Enjoy the stories that remind us of King Midas’ foolishness, as written by Andrew, and illustrated by Janyce, that we told at Bard College during the Symposium last May, while we keep on searching for partners willing to help our project. I hope you’ll like it as much as the children!
This is a story from a time when gods walked on earth and looked as human as you or I. They spoke to people, and gave them gifts, and sometimes they punished them. Other times the gifts they gave were more punishment than gift…
Once upon a time, there was a mighty king named Midas, about whom two stories are told.
Midas ruled a rich and powerful kingdom, and lived in a beautiful palace. He lived a comfortable life with every kind of enjoyment, but he was never satisfied. Always Midas wished for more, more, more. Once upon a time, he got his chance to have it.
One day, when he was walking in his royal gardens, Midas was very surprised to find someone fast asleep in the rose bushes! He was even more surprised to see that it was a satyr, a creature that looked like a man but with the legs and horns of a goat. But King Midas was even more surprised when he realized that he knew this satyr. It was Silenus, his old friend and teacher, whom he had not seen in many years. Midas woke Silenus up, and the two old friends greeted each other warmly. When Midas asked what Silenus was doing in the rosebushes, the satyr explained that he had gotten lost and become separated from the other satyrs and their master Bacchus, who is the god of wine and revelry. When he tried to find them, Silenus had gotten even more lost, until finally he had fallen asleep in Midas’ garden. Midas knew that Bacchus and his satyrs loved to travel all across the earth, but it was not long before he figured out where they could be found and brought his old friend Silenus back to them.
Bacchus was glad to have Silenus back in his company, and he asked Midas what gift he would like in return for reuniting them. “I will grant you whatever reward you wish for,” he said. “Just ask and it shall be yours.”
Midas thought long and hard. He already was king, and he already had his palace and his servants and his mountains of treasure and riches. But Midas was never satisfied. He wanted more, more, more. Much more than a single wish could get him. Unless—
Midas said to the god, “For my reward, I ask that you make everything I touch turn into gold!”
And the god Bacchus granted his wish.
Midas hurried home to his palace, hardly able to believe what had just occurred. As soon as he reached the royal gardens, he snapped a twig off a nearby branch. Instantly the twig turned to gold in his hands. He bent down to pick up pebbles from the ground; each one he touched became solid gold. He called his royal treasurer to inspect the twig and the pebbles and the man confirmed that yes, they were indeed real, solid gold.
Midas was overjoyed! He ran through the gardens touching rocks, flowers, even whole trees and bushes, turning each one in turn to gold. I must be the luckiest man in the world, Midas thought—and the happiest! Now I will be richer than all the other kings of the world put together! All that running made King Midas hungry, so he decided to sit down to eat lunch. He called to his servants and asked them to bring him food and drink. But here, Midas noticed something he had not thought of before.
Whenever he placed a piece of food in his mouth, it turned to gold! Worse, when he raised his glass to his lips, the liquid inside hardened and became gold as well. No matter how many times he asked his servants to bring him a new plate, no matter how quickly he tried to eat or drink, it was impossible. It all became as golden as the stones he had picked up from the ground.
Midas quickly began to realize that his gift was really a curse. Yes, he was now the richest man in the world, but he was also the hungriest and thirstiest. Thanks to the god’s reward he could never eat or drink again. And, he realized, he could never play with his children or hug his wife again either, or they would become golden statues. How could he have been so foolish? Midas cried, realizing his mistake, and even his tears became gold as they rolled down his cheeks.
Ashamed of his greed, the king lay down to sleep that night. His bed and pillow and sheets, of course, turned to gold. Lying on his cold, hard golden bed, he prayed to Bacchus to remove the curse. “I promise I will never be so foolish again!” he said to the god. “Now I know that all the gold in the world is not what will make me happy.”
That night, Bacchus came to Midas in a dream. He told him to wash himself in the River Pactolus. The king went there as soon as he awoke, stripped off his clothes and dived into the waters. As soon as he entered the river, all the power he had wished for from Bacchus flowed into its waters, turning the sand on its banks into gold. At one time Midas would have filled his pockets with the golden sand and taken it back to his treasure-rooms, but now he left the River Pactolus without turning back, glad to be rid of the terrible power.
Midas returned home to his palace a wiser man; but he was not out of trouble yet.
There is another story told about Midas and the gods.
Sometime after Midas had learned his lesson about the value of gold, he was asked to be the judge of a music contest. But this was no ordinary competition; it was to be between another satyr, whose name was Marsyas, and Apollo, the god of music himself. Proud Marsyas had boasted that he was a better musician than the god of music; Apollo, of course, had disagreed. The satyr and the god had decided to hold a contest to settle their argument once and for all, and each of them was allowed to choose one person to serve as a judge.
Apollo chose Tmolus, a minor god of the mountains. And Marsyas, knowing Midas to be a great friend of the satyrs, chose the mortal king.
The satyr and the god began to play. Apollo had his lyre, a stringed instrument something like a harp, while Marsyas had his thin reed pipes. Tmolus voted for Apollo, of course. But Midas, because he was friends with the satyrs and loved their music, voted for Marsyas.
Apollo was furious. How did this mortal dare to say that a hairy-legged satyr beat the god of music at his own art? “You, Midas, have no taste!” cried Apollo. “You must have the ears of a donkey if you think Marysas is better than me!”
And Apollo turned Midas’ ears into the long, furry ears of a donkey.
Midas was terribly embarrassed. How could he appear in public before his people with these big donkey ears? What would the kings of other lands say when they found out? No one would ever take him seriously again. He managed to get back inside the palace without anyone seeing him, and from that day forward he was seen wearing a large, heavy turban at all times. His subjects and the kings of other lands often remarked on it. “Where did King Midas get that strange hat, and why does he insist on wearing it all the time?”
Nobody knew the truth except for Midas himself—and one other man. Donkey ears or no donkey ears, Midas had hair just like any other man, and like any other man’s it needed to be cut. He waited as long as he possibly could, but eventually, he needed a haircut. Midas called the royal barber, who asked to remove his mysterious headgear. Once he was sure they were totally alone, Midas did so, and the barber learned the secret of the king’s long ears.
When the barber had finished cutting Midas’ hair, Midas forced him to promise that he would never, ever tell anyone about the king’s ears, or Midas would have him killed, or send him away to a far-off place from which he would never return.
But the secret was too big for one man to contain. Soon enough the barber found he was desperate to tell the secret. He just had to! But he had promised Midas not to tell anyone… Eventually, the barber couldn’t hold it in any longer. But he tried to keep his promise by not telling any other person the secret. The barber went out into a field, dug a hole in the dirt, and whispered into the earth itself, “King Midas has donkey’s ears.”
Time passed, and reeds grew up over the place where the barber had dug a hole and told the secret. When the wind blew through them, you could hear them sighing. And imagine Midas’ surprise when, as the reeds and grasses of the meadow where the barber had told the secret whispered in the breeze, they spoke these words:
“King Midas has donkey’s ears…King Midas has donkey’s ears…”
We’ll come back very soon with new information concerning our progress on the realization of the project!