Midas is the name of at least three members of the royal house of Phrygia.
The most famous King Midas is popularly remembered in Greek mythology for his ability to turn everything he touched into gold. This came to be called the golden touch, or the Midas touch. The Phrygian city Midaeum was presumably named after this Midas, and this is probably also the Midas that according to Pausanias founded Ancyra. According to Aristotle, legend held that Midas died of starvation as a result of his “vain prayer” for the gold touch.The legends told about this Midas and his father Gordias, credited with founding the Phrygian capital city Gordium and tying the Gordian Knot, indicate that they were believed to have lived sometime in the 2nd millennium BC, well before the Trojan War. However, Homer does not mention Midas or Gordias, while instead mentioning two other Phrygian kings, Mygdon and Otreus.
Another King Midas ruled Phrygia in the late 8th century BC, up until the sacking of Gordium by the Cimmerians, when he is said to have committed suicide. Most historians believe this Midas is the same person as the Mita, called king of the Mushki in Assyrian texts, who warred with Assyria and its Anatolian provinces during the same period.
A third Midas is said by Herodotus to have been a member of the royal house of Phrygia and the grandfather of an Adrastus who fled Phrygia after accidentally killing his brother and took asylum in Lydia during the reign of Croesus. Phrygia was by that time a Lydian subject. Herodotus says that Croesus regarded the Phrygian royal house as “friends” but does not mention whether the Phrygian royal house still ruled as (vassal) kings of Phrygia.
One day, as Ovid relates in Metamorphoses XI, Dionysus found that his old schoolmaster and foster father, the satyr Silenus, was missing. The old satyr had been drinking wine and wandered away drunk, to be found by some Phrygian peasants who carried him to their king, Midas (alternatively, Silenus passed out in Midas’ rose garden). Midas recognized him and treated him hospitably, entertaining him for ten days and nights with politeness, while Silenus delighted 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 wished for. 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; both turned to gold. Overjoyed, as soon as he got home, he touched every rose in the rose garden, and all became gold. He ordered the servants to set a feast on the table. Upon discovering how even the food and drink turned into gold in his hands, he regretted his wish and cursed it. Claudian states in his In Rufinem: “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.”
In a version told by Nathaniel Hawthorne in A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1852), Midas’ daughter came to him, upset about the roses that had lost their fragrance and become hard, and when he reached out to comfort her, found that when he touched his daughter, she turned to gold as well. Now, Midas hated the gift he had coveted. He prayed to Dionysus, begging to be delivered from starvation. Dionysus heard his prayer, and consented; telling Midas to wash in the river Pactolus. Then, whatever he put into the water would be reversed of the touch.
Midas did so, and when he touched the waters, the power flowed into the river, and the river sands turned into gold. This explained why the river Pactolus was so rich in gold, and the wealth of the dynasty claiming Midas as its forefather no doubt the impetus for this aetiological myth. Gold was perhaps not the only metallic source of Midas’ riches: “King Midas, a Phrygian, son of Cybele, first discovered black and white lead”.
Ears of a Donkey
Once, Pan had the audacity to compare his music with that of Apollo, and challenged Apollo 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 one agreed with the judgment. Midas dissented, and questioned the justice of the award. Apollo would not suffer such a depraved pair of ears any longer, and said “Must have ears of an ass!”, which caused Midas’s ears to become those 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 under an ample turban or headdress, but his barber of course knew the secret, so was told not to mention it. However, the barber could not keep the secret; he went out into the meadow, dug a hole in the ground, whispered the story into it, then covered the hole up. A thick bed of reeds later sprang up in the meadow, and began whispering the story, saying “King Midas has an ass’ ears”.Some sources said that Midas killed himself by drinking the blood of an ox.
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 Luwianhieroglyphs: in this connection, the myth would appear for Greeks to justify the exotic attribute.
The stories of the contests with Apollo of Pan and Marsyas were very often confused, so Titian‘s Flaying of Marsyas includes a figure of Midas (who may be a self-portrait), though his ears seem normal.