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The Tale Of King Midas: A Golden Curse | Meet The Myths

The Judgment of Midas, Jan van den Hoecke 1640. Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)

In Greek mythology, King Midas, the ruler of Phrygia, was renowned throughout the history of his realm and beyond for his immense wealth. Yet, the gold that filled his treasury and ornamented his palace was never enough to satisfy his insatiable desire. This ancient story, handed down through generations, explores the themes of greed, consequence, and the realization that not all that glitters is gold.

Discover the Myth of King Midas

1. Midas’ Life Before the Golden Touch

The mythical King Midas was a figure of opulence and authority. He ruled Phrygia in Asia Minor, now Turkey, over contented people and fertile lands. Midas’ father was actually King Gordia, the founder of the Phrygian capital city Gordium.

Yet despite his great fortune, Midas had a hunger that gold alone could satiate. Gold, to Midas, was more than a symbol of fortune. Its fascinating brilliance was a spectacle to his eyes, its substantial weight was a thrill to his touch, and its power, he genuinely believed, was unparalleled. His palace was a testament to his obsession, with golden art statues and decorations adorning everything from towering pillars to delicate cutlery. Midas’ myth even suggested in the legend that the roses in his garden bore a unique golden hue.

Midas, however, was no despot. His rule was characterized by fairness, and his subjects respected him. They were indulgent in his fascination with gold, unaware that this seemingly harmless eccentricity would soon unfold into a horrific reality. Midas also displayed a refined cultural sensibility. His court was a sanctuary for artists, musicians, and scholars. Legendary were his feasts, and his partiality for the enchanting tales spun by visiting bards was well-known.

At the core of his personal life was his daughter, Zoe—a gentle soul who contrasted sharply with her father. Unimpressed by wealth, she cherished the simple beauties of life, urging her father to do the same. But to Midas, the world’s charm was dimmed by the radiant allure of gold.

Midas and his daughter
Midas and his daughter

Under King Midas’ reign, Phrygia was a haven of peace. His wealth was not the spoils of war but the result of wise governance. Yet, beneath this tranquil prosperity, Midas’ insatiable desire for gold was a constant undercurrent.

2. Dionysus and the Satyr

In the realm of the divine, the gods were well aware of Midas and his obsession with gold. One such deity was Dionysus, the god of wine, pleasure, and festivity. Known for his jovial and somewhat unpredictable nature, Dionysus was also a patron of the arts, especially theater and music. His followers, the Satyrs, were creatures half man and half goat, known for their love of music, dance, and revelry.

One day, a Satyr named Silenus, who was particularly close to Dionysus, wandered away from the god’s side and found himself lost in the mortal realm. He stumbled into the rose garden of Midas. Exhausted and disoriented, Silenus fell into a deep sleep amidst the fabled golden roses.

When Midas found the slumbering Satyr in his garden, he immediately recognized the creature as a follower of Dionysus. Despite his preoccupation with gold, Midas was a man of hospitality and greatly respected the gods. Rather than capture Silenus, he welcomed him, provided him with food and shelter, and treated him with kindness and respect.

Word of this noble act quickly reached Dionysus. Touched by Midas’ generosity towards his friend, he decided to reward the king. Dionysus appeared before Midas and, in appreciation of his hospitality, granted the foolish king a single wish.

Landscape with the judgment of Midas, by Gillis van Coninxloo
Landscape with the judgment of Midas, by Gillis van Coninxloo

For Midas, it was a dream come true. Standing before a god, given the opportunity to ask for anything his heart desired, his choice was predictable yet profoundly impactful. Midas asked and wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. Dionysus, though surprised and somewhat saddened by the king’s choice, granted his wish. Unbeknownst to Midas, this gift of great fortune would be a curse, leading him to regret and desperation.

3. The Petition to Dionysus

A profound silence had fallen in a domain where everything glimmered with the luster of gold. King Midas, once a joyous ruler, now roamed his palace like a ghost, haunted by the golden curse that had turned his life into a nightmare.

His once vibrant world was now a cold, golden wasteland. The luscious fruits in his garden had turned into inedible golden orbs. His favorite roses, once a stunning red, were now gold, their petals stiff and cold, devoid of fragrance. Midas loyal subjects, who had once filled his courtyard with laughter and merriment, now kept their distance, terrified of being turned into golden statues.

But the most agonizing consequence of his wish was the transformation of his beloved daughter, Zoe. In a moment of absent-minded affection, he had touched Zoe’s hand, and she had hardened into a golden statue. Her once sparkling eyes, full of life and laughter, were now lifeless, the warm touch of her hand replaced by the cold, hard reality of gold. This was the most torturous aspect of his curse, a daily reminder of his greed and the price he had paid.

Midas felt an overwhelming sense of despair and loneliness. His heart ached, not for the lack of gold but for the absence of warmth, laughter, and companionship. His dream had turned into a horrific reality, and Midas’ touch, once a coveted gift, was now an unbearable curse.

In his desperation, Midas turned to Dionysus, the god who had granted his one wish. He approached the god’s temple, his heart heavy with regret and sorrow. His footsteps echoed in the grand hall, the sound a stark reminder of his solitude and the barrenness of his existence.

He fell to his knees before the statue of Dionysus, his voice echoing through the silent temple. “Mighty Dionysus,” he implored, “I beg you, release me from this golden curse. I was a fool to think that gold could bring me happiness. I now understand that true wealth lies not in material possessions, but in the love and joy we share with those around us.”

His plea was heartfelt, a raw testament to his remorse and the torment he was enduring. Dionysus, moved by Midas’ plight, granted him a reprieve and said to Midas’ ears: “Dip yourself in the river Pactolus,” he told Midas when instructed, “and the curse will be washed away.”

4. The Removal of the Curse

Midas, carrying the burden of hope and the weight of his past mistakes, approached the river Pactolus as directed by Dionysus. The clear, flowing water seemed to sing a melody of promise to Midas, its sparkling surface reflecting the anxious anticipation in his eyes.

With a deep breath, he plunged into the river. The cool water enveloped him, caressing his skin and seeping into his pores. As he emerged, he could feel a remarkable transformation coursing through his body. The dread of the golden touch flowed away, replaced by an exhilarating sense of freedom.

He tentatively reached out to touch a nearby tree. To his immense relief, its bark remained rough and brown under his fingertips. Finally, everything Midas touched remained as it was. The flowers maintained their vibrant hues, the grass its verdant softness. He was free of his golden curse. The beloved king returned to his old self, and the kingdom once again resonated with life and delight.

Rushing back to his palace, Midas was overjoyed to find his daughter restored to her lively self, the palace returned to its original grandeur but devoid of excessive gold, and his subjects, too, were relieved to see their beloved king returned to his old self.

Midas's Feast in Honor of Bacchus and Silenus' by Gillis van Valckenborch
Midas’s Feast in Honor of Bacchus and Silenus’ by Gillis van Valckenborch

Midas, however, was a changed man. The golden curse had opened his eyes to the true meaning of wealth. He no longer sought great fortune. Instead, he found joy in his people, his daughter’s company, and his kingdom’s natural beauty.

From then on, the rule of Midas was marked not by his obsession with gold, but by his newfound appreciation for the simple joys of life. The once-greedy king had learned his lesson—the truest form of wealth was not gold, but the love and happiness shared with others.

The Moral of the Myth of King Midas

Bust of Midas, Summer Garden, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Bust of Midas, Summer Garden, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Among all the Greek myths, The tale of King Midas and his golden touch is more than just a captivating narrative; it is a profound moral lesson that resonates across ages and cultures. It is a timeless reminder of the dangers of unchecked greed and the importance of understanding the true value of things in our lives.

Midas’ initial joy at his golden touch reflects our tendency to seek material wealth, often ignoring the consequences such pursuits might have on our relationships and personal happiness. The king’s desire for gold was so overwhelming that he failed to consider the implications of his wish, leading to his tragic downfall.

When everything Midas touched turned to gold, including his beloved daughter, he was confronted with the harsh reality of his decision. He learned, in the harshest way possible, that the things he had taken for granted — the warmth of a loved one’s touch, the taste of food, the beauty of nature — were the true treasures in life.

Midas myth teaches us that wealth and material possessions are not the keys to happiness. Instead, the intangible things — love, friendship, family, and the joy derived from simple pleasures — truly enrich our lives. It reminds us to appreciate these aspects of our lives and not to let our pursuit of material wealth overshadow them.

Furthermore, the story highlights the power of transformation and redemption. Despite his grave mistake, Midas was given a chance to reverse his golden curse. He emerged from his ordeal a better person, his values realigned, and his priorities reset. His transformation is a testament to the human capacity for change and the possibility of learning from our mistakes.

In essence, the moral of the story of King Midas is a call for moderation, appreciation of non-material wealth, and the understanding that true happiness is found not in what we have, but in who we share our lives with. It’s a timeless lesson that remains relevant in our modern world, reminding us to treasure the simple joys of life and the love of those around us.

Alternative Versions of the King Midas Story

Like many tales from ancient mythology, the story of King Midas and his golden touch has various versions, each offering a unique twist on the narrative or moral lesson. Here, we explore a few of these alternative renditions and ancient sources.

Midas’ Donkey Ears

One popular alternative version of the King Midas story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this narrative, historical king Midas is not punished with the golden touch for his greed but for his poor judgment in a musical contest between the god Apollo and the satyr Pan.

The Judgment of Midas, Jan van den Hoecke 1640. Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)
The Judgment of Midas, Jan van den Hoecke 1640

Midas, favoring Pan’s rustic tunes over Apollo’s divine melody, declares Pan the winner. In his anger at Midas’ lack of musical discernment, Apollo gives him the ears of a donkey. Ashamed of his new appendages, Midas hides them under a turban, and only his barber knows the secret. Unable to keep it to himself, the barber whispers the secret into a hole in the ground. However, when reeds grow from the spot and are stirred by the wind, they whisper, “King Midas has donkey ears or ass’s ears.” This story emphasizes the importance of sound judgment and the potential repercussions of poor decisions.

This narrative resembles the myth of Apollo and Marsyas, who engaged in a musical duel that ultimately brought about Marsyas’s tragic downfall.

The Roses of Midas

Another version focuses on the myth of King Midas’ love for his rose garden, which is said to have been the most beautiful in the ancient world. His cherished garden became a field of golden statues devoid of natural beauty and fragrance when he received the golden touch. This tale underscores the beauty of nature in its natural state and the loss that occurs when we impose our desires upon it.

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