Book of Myths - Jeanie Lang

King Midas of the Golden Touch

In the plays of Shakespeare we have three distinct divisions—three separate volumes. One deals with Tragedy, another with Comedy, a third with History; and a mistake made by the young in their aspect of life is that they do the same thing, and keep tragedy and comedy severely apart, relegating them to separate volumes that, so they think, have nothing to do with each other. But those who have passed many milestones on the road know that "History" is the only right label for the Book of Life's many parts, and that the actors in the great play are in truth tragic comedians.

This is the story of Midas, one of the chief tragic comedians of mythology.

Once upon a time the kingdom of Phrygia lacked a king, and in much perplexity, the people sought help from an oracle. The answer was very definite:

"The first man who enters your city riding in a car shall be your king."

That day there came slowly jogging into the city in their heavy, wooden-wheeled wain, the peasant Gordias and his wife and son, whose destination was the marketplace, and whose business was to sell the produce of their little farm and vineyard—fowls, a goat or two, and a couple of skinsful of strong, purple-red wine. An eager crowd awaited their entry, and a loud shout of welcome greeted them. And their eyes grew round and their mouths fell open in amaze when they were hailed as King and Queen and Prince of Phrygia.

The gods had indeed bestowed upon Gordias, the low-born peasant, a surprising gift, but he showed his gratitude by dedicating his wagon to the deity of the oracle and tying it up in its place with the wiliest knot that his simple wisdom knew, pulled as tight as his brawny arms and strong rough hands could pull. Nor could anyone untie the famous Gordian knot, and therefore become, as the oracle promised, lord of all Asia, until centuries had passed, and Alexander the Great came to Phrygia and sliced through the knot with his all-conquering sword.

In time Midas, the son of Gordias, came to inherit the throne and crown of Phrygia. Like many another not born and bred to the purple, his honours sat heavily upon him. From the day that his father's wain had entered the city amidst the acclamations of the people, he had learned the value of power, and therefore, from his boyhood onward, power, always more power, was what he coveted. Also his peasant father had taught him that gold could buy power, and so Midas ever longed for more gold, that could buy him a place in the world that no descendant of a long race of kings should be able to contest. And from Olympus the gods looked down and smiled, and vowed that Midas should have the chance of realising his heart's desire.

Therefore one day when he and his court were sitting in the solemn state that Midas required, there rode into their midst, tipsily swaying on the back of a gentle full-fed old grey ass, ivy-crowned, jovial and foolish, the satyr Silenus, guardian of the young god Bacchus.

With all the deference due to the friend of a god Midas treated this disreputable old pedagogue, and for ten days and nights on end he feasted him royally. On the eleventh day Bacchus came in search of his preceptor, and in deep gratitude bade Midas demand of him what he would, because he had done Silenus honour when to dishonour him lay in his power.

Not even for a moment did Midas ponder.

"I would have gold," he said hastily—"much gold. I would have that touch by which all common and valueless things become golden treasures."

And Bacchus, knowing that here spoke the son of peasants who many times had gone empty to bed after a day of toilful striving on the rocky uplands of Phrygia, looked a little sadly in the eager face of Midas, and answered: "Be it as thou wilt. Thine shall be the golden touch."

Then Bacchus and Silenus went away, a rout of singing revellers at their heels, and Midas quickly put to proof the words of Bacchus.

An olive tree grew near where he stood, and from it he picked a little twig decked with leaves of softest grey, and lo, it grew heavy as he held it, and glittered like a piece of his crown. He stooped to touch the green turf on which some fragrant violets grew, and turf grew into cloth of gold, and violets lost their fragrance and became hard, solid, golden things. He touched an apple whose cheek grew rosy in the sun, and at once it became like the golden fruit in the Garden of the Hesperides. The stone pillars of his palace as he brushed past them on entering, blazed like a sunset sky. The gods had not deceived him. Midas had the Golden Touch. Joyously he strode into the palace and commanded a feast to be prepared—a feast worthy of an occasion so magnificent.

But when Midas, with the healthy appetite of the peasant-born, would have eaten largely of the savoury food that his cooks prepared, he found that his teeth only touched roast kid to turn it into a slab of gold, that garlic lost its flavour and became gritty as he chewed, that rice turned into golden grains, and curdled milk became a dower fit for a princess, entirely unnegotiable for the digestion of man. Baffled and miserable, Midas seized his cup of wine, but the red wine had become one with the golden vessel that held it; nor could he quench his thirst, for even the limpid water from the fountain was melted gold when it touched his dry lips. Only for a very few days was Midas able to bear the affliction of his wealth. There was nothing now for him to live for. He could buy the whole earth if he pleased, but even children shrank in terror from his touch, and hungry and thirsty and sick at heart he wearily dragged along his weighty robes of gold. Gold was power, he knew well, yet of what worth was gold while he starved? Gold could not buy him life and health and happiness.

In despair, at length he cried to the god who had given him the gift that he hated.

"Save me, O Bacchus!" he said. "A witless one am I, and the folly of my desire has been my undoing. Take away from me the accursed Golden Touch, and faithfully and well shall I serve thee forever."

Then Bacchus, very pitiful for him, told Midas to go to Sardis, the chief city of his worshippers, and to trace to its source the river upon which it was built. And in that pool, when he found it, he was to plunge his head, and so he would, for evermore, be freed from the Golden Touch.

It was a long journey that Midas then took, and a weary and a starving man was he when at length he reached the spring where the river Pactolus had its source. He crawled forward, and timidly plunged in his head and shoulders. Almost he expected to feel the harsh grit of golden water, but instead there was the joy he had known as a peasant boy when he laved his face and drank at a cool spring when his day's toil was ended. And when he raised his face from the pool, he knew that his hateful power had passed from him, but under the water he saw grains of gold glittering in the sand, and from that time forth the river Pactolus was noted for its gold.

One lesson the peasant king had learnt by paying in suffering for a mistake, but there was yet more suffering in store for the tragic comedian.

He had now no wish for golden riches, nor even for power. He wished to lead the simple life and to listen to the pipings of Pan along with the goat-herds on the mountains or the wild creatures in the woods. Thus it befell that he was present one day at a contest between Pan and Apollo himself. It was a day of merry-making for nymphs and fauns and dryads, and all those who lived in the lonely solitudes of Phrygia came to listen to the music of the god who ruled them. For as Pan sat in the shade of a forest one night and piped on his reeds until the very shadows danced, and the water of the stream by which he sat leapt high over the mossy stones it passed, and laughed aloud in its glee, the god had so gloried in his own power that he cried:

"Who speaks of Apollo and his lyre? Some of the gods may be well pleased with his music, and mayhap a bloodless man or two. But my music strikes to the heart of the earth itself. It stirs with rapture the very sap of the trees, and awakes to life and joy the innermost soul of all things mortal."

Apollo heard his boast, and heard it angrily.

"Oh, thou whose soul is the soul of the untilled ground!" he said, "wouldst thou place thy music, that is like the wind in the reeds, beside my music, which is as the music of the spheres?"

And Pan, splashing with his goat's feet amongst the water-lilies of the stream on the bank of which he sat, laughed loudly and cried:

"Yea, would I, Apollo! Willingly would I play thee a match—thou on thy golden lyre—I on my reeds from the river."

Thus did it come to pass that Apollo and Pan matched against each other their music, and King Midas was one of the judges.

First of all Pan took his fragile reeds, and as he played, the leaves on the trees shivered, and the sleeping lilies raised their heads, and the birds ceased their song to listen and then flew straight to their mates. And all the beauty of the world grew more beautiful, and all its terror grew yet more grim, and still Pan piped on, and laughed to see the nymphs and the fauns first dance in joyousness and then tremble in fear, and the buds to blossom, and the stags to bellow in their lordship of the hills. When he ceased, it was as though a tensely-drawn string had broken, and all the earth lay breathless and mute. And Pan turned proudly to the golden-haired god who had listened as he had spoken through the hearts of reeds to the hearts of men.

"Canst, then, make music like unto my music, Apollo?" he said.

Then Apollo, his purple robes barely hiding the perfection of his limbs, a wreath of laurel crowning his yellow curls, looked down at Pan from his godlike height and smiled in silence. For a moment his hand silently played over the golden strings of his lyre, and then his finger-tips gently touched them. And every creature there who had a soul, felt that that soul had wings, and the wings sped them straight to Olympus. Far away from all earth-bound creatures they flew, and dwelt in magnificent serenity amongst the Immortals. No longer was there strife, or any dispeace. No more was there fierce warring between the actual and the unknown. The green fields and thick woods had faded into nothingness, and their creatures, and the fair nymphs and dryads, and the wild fauns and centaurs longed and fought no more, and man had ceased to desire the impossible. Throbbing nature and passionately desiring life faded into dust before the melody that Apollo called forth, and when his strings had ceased to quiver and only the faintly remembered echo of his music remained, it was as though the earth had passed away and all things had become new.

For the space of many seconds all was silence.

Then, in low voice, Apollo asked:

"Ye who listen—who is the victor?"

And earth and sea and sky, and all the creatures of earth and sky, and of the deep, replied as one:

"The victory is thine, Divine Apollo."

Yet was there one dissentient voice.

Midas, sorely puzzled, utterly un-understanding, was relieved when the music of Apollo ceased. "If only Pan would play again," he murmured to himself. "I wish to live, and Pan's music gives me life. I love the woolly vine-buds and the fragrant pine-leaves, and the scent of the violets in the spring. The smell of the fresh-ploughed earth is dear to me, the breath of the kine that have grazed in the meadows of wild parsley and of asphodel. I want to drink red wine and to eat and love and fight and work and be joyous and sad, fierce and strong, and very weary, and to sleep the dead sleep of men who live only as weak mortals do."

Therefore he raised his voice, and called very loud: "Pan's music is sweeter and truer and greater than the music of Apollo. Pan is the victor, and I, King Midas, give him the victor's crown!"

With scorn ineffable the sun-god turned upon Midas, his peasant's face transfigured by his proud decision. For a little he gazed at him in silence, and his look might have turned a sunbeam to an icicle.

Then he spoke:

"The ears of an ass have heard my music," he said. "Henceforth shall Midas have ass's ears."

And when Midas, in terror, clapped his hands to his crisp black hair, he found growing far beyond it, the long, pointed ears of an ass. Perhaps what hurt him most, as he fled away, was the shout of merriment that came from Pan. And fauns and nymphs and satyrs echoed that shout most joyously.

Willingly would he have hidden in the woods, but there he found no hiding-place. The trees and shrubs and flowering things seemed to shake in cruel mockery. Back to his court he went and sent for the court hairdresser, that he might bribe him to devise a covering for these long, peaked, hairy symbols of his folly. Gladly the hairdresser accepted many and many oboli, many and many golden gifts, and all Phrygia wondered, while it copied, the strange headdress of the king.

But although much gold had bought his silence, the court barber was unquiet of heart. All day and all through the night he was tormented by his weighty secret. And then, at length, silence was to him a torture too great to be borne; he sought a lonely place, there dug a deep hole, and, kneeling by it, softly whispered to the damp earth: "King Midas has ass's ears."

Greatly relieved, he hastened home, and was well content until, on the spot where his secret lay buried, rushes grew up. And when the winds blew through them, the rushes whispered for all those who passed by to hear: "King Midas has ass's ears! King Midas has ass's ears!" Those who listen very carefully to what the green rushes in marshy places whisper as the wind passes through them, may hear the same thing to this day. And those who hear the whisper of the rushes may, perhaps, give a pitying thought to Midas—the tragic comedian of mythology.