Midas was king in Phrygia, which is a land in Asia Minor, and he was both powerful and rich. Nevertheless he was foolish, obstinate, and hasty, without the sense to appreciate good advice.
It happened one time that Dionysus with his dancing nymphs and satyrs passed through Phrygia. As they went, the old, fat Silenus nodding on his ass strayed from the others, who danced on without missing him. The ass took his half-conscious master wherever he wanted, until some hours later as they came to a great rose garden, the old man tumbled off. The king’s gardeners found him there and roused him, still sleepy and staggering, not quite sure who or where he was. Since, however, the revels of Dionysus had spread throughout the land, they recognized him as the god’s companion and made much of him. They wreathed his neck with roses and, one on each side and one behind, they supported him to the palace and up the steps, while another went to fetch Midas.
The king came out to meet Silenus, overjoyed at the honor done him. He clapped his hands for his servants and de- manded such a feast as never was. There was much running to and fro and setting up of tables, fetching of wine, and bringing up of sweet scented oil. While slaves festooned the hall with roses and made garlands for the feasters, Midas conducted his guest to the bath with all honor, that he might refresh himself and put on clean garments for the feast.
A magnificent celebration followed. For ten days by day-light and by torchlight the palace of the king stood open, and all the notables of Phrygia came up and down its steps. There was sound of lyre and pipe, and singing. There was dancing. Everywhere the scent of roses and of wine mingled with the costly perfumes of King Midas in the hot summer air. In ten days’ time, as the revels were dying down from sheer exhaustion, Dionysus came in person to seek his friend. When he found how Silenus had been entertained and honored, he was greatly pleased and promised Midas any gift he cared to name, no matter what it was.
The king thought a little, glancing back through his doors at the chaos in his hall of scattered rose petals, overturned tables, bowls for the wine-mixing, and drinking cups. It had been a good feast, the sort of feast a king should give, only he was very weary now and could not think. A king should entertain thus and give kingly presents to his guests, cups of beaten gold, such as he had seen once with lifelike pictures of a hunt running round them, or the golden honeycomb which Daedalus made exactly as though it were the work of bees.
Gods like these guests should have golden Statues. Even a king never had enough.
“Give me,” he said to Dionysus suddenly, “the power to turn all I touch to gold.”
“That is a rash thing to ask,” said Dionysus solemnly. “Think again.” But eastern kings are never contradicted, and Midas only felt annoyed.
“It is my wish,’ he answered coldly. Dionysus nodded. “You shall have it,” he said. “As you part from me here in the garden, it shall be yours.”
Midas was so excited when he came back through the garden that he could not make up his mind what to touch first. Presently he decided on the branch of an oak tree which overhung his path. He took a look at it first, counting the leaves, noticing the little veins in them, the jagged edges, the fact that one of them had been eaten half away. He put out his hand to break it off. He never saw it change. One moment it was brown and green; the next it wasn’t. There it was, stiff and shining, nibbled leaf and all. It was hard and satisfyingly heavy and more natural far than anything Daedalus ever made.
Now he was the greatest king in the world. Midas looked down at the grass he was walking over. It was still green; the touch was evidently in his hands. He picked up a stone to see; it became a lump of gold. He tried a clod of earth and found himself with another lump. Midas was beside himself with joy; he went into his palace to see what he could do. In the doorway he stopped at a sudden thought. He went outside again and walked down all the long row of pillars, laying his hands on each one. No king in the world had pillars of solid gold. He considered having a gold house but re- jected the idea; the gold pillars looked better against the stone. Midas picked a gold apple and went inside again to eat.
His servants set his table for him, and he amused himself by turning the cups and dishes into gold. He touched the table too by mistake – not that it really mattered, but he would have to be careful. Absently he picked up a piece of bread and bit it and nearly broke his teeth. Midas sat with the golden bread in his hand and looked at it a long time. He was horribly frightened. “I shall have to eat it without touching it with my hands,”‘ he said to himself after a while, and he put his head down on the table and tried that way. It was no good. The moment his lips touched the bread, he felt it turn hard and cold. In his shock he groped wildly for his winecup and took a big gulp. The stuff flowed into his mouth all right, but it wasn’t wine any more. He spat it out hastily before he choked himself. This time he was more than frightened; he was desperate. “Great Dionysus,” he prayed earnestly with uplifted hands, “forgive my foolishness and take away your gift.”
“Go to the mountain of Tmolus,” said the voice of the god in his ear, “and bathe in the stream that springs there so that the golden touch may be washed away. The next time think more carefully before you set your judgment against that of the gods.”
Midas thanked the god with his whole heart, but he paid more attention to his promise than to his advice. He lost no time in journeying to the mountain and dipping himself in the stream. There the golden touch was washed away from Midas, but the sand of the river bottom shone bright gold as the power passed into the water, so that the stream flowed over golden sand from that time on.
Midas had learned his lesson in a way, but was still conceited. He had realized at least that gold was not the most important thing. Indeed, having had too much gold at one time, he took a violent dislike to it and to luxury in general. He spent his time in the open country now, listening to the music of the streams and the woodlands, while his kingdom ran itself as best it might. He wanted neither his elaborate palace, his embroidered robes, his splendid feasts, nor his trained dancers and musicians. Instead he wished to be at home in the woodlands with simple things which were natural and unspoiled.
It happened at the time that in the woods of Tmolus the goat god Pan had made himself a pipe. It was a simple hollow reed with holes for stops cut in it, and the god played simple tunes on it like bird calls and the various noises of the animals he had heard. Only he was very skillful and could play them fast and slow, mixed together or repeated, until the listener felt that the woods themselves were alive with little creatures. The birds and beasts made answer to the pipe so that it seemed the whole wood was an orchestra of music. Midas himself was charmed to ecstasy with the beauty of it, and begged the shaggy god to play hour by hour till the very birds were weary of the calls. This Pan was quite ready to do, since he was proud of his invention. He even wanted to challenge Apollo himself, sure that any judge would put his instrument above Apollo’s golden lyre.
Apollo accepted the challenge, and Tmolus, the mountain, was himself to be the judge. Tmolus was naturally a woodland god and friendly to Pan, so he listened with solemn pleasure as the pipe trilled airs more varied and more natural than it had ever played before. The woods echoed, and the happy Midas, who had followed Pan to the contest, was almost beside himself with delight at the gaiety and abandon of it all. When, however, Tmolus heard Apollo play the music of gods and heroes, of love, longing, heroism, and the mighty dead, he forgot his own woods around him, and the animals listening in their tiny nests and holes. He seemed to see into the hearts of men and understand the pity of their lives and the beauty that they longed for.
Even after the song had died away, Tmolus sat there in forgetful silence with his thoughts on the loves and struggles of the ages and the half-dried tears on his cheeks. There was a great quiet around him too, he realized, as he came to his senses. Even Pan had put down his pipe thoughtfully on the grass.
Tmolus gave the prize to Apollo, and in the whole woodland there was no one to protest but Midas. Midas had shut his ears to Apollo; he would neither listen nor care. Now he forgot where he was and in whose presence. All he remembered was that he was a great king who always gave his opinion and who, his courtiers told him, was always right. Leaping up, he protested loudly to Tmolus and was not even quiet when the mountain silently frowned on him. Getting no answer, he turned to Apollo, still objecting furiously to the unfairness of the judgment.
Apollo looked the insistent mortal up and down. “The fault is in your ears, O king. We must give them their true shape,” he said. With that he turned away and was gone to Olympus, while the unfortunate Midas put his hands to his ears and found them long and furry. He could even wriggle them about. Apollo had given him asses’ ears in punishment for his folly.
From that time on King Midas wore a scarlet turban and tried to make it seem as though wearing this were a privilege that only the king could enjoy. He wore it day and night, he was so fond of it. Presently, however, his hair began to grow so long and straggly that something had to be done. The royal barber had to be called.
The barber of King Midas was a royal slave, so it was easy enough to threaten him with the most horrible punishment if, whether waking or sleeping, he ever let fall the slightest hint of what was wrong with the king. The barber was thoroughly frightened. Unfortunately he was too frightened, and the king’s threats preyed on his mind. He began to dream he had told his secret to somebody, and what was worse, his fellow servants began to complain that he was making noises in his sleep, so that he was desperately afraid he would talk. At last it seemed that if he could only tell somebody once and get it over, his mind would be at rest. Yet tell somebody was just what he dared not do. Finally, he went down to a meadow which was seldom crossed because it was waterlogged, and there, where he could see there was no one round to hear him, he dug a hole in the ground, put his face close down, and whispered into the wet mud, “King Midas has ‘asses’ ears.” Then he threw some earth on top and went away, feeling somehow much relieved.
Nothing happened for a while except that the hole filled up with water. Presently, though, some reeds began to grow in it. They grew taller and rustled as the wind went through them. After a while someone happened to go down that way and came racing back, half amused and half terrified. Everyone crowded round to listen to him. It was certainly queer, but it was a bit amusing too.
Everybody streamed down the path to investigate. Sure enough, as they came close to it, they could hear the whole thing distinctly. The reeds were not rustling in the wind; they were whispering to one another, “King Midas has asses’ ears ….asses’ ears……asses’ ears.”‘