King Midas of Phrygia is a legendary figure of Greek Mythology. His place in Greek literature and culture is a curious one. On one hand, he is honored and famous for being a man of legendary wealth. On the other hand, he is often ridiculed and presented as an arrogant and effeminate character. The most popular myth about Midas is the one where the king gains the Midas touch, the infamous skill of turning everything he touched to gold with disastrous consequences. In another story, he gets the ears of a donkey as punishment for his arrogance.
Get ready to explore the fascinating myth of Midas, the king that got his hands on more gold than he could handle.
Who Was King Midas?
Midas was a mythical king of Phrygia and the son of Gordias and the goddess Cybele. According to the legend, Midas was the wealthiest man of his time and famous for the story where he gained the Midas touch, the ability to turn everything he touched into gold.
According to Pausanias, he founded the city of Ankara, the capital of present-day Turkey. Also, in Greek art, he is often represented with the ears of a faun or an ass (Midas ears). Some ancient authors claim that he committed suicide by drinking the blood of an ox, while Aristotle writes that he died of starvation after he could not eat due to his golden touch. Depending on the source, Midas had either a son named Anchurus or the bloodthirsty Lytyerses.
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King Midas of the legend, should not be confused with another Midas or Mita who lived during the 8th century and ruled also Phrygia. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that the story of the legendary Midas has something to do with the historic Midas of the 8th century. According to Herodotus, Midas was the first foreign king to send offerings to the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi. There is also a tomb in the city of Gordium called Mida’s tomb but it is doubtful whether it actually belonged to a king named Midas.
Midas’ Golden Touch
The most popular story of Midas the one where the king was cursed with the golden touch. Interestingly the story implicates yet another rustic god, Silenus, the foster father and mentor of Dionysus. The story varies depending on the source, but more or less, it runs along the following lines.
Mida And Silenus
Silenus was a god known for drinking wine until passing out. He loved to drink, dance, sing and sleep. According to Ovid’s version of the story, in one of his travels with Dionysus, Silenus drifted away from the wine god and was captured by the men of Midas who brought him before the king.
In another version of the story, Midas specifically set out to lure Silenus to his palace either by filling a spring with wine or by making a wine fountain. Silenus was successfully lured and Midas captured him when the god fell asleep.
In any case, King Midas treated Silenus like the most honored guest. Besides, Midas was already initiated in the mystic rites of Dionysus and had met Silenus before. Ovid even says that they were old friends. It is no wonder then, that to please him, Midas threw a great party that lasted for eleven days.
Midas Returns Silenus To Dionysus
Once the party was over, Midas helped Silenus return to Dionysus who was extremely worried about his favorite companion. To show his gratitude to Midas for treating Silenus well, Dionysus offered the king one wish.
Midas could have asked for whatever he wanted. However, the King blinded by his love for money said the following words:
“Cause whatsoever I shall touch to change at once to yellow gold.”
Dionysus granted the wish even though he knew that it would not lead to anything good. As Midas walked away joyfully with his new ability, Dionysus was saddened because he knew the misfortunes that would befall the king.
Midas And The Golden Touch
Midas immediately began testing his new power. At first, he was hesitant. He pulled a twig from a holm-oak and to his own surprise, the twig turned to gold.
He then lifted a stone and this turned to gold too. Next were a clod, some grain, wheat, and some apples. Everything turned to gold. When he went back to his palace, Midas found out that he was leaving golden door-handles behind him.
The first problem appeared when he tried to wash his hands and found out that the water turned into a golden rain. Nevertheless, the king still maintained his optimism and ordered his meal. His servants prepared the table and then Midas suddenly came to his senses. The king was unable to eat. Bread, meat, wine, and even water, all turned to gold as soon as they came into contact with his hands or mouth. In some modern retellings of the myth, Midas even unwillingly turns one of his daughters into a golden statue.
The golden blessing had turned into a golden curse as Midas began suffering from hunger and thirst. He now prayed to Dionysus asking him to revert the curse:
“Oh pardon me, father Lenaeus [a name for Dionysus]!
I have done wrong, but pity me, I pray,
and save me from this curse that looked so fair.”
Dionysus felt pity for the king and helped him:
“That you may not be always cased in gold,
which you unhappily desired, depart
to the stream that flows by that great town of Sardis
and upward trace its waters, as they glide
past Lydian heights, until you find their source.
Then, where the spring leaps out from mountain rock,
plunge head and body in the snowy foam.
At once the flood will take away your curse.”
King Midas acted accordingly and bathed in the waters of the river. The river was filled with gold as the curse lifted. Midas was finally free. The river where Midas washed away the curse, was the river Pactolus. With this myth, the Greeks explained the rich golden reserves of the river.
“King Midas Has The Ears Of An Ass”
In another story, King Midas abandoned his kingdom and wealth, after the curse of his golden touch was lifted, to become a follower of god Pan or, according to other ancient sources, the satyr Marsyas. Together they traveled until reaching Mount Tmolus. There, Pan played his music for the nymphs of the forest and proclaim its superiority over the music of Apollo. Word soon reached Apollo and he challenged Pan to a musical contest with mount Tmolus as the judge.
Pan played some rustic sounds with his aulos (pipe) followed by the sound of Apollo’s lyre. For Tmolus it was crystal clear that Apollo’s music was better than Pan’s. Everyone in the crowd agreed. Everyone except for Pan’s devout follower, King Midas.
Midas openly questioned Tmolus’ judgment. However, a mortal judging a god was hubris and could not be accepted. Apollo decided to punish the mortal by replacing his human ears that had misled him with the ears of an ass.
Midas was ashamed of his ears, so he hid them under a purple turban. He was careful not to let anyone know his secret but there was one man who knew; Midas’ hairdresser. Of course, Midas had sworn the man to secrecy. Besides, the hairdresser himself did not want to betray the secret. However, he felt that the secret was too much to bear. He had to tell it to someone or at least say it out loud. So he went to the forest, dug a hole, and whispered in the hollow earth: “Midas has an ass’s ears”. He then buried the whisper and left. From the hole, a grove grew which finally told the secret to a south wind which carried the words to a nearby city. Before long everyone knew that Midas had the ears of an ass.
Behind King Midas’ Legend
The story of Midas’ touch has a rather clear didactic message. Midas is the richest man alive but he seeks to become even richer. What he asks from Dionysus, demonstrates his arrogance and obsession with excessive material wealth.
Midas gets what he wanted only to find out that there are things beyond that. By exploring the happiness that unlimited gold can bring, he also discovers the limitations of material pleasures. Midas’ myth is a reminder that gold’s value is not inherent. Having loads of gold is not important in itself. Gold is not as fulfilling as having the things that gold can buy. That is exactly why Midas, abandons his kingdom to see the world with Pan in the myth where he gets a donkey’s ears.
At this point, it is fair to wonder: Why does this Greek didactic message need a Phrygian king? The Greeks thought that one of their differences with the peoples of the East was their love for balance and measure. For the Greeks, the eastern kingdoms sought excessiveness in the form of wealth. Maybe by having an arrogant and beyond imagination wealthy Eastern king being humiliated, again and again, the Greeks affirmed their own way of life and ideology. Through myths and stories like that of Midas, the Greeks defined their own identity and asserted their intellectual superiority.