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Definition: Midas from Philip's Encyclopedia

Name of several historical Phrygian rulers and one legendary foolish king in classical mythology. As a reward for rendering a service to a god, King Midas asked that everything he touched should become gold. Midas found he was unable to eat or drink because his food, too, was transformed.


Summary Article: MIDAS
from Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology

In Greek mythology 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 stories 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 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 golden touch

The most famous story about Midas is the tale of his golden touch. According to this legend, 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 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. He began 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. She 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 naturally occur 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 was given donkey's ears

Another story tells of 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 chose 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.

This painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) depicts Midas judging the music competition between Apollo and Pan.

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 gossip about the ears, but, desperate to tell the king's secret, he whispered it into a hole in the ground, 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 became a laughingstock.

The death of Anchurus

Despite the unfortunate things 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 told 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 himself is also said to have 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.

Handing down the story

Several ancient writers mention Midas. They include Greek historian Herodotus (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 Ovid (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 touch 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 has been depicted many times in art, especially in paintings showing the ill-fated music competition that he judged.

See also: APOLLO; ATHENA; DIONYSUS; PAN; SATYRS; SILENUS.

Further reading
  • Pausanias, and Peter Levi, trans. Guide to Greece. New York: Viking, 1984.
  • Pinsent, John. Greek Mythology. London: Hamlyn, 1982.
ANNA CLAYBOURNE
Copyright © 2012 Marshall Cavendish Corporation

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