Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Gordian knot and royal propaganda

In my lost lecture on Alexander the Great last Wednesday, I referred to his cutting of the Gordian Knot. For those who don't know the story, here it is briefly. Alexander in his conquest of Anatolia (now "Turkey") came to the city of Gordium, where there was a famous sight, the cart of the former king, Gordias, which had been tied to a post by a knot with no exposed ends. There was a prophecy current that whoever untied the knot would rule all Asia. Alexander of course gave it a try and had no more luck than anyone else -- until he drew his sword and "cut the Gordian knot." This became a proverb for solving a difficult problem with one bold and unconventional stroke.

In my tiny audience on Wednesday was Prof. Cory Foisy-Holm, who knew he'd heard this story somewhere else, but in a different form. After mulling it over for a while he came up with the reference: there's a Russian painting of 1790, seen above (or here if you don't see it) that shows a young prince cutting the Gordian knot. Here's what Prof. Foisy-Holm said about it:

[The Empress] Catherine [the Great], having a long-standing enmity with her own son Pavel/Paul, was preparing the ground for her grandchildren [who were Pavel's sons], Aleksandr or Konstantin, to succeed her in Pavel's stead. She was a
consummate propagandist, arguably one of Russia's best to that time--and the
painting, in many ways, reflects a point you were discussing in your lecture
regarding the manufacturing of the myth of greatness before anything
'myth-worthy' has been accomplished. In any case, Aleksandr is the child on
the left about to shear the Gordian Knot.
Royal power, which presents itself as superhuman, needs to be based on such stories of prophecy and divine favor, and the good royal myths-- the ones that are satisfying as stories -- are used again and again.

The curious may cruise the web and find Gordian knots, solutions to untie Gordian knots, and even a dress inspired by the knot.


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