Midas - Greek Mythology - The myth of King Midas

Midas - Greek Mythology - The myth of King Midas


Detail of the painting "La calunnia, Sandro Botticelli, 1492
Uffizi Gallery, Florence (Italy)

The myths and legends that our ancestors have handed down to us are many but one in particular deserves to be remembered and concerns the misadventures of a king who, wanting to be very rich and powerful before and know-how after, teaches us a lot about things not to do. We tell the story of Midas, king of Phrygia, son of king Gordius and of the goddess Cybele.

The myth tells that one day Midas found the old satyr Silenus, tutor of the god Dionysus and very dear to him, while he was wandering drunk in his gardens. Having recognized him and being a follower of the cult of Dionysus, he welcomed him with open arms and gave him a feast like no one had seen for a long time. At the end of the feast the same Midas personally accompanied Silenus back to Dionysus who, on seeing him again, having given him up for dead, was not in himself for joy.

Midas and Bacchus, 1625, Nicolas Poussin
Pinakothek, Munich (Germany)

Dionysus to reward Midas, asked him to make a wish and he would have granted it. Midas thought for a moment and finally decided to ask the god to turn everything he touched into gold. Great was Midas' joy as he experienced his gift as he had dreams of glory and power.

Here is what Ovid tells us (Metamorphosis, Book XI): «(...) Bacchus granted the wish, repaying himself with that gift, soon a source of trouble, but at the same time he regretted the choice made by Midas. Happy, enjoying his new year, the hero of Phrygia went away and began to touch everything to test his gift. Almost not believing in himself, he plucked a green twig from the branch of a low holm oak and it turned gold. He picked up a stone from the ground and that too became gold. Then he touches a clod of earth: at his magical touch it becomes a gold nugget; he gathers arid ears of corn: a golden harvest; he holds a fruit picked from a tree: one would say it was a gift from the Espèrides; if you then put your fingers on top of a jamb and it looks all dazzling. Even while he washes his hands in clear water, that water, flowing from his hands, could deceive Danae. Imagining everything golden, Midas could no longer hide his hopes (...) ».

King Midas turns his daughter to gold -
Walter Crane (1845–1915), Library of Congress (Washington DC, USA)

When he got home and it was time for dinner, the servants began to set the table and it was at that point that Midas realized the true meaning of that name. Here is how Ovid tells us what happened (Metamofosi, Book XI): «(...) And while he rejoices, the servants set the table, spreading it with food and toast. But alas, now, as he touches Ceres' gifts with his hand, those gifts become rigid; if he greedily tries to tear something with his teeth, as soon as he bites into it, a gold sheet covers the dish; mix the wine of his benefactor Bacchus with pure water: liquid gold you would have seen dripping from his mouth. terrified by the unexpected disaster, rich and poor at the same time, he wants to escape opulence and hates what he had once dreamed of so much. Such abundance cannot calm his hunger, his throat burns parched with thirst and, as is right, he begins to hate gold (...) ».

Great was the dismay and terror so much that she ran to Dionysus to beg him to take away the nefarious gift.

The god, moved with compassion, told Midas to go and bathe at the springs of the Pattolo river, which flowed from Mount Tmolo, because the waters would carry away his gift. And so it was. Since then, legend has it that the waters of that fiumesi enriched with gold-bearing sands.

But Midas's misadventures don't end there. In fact, it happened one day that the god Pan was on Mount Tmolo intent on playing. Carried away by the sweet notes he dared to challenge the god Apollo, saying that his melodies could not compete with the notes of his flute. Then Apollo came down from Olympus to compete with Pan, inviting Tmolo himself, the god of the mountain, to judge the challenge.

At first he played Pan but when Apollo began to touch his lyre, everything seemed to stop at his notes so that Tmolo without hesitation declared him the winner and Pan himself bowed to such grace and harmony. Only Midas, who happened to be passing those parts and witnessed the performance, began to protest, saying that Pan must be the winner. At that point Apollo, to punish Midas for his arrogance, decided to turn his ears into those of a donkey, and so it was.

Here is how Ovid remembers the episode (Metamorphosis, XI, 161-181): «He blows Pan into his aresti reeds, and with his music delights Midas, who happened to be watching the competition. Then the god Tmolo turned his face towards that of Phoebus, who, encircling the blond crest of the Laura Parnassus, held in his left the lyre adorned with gems and Indian ivory; in his right hand he held the pick. Quini, with an expert hand, began to vibrate the strings, and Tmolo; enraptured by the sweetness of the sound, he ordered Pan to bow in front of the god's lyre, his bagpipe. The judgment of the god Tmolo was accepted by all, but only Midas disapproved of it, considering it unjust. Then the god of Delos decided not to allow those foolish ears to continue to keep a human shape so that he stretched them, covering them with gray hair and made them flexible at the base, so that they could shake them. All the rest of the body remained human, only the ears were punished, assuming the shape of a late donkey. The unhappy one, full of shame, tried to hide them by covering them with a purple tiara ».

Midas washing himself at the source of the Pattolo river, 1624
Nicolas Poussin, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York (USA)

Midas, full of shame and not knowing how to do it because in that way he certainly could not present himself to his people, hid his donkey's ears from everyone under a red thistle. But only one person could not deceive: the barber who used to cut his hair who as soon as he saw him started laughing so hard that Midad had to threaten him with death to make him stop and with the promise not to tell anyone what he saw.

The slander Sandro Botticelli, 1492
Uffizi Gallery, Florence (Italy)

The poor man, however, once returned home, was unable to rest because he wanted to talk to someone but feared for his life. So he went to the river bank, dug a hole in the ground and told it what he had seen. Once done, he filled the hole and satisfied and at peace, sure that the king's secret was safe, he set out for home. But it happened that shortly afterwards in that same hole some reeds appeared which, vibrating in the wind, carried on the waves of the breeze, the words of the servant and in this way everyone knew that King Midas had donkey ears. he could do nothing against the public screen and his fate.

Dr. Maria Giovanna Davoli

Video: The myth of King Midas and his golden touch - Iseult Gillespie