Everything he Touched Turned to Gold: The Myth and Reality of King Midas
Almost everyone has heard the story of King Midas, the legendary king who turned everything he touched to gold. But how much myth and how much reality is there around this character? Was there really a King Midas? If there was, what do we know about him?
The Myth of the Golden Touch
Midas is the protagonist of one of the best known myths of antiquity. It is a tale that has been evoked by countless writers and artists, however the Roman poet Ovid was the one who gave full shape to Midas in his play Metamorphoses. In the play, Ovid tells the story of Midas, king of Phrygia, son of Gordius and Cybele.
Statue of Ovid in Constanza, designed by Ettore Ferrari. In his "Metamorphosis" Ovid tells the story of King Midas (Public Domain)
According to one version of the legend, after the death of Orpheus, Dionysus left Thrace. His old teacher Silenus, drunk as usual, accompanied Dionysus but got lost along the way and was picked up by Phrygian farmers, who led him to Midas. The king, who had been initiated into the cult of Dionysus was surprised and immediately recognized the old man, following which he held a ten-course banquet in Silenus’ honor.
He then returned him to Dionysus. Happy to have his old teacher back at his side, the god wanted to thank the gesture and gave Midas a wish. Midas asked that everything he touched would turn into gold. The wish was fulfilled and, although at first it was delightful to turn roses, apples, etc. into gold, very soon King Midas was surrounded by such luxury and brightness that he had nothing to eat – whatever touched his lips turned into the precious metal. Even the wine, a gift of Dionysus, became liquid gold as he tried to quench his thirst.
Realizing that he was doomed to die of hunger and thirst, Midas begged Dionysus to free him from his golden touch. Dionysus ordered him to wash his hands in the Pactolus River - located in today's Turkey - where, since then, gold has always been present.
Pan and Apollo Have a Musical Battle and Midas is a Donkey
Midas discovered that he did not need unlimited wealth and often spent his days outdoors and became a devoted follower of Pan, the god of nature. Pan had achieved such ability on the flute that he dared to challenge none other than the great god Apollo, to see who was the best player of the two. Tmolus, god of the mountain of the same name, would be the judge of the competition.
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Midas was present at the contest and was wowed by Pan’s performance. But then Apollo played a masterful piece and Tmolus was convinced that he must declare him the winner. All agreed with the decision except for Midas, who even protested the decision. Apollo was so furious at Midas’ stupidity and ignorance, that he touched Midas on the head causing the ears of the king to turn into those of a donkey.
King Midas, with the donkey ears he received as punishment from the god Apollo after preferring Pan’s musical talent. Illustration from the work "Epitre d'Othea" of French medieval writer Christine de Pizan. (1364-1430) (Public Domain)
Midas, embarrassed, decided since then to always cover his head with the traditional Phrygian headdress. Only his barber knew of his deformity and he was bound to secrecy. But the weight of the secret was such that the barber could not resist from telling it somewhere. Thus he made a hole in the ground where he whispered that Midas had donkey ears. After that he felt better, covered the hole, and returned home.
At the point where the barber had whispered reeds grew and spread his words every time the wind blew. Eventually everyone found out what the king had done and that he now had donkey ears.
The story of King Midas is one of the classic myths with a moral teaching the inevitable tragedy to not valuing what is really important in life. Through mythical stories one is often invited to reflect and account for the consequences of being slaves to our own desires.
Was there really a King Midas?
The legend of King Midas is closely linked with the early history of the Phrygians. The Phrygians were originally established in the region of Macedonia, but in the late second millennium BC they moved to settle in a large region of northern Asia Minor which corresponds to the modern area of Turkey.
Some early sources say that King Midas, protagonist of the myth, was a real character – they stated that Midas was one of the ancient Phrygian kings, son of Gordius. The Christian writer Eusebius wrote in his Historical Chronicle (Armenian version) that Midas lived between approximately 740/739 BC and 696/695 BC. Other sources document the existence of a king named Mittaa (MITA), who ruled the country Moshki or Mushki (Phrygia) between 718 - 709 BC.
Ruins of Tripoli, a city of the ancient kingdom of Phrygia located in what is now Turkey. (Mr. Arif Solak / CC BY 3.0)
Midas is thought to be a contemporary of the Assyrian kings Tiglatpileser III, Shalmaneser V, Sargon II and Sennacherib. The annals of Sargon II indicate that in the year 717 BC Midas had signed a pact with the Luwian (Luite) king of Carchemish, initiating hostilities against Assyria.
It is also said that Midas hatched several plans, along with the Luwian kings of the cities of Atuna (Tiana), Gurgum and Meliddu of eastern Anatolia, against the Assyrians. He supposedly tried to settle in Cilicia (in the southeast coast of Asia Minor) and, in agreement with the monarchs of Armenia, fostered the popular uprisings that erupted in Cappadocia.
Sargon was thus forced to build fortifications to protect himself from the Armenians and Phrygians. It was at that time when the kingdom of Midas reached its maximum expansion, extending from the upper reaches of the Halis River to touch the boundary of Cilicia.
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But Midas, fearful of the threat posed by Cimmerian nomads, later decided to receive protection from the Assyrians. He then signed a peace treaty, sent Sargon several gifts and promised to deliver an annual tribute to the Assyrian king.
King Sargon II (right) and a high dignitary. Phrygian King Midas is believed to have been both an enemy and a friend to Sargon II. Bas-relief of the wall of the palace of Sargon II in Dur Sharrukin, Assyria. (716-713 BC.). Louvre, Paris. (Public Domain)
Indeed, Herodotus said that the king even gave Saragon the royal throne from the sanctuary of Delphi. This piece was guarded inside the Corinthian Treasury, along with other valuable gifts of gold and silver. During Herodotus’ lifetime (mid-5th century BC), the throne was still part of the treasure.
Marriage and Death of a King
King Midas is said to have married Demódice (or Hermodice, according to other versions), daughter of King Agamemnon of the Aeolian city of Cuma (Kyme). More than likely the marriage took place to consolidate the expansionist tendencies of the kingdom of Phrygia to the western coast of Anatolia.
Regarding the rest of the biography of Midas, it is only known that the kingdom of Phrygia was severely affected by the invasion of the Cimmerians, a nomadic people of southern Russia and, in those circumstances, Midas chose to kill himself by taking poison.
Midas’ tomb is thought to be found near Gordium, the former capital of the kingdom of Phrygia at the so-called “Midas Tomb.” The interior of the tomb is richly decorated, and archaeologists that found it in the 1950s discovered a wooden coffin and abundant grave goods. During the study of inscriptions within this tomb, the word "Mida" appeared, hence the popular name for the tomb as the tomb of Midas.
The "Tomb of Midas": an ancient tomb that was found in the 1950s near Gordium, former capital of the kingdom of Phrygia. Inscriptions inside the tomb reportedly include the word “Mida.” (China Crisis / CC BY-SA 2.5)
The tomb consists of a vertical rock wall 17 meters high and 16 meters wide (55.8 feet high by 52.5 feet wide), with elaborate geometric designs carved on the stone. Scholars also believe it was probably the facade of an ancient temple or monument dedicated to the goddess Cybele.
Interestingly, it was also at Gordium where Alexander the Great, at the beginning of his offensive against the Persian Empire, stopped to cut the famous Gordian knot - the bond that, according to legend, was part of the chariot of King Midas. It was also an emblem of the power of the greedy monarch of legend that wanted everything he touched to turn to gold.
Featured image: Midas and Dionysus by Poussin (1594-1665), showing the end of the myth in which Midas thanks Dionysus for freeing him of the gift/curse previously granted. Nymphenburg Palace. Munich, Germany. (Public Domain)
This article was first published in Spanish at https://www.ancient-origins.es/ and has been translated with permission.
By: Mariló TA
Midas, the rich king.
Harrauer C. and H. Hunger . Dictionary of Greek and Roman mythology. Herder, Barcelona, 2008.
Ovid. Metamorphosis . Gredos, Barcelona, 2008.