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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD Clinical Psychology, DPhil., MA (History)

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The Midas Touch: Gift or Curse?

Paul Kiritsis - Friday, January 20, 2012

When one is told that they possess the Midas touch, what is being inferred is that they are harbingers of good luck and serendipity, or proliferators of ‘gold’. Many people would have heard this figure of speech being used in conversation, though it is impossible to understand without knowledge of the beautiful myth which underpins the saying. The tale itself, retold here in my own way, first appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

 

One might think of King Midas of Phrygia as the universal archetype of an imprudent and senseless man who temporarily succeeded in plunging neck-deep in the sugar-laid oppressive opulence of unprecedented riches, but as good old’ Mother Nature would have it, was robbed of the chance to enjoy their far-reaching material merits primarily because his intellectual capacity and ability to reason was vastly limited. The story of King Midas serves to illuminate the ironic tragedy at the heart of the human condition and bring to our collective consciousness the unusually high incidence of human stupidity. Moreover it offers a reverberating moral, that being that the acquisition of affluence means absolutely nothing if its inheritor is mentally and spiritually ungrounded, or void of the astute and adroit judgement so characteristic of intellectual thought.  

Midas was blessed because he had been raised in Phrygia, the land of milk and honey. The latter was like the womb of the Earth Mother; even the stubbornest plants and trees which might demand very explicit weather conditions for growth would take root there. Phrygia’s floral emblem was the rose, and rightfully so, given that the famed flower grew there in profusion. Midas’s palace was decked in lush gardens containing roses of every shape, size and description. There were rusty and scarlet five-petalled reds, golden yellows, inbred blues, coral pinks, and creamy virgin whites. Even more remarkable was the intoxicating fragrance that emanated from them; walking through the labyrinth pathways that circumscribed the gardens was akin to experiencing nitrogen narcosis when one dived down into the cavernous depths of the sea.

One afternoon, whilst Midas’s servants were out and about enacting their usual maintenance duties, they discovered an elderly man sleeping amongst a grove of roses. They aptly came to the conclusion that he was a casualty of the Dionysiac rites that had transpired the evening before. The intoxication intrinsic to the Dionysiac way had robbed him of his noonday senses and had severed him from the long train of orgiastic dancers that passed near the Midian gardens tracing out invisible S-bends and meanders in the early hours of the morning. Wishing to amuse and impress their king, the servants garnered a spectacle fit for royal eyes by entwining the drunken man in rose garlands and decking him in a crown of bird feathers. They proceeded to hoist him to his feet and carry him to Midas’s royal chambers in a semi-conscious state. The only thing that issued from the elderly man’s mouth during the small pilgrimage to the palace was a verbal sandwich of “ous” and ‘ahs”, and the occasional groan. Miraculously the servants succeeded in extracting a name–Silenus, or old Silenus, as the vast majority of the townsfolk identified him.

Midas, himself a self-proclaimed adherent and avid fan of the Dionysiac rites, found Silenus to be immensely flamboyant and entertaining, and decided on the spur of the moment to accommodate him in the residential quarters of his palace as an honoured guest. About ten days elapsed before the novelty of his newfound entertainment had worn off, at which time Midas happily agreed to escort the old Silenus back to the gargantuan grapevines in northern Phrygia, Dionysus’s corporeal home. Midas had never been in the presence of a god before, so one can imagine his surprise and awe at seeing the divinity suddenly acquire anthropomorphic form from a clump of grapes that dangled from a colossal vine to his side.     

“Thanks for bringing back one of my most faithful proselytes,” said Dionysus.

“No problems.” Midas said, smiling.

“No, thank you,” he said, stepping forward and putting a hand on his shoulder. “And to show you how grateful I am, I shall bestow any gift your heart desires.”

“Are you for real?” Midas’s eyes widened. “You’re not just pulling my leg, are you?”

“Try me,” the god prompted.

“Anything I want?”

“Sure,” Dionysus assured.

‘Like anything?”

“Yes.”

Midas’s mouth curled up into a grin. “I want everything I touch to turn to gold.”

“You sure about that Midas?”

“Of course I’m sure,” Midas said. “Why else would I demand if I wasn’t sure?”

“Think about it.”

“I have,” Midas said. “Just do it already.”

“Fine,” Dionysus said, stepping forward and exhaling onto Midas’s face. ‘All done.”

‘What’s done?”

“What you asked,” Dionysus said. “Check it out.”

Midas was puzzled. “How?”

“Touch something Your Majesty.”

Midas reached out and touched a chair, which instantly began to phosphoresce with a golden hue. “It’s gold!”

“So it is!”

“Look at this,” he said, trudging up to a cup and putting his index finger on it. The cup’s internal composition changed instantly. “It’s made of gold now.”

“Riveting,” said Dionysus.

“You!” Midas sprinted towards a sluggish-moving lizard. “You’d make a great addition to my collection of animal statues,” he blurted, tapping the lizard on its head. “You’re gold now.”

“You have been blessed!” Dionysus ridiculed.

“Oh, for sure,” Midas said. “What else around here should I turn into gold?” Midas asked. “Gold, gold, gold!”  

“Hmm… I think your gold-making efforts have exhausted you Midas,” Dionysus teased, offering him a platter of lush grapes. ”Here’s a little something to replenish your reserves.”

“Thanks,” Midas said, taking the grapes from Dionysus. After a few seconds, his smile vanished.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well, they’re gold.”

“You like to state the obvious don’t you?” Dionysus asked.

“I can’t eat these,” said Midas.

“Not unless you render the yellow metal into a colloidal solution,” said Dionysus, taking a sip of wine from his chalice.   

“What in Zeus’s name are you talking about? Midas asked. “I need to be able to turn it off so I can eat and drink, otherwise I’ll die of thirst or starvation.”

“That wasn’t part of the deal,” Dionysus pointed out.

“I hadn’t thought about it,” Midas admitted.

“I don’t believe you encompass that possibility,” said Dionysus.

“Excuse me?”

“Thinking,” Dionysus said, taking another sip of wine. “It’s not indigenous to your being.”

“What will I do now?” Midas asked.

“Start thinking for a start,” Dionysus said. “Wishing is such a barren enterprise when it is a by-product of thoughtlessness.”

“Help me.”

“Or nonsensicalness,” Dionysus continued.

“Please help me,” said Midas, dropping to his knees.

Dionysus ignored him. “Or stupidity Midas, a quality which you express in profusion.”

“I don’t want it anymore,” said Midas.

“What? The gift or the gold you just made?”

“Both.”

“You’ll need a time-machine to go into the future and discover the secrets of colloidal gold, which is edible… drinkable I should say. There you go, problem solved.”

“‘Why are you doing this to me?” Midas asked. “I made a mistake; surely you can see and forgive that. Don’t let me starve, I beg you.”

“I’d help you, Midas but I can’t,” Dionysus informed. “Once a god bestows a divine gift or power upon a mortal it can never be retracted.”

“So I’m going to die,” said Midas “Great.”

“Look,” Dionysus said. “There is one way to jettison the gift.”

“How?”

“Go to the origin of Pactolus,” Dionysus said. “Go to the great spring which feeds that great river. Once you are there, submerge yourself entirely in its waters.”

“Will the River Pactolus take it away?”

“It will cleanse you of divine touch,” Dionysus said. “Sadly, that’s the only thing it will cleanse you of.”

‘What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Think about it,” Dionysus said. “You need to start thinking remember.”

“I will go to Pactolus,” Midas said. “Soon… tonight even.”

“Go then,” Dionysus prompted him, “and never forget that the art of wishing is an art that brings gold to the ripened intellect, one with a functioning moral compass attached to it that always points due north.”

Midas scratched his head. “Due north?”

“Yes, the direction you’ll be moving in later today and for the remainder of your life,” Dionysus said. “Literally and spiritually.”  

Through Dionysus’s kind intervention, Midas was able to jettison the gold-making gift that gradually revealed itself as a curse. What he never managed to lose though was his mental incapacity. From that perspective he never got anywhere near north. Just as a leopard may never change its spots, so too was King Midas forever bound to foolishness. Sometime after his wishing folly, Midas was approached by the Olympian godhead and asked to judge a musical contest between Apollo, the god of music, light and poetry, and Pan, the god of fertility and sexual gratification. The latter was no stranger to music and could belt out some very pleasing tribal and rustic tunes on his reed pipes, but he was often made to look amateurish and untutored before the music of the heavenly spheres spawned by the supernal Apollo. Anyone who ever heard Apollo strumming his silver lyre became entranced; his melodies were so sweet and syrupy, so harmonic and otherworldly, so readily able to evoke the spectrum of emotions, that the only compositions that could compare were those spun by the choir of the Muses.

With no faculty of higher intellect to guide him, Midas espoused an honest affinity with Pan’s performance and indicated this preference by handing him his palm. One might say that Midas’s decision explicated just how low he would have scored on a modern IQ test. Not only did he prefer a lesser, rudimentary form of musical entertainment to a lyre that sounded like the orchestra of the rotating heavenly spheres, he made the tragic mistake of unwisely electing a lesser powerful entity as his victor. Judging a lesser being as being nobler or “fairer” in appearance or ability than an Olympian was foremost of the ways one attracted to themselves the anger or vehemence of the latter. Nonetheless Apollo did not take offence at Midas’s decision for it was void of the ambrosial and intellectual commodity known as thought. He did, however, make his feelings known by changing Midas’s ears into those of an ass. Through no fault of its own and pertaining to its own intrinsic nature, the ass is an animal equipped with very limited intellectual capacity, as well as with a pair of ears untutored to higher understanding and learning that prove the rule. Given that Midas encompassed both, Apollo reasoned that he may as well adopt some of the ass’s physiognomy.  

Midas’s newfound ears embarrassed him so much that he had a hat specifically made to shroud them. Nobody ever saw them, save the poor servant responsible for his physical maintenance. On many occasions, the servant would snigger quietly to himself as he snipped the hair around the king’s ears. Midas had managed to convince him to take an obligatory oath of silence regarding the disfigurement, but the grossly misshapen ears were of such an intriguing and mesmerising nature that the servant’s will to speak openly about them could not be contained. One day, the servant dashed out to a nearby plantation where he dug a shallow pit and whispered the words, “King Midas has asses’ ears”, into it. The act of blurting out the secret in the presence of only Mother Nature herself relieved the servant of the sudden urge to divulge the secret without actually breaking the oath, but it also had the adverse effect of imprinting the surrounding soil with knowledge of the fact. When spring finally came the reeds which sprouted from the small pit would disclose Midas’s unfortunate condition each time they were rustled by the breeze, rendering the secret common knowledge to all who loitered about.

In hindsight, it would be fitting to suggest that the tale of Midas is an allegory for the most tragic aspect of the human condition; the seed of wisdom, knowledge and an antidote to inanity might very well be latent in those deemed ignorant by the philosopher or spiritual teacher, but it is entirely absent in the idiot or imbecile. One cannot make gold from lead or dust if the kernel of becoming isn’t contained from the very beginning in as much as an adult cannot be expected to make moral choices in life if they have not been properly fitted with the correct ethical compass from birth. Utilizing one’s thought processes goes a very long way also. They were bestowed to human beings by the superior intellect for a reason.           

      

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