The Legend of King Midas is an ancient cautionary tale about greed and how foolish decisions related to it can lead to problems both big and small.
Surprisingly, the Phrygian people, who this tale was based on, were a materialistic society that did not frown upon greed itself, rather seeing it as an acceptable virtue. However, what the Phrygians appeared to have an issue with was the foolishness and excessiveness that sometimes accompanies greed and can lead to terrible consequences. The story of King Midas lives on today and remains popular, often referenced in writings and lectures as a teaching point for young children and adults alike.
Midas, to the Greeks, and Mita, to the Assyrians, was a famous and ancient king in the land of Phrygia. Believed to be the offspring of King Gordias and Kybele, a Phrygian goddess of nature, Midas was in the early or mid eighth century B.C. and ruled towards the end of that century.
Much of what we know of Midas’ true story predominantly comes from ancient Greek records as well as mythical legends that grew from these. Midas’ father and Midas are credited with founding the Phrygian Dynasty and Midas’ reign was thought to be the beginning of a golden age for Phrygia. Historical evidence shows that Midas killed himself in the late eighth century B.C. after the Cimmerians sacked his city. Phrygia, however, still continued to thrive for many years after until being completely vanquished by the Lydians and then broken into into many separate empires.
Phrygia was located in present-day Turkey in the Anatolia region. Today, its architecture and ruins can still be found, including burial mounds found in Gordion, Ankara, and Elmali, including the infamous tumulus burial mound known as “Midas Mound”. In these ruins, many varieties of Phrygian artifacts were discovered, such as their common brass vessels, wooden furniture, and pots of detailed designs featuring artwork of their polytheistic religion, geometric designs, or animals. These artifacts are often of high quality showing the Phrygians appreciated artistic skill and went to great lengths to acquire and enjoy the finer things in life.Interestingly enough, Greece and Phrygia were located very close to one another, allowing Phrygian culture to borrow many aspects of the Greek world. These included the Greek alphabet, musical knowledge, and art styles. This happened after Midas married a Greek princess, likely increasing the Greek cultural influence in Phrygia. This may also have included the Greeks’ acceptance of greed as an acceptable drive to better oneself through acquiring wealth.
King Midas is most well-known for being the main character in the story The Golden Touch. In this story, he is often depicted as having the ears of an ass, a symbol of foolishness and warning to the listener or reader. In this ancient Greek story, King Midas saved a Satyr and for his help, was granted a wish from Dionysus, the god of wine. Midas was greedy and loved gold so his wish was the “golden touch,” meaning anything he touched would turn into gold. Although warned by Dionysus that this may be a consequential wish, Midas, filled with greed, insisted he wanted it.
With the magic touch, he began touching a variety of items, immediately turning them into gold. Soon, however, he got hungry and picked up his food, but to his dismay it turned to gold before he could eat it. Realizing it may not have been the greatest thing to wish for, he moaned. Seeing her father’s pain, Midas’ daughter embraced him but then she also turned to gold.
Midas’ greedy foolishness cost him his daughter, something more valuable than gold. Shocked, Midas ran to a river and cried. The river’s sand then turned to “fool’s gold”, a direct reference to his foolishness from extreme greed. It is said that Midas, there, washed the wish of golden touch out with his tears. However, this is just one of the many variations of this story, but all follow a similar outline.
What this legend showed was that greed did not ruin Midas, rather greedy excessiveness and short-sighted decisions did. Kings who get wealthy are celebrated in Greece and Phrygia. Art and beautiful objects, as seen through ancient artifacts, were appreciated and highly regarded. This shows the Phrygian culture was accepting of greed. However, what the Legend of King Midas is actually shows us is that being foolish and taking things too far is something Greeks and Phrygians wanted to avoid.
It is a lesson that even in our super materialistic society today we can learn from. According to the Greeks and Phrygians, it is alright to be greedy, but you must be careful what you wish for.