MIDAS

BY H. P. MASKELL

Once upon a time there was born to Gordius, King of Phrygia, a son whom he named Midas. While this son was an infant in his cradle the ants were seen to creep in and put grains of golden wheat into his mouth. From this the wise men foretold that he would be exceeding rich and miserly, and choked with riches.

When Midas grew up to manhood and succeeded his father as king, it was soon proved that the seers were true prophets. He loved wealth and riches for their own sake. Merchants were sent far and wide to trade in all kinds of produce, and brought back their gains to swell his coffers. He caused mines to be dug for the precious metals. As fast as the money came in he invested it again in new ventures, and everything he undertook succeeded. Hence the saying arose: "All that Midas touches turns into gold."

Now it happened that Silenus, the foster-father of Bacchus, had wandered into Phrygia, and being an old man and overcome with wine—he was a terrible toper—the rustics used him roughly; and when he was sober they bound him with cords and took him as a prisoner to Midas. The king had been taught the rites of Bacchus, and as soon as he recognized Silenus, he rebuked the ignorant rustics and treated him with great honor, ordaining a special festival of ten days and ten nights to celebrate the visit of his guest. Bacchus, meanwhile, had been mourning the loss of his tutor. In gratitude to Midas for restoring his foster-father and preserving him from insult, he gave Midas the choice of any favor he desired.

"All I desire," replied Midas, "is to be the richest king on earth. Make that a truth which men say about me, that everything I touch shall turn to gold."

"You might have asked for something better," murmured the god, with a sigh. "But as you wish, so shall it be."

Scarcely able to believe it could be true, Midas hurried away to test the reality of his good fortune. An oak grew by the roadside. He took hold of a small twig; it was a twig of gold. He picked up a clod of earth; it was no longer clay, but a huge nugget. Passing through a cornfield, all the ears that brushed against his hand became ears of gold. Plucking an apple from a tree, it was at once like to the golden apple that Paris gave to Venus.

When he reached his palace and put his hand upon the doorpost, the wood turned yellow and glistened at his touch. The basin in which he washed his hands became a golden bowl, filled to the brim with gold-dust.

"Now, indeed," he cried with joy, "wealth and power are mine. My riches will be endless. Thanks be given to the gods for this most wonderful and precious of all gifts. What in the world is better than gold?"

While he was thus rejoicing, his servants entered and spread the table for a banquet. He seated himself and took a piece of bread in his hand. But it was no longer bread; it was hard, solid gold. He seized a goblet of wine, but to no purpose; he could not quench his thirst with a stream of gold! Too late he saw his folly. The richest man on earth, he was doomed to die of hunger and thirst. Nothing on earth was so useless to him as his gold!

Raising his hands towards heaven, he implored the pardon of the gods. "Have mercy on me, for I repent me of my greed; have pity and deliver me from this awful curse!"

Bacchus, seeing that he was cured of his sordid folly, took pity on him, and showed him how the baneful gift could be got rid of. "Go to Sardis," said he, "and track the river to its well-head. Plunge thy head beneath the bubbling spring, and purge thyself from the curse." The king hastened to bathe in the spring, and so gained relief: the golden virtue left the human body and entered into the water. And even now the sands of Pactolus glitter with grains of gold-dust.


After this stern lesson, Midas no longer cared to go on amassing riches, but turned his attention to country sports and to music. Sad to tell, however, his folly and conceit led to trouble even in this, for he was but a sorry musician, and yet he set up for being a virtuoso. Some nymphs had listened with pleasure to Pan playing on his rustic reeds, and persuaded the minstrel to challenge Apollo, God of Music, to a contest. Old Tmolus, the ruler of the mountain, agreed to act as umpire. Pan's music was rude and uncouth; but when Apollo touched the strings of his lyre his very posture showed the master's skill, and so sweet were the notes that all present agreed with the decision that to Apollo the prize must be given. Midas alone protested that the judgment was unfair, and that Pan's music was superior. As a fit punishment for his crass stupidity Apollo caused his ears to grow longer and longer, with gray hairs all over them, and twitching like the ears of an ass. Midas fled away amid the laughter of the deities and nymphs, and as quickly as possible concealed his disgrace under a thick turban.

None of the people of Phrygia had been present at the musical contest, and for a long time Midas succeeded in hiding the shameful deformity from his subjects. However, the barber who trimmed his hair was obliged to know of it. He did not dare tell any one what he had seen; yet he found it harder every day to keep such a secret to himself. At last, as the only way he could conceive to relieve his mind of the burden, he went into a distant field, dug a hole in the ground, and whispered into it, "Midas has ass's ears." Then he shoveled the earth back, having delivered himself, and yet, as he thought, buried the secret quite safely.

A year passed. A clump of reeds had grown on the spot where the fatal secret lay buried. The reeds rustled gently as they were stirred by the south wind, and the goatherds passing by with their flocks were drawn to the place by the strange sounds that arose. The reeds seemed to be whispering the story one to another: "Midas has ass's ears."

And the wind carried the news to the reeds on the thatched sheds of the farm, so that they were soon quivering to tell their tale—when the farmer came in to supper, his goodwife called to him: "Such a funny saying has been running in my head all day—where it comes from is a mystery: 'Midas has ass's ears.'"

The flowers told it to the trees, and the trees told it to the birds. Men and women learnt it they knew not how, but all who heard it found themselves forced by some mysterious impulse to repeat it to their neighbors, till all through the land of Phrygia rang the strange tidings: "Midas has ass's ears!"

The hunger for gold may be cured, if taken in time; but not even a god can cure one who has ass's ears and lets the secret out.