Midas was a mythical king of Phrygia in Asia Minor who was famous for his extraordinary ability to change anything he touched into gold. This gift was given to him by Dionysos in thanks for his hospitality to the wise satyr Silenus. Midas also judged Pan a greater musician than Apollo and so was given ass’s ears as a punishment.
There may have been a historical King Midas, the 8th-century BCE ruler known in Old Phrygian inscriptions and Assyrian sources as 'Mita of Mushki’. Certainly, Asia Minor was noted for its gold and the various kingdoms which ruled there for their great wealth. Unable to eat or drink because everything he touched turned to metal, and given his donkey ears that ultimately led to his suicide, the story of Midas is a cautionary tale of the dangers of interfering in the affairs of the gods.
The Midas Touch
According to the myth, Midas was the king of Phrygia in Asia Minor who was famous for his wealth but who always wanted just that little bit more. In some ancient sources, Midas or his ancestors had led his people, the Moschians or Brigians, from western Thrace/ancient Macedon across the Hellespont and into Asia Minor. Even as a baby, his great wealth was predicted by the omen of ants leaving a huge pile of wheat grains at the side of his cradle. As an adolescent Midas was said to have been tutored by Orpheus, the great lyre player.
One day, the king was wandering in his famed rose garden when he came across a drunken satyr. The satyr was Silenus (Silenos) who was famous for his wisdom but on this particular occasion he was suffering from the effects of a heavy drinking session the night before. Midas helped him clear his head, gave him a square meal, and then restored Silenus to his master Dionysos, the Greek god of wine and merriment.
In an alternative version of events, Midas had drugged Silenus by polluting a pool in his garden from which the satyr drank. Midas hoped to capture Silenus and extract all of his famous knowledge from him. It is this version which is captured in scenes on Greek pottery from c. 560 BCE. A 6th-century BCE Attic black-figure vase from Aegina shows two men escorting the satyr after having captured him using rope and a wineskin (Altes Museum, Berlin). In yet another version of the story, Silenus is more gently captured by Midas' men, who tie garlands of roses about his limbs. Taken to the king, the satyr entertains Midas for five days and nights with stories of exotic lands far across the seas. Whatever the version, Midas sooner or later returns Silenus to Dionysos. The grateful god then rewards Midas by granting him a single wish. The king gave the rather clever answer that he wished to have the ability to turn anything he touched into solid gold.
As it turned out, Midas had been a bit too clever. On his way home to his palace, Midas immediately put his new skill to the test and was delighted to see how he could change branches, stones, and even bits of soil into fantastic nuggets of glistening gold. Even flowers and fruit, when touched by the greedy king, turned instantly into gold. The full consequences of this gift soon became evident, however, when Midas tried to mount his horse and it too turned into the cold and lifeless metal. On reaching his palace, the golden robes of the king brushed the pillars of the doorway as he went through and they too instantly became gold. Then the situation took a more ominous turn when calling for dinner the king attempted to wash his hands in a bowl of water. Alas, as soon as his fingers entered the water it also changed to solid gold. Here was a problem indeed. All the food and drink Midas touched turned to gold and so he very quickly risked death by starvation. Hungry and exhausted, Midas lay down to sleep, but even here he found no comfort for the soft cushions and bedclothes turned to hard and unfeeling gold.
The king promptly went back to Dionysos and asked to have his new skill reversed. The god told Midas that he could only lose the bothersome ability if he washed in the spring source of the river Pactolus in Lydia. The river was not so easy to find and after an arduous journey, the king finally found it and gratefully jumped in. The ‘Midas touch’ was ended, and the king was able to eat and drink again. The moral of the Midas tale is, of course, one should not be too greedy but rather be satisfied with what one already has. Perhaps not coincidentally, and as is so often the case in Greek myths where even the wildest of stories often have some link with historical facts, the river Pactolus was famous for its gold dust deposits.
Midas’ Donkey Ears
Midas seems to have been a rather unlucky king for he ran into more problems in another encounter with a Greek god, this time Apollo. Midas managed to offend Apollo when he was asked to judge who was the better musician, the pastoral god Pan or Apollo himself (in other versions of the myth, Apollo’s opponent is Marsyas). Pan was credited with inventing the syrinx or panpipes made of reeds and was well-known for his ability to play tunes on it, but Apollo was considered a master of the lyre. On top of that, Apollo was the god of music in general, he was the leader of the Muses, and he was a far more important god than Pan.
Foolishly, King Midas selected Pan as the winner. A highly displeased Apollo then turned the king's obviously tone-deaf ears to those of an ass or donkey. As a consequence of his unusual pair of ears, the foolish king was obliged to hide away in his palace and to always wear a turban or Phrygian cap. Midas is depicted with his donkey ears and headgear in Greek pottery scenes such as on a c. 440 BCE red-figure stamnos from Chiusi (British Museum, London). Only the king’s barber knew the secret of Midas’ ears. The barber was bullied and threatened into swearing never to reveal the secret, but this proved an impossibility. Bursting to tell someone, the barber dug a hole in the ground on the bank of a river and whispered into it "Midas has ass's ears". From that very spot though, grew a handful of reeds, and whenever the wind blew, they would forever sing softly the refrain "Midas has ass's ears". When the king discovered that now everybody knew of his deformity, he first had the barber killed and then committed suicide by drinking bull’s blood. The story is a warning to all mortals, perhaps, never to interfere in the affairs of the gods.
Robert Graves, the specialist in Greek myths, notes an additional possible meaning to the story, particularly the musical competition:
Apollo’s victories over Marsyas and Pan commemorate the Hellenic conquests of Phrygia and Arcadia, and the consequent supersession in those regions of wind instruments by stringed ones, except among peasantry. (81)
The Real King Midas
King Midas of Phrygia is a familiar figure in Greek mythology, but he may have been based on an actual late-8th century BCE ruler known in Old Phrygian inscriptions and Assyrian sources as 'Mita of Mushki' (r. 738 BCE to c. 696 BCE). Phrygia was the name of an ancient Anatolian kingdom (12th-7th century BCE), and following its demise, the term was then applied to the general geographical area it once covered in the western plateau of Asia Minor. The Phrygian kings had prospered thanks to the fertile land, its location between the Persian and Greek worlds, and the skills of the state's metalworkers and potters. The archaeological record shows impressive remains of now lost palaces, fortification walls, and tumuli tombs at the Phrygian capital Gordium (Gordion). The Midas myth may well have begun, then, as an oral record of the wealth and gold resources of the kingdom, which was at its peak in the 9th century BCE. Following the collapse of Phrygia after attacks by the Cimmerians in the 7th century BCE, the region came under Lydian, Persian, Seleucid, and then Roman control.
A skeleton discovered in the tomb mounds outside Gordium has been tentatively attributed to Mita by some scholars. This tomb has been given the rather unromantic name of 'Tumulus MM' by archaeologists, and it is the second-largest ancient tumulus in Anatolia. A king called Midas/Mita made offerings at the sacred Panhellenic site of Delphi, the first foreign monarch to do so. Finally, it is surely not coincidental that another king who became legendary for his vast wealth, this time the Lydian Croesus (r. 560-547 BCE), ruled, in reality, the very same region as Midas once had in myth.