Midas was a mythical king of Phrygia who was famous for his ability to change anything that he touched into solid gold. He was also famous for a more unfortunate trait, his donkey ears. These he gained as punishment for judging Pan the better musician than Apollo.
In Greek mythology Midas, wandering one day in his garden, came across the wise satyr Silenus (or Silenos) who was rather the worse for wear after a night’s out drinking. In other versions of the myth Midas actually drugged the pool from which the satyr drank and thereby captured him so that he could learn from his wisdom. This scene was popular on Greek pottery from c. 560 BCE. Midas, nevertheless, gave the satyr food and drink to restore his spirits and returned him to his great companion, Dionysos, the god of wine. In return for this kind treatment the god granted Midas a wish. The king, already famous for his wealth, chose to be given the magical ability to turn any object he touched into solid gold.
On his way home to his palace, Midas immediately put his new skill to the test and was delighted to see how he could change branches, stones and even bits of soil into fantastic nuggets of shining gold. Even flowers and fruit, when touched by the king, turned instantly into gold. The full consequences of this gift soon became evident however, when Midas tried to mount his horse and it too turned into the lifeless metal. On returning to his palace, the golden robes of the king brushed the pillars of the doorway as he went through and they too instantly became gold. Then the situation took a more ominous turn when calling for dinner the King attempted to wash his hands in a bowl of water. Alas, as soon as his fingers entered the water it also changed to gold and on starting to eat, even the tasty delicacies changed into gold once put into his mouth. Terribly hungry and thirsty, even sleep brought no respite as his usually soft bed became cold and hard and sleep was impossible. Midas now became sick of the sight of the gold which surrounded him and he sought out Dionysos to reverse the gift that had so quickly become a curse.
Fortunately, Dionysos was willing to give poor Midas a helping hand and he directed the king to the source of the river Pactolus in Lydia. If Midas washed in the waters he would lose his golden touch. After much arduous travel, Midas found the spring and immediately leapt in, washing away his curse. This myth also explained the actual presence of gold dust in the river bed of the Pactolus.
Midas was to have another encounter with a deity and this time he was even less fortunate. The pastoral god Pan, inventor of the syrinx or panpipes made of reeds, boastfully set himself up against the lyre-playing abilities of the great god Apollo and challenged him to a musical contest. When Midas judged Pan to be the better musician, Apollo in his rage gave the king the ears of an ass. Understandably ashamed of his new features, Midas hid away in his palace and from then on always wore a turban so that only his barber knew the truth. Sworn and bullied into silence, the barber could not hold onto his secret for long and one day he relieved his burden by digging a hole into the ground and whispering into it ‘Midas has ass’s ears’. From that very spot though, grew a handful of reeds and whenever the wind blew they would forever sing softly the refrain ‘Midas has ass’s ears’.
It is possible that the mythical figure of Midas was based on a real king of Phrygia in the 8th century BCE known as Mita. Mita or Midas made offerings to Delphi, the first foreign monarch to do so. A skeleton discovered in the tomb mounds outside Gordium, the Phrygian capital, has been tentatively attributed to Mita by some scholars.