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Midas

[mahy-duhs]
In Greek mythology, Midas or King Midas (in Greek Μίδας) is popularly remembered for his ability to turn everything he touched into gold: the Midas touch. In alchemy, the transmutation of an object into gold is known as chrysopoeia. Midas was king of Pessinus, a city of Phrygia, who as a child was adopted by the king Gordias and Cybele, the goddess whose consort he was, and who by some accounts was the goddess-mother of Midas himself. Some accounts place the youth of Midas in Macedonian Bermion In Mygdonia Midas was known for his garden of roses: Herodotus remarks on the settlement of the ancient kings of Macedon on the slopes of Mount Bermion "the place called the garden of Midas son of Gordias, where roses grow of themselves, each bearing sixty blossoms and of surpassing fragrance. In this garden, according to the Macedonian story, Silenos was taken captive. According to Iliad (v.860), he had one son, Lityerses, the demonic reaper of men; but in some variations of the myth he had a daughter, Zoë or "life" instead.

For the legend of Gordias, a poor countryman who was taken by the people and made king, in obedience to the command of the oracle, see Gordias.

For the son of Midas, see Adrastus.

The great tumulus

In 1957 archaeologists connected with the University of Pennsylvania opened a chamber tomb at the heart of the Great Tumulus (height : 53 m, diameter : about 300 m) on the site of ancient Gordion (modern Yassihöyük, Turkey), where there are located more than 100 tumuli of different sizes and of different periods. They discovered an early eighth century royal burial, complete with remains of the funeral feast and "the best collection of Iron Age drinking vessels ever uncovered. This inner chamber was rather large : 5.15 by 6.20 m. The height of the ceiling was 3.25 m. On a wooden bedstead in the corner of the chamber lay a skeleton of a man of 1.59 m height and about 60 years old. In the room there were decorated tables and panels, and many vessels with grave offerings. Though no identifying texts were associated with the site, it is popularly dubbed the "Tomb of Midas" (Penn). But later investigations showed that this funerary monument couldn't have been constructed after the Cimmerian invasion in the early seventh century BCE. Therefore it is now believed to be the monument for an earlier king than Midas.

A "tomb of Midas" identified in the nineteenth century at Midas Sehri on the basis of the word "Mida", identified in incompletely translated Phrygian inscriptions, is not today interpreted as a tomb, but instead a site sacred to Cybele.

Myth

Once, as Ovid relates in Metamorphoses X Dionysus found his old schoolmaster and foster father, the satyr Silenus, missing.

The old satyr had been drinking wine, and had wandered away drunk, and was found by some Phrygian peasants, who carried him to their king, Midas (alternatively, he passed out in Midas' rose garden). Midas recognized him, and treated him hospitably, entertaining him for ten days and nights with politeness, while Silenus entertained Midas and his friends with stories and songs.

On the eleventh day he brought Silenus back to Dionysus in Lydia. Dionysus offered Midas his choice of whatever reward he wanted. Midas asked that whatever he might touch should be changed into gold.

Midas rejoiced in his new power, which he hastened to put to the test. He touched an oak twig and a stone and both turned to gold. Overjoyed, as soon as he got home, he ordered the servants to set a feast on the table. "So Midas, king of Lydia, swelled at first with pride when he found he could transform everything he touched to gold: but when he beheld his food grow rigid and his drink harden into golden ice then he understood that this gift was a bane and in his loathing for gold cursed his prayer" (Claudian, In Rufinem). In a version told by Nathaniel Hawthorne, he found that when he touched his daughter, she turned into a statue as well.

Now he hated the gift he had coveted. He prayed to Dionysus, begging to be delivered from starvation. Dionysus heard and consented; he told Midas to wash in the river Pactolus.

He did so, and when he touched the waters, the power passed into the river, and the river sands became changed into gold. This explained why the river Pactolus was so rich in gold and the wealth of the dynasty claiming Midas as forefather, no doubt the impetus for this etiological myth. (Graves). Gold was perhaps not the only metallic source of Midas' riches: "King Midas, a Phrygian, son of Cybele, first discovered black and white lead.

Midas, now hating wealth and splendor, moved to the country and became a worshipper of Pan, the god of the fields and satyr. Roman mythographers asserted that his tutor in music was Orpheus.

Once Pan had the audacity to compare his music with that of Apollo, and to challenge Apollo, the god of the lyre, to a trial of skill (also see Marsyas). Tmolus, the mountain-god, was chosen as umpire. Pan blew on his pipes, and with his rustic melody gave great satisfaction to himself and his faithful follower, Midas, who happened to be present.

Then Apollo struck the strings of his lyre. Tmolus at once awarded the victory to Apollo, and all but Midas agreed with the judgment. He dissented, and questioned the justice of the award.

Apollo would not suffer such a depraved pair of ears any longer, and caused them to become the ears of a donkey. The myth is illustrated by two paintings "Apollo and Marsyas" by Palma il Giovane (1544-1628), one depicting the scene before, and one after the punishment.

Midas was mortified at this mishap. He attempted to hide his misfortune with an ample turban or headdress. But his hairdresser of course knew the secret. He was told not to mention it. He could not keep the secret; so he went out into the meadow, dug a hole in the ground, whispered the story into it, and covered the hole up. A thick bed of reeds sprang up in the meadow, and began whispering the story and saying "King Midas has a donkey's ears. Sarah Morris demonstrated (Morris 2004) that donkeys' ears were a Bronze Age royal attribute, borne by King Tarkasnawa (Greek Tarkondemos) of Mira, on a seal inscribed in both Hittite cuneiform and Luwian hieroglyphs: in this connection the myth would appear to justify for Greeks the exotic attribute.

See also

  • The tales of King Midas have been told by others with some variations: John Dryden; in the Wife of Bath's Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer, making Midas' queen Demodike (or Hermodike) of Kymi; Aristotle, Eudemus fr. 611, 37; Pollux 9, 83,) the betrayer of the secret.
  • Berecynthian Hero (after Mt. Berecynthus in Phrygia)
  • Midas touch, see Grey goo effect and Ice-nine
  • In Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, one of the characters is the banker Midas Mulligan, who got this name (first as a nickname, than taken up legally as his official name) because "everything he touched turned into gold" (i.e. he had a talent to make good and profitable investments). Unlike his legendary namesake, Rand's character is perfectly satisfied with his gift and does not wish to have it removed.

Notes

References

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