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date: 30 November 2022

Midas(1)free

, legendary king of Phrygia

Midas(1)free

, legendary king of Phrygia
  • Alan H. Griffiths

Subjects

  • Greek Myth and Religion

Midas (1), legendary king of Phrygia, a comical figure famous in Greek tradition for his interview with Silenus (see satyrs and silens), his golden touch, and his ass's ears (best single source: Ovid, Met. 11. 90–193). Eager to learn the secret of life, the universe, and everything, he captured the wild nature-spirit Silenus by spiking the pool at which he drank—on the borders of Macedonia, according to Herodotus 8. 138—with wine; the daimon was brought before him bound (a scene attested in Greek art from c.560 bce, see Miller in bibliog. below) and revealed either (Theopompus, FGrH 115 F 75, in Ael. VH 3. 18) the existence of a world beyond our own divided between the two races of the Blest and the Warriors, or (Arist. fr. 65 Gigon, in Ps.-Plut. Cons. ad Apoll.27) the melancholy insight, which became proverbial, that the best thing for mankind was never to be born, otherwise to leave this world as soon as possible. Verg. Ecl.6 is a variant on this theme.

Dionysus, grateful for Silenus' safe return to the wild, offered to grant the king any wish; Midas asked that everything he touched should turn to gold, but regretted his request when it became apparent that this made it impossible for him to eat or drink. The unwanted gift was washed off into the source of the Lydian river Pactolus, which thereafter carried gold dust down in its streams. A second divine encounter confirmed Midas' lack of judgement: invited to judge a musical contest between Apollo and Pan (or, according to Hyginus (3), Marsyas), he preferred Panegyricus, and was rewarded by the god with the ironical gift of donkey's ears. A turban hid his shame from all except his barber who, unable to contain the secret, told it to a hole in the ground; but reeds grew over the spot, and their wind-blown whispering propagates the unhappy truth for all time: ‘Midas has ass's ears.’

Behind the character of legend there probably lies the historical king (of ‘Mushki’) whom the Assyrians knew as Mita (Hawkins, in bibliog. below; see also Midas(2)); the eastern evidence is compatible with the traditional dates given for Midas by Eusebius, 738–696/5 bce. The recent excavation of the largest of the tomb-mounds outside the Phrygian capital Gordium recovered a skeleton which may be his; it shows no sign of auricular abnormality (Prag, in bibliog. below).

Bibliography

  • L. E. Roller, Classical Antiquity 1983, 299–313.
  • L. E. Roller, Classical Antiquity 1984, 256–271.
  • M. C. Miller, Antike Kunst 1988, 78–89.
  • D. Hawkins, Reallexikon der Assyriologie 8. (1994), 271–3.
  • A. J. N. W. Prag, Anatolian Studies 1989, 159–65.