According to Greek legend, Midas was a king of Phrygia, a kingdom in central Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). The Greeks told several stories about Midas, and in them he appeared rather foolish. The most familiar tale, that of his golden touch, illustrates the motto “Be careful what you wish for.”
According to this story, Midas captured Silenus, a companion of the god Dionysus, either by getting Silenus drunk or by luring him into a magnificent rose garden. Midas later released Silenus. In gratitude for Silenus’s freedom, Dionysus granted Midas a wish. The king immediately wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. Midas’s excitement over his new ability was short-lived, however, when he discovered that he could neither eat nor drink—everything he tried to consume turned to gold. To rid himself of the golden touch, Midas bathed in a magical river. From that day forward, that river’s sands contained gold dust.
Midas had a second unfortunate encounter with the gods when he judged a music contest between Apollo and Pan. The king declared Pan the better musician. This outraged Apollo—who was, among other things, the god of music—and the angry god replaced Midas’s ears with the ears of a donkey. The embarrassed Midas wore a turban to cover his disgraceful ears, and only his barber knew about them. Desperate to tell the secret, the barber finally whispered it into a hole in the ground. But reeds grew over the hole, and whenever the wind blew, the reeds whispered the king’s secret: “Midas has donkey’s ears.”
A real king named Midas or Mita ruled Phrygia in the late 700s B.C. Greek storytellers may have attached his name to their comic tales. The stories of Midas lived on for centuries, and Ovid, a poet of the early Roman Empire, retold them in his book Metamorphoses. (See also Gold; Myths, Greek.)