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The man with the Golden Touch

Myth Man's Midas!


The name Midas today has become a synonym for "rich man", but King Midas profited little from his wealth. In fact, his short-lived riches darn near killed him and his daughter. His story serves to remind us that stupidity is just as fatal as sin, and that one should think long and hard before wishing for something, for wishes do come true...

Midas was the pleasure-loving King of Macedonia, where he ruled over the Brigians (also known as Moschians.) He was the first person ever to plant a rose garden and he loved to spend his days feasting and listening to music. His mother was said to be the great goddess Cybelle (Rhea), who is "the mother of the gods", but we cannot be sure. Some have called Gordius his father, and yet others claim that Gordius was only his step-father.

(Don't you wish those Ancient Greeks kept better records?:)

When he was just a baby a procession of ants was seen carrying grains of wheat up the side of his cradle and placing them between his lips as he slept. When the oracles were asked to explain this omen they said that Midas was a special child who would amass great power and wealth.

King Midas' rose gardens were celebrated and he derived great pleasure in their pristine beauty. Well, it happened that Dionysus, the celebrated god of wine, was leading his army of frenzied followers into India. The army of Dionysus consisted in part of Satyrs, who were half human, half goat individuals with a serious lust for wine and sexual pleasures. Silenus was an old friend who had been entrusted with the education of Dionysus, so the god of wine was particularly fond of him.

Silenus Drunk!


At a particularly rowdy party Silenus got drunk like a skunk, which was quite normal for a Satyr, and he wandered away from the rest of his mates, becoming hopelessly lost. Eventually he stumbled his way to King Midas' palace and proceeded to pass out among the King's treasured rose bushes, where he slept off his drunken fit.

In the morning Silenus was discovered among the flowers by the King's gardeners, who didn't know what to make of this loudly-snoring fat old man. All they knew was that their King wouldn't be too happy with having his precious roses trampled, so they bound Silenus with garlands of flowers, set a flowering wreath on his head, woke him up and brought him in this ridiculous guise before Midas.

It was a hilarious sight!

By now Silenus had sobered up and, when asked his identity by King Midas, he told him that he was in the retinue of the great Dionysus, and regaled him with tales of the expedition to Asia. He told the King wonderful stories about an immense continent lying beyond the great Oceanus, unlike any known before, where the inhabitants lived in rich and splendid cities. These gigantic people enjoyed long and happy lives, Silenus said, and their legal system was remarkably just.

He filled the King's head with wondrous stories: These wise inhabitants of the strange continent called Atlantis had once set out in huge numbers - ten million or more! - in ships to visit our land, Silenus said, but on arriving they had become disgusted with our barbaric ways and had returned to their homeland, never to be seen again.

Silenus also told Midas about a terrible whirlpool that trapped all travelers. There were two streams that flowed nearby and lovely fruit trees grew on the banks of each stream. Yet if someone ate the fruit of one stream, he would lapse into a sad and pitiful state and would cry and groan until he would finally die of melancholy.

The fruit that grew by the other stream magically would renew the youth of even the oldest traveler...but then he would pass backwards through middle age, then would turn into a young man, then an adolescent, and finally he would become an infant...until he finally disappeared! What a drag!


For ten days and ten nights Silenus regaled King Midas with such stories and when he was ready to depart, the King ordered a guide to escort the Satyr to Dionysus, who was worried out of his mind about his beloved teacher. Needless to say, Dionysus was very happy and grateful to see Silenus return unharmed, so he sent word to King Midas to name his reward - he could have anything he wished for.

Ecstatic at his good fortune, King Midas impulsively replied that he wished that anything he touched would turn to gold. When asked if he was certain that's what he desired, he said:

"That's my final answer, Regis..."

Who wants to be a millionaire? King Midas does! And did he ever hit the jackpot! He went into his garden and picked up a stone and at once it turned into gold. He could hardly believe his good fortune. Same with his beautiful roses. As he touched them, they would turn to pure gold...a tree - gold...a blade of grass - solid gold! The bench he sat on - shining, precious gold! Same with the apple he plucked from the tree and the nightingale that landed on his outstretched finger! Pure gold.

Wow, this is far too cool, he thought, knowing that he now was the richest man who ever lived, with no end to his wealth. All he had to do was lay his Kingly hands on an item and it would be transformed into glittering gold!


Be careful what you pray for, you just may get it, as our wise Chinese cousins like to say...Still delirious with happiness at his new-found power, King Midas went into his banquet hall for the daily feast. Wouldn't you know it? As soon as he would pick up a morsel to eat, it would turn into gold. Dying of thirst, his wine would transform into liquid gold as soon as it touched his lips. King Midas began to panic. This wasn't fun any more, he was famished!

King Midas is bummed!
Illustration by Giovanni Caselli
from The Age of Fable

Alarmed at his predicament, his beloved daughter ran to hug and comfort him, but as he wrapped his arms around her, she instantly turned into a golden statue. That's when King Midas realized the severity of his mistake and, hungry, thirsty and heartbroken, he begged Dionysus to release him of his burden.

Dionysus couldn't help but be entertained and amused by the tribulations of King Midas...The merciful god of wine knew that the King had learned his lesson, so laughing he told Midas to travel to the source of the river Pactolus and to plunge his head and body in, rinsing off his "golden touch" in the waters. Dionysus instructed King Midas to also wash off his daughter in the same river, thus restoring her back to her living human form.

To this day the sands of the river Pactolus are bright with gold, to commemorate King Midas and his Golden Touch. As for the King, now a little bit wiser, he realized that there is much more to life than wealth and gold...


Dionysus then rewarded King Midas' kindness towards Silenus by helping him become King of Phrygia, which was ruled by King Gordius. This ruler had no children of his own and he immediately took a liking to Midas, so he adopted him as his own son. When Gordius died Midas took over the kingdom.

A note here about King Gordius, for his is a fascinating story. Born to poor peasants, Gordius one day was startled to see a royal eagle perched comfortably on the pole of his ox-cart. No matter where Gordius drove the cart all morning, the eagle seemed determined to stay put. Interpreting this as an omen, Gordius decided to drive his team towards the nearest city, Phrygian Telmissus. He knew that there was a respected oracle there and he hoped that this seer would explain what the majestic eagle signified.

However at the gate of the city he met a young prophetess, who upon seeing the royal eagle atop the ox-cart, insisted that Gordius immediately offer sacrifice to Zeus, King of the Olympians. She beseeched Gordius to let her accompany him and together they rode past the gates into the city, but not before Gordius made the young woman promise to marry him following their sacrifice to Zeus.

Meanwhile, the King of Phrygia had suddenly died with no discernible cause, and the local oracle had pronounced that the city's new King was "approaching with his bride, seated in an ox-cart."

Sure enough just then Gordius and the young prophetess entered the market place and the people rejoiced at the arrival of their new King. The royal eagle that was still majestically perched on the cart confirmed in their minds the legitimacy of the oracle's words, and loudly Gordius was acclaimed King of Phrygia.

In gratitude, Gordius dedicated the cart to Zeus, together with its yoke, which he had fastened to the pole in a mighty knot. An oracle then declared that the person who discovered how to untie the knot would become the lord of Asia. For centuries nobody was able to achieve this impossible task, until finally Alexander the Great, during his mission to conquer the world, simply took out his sword and with a great blow sliced right through the Gordian Knot...Fulfilling the oracle's prophecy, Alexander became the lord of Asia and the ruler of the world.


But we've wandered away from our main subject, King Midas. When Gordius died, Midas assumed the throne and elevated the worship of his patron, Dionysus. He founded the great city of Ancyra, and from that day the kings of Phrygia have been alternately named Midas and Gordius. That's why many people have mistakenly described Midas as a son of Gordius.

Now, you would think that Midas would have learned his lesson and acted more prudently when it came to the gods. But no...King Midas was chosen as one of the judges in the famous musical contest between the great god Apollo and a mortal named Marsyas, and this led to the King's death...

You see, the great goddess Athena had created a wonderful double flute, made from stags' bones, and she had produced enchanting sounds from it at a banquet of the Olympians. But Athena was perplexed as to why her fellow goddesses, Hera and Aphrodite, giggled and tried to disguise their mirth and laughter whenever she played the flute.

Going down to Phrygia, Athena played the double flute to herself as she watched her reflection in the clear stream. At once she realized the cause of the goddesses' amusement: Each time she blew into the flute her cheeks would puff and her face would turn red, making her look silly and ridiculous. In anger Athena hurled the flute into the reeds, placing a curse on anyone who picked it up or dared ever to play it.


Marsyas found Athena's double flute and was amazed to hear the melodious tunes coming from it as he held it to his lips. The dude was ignorant when it came to music, but anyone who played the magical instrument was transformed into an accomplished musician. Marsyas traveled the land displaying his new-found talent and enchanting the people, developing a terrific reputation and quite a large bank account.

But soon Marsyas grew vain and thought himself the world's best musician. In his arrogance, he even challenged the great Apollo to a musical competition, with the winner free to do as he wished to the loser. Bad move.

As you can imagine, no matter how magical the double flute, it was nonetheless no match for Apollo's lyre. The two of them went at it "blow for blow", so to speak, with Marsyas at first able to duplicate on Athena's wonder flute whatever Apollo played on his lyre. But when Apollo turned his instrument upside down and made great music with it, Marsyas realized that he couldn't do the same with his own and admitted defeat.

There are various versions as to who judged the contest, with some holding that it was umpired by the River-god Tmolus (with the bystander Midas providing his opinion), while others claim that it was Midas and the Muses who were the arbiters of this "Battle of the Bands".

At any rate, Marsyas was declared the loser by either Tmolus or the Muses, and the fool Midas, without thinking, stated that he disagreed and that he thought the mortal was a more masterful musician than Apollo. What an idiot! He should have known better than to disrespect the great god!


Apollo punished Marsyas for his vanity by sentencing him to a horrible death. As for Midas, Apollo called the King an ass, and to prove his point he touched him on the head and gave Midas the ears of a donkey. Long and hairy they sprouted up, and Midas in a panic covered them up with a tall Phrygian cap, hoping nobody ever discovered his embarrassing secret.

Only his barber knew of this disgraceful matter, but Midas had warned him that he would be put to death if ever he revealed to anyone the asinine state of the King's ears. The barber found himself bursting with the secret and couldn't bear to keep the gossip to himself, but was afraid for his life. So he dug a hole in the bank of the Pactolus river and, after making certain that nobody was listening, he whispered into the hole that "King Midas has an ass's ears." Filling up the hole to forever bury the secret, the barber went away happy and at peace with himself.

All was well until the next spring, when a reed sprouted up from the hole and whispered to the other reeds that King Midas had the ears of a donkey. These reeds in turn whispered the secret to all creatures who passed. Soon the birds learned the news and brought it to a man named Melampus, who knew the language of birds and found the information absolutely hilarious. Melampus told all his friends and soon the entire kingdom knew about King Midas' miserable secret.

Thus it came to be that when Midas came riding by in his chariot all his people began to shout in unison: "Take off the cap, King Midas, we want to see your ears!" What a drag! Unable to face this public humiliation, Midas first had the head of his barber cut off, and then he either drank bull's blood and thus perished in great pain, or else he hung himself in shame.

And that was the end of poor, stupid King Midas, the man with the Golden Touch.


Myth Man's notes: Some sources claim that it was the Satyr Pan who had the temerity to challenge Apollo to a musical contest, and that Midas was the only one who judged Pan's pipe playing better than Apollo's lyre. To punish him for this, Apollo gave King Midas the ears of an ass.

King Midas had a son named Anchurus with a woman whose identity is unknown. One time the earth opened up and a great hole in the ground was exposed at a place called Celaenae, a city in Caria. Everyone wondered how to get the abyss to close until an oracle told Midas that if he should throw his most precious possession into the abyss, indeed it would close.

Still not having learned his lesson Midas then cast into the hole a fortune in gold and silver but nothing happened. So his son Anchurus, correctly reasoning that there is nothing more precious than a human life, rode on his horse to the edge of the precipice and plunged into the abyss. The earth closed, taking with it the life of King Midas' son.


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