Touched by King Midas

I’m sure you all know the story of King Midas and golden touch. The heavy moralistic tone to the tale makes it seem more like a fable than a standard Greek myth, but it was indeed part of the Olympian universe. Midas is said to have been the King of Pessinus, a city in Phrygia, Asia Minor. He was the son (whether biological or adopted depends on the particular version of the myth) of the goddess Cybele, and he introduced worship of her to the area. He was usually regarded as having been adopted by the previous king, Gordias, but Wikipedia mentions an alternate tradition that he was declared king because he arrived in a wagon at the right time. The cart was then tied to a post with the legendary Gordian Knot, which Alexander the Great “untied” by cutting it. Yeah, he cheated, but who’s going to argue with someone who was able to conquer pretty much the entire known world?

Getting back to Midas, despite his foolish wish, he’s generally portrayed as a good ruler. He was famed for his rose garden, which was identified by Herodotus as the one on the slopes of Mount Bermion. It was into this rose garden that Silenus, the satyr who tutored the god Dionysus, once wandered while drunk.

The guards taught him and took him to the king, but Midas recognized the satyr and kept him in his palace as a guest. Silenus told Midas stories about the great continent that lay beyond the River Oceanus, and hence on the edge of the world. The inhabitants were giants, and were divided into a land of peace and one of warfare. Gold and silver is incredibly plentiful there. I don’t know whether this was based on another myth or just drunken babble from Silenus, but it apparently influenced the flat-earth map drawn by the sixth century monk Kosmas, who placed Paradise on this continent.

Silenus also talked about the Point of No Return, where the trees growing along one river cause extreme grief, and those along another make a person grow younger and eventually blink out of existence. After about ten days, Midas returned Silenus to where Dionysus was staying, and the god offered him a reward for his hospitality. His reward was, of course, the golden touch, which led to his killing his own daughter.

When he realized that his blessing was actually a curse, he begged Dionysus to remove it, and the wine god advised him to bathe in the river Pactolus. This washed away Midas’ golden touch, and resulted in the river itself becoming rich in gold. He then began to eschew riches and became a devoted follower of the rural god Pan. When serving as one of the judges in a music contest between Pan and Apollo, he was the only one who preferred Pan’s piping, and Apollo determined there must be something wrong with the king’s ears. Therefore, he turned them into donkey ears, and they apparently remained for the rest of his life.

He attempted to hide them, but when the secret got out, he fled from his own kingdom. I’m sure the people of Phrygia would have preferred to keep the donkey-eared king once they learned the nature of his son Lityerses, however. This guy became known for beheading anyone he beat in a harvesting contest, and it took Herakles himself to bring him down.

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4 Responses to Touched by King Midas

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