Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Midas Touch

What we do in the heat of the moment can very often be the thing which defines a person. Often it is in such moments that decisions are made which can make or break a person. One who is too readily slave to the passions will crumble. One such man was Midas, whose story more than any other issues the dire warning - Be careful what you wish for...

Drunken Silenus
Painting by Peter Paul Rubens
Long ago in most ancient times, the satyrs and nymphs, servants of the wine god Bacchus, came from far and wide in the country to honour their god of the grape. Great was the party, and greater still the revelry. The dances rose, and the wine flowed, and Bacchus was appeased. When the fell rites at last saw an end, the inebriated spirits retreated to the shadows. All but one. For, after the night's indulgences, the aged Silenus, feeble with age and wine, had lost his way. The drunkard collapsed in a field, paralytic from drink, and as the Sun rose, mortal men soon spotted him. For he slept in the pastures of deepest Anatolia, where in such days there was once a powerful kingdom known as Phrygia. Ruling the great city of Pessinus was her King, Midas, son of Gordias, a poor farmer, and the goddess Cybele. The Phrygians, puzzled by their intoxicated guest, bound him in chains, and brought him before their dread sovereign. But Midas was a learned man, schooled in the ways of the Olympians, and saw the rites of the debauched god. Seeing the pedigree of his strange guest, however depraved he might be, Midas welcomed Silenus to his court. The King treated the spirit kindly, declaring a feast in honour of Bacchus. For ten days and nights festivity reigned, in merriment and in joy, and Midas honoured all good bonds between host and guest. The eleventh came, and Midas faithfully lead the catatonic spirit back to the fields, and the welcoming arms of his deity. That day the god of wine, Bacchus himself, stalked Phrygian fields, in search of his kin, father as he was to them. Hearing the exuberance of the extravaganza, the god saw Silenus seated there, pride of place before the Phrygian court, and the god was pleased. Entering the royal pastures in all his divine glory, Bacchus came to the suppliant King, and kindly was his gaze. Bacchus spoke to Midas, and offered him one wish, unbound by limit, that he might reward the kindness of the mortal King. Midas, his might racing at this mighty gift, alas that he delayed not to think! The King, seeing visions of bounty beyond dreams, burst out:

         " 'Give me' says he, nor thought he asked too much,
            That with my body whatsoe'er I touch,
            Chang'd from the nature which it held of old,
            May be as yellow gold... "
                    - THE WISH OF MIDAS

Bacchus, son of Zeus, frowned, disappointment clear upon his Olympian face. Unimpressed, yet true to his word, the god granted Midas his fatal wish, though deep inside did he think a fool no better wish could find. At Bacchus' command, all things would transform at the King's touch. Wood, metal and all other things now became as gold at Midas' touch. His pact honoured, the wine god departed those lands, spirited away to Mount Olympus, knowing the folly that had now been unleashed.

In the moment, however, Midas was ecstatic to the core. Wide was his smile, and high were his leaps of triumph, as he paraded through his realm. Too excited to delay, "down from a lowly branch a twig he drew, the twig strait glitter'd with a golden hue: he takes a stone, the stone was turn'd to gold; a clod he touched, and the crumbling mold acknowledg'd soon the great transforming pow'r...". The King cast his eye far and wide, all consuming greed taking his mind in its vice like grip. Into the meadows he went, and over the sheaves of corn his fingers did he run. His grasp emerged, ears of dazzling gold shining. To the orchards next he dashed, plucking an apple from on high. He stoops to look upon his succulent prize, but lush it is no longer, for now it seems of bright Hesperian gold, as that fruit which accursed Paris scorned of old. Returning to the palace, hewn of magnificent marble columns high. Carelessly, he layed his fatal hands upon the gate, a flash, and with shining gold the fluted pillars blaze. Feeling warm from the day's activity, the King moves to bathe in soothing waters. Into amphorae the servants take the ice cold stream, and over the King do they pour, but in vain, for at his touch the water is as Danae's shower. To see these spectacles of nature strange, fire Midas like never before. His realm would be the greatest in all the world, a realm of gold itself. What could possibly stand before him now, what could possibly be the folly of such a mighty gift? Not far beyond did the King have to look to see the answer plain.

Midas's Daughter
Illustration by Walter Crane
Overjoyed at his omnipotence, the King declared a sumptuous feast, celebrating the eternal wealth of his land, with guests invited from far and wide. Spread with glorious meats, cheeses, fruits and the bounty of the earth was the table, and the hunger stricken King sat down at once. Reaching eagerly for a nearby plate, Midas raises it to his mouth, "whose pow'rful hands the bread no sooner hold, but its whole substance is transform'd to gold". Shocked to his soul, Midas reached desperately for the delicious meat on his other side. But no! That too is now as a nugget of purest gold. Fearful now, his seizes his goblet, now gold, and drinks deeply of the grape. but, "touch'd by his lips, a gilded cordial grew; unfit for drink, and wondrous to behold, it trickles from his jaws fluid gold". Terror cold his body now did flood, as starvation now stalked Midas, and Death close behind, scythe raised to claim the foolish King. But worse was to come, for in that moment a great cry of joy rang in the halls. The daughter of the King, overjoyed to see her father returned from his travels, ran across the hall to embrace him. Before Midas could react, she threw herself into his lethal arms. With a scream of anguish, the King looked on, powerless to help, as the girl's warm flesh was now hard, cold, and gold, a statue now. All present recoiled in fear from the King, fearful of his 'gift'.

Midas pleas to Bacchus
Painting by Nicolas Poussin
To his knees did Midas fall, wracked with grief and guilt raw. "Starving in all his various plenty lies, sick of his wish, he now detests the pow'r, for which he ask'd so earnestly before". The pain of loss, mingled with the agony of famine struck the King now, tortured too by dreadful thirst. Tearing from the now gilded halls of his golden court, Midas fled into the hills, tears shining as the sun. After a long time of wretched grief, he casts his eyes about. It is the very same pasture whence the god had granted this cursed gift. Throwing his arms to Heaven, the King threw himself upon the mercy of Bacchus. " 'Oh father Bacchus, I have sinn'd', he cried, 'and foolishly thy gracious gift apply'd! Thy pity now, repenting, I implore; Oh! may I feel the golden plague no more". Pity it was that moved Bacchus to his salvation, as the wine god saw his suffering. The voice of the god rang in Midas' ears, as the gift was swept aside and cruel metamorphosis stayed its hand. Bidding the weary King to the river near, Bacchus released all things from their golden gaol. Into the stream Midas plunged, and the gift of gold washed away with the rapids. The evil stain was washed away, though ever after were the riverbeds of Asia golden in their hue. From its curing fount all things were restored, and the King's daughter was statue no more, but adoring daughter as before. Too happy to speak, Midas thanked Bacchus in his heart, and a better man Midas ever after was, though never ceasing was his hatred of wealth...

United Kingdom

The Metamorphoses
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A Roman epic poem, telling many of the myths of the Classical world)

United States

The Metamorphoses

Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A Roman epic poem, telling many of the myths of the Classical world)

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