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.
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
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
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
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
Illustration by Giovanni Caselli
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
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...
GORDIUS & THE GORDIAN KNOT
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
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.
BLOWS IT AGAIN
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.
FINDS THE FLUTE
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!
END OF KING MIDAS
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
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'
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.