The Land of Phrygia
On the internal western bank of Asia Minor, there was a central plateau region called Phrygia. It was occupied by many migrating peoples during the 13th and 12th centuries BC, mainly an Indo-European speaking sect with an aristocracy known for their horse rearing who had departed from a land called Thrace, in Europe. Mycenaean settlements in Macedonia may have driven them there.
These Phrygian tribes moved into western Asia Minor and the “Sea Peoples,” a group of coastal tribes set in movement by the events in Europe, raided Anatolia with such force that the Hittite empire collapsed. The Hittite domination of Anatolia and northern Syria was replaced then by a multitude of small kingdoms and tribes, and the great period of Hittite civilization ended.
After overwhelming the Hittites, it was easy to create a large kingdom that soon became associated with Greek legend and the traditions of kings Midas and Gordius (Gordius named the capital Gordium, of course).
The historical King Midas, it is believed, ruled from c.738 to c.696 BC. In Assyrian records he is called, “Mita of Muski.” Rumor has it that he seized power with the help of a Greek contingent from Ionia but was driven back. Some say he committed suicide when the Phrygian empire was overthrown, but not before influencing the Thracian peoples with the Greek alphabet, bronze belts, and painted pottery at Gordium, which all have a Greek appearance.
King Midas was not the first non-Greek monarch to send gifts to Delphi (where they wound up in Corinthian treasury) and he married the daughter of Agamemnon, king of Cyme in Aeolis, an important coastline city. In return, the Greeks expanded to the west coast and acquired Phrygian textiles and slaves.
The Tale: King Midas and the Golden Touch
In the play “Metamorphoses,” the madness and chaos of some 250 stories is laid out in 700 lines of poetry and are woven together by the theme of metamorphosis or transformation. Ovid tells the story of Midas, king of Phrygia, son of Gordius and Cybele. Unfortunately for King Midas, he is portrayed as someone with no common sense; a man who was weak, miserly and greedy.
Midas was already a very rich king by any measure: he had a beautiful little daughter name Marygold, an extraordinary rose garden where you could always find Marygold and tons of gold in the treasury basement. He loved to hug Marygold and smell the roses she brought him, and he also loved the chink of gold coins dropped into a leather purse.
Every day though, he often had thoughts to himself. He would think, yes, the roses are beautiful, but they only last a day. If they were gold, they would last forever. And no matter how hard I work, no matter how long I live, I will never have enough gold.
One day the king’s guards found an old man asleep under some rose bushes and brought him before King Midas. Midas instructed them to loosen their grip and said, “Why, without my wealth I would be as poor as he.” And he let the man dine with him, entertained him and allowed him a good night’s sleep. After that, the old man went away.
When King Midas went down to his dungeon the next day as he often did, he sat down to admire his precious gold. Suddenly, as if in a dream, a light poured into the window and a young man appeared.
“Do you not recognize me, friend?” he said. The young mysterious fellow explained he was the old man from the rose garden! “Instead of punishing me, you were gracious with your food, your home and your laughter.” He said he had come to reward the King. Then he asked, “What would make you a happier man?”
Midas knew instantly: “Perhaps if everything I touched turned to gold.”
“Think carefully my friend” replied the young man.
“Yes, the golden touch would bring me all the happiness I need,” said Midas.
“And so it shall be yours.”
A light shone ever more brightly and the king had to shield his keys. When he opened them, he was alone.
Midas eagerly rubbed the great brass door key but was sorely disappointed. There was no gold in his hands—he thought perhaps he had had a dream. When he awoke the next day however, he was bathed in a golden light. The bedsheets he touched turned into spun gold! The bedpost turned to solid gold as soon as he touched it. “I have the golden touch,” he exclaimed.
He pulled on his clothes, but they turned to a handsome suit of gold, very heavy and somewhat stiff. He was delighted because no inconvenience could be too great.
He rushed out of the room, into the garden, and was hit with the scent of rose and was enamored briefly with their glistening morning coat of dew. Then Midas touched each of the blooms and the bushes drooped and pulled away from the weight of their golden petals. “How happy Marygold will be when she sees these roses of gold,” he thought.
Of course, Marygold was not pleased, but crying because all the flowers had become hard and yellow.
“We can buy you all the roses you wish for dear, now wipe your tears and let’s have our breakfast together,” he said.
Midas lifted a spoonful of porridge to his mouth and as soon as it touched his lips, it turned it into a golden lump. No matter if he wanted to eat a fig, have some bread with cheese and jam, or drink his tea, it all turned to gold. “How am I to eat?” he grumbled. Marygold of course sensed her father’s despair and left her seat to comfort him, a tear on her cheek. With a hug, suddenly his daughter stood before him, a lifeless gold statue.
Midas howled in despair, he couldn’t bear to look.
“Well, Midas are you the happiest of men?” the mysterious stranger was standing before him.
“It is a curse. All that I truly love is lost to me,” said Midas in reply.
“Would you prefer a crust of bread to the gift of the golden touch?” the young man asked.
“I would gladly give up all the gold in the world to have my daughter restored to me,” said Midas.
“Then make your way to the Pactolus River and follow the upstream to find its source. When you cleanse yourself in the spring, the golden touch will be washed away. Take a vessel with you so that you may sprinkle water over any object you wish to change back.” And the mysterious young man vanished.
Of course, Midas lost no time in reversing his body, clothing and hair; he touched a violet at the side of the bank and was delighted when it retained its purple color. He went home and doused Marygold, and the two of them turned every rose back to its’ former glory. Surrounded by his daughter’s smile and the roses’ perfume, he realized he had been a very stupid man.
Midas’ tomb is believed to have been found near Gordium. It now stands as a vertical wall of stone and rock with elaborate designs chiseled into the structure. Archaeologists found it in the mid-50s and the walls of the tomb were richly decorated; the word “Mida” inscribed therein, and a mere wooden coffin held abundant grave goods.
- Craft, Charlotte. King Midas and the Golden Touch. New York: Harper Collins, 1999. Book.
- Stewig, John Warren. King Midas. New York: Holiday House, 1999. Book
- Ancient Origins: King Midas
- Greek Mythology: King Midas
- Grant, Michael. The Rise of the Greeks. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987. Book.
- Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1940, 42, 69. Book.
- Ancient History Encyclopedia: Midas
- Demi. King Midas: The Golden Touch. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2002. Book.