By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Midas is known for two things: being given the ears of an ass, and turning everything he touched into gold. The latter of these was his reward from Dionysus, although he soon discovered that his gift was a bane rather than a blessing, and that he couldn’t even do simple things like take a drink without the water turning into gold. Curiously, like many other classic myths, this one may have arisen as an origin story to explain the rich gold deposits in the river Pactolus.
Let’s dig down deeper into the story of Midas and his ‘golden touch’ by summarising the story in more detail, before we offer an analysis of the myth’s meaning, origins, and themes.
Midas and the golden touch: summary
Midas was a mythical king of Phrygia, a kingdom in the west central part of Anatolia (now in modern-day Turkey). How he came to acquire his fabled ‘Midas touch’ or ‘golden touch’ varies from telling to telling, but this is probably the commonest version, which the Roman poet Ovid tells in his long poem the Metamorphoses.
Silenus, a man travelling in the retinue of the god Dionysus, strayed from his party and fell asleep in the mountains of Phrygia (Midas’ kingdom). When peasants found this foreigner asleep on the land, they bound him with chains and brought him before their king, Midas.
Midas recognised Silenus as a follower of Dionysus, treated his guest well, and then travelled with him when Silenus re-joined Dionysus. Dionysus, in grateful thanks to Midas for having returned Silenus to him, offered to grant King Midas any wish.
Midas, like many kings, wanted to be rich – or, rather, richer. Wealthier beyond all imagining. So he asked Dionysus to grant this wish: that anything Midas touched would turn to gold.
Dionysus kept his promise and granted Midas his wish, but the King would soon discover the flaw in his idea. Whenever he touched food to eat it, it immediately turned to gold, becoming inedible. Even the wine, as Midas raised it to his lips, turned to gold.
Realising what a mistake he’d made, Midas begged Dionysus to undo his wish, but gods cannot easily recall their gifts, so this was easier said than done. However, Dionysus told Midas to go and wash in the spring at the source of the river Pactolus. (This is a real river near the Aegean coast of Turkey, now named Sart Çayı.)
Anyway, Midas did as Dionysus suggested and, through washing in the waters of the Pactolus, he was, sure enough, cured of his plight.
Midas and the golden touch: analysis
A number of Greek myths appear to act as ancient versions of Kipling’s ‘just so’ stories, in that they are fictional origin-myths for real-life phenomena. So the narcissus flower sprang from the blood of Narcissus, the hyacinth flower from the blood of the beautiful youth named Hyacinth, and so on.
And the myth of Midas may have been a similar origin-myth, designed to explain the richness of the waters of the River Pactolus. Legend has it that the waters of the river were filled with grains of gold after Midas dunked himself in it.
Indeed, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus claimed that the fragments of gold found in the sediments in the river were the source of the wealth of King Croesus, another ancient king famous for his obscene wealth. It’d be like someone inventing a Midas story around the Yukon, or California in the mid-nineteenth century. We humans always want to explain things, to come up with appealing reasons for how things came to be the way they are.
Of course, the story of ‘the Midas touch’ can also be analysed as a cautionary tale about the dangers of greed. If we are obsessed with becoming wealthy and see everything in terms of money, other things – the things which give us pleasure, but also the very things upon which we rely to keep us alive – lose their meaning.
Food, wine, the touch of a loved one: all became impossible to Midas once his avaricious wish was granted. He soon realised the error of his ways, and begged to purify and cleanse himself (quite literally, in the river) of his greed.
But the curious thing about Midas is that this story is not the only one with which his name is associated.
Indeed, there are even alternative versions of the ‘golden touch’ story: Plutarch, for instance, who styled himself as a historian and chronicler but was in many ways as powerful a mythmaker as Ovid, told of how Midas became lost in the desert, and although there was no water to be found, a spring welled up out of the earth.
However, the spring flowed with liquid gold rather than water, so Midas called upon Dionysus to help him. Dionysus duly obliged, granting Midas’ wish that the gold be turned to water, in a sort of inversion of the Ovid story (or the first part of it, at least). This version of the Midas story, of course, loses the moral force of Ovid’s telling, where greed is the central human emotion.
There’s one other curious story involving Midas which is worth mentioning, and it has nothing to do with gold, and everything to do with a pair of ass’s ears. Midas was present when Marsyas, the inventor of the double-flute (in some versions, Pan, with his Pan pipes, is present instead of Marsyas) competed against Apollo, with his lyre, to see who could produce the most beautiful music. When Apollo was declared the winner, Midas questioned this judgment, and Apollo made a pair of ass’s ears grow from Midas’ head.
But this version has less to teach us about the dangers of greed than the tale of ‘the Midas touch’, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s less famous.