King Midas and the Golden Touch

Who was Midas?

I learned of King Midas and the Golden Touch when I was very small. It was quite a surprise to discover that he was a real person. This is his tomb.

Midas was a Phrygian King, with his capital at Gordion, somewhat west of modern Ankara. (Gordion where, five centuries later, Alexander cut the Gordion--not Gordian--knot). His father, Gordias, founded Gordion at a strategic crossing of two major trade routes. And therein may lie the seeds of the myth. But before we speculate on the myth, a few words about the tomb itself.

The Tomb

As you can see from the picture, the outer part of the tomb is an immense mound, now quite eroded. It must have been substantially bigger when it was new, around 800 BC. That's not the remarkable aspect of the tomb. What is remarkable is what is inside, and of that I have no pictures.

The very inside of the tomb is what we would now call a small log cabin made with big thick logs halved lengthways--such trees grow nowhere in the region nowadays. The logs were shaved smooth on the inside so that the cabin formed a very well made and polished little room. Outside the log cabin, a stone cabin was built, and the space between the wood wall and the stone wall was filled with stones. The outside of the stone cabin was sealed with waterproof clay, and then the mound was piled on top. There was no entrance, no tunnel. The entrance you see was dug by archaeologists. It opens into a long tunnel leading to the central chamber, which the tourist cannot enter, but which can be seen through a metal grille. The wood of the inner cabin looks as if it was completed last week, not nearly 3000 years ago! But now it is open to the air and to insects, presumably it will rot away in a century or two.

The Myths

The classic myth of King Midas can be summarised quite simply. Apollo owed Midas a favour, and Midas asked that what he touched should turn to gold. On his way back home, he found that this meant he could neither eat nor drink, and when is daughter met him, she also turned to gold. This being not quite the state of affairs Midas had anticipated, he went back to Apollo and asked for the gift to be removed and the effects reversed. Apollo told him that if he bathed in a certain river (whose name I have forgotten), he would be cured. So he did that, and was relieved of the troublesome gift. Afterward, gold could always be found in the river.

There is another myth about Midas and Apollo. Like the first, it hinges on his being on good terms with the God, a relationship that brings him ill fortune. In this one Apollo asked Midas to judge between Apollo and a challenger harpist as to which was the better musician. Midas chose the other, and Apollo siad that if Midas's hearing was like a donkey's so should his ears be. From that time, Midas had ears like a donkey. He was ashamed of them, so he grew his hair long to cover them. Only his barber knew about them, and he was enjoined to keep the secret, on pain of death. But he could not hold the secret. Rather than telling anyone directly, he told it into a hole in the ground. Later some reeds grew from the hole, and when the wind blew, the reeds sighed "Midas has the ears of a donkey."

This second myth, and possibly the first, is very old. There is a figurine from about 200 years after Midas showing him with the ears of a donkey. This suggests the possibility that the myths arose as early as Midas's lifetime. Let me speculate--and I emphasise that I have no evidence whatever for the following pseudo-history.

A speculative Pseudo-History of the myths

Did Midas himself originate the myths? It is at least plausible.

Probable Facts:

Pure Speculation:

Midas needed something to buttress his political position. There would have been no harm for Midas to let it be known that he was on speaking terms with a major God. In those days, Gods could talk to humans (which leads to a wilder speculation that maybe all these classical Gods were originally real people--maybe Apollo was once a very fine travelling troubador!).To be on good terms with Apollo would be very helpful in discouraging external invasions or internal attempts to dethrone him.

Midas had learned of (or maybe personally discovered when travelling) that gold could be found in a particular river, a fact that was not generally known. Midas aimed to capitalize on his discovery by taking credit for the gold being there, and could augment the weight of this by attributing it to his friendship with the (somewhat mischievous) Apollo. He would thus benefit from the protection of a God on whom he could call, and at the same time get the public benefit of having provided the people an ongoing source of wealth.

One argument in favour of the myth having been propagated by Midas or his inner circle is the attested antiquity of the second myth, which again shows Midas to have been important enough to have had the trust of Apollo (rather as Paris had the trust of Aphrodite some four centuries before Midas--judging the aesthetic qualities of Gods or Godesses does seem to lead to trouble for the judge!). Probably Midas knew the legend of the Judgment of Paris, and could use his participation in a similar judgment to account for his having unusually long earlobes. In this way he could turn a possible liability into a political asset.

The core of my speculation is, then, that the two Midas legends were originated either by Midas himself at a time of political or military uncertainty, or by a close political supporter of Midas.