging the god to remove his power, Dionysus told him to bathe in the waters of the Pactole. Since then, the sands of the river transformed into gold, and golden pellets were found in the Pactole for centuries.

The second Phrygian legend concerns the Gordian knot. It is said that during a period of civil wars, a man named Gordius, his wife, and son Midas arrived at the site of Gordion in a wooden wagon. An oracle having predicted that the leader who would save Phrygia would arrive in such a wagon, Gordius was immediately proclaimed king of Phrygia, with Midas as his successor. The kings who followed took in turn the names of Gordius and Midas.

The wagon was put in a temple and an oracle announced that he who could untie the knot that attached the yoke to the pole would reign over all of Asia. When Alexander the Great arrived in Gordion in 333 BC, he tried to undo the knot. Unsuccessful, he cut the cord with his sword. He pursued his conquest of Asia, but his premature death was often attributed to this episode.

As you approach the site of Gordion, great mounds of earth rise out of the dusty Anatolian plain. There are over 80 such “hills,” underneath which are the tombs of the Phrygian kings. A preserved tomb, still intact, was discovered of a Phrygian king buried between 750-725 BC. The tomb is 180 ft. high and 900 ft. in diameter. It’s the oldest wooden structure found in the world. The body of a man between 62-65 years of age and 5’1″ tall was found in the tomb; the archaeologists think it was “Gordius” or “Midas,” the name of most Phrygian kings.

The walled citadel uncovered by archaeological excavations shows the rock foundations of buildings that were divided into three districts, around 700 BC. The large walled gatehouse still remains, but the citadel itself seemed rather small to me. Three buildings were destroyed by fire, presumably during the Cimmerian siege of Phrygia in 675 BC, when the celebrated King Midas reportedly committed suicide (725-675 BC).