The myth of King Midas and his golden touch

We are all familiar with the English idiom the Midas touch, a term used to describe one’s ability to make every undertaking a successful one. This idiom originated from the ancient Greek story of the legendary King Midas, the ruler of Phrygia, an ancient district in west-central Anatolia (present-day Turkey). It is often the case that whenever this story is told, themes of greed and untamed ambition comes to fore.

In the article below WHE takes a quick look at the myth of King Midas as well as how that golden touch of his changed him and the people around him.

Origin story of King Midas

King Midas

Ancient authors developed many stories to explain the origins of King Midas. However the most popular version sees him portrayed as the son of King Gordias. This view is shared by the ancient Greek historian and author Herodotus.

Midas is believed to have been the son of another great Phrygian king called Gordias. In addition to being associated with the legendary Gordian Knot, Gordias is believed to have founded Gordium, the capital city of the kingdom.

King Midas and his insatiable appetite for gold

King Midas, the ruler of the Anatolian kingdom of Phrygia, in Greek mythology was an extremely wealthy and powerful monarch in the region. Despite all his riches and power, the King was still not content. Somehow his obsession for gold drove him to the edge of insanity. It was said that the only time he was truly happy was when he acquired more wealth and gold despite having access to all the gold that his kingdom could offer. Living in his large castle, the king even took to the vain habit of covering all his clothes with gold. Midas also sometimes bathed in real gold.

Midas and Silenus the Satyr

In Metamorphoses, the author Ovid tells of a story of how Midas prayers of acquiring obscene amounts of wealth got answered after encountering a satyr called Silenus. In the story, Silenus, a companion and friend of the god Dionysus, wanders into the palace garden of Midas. The satyr had lost his way after a long night drinking and partying with his companion the god Dionysus. The guards who found Silenus sent the satyr the king.

The moment Midas realized who Silenus was, he treated the satyr to the finest of hospitality. For more than a week, Silenus and the king indulged themselves and enjoyed the best meals that Phrygia had to offer. The King even took time out from his busy schedule (i.e. counting his horde of gold) and helped Silenus reunite with Dionysus in Lydia.

The one wish to make everything turn to gold

After being reunited with his companion and close friend Silenius, Dionysus felt eternally grateful to King Midas. To show his deepest appreciation to Midas, the Greek god of wine offered to grant Midas one wish. As Midas was an extremely wealthy person, he paused to contemplate. After thinking critically about the reward, Midas asked to be granted the ability to make everything that he touched turned to gold. Upon hearing Midas’ request, Dionysus advised the king to reconsider his choice and be very careful of the wish.

After a deep contemplation, Midas asked Greek god Dionysus for the ability to have a touch that turned everything to gold. In spite of Dionysus numerous request to Midas to reconsider his wish, Midas insisted on having that particular wish.

King Midas maintained that a golden touch was the exact thing that he wanted. Unable to talk Midas out of his choice, Dionysus granted Midas’ wish.

The following day, Midas quickly jumped out of bed and proceeded to check if he the wish had been granted. The king quickly grabbed the pole of his bed, and to his amazement the pole did indeed turn to gold. Consumed by a kind of excitement never experienced before, the king began to touch every furniture in his room, turning everything in the room into gold.

Curse of the golden touch

Exhausted from all the frenzied touching that he did, King Midas proceeded to his large dining room to have his breakfast. As the king sat down at the table, he moved his head to smell a rose. No sooner had he touched the flower than did he realize that the rose emitted no fragrance. The King had unknowingly turned the flower into gold. Soon panic consumed Midas as every piece of food on the table turned to gold the moment he touched it.

Midas then bellowed out a loud cry, drawing his very concerned daughter rushing to the dining room. Unbeknownst to her about Midas’ recently gifted ability, she ran over to comfort her father.  The King soon realized that his daughter too had turned into solid gold. It was around this time that Midas came to fully understand that his ability to turn things to gold was not a gift. He was absolutely distraught and filled with horror. Not only would he starve to death, but he had also lost his daughter, undoubtedly the one thing that he valued the most.

After mistakenly turning his daughter to a solid gold statue, Midas’ irrational obsession with gold evaporated, allowing him to open his eyes to see the things that mattered the most in life. Bear in mind, this was someone who lived a life a great luxury and indulgence; he bathed in gold and had his clothes covered with gold.

Horrified about what he had done, Midas quickly knelt down and prayed to Dionysus to take away his golden touch. The Greek god responded to Midas’ call and ordered Midas to go to the river Pactolus. Dionysus told the king that he could reverse everything that had turned to gold. Midas went to the river as he was told; he bent down and washed his hands in the river, causing his golden touch to flow out from his fingertips into the river.

To his great relief, Midas returned home to see everything back to normal, including his daughter. The king hugged his daughter and swore never to be obsessed with gold or riches.

King Midas then leaves his daughter in charge of the kingdom and heads out to the forest, where many say he spent the rest of his life living as an ordinary peasant or shepherd. In some versions of the myths, Midas became a devout worshiper of the Pan, the Greek god of shepherds, fields and satyrs. Midas had come to the conclusion that not all the wealth and gold in the world could make him happy.

How Midas came to have the ears of a donkey

In the myth, Midas’ golden touch wasn’t the only thing that landed him trouble. Midas, a follower of the Greek god Pan, once declared that Pan was a better musician than Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, music, medicine, and a bunch of other things. Apollo retorted by saying that Midas most likely had an ear of a donkey for him to make such a blatantly ignorant judgment. And so Apollo turned Midas’ ear into donkey ears.

Embarrassed by the hideous donkey ears, Midas wore a kind of head gear that covered his ears. Only the King’s barber saw the ears. The King warned the barber never to disclose the secret.

After trying so hard to keep his mouth shut, the barber could not take it anymore, as the King’s secret consumed him. To relieve his pain, the barber went outside the city and dug a hole in the ground. He then whispered the King’s secret into the hole, uttering the words “King Midas has an ass’s ears”.  A few days later, a thick bed of reeds grew from the spot where the barber had whispered the secret into. When the wind blew over the reeds, Midas’ secret was carried throughout the kingdom. People could not help themselves but burst out into laughter upon hearing Midas’ secret.

For his absurd follies, Midas was laughed at and ridiculed by his subjects. He was certainly not the most admired or respected king. In some versions of the story, Midas sank into a deep depression and later committed suicide by drinking the blood of an ox.

More on King Midas and the Kingdom of Phrygia

In the myths, King Midas is the legendary king of Phrygia, a kingdom in west-central Anatolia, part of what we call today Turkey. The very materialistic king was said to be only happy when he acquired more wealth and showered himself with gold. | Image: The Midas Monument, a Phrygian rock-cut tomb dedicated to Midas (700 BC).

King Midas was blessed by Greek god Dionysus with the ability to turn whatever he touched into gold.Phrygia was an ancient kingdom located in central Anatolia, part of what we call modern day Turkey. The kingdom was centered on the Sangarios River. In the Iliad, Greek poet Homer stated that the Phrygians took part in the Trojan War. They fought on the side of the Trojans against the Achaeans, i.e. the Greeks.

In some accounts of the story, Midas was tutored in music by the legendary Greek musician Orpheus.

The story of Midas is also contained in the book Fabulae which was written by Latin author Gaius Julius Hyginus (commonly known as Hyginus).

It’s believed that the Pactolus river came to have copious amounts of gold deposits as a result of King Midas washing off his golden touch in the river.

In ancient history, a good number of rulers and legendary kings have gone by the name Midas. In one of the story, Midas was the king of Pessinus, a vibrant city in Phrygia. This Midas, according to Latin author Hyginus, is believed to have been adopted by King Gordias and his consort Cybele, an Anatolian mother goddess.

Ancient Greek writer and historian Herodotus stated that there Midas had a wild rose garden near Mount Bermion in Thrace. According to the historian, those roses bore sixty blossoms and had very powerful fragrance.

Many versions of the myth claim that Midas had a number of children, including Zoe, Anchurus, and Lityerses. The latter was believed to a kind of demonic grim reaper who consumed the souls of men.

In Greek mythology, Midas is described as a very materialistic ruler who spent all day spoiling himself. This explains why he was a big admirer of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and carnival.

The historical King Midas of the 8th century BC

There is another king who went by Midas. That king is believed to have lifted Phrygia to regional dominance around the 8th century BC. His successors did not fare so well in maintaining that dominance as Phrygia was overran by the Cimmerians and the later by Lydia. Midas is believed to have committed suicide after the Gordias was sacked by the Cimmerians.

The Persians, the Macedonians, and the Romans followed suit, dominating Phrygia in that order. Phrygia never gained the prominence it once had. The name Phrygia had faded from usage by the time of the Ottoman-Turks conquest of the Byzantine Empire.

Midaeium was a city in the northeast of Phrygia. Historians and archaeologists reason that the city was named after King Midas. The city is famous for being the place where Roman military leader Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, was held prisoner and later executed. The site of Midaeium is believed to be present day Eskişehir province in Turkey.

Aristotle, the ancient Greek polymath and a student of Plato, stated that Midas most likely died of starvation because his insatiable quest to have the gold touch.

Conclusion

The story of King Midas and his golden touch not only serves as a warning to all of us to be careful of what we wish for, but it also admonishes us to be careful of recklessly and mindlessly pursuing wealth, riches and fame. In the story, King Midas gets to learn a very bitter lesson that have obscene amounts of wealth can be very dangerous. He could not eat, nor could he interact with other people.

Midas’s greed had manifests itself in a very unhealthy manner. So much so that, he ended up losing his only daughter, i.e. his most cherished. King Midas was probably asking himself at that point whether all that wealth and power was even worth it. In other words, the story is about how money and material possessions did not always guarantee a happy life.

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