Damocles, Gordium, & Sisyphus

Sometimes we hear or read a phrase that sounds like it has an interesting story behind it  – I started exploring a few such phrases that have their origins in Greek mythology.

Richard Westall, The Sword of Damocles 1812

The Sword of Damocles – this means that while a rich and powerful person enjoys all the benefits and riches that come with being in that position, they also have to deal with the threats that come along  with it and live in fear because of those threats. The term originates from a story by Cicero  – Dionysius was the tyrant of  Syracuse and had a courtier named Damocles whose job was to constantly flatter Dionysius. One day Damocles made a comment along the lines of how much he envied Dionysius his rich and powerful position. So Dionysius gave him his throne to experience the riches and the power, but at the same time suspended a sword with a horsehair over Damocles’ head. Damocles was unable to enjoy any of the luxuries because he was terrified of that sword over his head, and begged Dionysius to let him become a courtier again.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot 1718-19

Cutting the Gordian Knot – this means to solve a very complex or involved problem with a bold and swift action. The story behind it is that in 333 BCE Alexander the Great was marching through Anatolia and reached Gordium where he was shown an ancient chariot with a knot tied to its yoke. Anyone who could untie the knot would become ruler of Asia. Alexander – the great warrior – swiftly sliced through the knot with his sword – thereby giving rise to the phrase “cutting the Gordian Knot.”  

Titian, Sisyphus, 1548-49

Sisyphean Task – this is a pointless and unrewarding task that never ends. The origin is the Greek mythology of King Sisyphus of Ephyra who was always offending the Gods with his clever tricks and by cheating death with these tricks. He was punished by Pluto and sent to the underworld where he was forced to push a huge boulder up a hill. Not only was this a difficult task, it was also endless because as soon as the boulder reached the top of the hill it would roll off to the other side and Sisyphus would have to start the task all over again – and ever since then a pointless, endless task is known as a Sisyphean task.

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