The myths of the legends of King Midas - his Golden touch and his Ass-Ears

This article discusses the myths relating to King Midas. These myths have been in circulation for a couple of millennia now, but a relook at the moral of these stories is crucial in today's world. Read on to know more.

It is not known for sure as to whether there was a king named Midas, but legend says that he ruled the kingdom of Phrygia believed by some to be located in the region of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). The myths related to Midas are among the very few which have transcended time and space. There have been bedtime stories (based on the story of Midas' golden touch) that have been told to countless children across the world and numerous scholars have undertaken studies and excavations to find out if the characters in the stories existed. So before setting out to write on such an oft-discussed topic, I would like to delineate my objectives as follows –

  • Discuss the basic story of Midas' golden touch along with its numerous variations

  • Discuss the second mythical story related to Midas, that is the story where Midas is given ass' ears as a curse by the God Apollo

  • Discuss the morals from the two stories and also discuss how these stories circulated over time

Midas and his Golden Touch

The story of Midas' golden touch is very much well known. The central story consists of the King Midas, the ruler of Phrygia, who received a boon from Dionysus, the Greek God of wine. Midas had found the satyr of Dionysus, Silenus. As most of the readers might be aware, satyrs were mythical creatures that were half-goat and half-human. Silenus was a friend and companion of Dionysus. Pleased with the hospitality which Silenus had received at the palace of Midas, Dionysus decided to grant Midas any boon that he wanted. Midas was overjoyed at this and asked for the ability to turn anything he wanted into gold.

Immediately Midas set about testing his power. He turned his palace, his furniture and everything in his sights into gold. After the initial frenzy had worn off, he began to get hungry. But he realized with horror that the ability which had so far seemed heavenly, forbade him from enjoying even the simplest of lunches. Every bread Midas touched turned into solid metallic gold. In hunger and dismay, he called out to his daughter. When Midas embraced her, the most horrible thing happened. His daughter turned into a gold statue, immobile, it seemed forever. Midas now had lost his craze for gold and in tears prayed for this ability to disappear. Then Dionysus appeared and told him to go and wash his hands in the Pactolus river. As soon as Midas did that, everything returned to normal and Midas realized the beauty of everyday life, albeit for a short time.

Different versions, same story

There is a general similarity as far as the central story goes, but there are certain minor variations as far as some details go. For example, some versions exaggerate the greed and opulence of King Midas. Other versions call him a rogue king. Some versions state that Silenus, the Satyr was in a bad state when Midas found him.


Nevertheless it is quite clear what kind of moral the writer (or writers) of the story were trying to spread. The greed of humans is immense and sometimes this greed for money, gold, land or power can turn our mind away from the simple joys of life which can also provide immense happiness. A good lunch or a few loving moments with our family can also be a source of joy. Midas had to be given a rude shock for him and later generations to learn this truth. The story is also a study in human psychology. When we are faced with an opportunity of getting practically anything in the world, like the boon given to Midas by Dionysus, what do we wish for? The story forces us to think about these themes. Perhaps even ordinary mortals like us living in today's materialistic world would have had similar wishes as Midas, however hard we may try to deny it.

Transcending time and space

The story was probably first recorded in the Greek plays. Greece had a tradition of tragic-comedies and this particular story was probably circulated in that manner. However, like most stories, this one probably also had a phase where it circulated in the form of oral tradition. From the Greeks, the story passed on to the Romans and in 8 AD, the story was recorded in the Latin book, 'Metamorphoses' by Ovid. The story continued to circulate and in the nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne published the story in his book 'A wonder book for girls and boys'. The story continues to circulate to date and has given birth to expressions like 'Midas touch' and 'golden touch' to denote someone successful in whatever he or she undertakes.

Midas and the ass-ears

Let us now move on to the second myth about King Midas. This particular story about Midas and his donkey ears comparatively less known but quite fascinating as well. The myth involves the Greek god of music, Apollo and the God of the fields and the pastures, Pan. Once Pan had a duel with Apollo as he asserted that his music was better than that of Apollo. Both performed in front of a few judges, one of whom was unluckily Midas himself. The rest of the judges ruled in favor of Apollo, but Midas dissented. Apollo, offended by this, cursed Midas: "May he have the ears of an ass." Immediately, Midas' ears transformed, ruining his appearance forever.

However, this fact didn't come out into the open all at once. Midas did a pretty good job of hiding it. No one in his kingdom except his barber knew the truth of his ears. The barber was pledged to loyalty to the king and he couldn't dream of letting the secret out. However, the secret continued to weigh on his mind. In the end, the barber dug a hole in a remote place and when the hole was deep enough, he shouted into the hole, "The King has ass's ears". Soon reeds grew in that desolate place and when the wind blew through the reeds the words "The King has ass's ears" traveled along with the wind. Soon the entire kingdom knew of Midas' ass-ears.


There are several versions of this story as well. For example, in some of the versions, Midas is mentioned as leaving the palace (after his golden touch saga came to an end) and becoming a devotee of Pan after migrating to the countryside. In other versions this detail is absent. The story has a Central Asian version in which the barber whispered the secret into a well. Once the well flooded the entire kingdom and the people ended up knowing the king's secret. The story also has an Irish version in which the barber whispers the secret to a tree and afterward when a musician made an instrument out of the wood of the tree, the music of that instrument ended up revealing the king's dreaded secret. In these stories (since they belonged to a non-Greek context) the story of how the king got the ass-ears was different.


The moral in the story is not very clear. One possible moral could be that we must always measure our words and think about the consequences before speaking anything. The second moral probably would be the fact that even minor incidents can completely tarnish a person's reputation. Nevertheless, whatever its authors intended to teach the audience through such a story the fact remains that this one, as well as the first story, is delightfully entertaining.


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