We are told a fascinating fable in Greek mythology that never looses it's charm because it involves that most precious of earthly metals--gold.
Midas was a king of Phrygia, part of what is now Turkey. He famously wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. When his wish was granted, Midas realized he had made a terrible mistake.
Although the tales about Midas are mostly myth and folklore, he was a real person. Also known as Mita, he ruled Phrygia in modern Turkey in the eighth century BCE, and archaeologists have found what they believe to be his tomb.
In real life, as in the legend, Midas was famed for his wealth as well as for his beautiful rose gardens. His kingdom, Phrygia, also known as Lydia or Mygdonia, was very prosperous. Midas is said to have founded the ancient city of Ancyra, which is now Ankara, the capital of Turkey.
The Original Gold-Finger
The most famous story about Midas is the tale of his golden touch. According to this story, Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was passing through Phrygia when his old adviser, Silenus, a satyr, lost his way and ended up in Midas’s gardens. Midas held a feast for Silenus, then helped him to find Dionysus again. To reward Midas for his help, Dionysus offered to grant him a wish.
Midas was certainly, if he was nothing else, very greedy, so he asked for everything he touched to be turned to gold. As promised, Dionysus granted his wish.
At first, Midas was delighted with his golden touch. Then he realized that any food or drink he touched turned to gold too, and he could no longer eat or drink.
Now the King started to worry, and in despair he hugged his daughter, but she, too, turned to gold.Midas soon asked Dionysus to undo his wish. Dionysus agreed and told Midas to go and bathe in the Pactolus River. Midas did so, taking his daughter with him.
His daughter was brought back to life and Midas was restored to normal. According to legend, ever since Midas touched its waters, the river has contained flecks of gold.
Gold does form naturally in the Pactolus River, and the story of Midas bathing in the river probably came about as a way of explaining the gold deposits there.
How Midas Got donkey's ears
Yet another story tells of just how Midas was called upon to judge a music competition between Apollo (who was, among other things, the god of music) and Marsyas, a satyr. Apollo played his lyre, a harplike instrument, while Marsyas played a flute belonging to the goddess Athena.
The other judges selected Apollo as the winner, but Midas disagreed and said Marsyas should win. In another version of the story it was Pan, the fertility god, who competed with Apollo, playing on his panpipes.
In both versions of the tale, Apollo was furious with Midas for choosing his opponent and punished him for his poor judgment by giving him the ears of an ass. Midas was terribly ashamed of his huge ears and kept them covered with a turban. One person found out about them, however—the servant who cut the king’s hair.
The servant was forbidden to tell tales about the ears, but, desperate to tell the king’s secret, he whispered it into a hole in the ground, after which he then filled with earth. Reeds grew on the spot where the secret had been whispered, and every time the wind blew, the reeds repeated what the servant had said: "Midas has ass’s ears." Midas then became a laughingstock.
The death of Anchurus
Despite the unfortunate events that happened to him, the mythical Midas never seemed to learn his lesson or acquire better judgment. According to one story, a huge hole opened up in the ground at a city named Celaenae.
An oracle declared to Midas that he could only close the abyss by throwing his most precious possession into it. Midas still valued money above all else, and he threw vast amounts of gold and silver into the hole, but to no avail. His son, Anchurus, however, realizing that human life was more precious than anything, rode into the gaping hole on his horse. As the boy really was Midas’s most precious possession, the hole closed up, and Midas lost his son forever.
Midas has another tragic side in that it is also said the King committed suicide by drinking bull’s blood. According to different versions of the story, this was either because his kingdom was being invaded or because of his shame about his ass’s ears.
The Tomb of King Midas
What just might be the 2,700-year-old tomb of the real King Midas was unearthed in the 1950s near the small village of Yassihoyuk in central Turkey. The tomb was located under a conical hill, which is today known as the Midas Mound.
Inside, archaeologists found the body of the old king, who probably died when he was about 60, lying on a thick layer of cloth inside a wooden coffin. With him in the tomb were items of wooden furniture as well as bronze goblets, bowls, pots, and pans—but nothing at all made of gold.
One of the many interesting things about Midas’s tomb, however, was that it contained evidence of a huge funeral feast that would have been held to mark the king’s death.
Midas was buried with the dirty plates, cups, and utensils still in the tomb with him. By studying the leftovers, archaeologists have concluded that the feast probably included a spicy lamb stew, hummus (a paste made from chickpeas), broad-bean paste, halva (a dessert made from sesame seeds, honey, and nuts), and an alcoholic drink made from honey, grapes, and barley. In 2000, scientists re-created the original funeral menu for a Midas feast, which was held at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
The Tale is Transferred Down the Ages
It is a fact that many ancient writers mention Midas. They include Greek historian(c. 484–425 BCE), Greek geographer Strabo (c. 64 BCE–23 CE), and Greek travel writer Pausanias (143–176 CE). The latter is thought to have come from the same region as Midas and wrote about him in his Description of Greece. Midas also appears in the work of Roman poet (43 BCE–17 CE) and that of Gaius Julius Hyginus, a Latin poet of the late first century BCE.
The tale of Midas’s golden tou has been retold many times as a children’s story, and he is often mentioned in literature as an example of someone who loves wealth. Attributing the "Midas touch" to someone can also refer to that person’s ability to create wealth.
Midas is popular with artists having been depicted many times in art, especially in paintings showing the ill-fated music competition that he judged.