Perhaps you’ve heard of someone who has the Midas Touch. You know, when everything that person comes into contact with turns to gold. Did you know, however, that this idea originated in ancient Greece? That’s right. Another legend continues to inspire us even today. So let’s take a closer look at the mythology behind the Midas Touch.
One of my favorite sources for the myth of Midas is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Yes, our friend the ancient Roman writer Ovid once again offers his interesting and insightful interpretation of the story. According to his version, Midas was the king of Phrygia. Now it just so happened that Silenus, who was one of the god Dionysos’s companions, got a little intoxicated. This was nothing out of the ordinary for old Silenus. However, some farmers found him and decided to take him captive and drag him to their king. So now king Midas was host to Silenus. Midas fortunately recognized his guest as none other than a protege of Dionysos. The king welcomed Silenus warmly, and held a festival in his honor.
Dionysos appreciated the king’s hospitable treatment of his cherished friend. So the god offered Midas a gift as a reward. Without so much as a second thought, Midas impetuously asked to be granted the ability to turn all that he touched into gold. Although saddened by the short sighted request, Dionysos honored his end of the bargain and gave Midas the golden touch. As you can imagine, the king was initially thrilled. There is a lovely passage in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of the story:
“He held an apple he picked off a tree:
you’d say it came from the Hesperides.
And if a towering pillar felt his touch,
at once he saw it glitter. Even when
he bathed his hands, and limpid water ran
down from his fingers, Danae might well
have been beguiled. Beside himself, gone wild,
he dreamed that everything had turned to gold.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 11, translation by Allen Mandelbaum)
Well, this gift soon turned curse. As Midas sat down to his table for a meal, he noticed that all he came into contact with changed to gold. Food, drink, transformed into inedible metal. Sincerely he acknowledged his rash choice and begged Dionysos to reverse the ability. Dionysos did just that. The god told Midas to bathe himself in a nearby river to wash away the divine gift. This explains why the river in which Midas was said to have bathed contains rich deposits of gold.
In an interesting footnote to the story, Midas was called upon to judge a contest between Pan and Apollo. This, however, is a tale for another day…