The legend of King Midas and a theory about government

Be careful what you wish for...

The story of King Midas may be the first recorded acknowledgment that resources could play a role in political events. Midas is remembered, as much for wishing that anything he touched would be turned to gold, as for the unintended consequences of that wish. Everything he touched did turn to gold - including the food he wanted to eat and, according to some stories, his own daughter.

Midas had been a wealthy king of Phrygia, known more for his rose garden than for any desire for gold. One day the Satyr Silenus was found drunk in the garden. Midas entertained him for 10 days, then returned him to Dionysius, the god of wine and revelry, (Bacchus in Roman mythology), who, out of gratitude, granted Midas a single wish.  Midas wished that everything he touched would turn to gold.  At first he was pleased with the gift.  On his way home he turned a twig, a stone, a piece of sod, and an apple into gold.  Unfortunately, when he had a feast prepared on his return, he found that he could not control his new power - everything turned to gold - including the food he wanted to eat.  Realizing that he would starve to death if he did not do something, he returned to Dionysius and asked him to take away the power. Dionysius granted his wish and told him to wash in the waters of the Pactolus, the river that flowed by the city Gordion, the capital of Phrygia. According to local legend the power washed into the river and the sands of the Pactolus began to produce gold from that day forward, earning it the name the Golden Pactolus.  It would supply Greece with much of her gold between 650 and 550 B.C..

The kingdom of Phrygia is located in the central Anatolian plateau of Turkey and Gordion is located some 55 miles southwest of present-day Ankara. Even though Midas' realm was located in "ancient Turkey" (Anatolia), his legend is known more through Greek and Roman mythology. Why the Greeks would use a non-Greek as a central character is somewhat curious.  Perhaps making a greedy foreigner an object lesson was a literary form of revenge.  There were other reasons for their location choice.  Apart from the advantages offered by a distant land, the Anatolian plateau lent a certain credibility to any story involving wealth.  

The legend of King Midas may have been embellished by Greek storytellers, but he was a real king.  He was the last of the royal line of the Phrygians, who had settled in the region around 1200 B.C..  His reign ended around 695 B.C., when invaders from the Caucasus region, called Cimmerians, conquered the Phrygian kingdom.  Midas is said to have committed suicide by drinking bull's blood.  Archaeologists believe that his tomb and what remains of the city of Gordion are located at Yassihoyuk, to the east of the Sakarya River. The Cimmerians would be defeated by the Lydian king Alyattes in 600 B.C..  While the Lydians established their capital at Sardis, the Pactolus still served as the source of their silver and gold. 

The Greeks added another twist to the story.  They believed that it was Gordion, the father of Midas, who created the "Gordion knot."  It had been prophesied that whoever managed to untie the knot would become the ruler of Asia.  Alexander the Great, it is said, visited Gordion and, after several unsuccessful attempts at unraveling it, drew his sword and slashed it apart.  The prophesy had been fulfilled.

The Lydians under Alyattes are believed to have been the first  to issue coins.  Made of electrum, or "white gold," an alloy of about two-thirds gold and one-third silver, they probably date from around 635 B.C.. Unfortunately, the use of an alloy rather than a pure metal apparently led to a loss of confidence.  Croesus (568 - 546 BC), the son of Alyattes, sought to correct the problem by recalling the electrum coins and issuing what would be the first coins of pure gold and pure silver.

Jason and the Quest for the Golden Fleece

When the Argonauts set off on their quest to recover the Golden Fleece, their destination was the kingdom of Colchis, south of the Caucasus Mountains, on the Black Sea in what is now Georgia.  According to legend the god Hermes had given a winged ram to Nephale, the mother of Phrixius, to help him escape from Boeotia.  The ram's fleece was made of pure gold.  The ram carried Phrixius to Colchis.  There the ram was sacrificed and its fleece was nailed to a tree in a grove sacred to Ares, guarded by a dragon which never slept.  Like the Midas legend there is some basis in fact for the origin of the fleece.  One of the methods used to collect gold from the streams in the Colchis region involves the use of sheepskins nailed to a wooden frame.  Gold flakes become trapped in the wool, giving it the appearance of a fleece of gold.

Jason's grandfather Cretheus, had founded the city of Iolcus on a bay in Thessaly. When Cretheus died, Jason's uncle Pelias usurped the throne.  Jason had not remained at Iolcus but had been reared by the centaur Chiron.  After 20 years Jason returned to Iolcus to claim the throne.  Pelias told Jason that he would give up the throne, on the condition that Jason undertake a journey to Colchis to fetch the Golden Fleece.  Jason agreed to go.

Jason did not set out alone. Some of the greatest heroes of Greece joined the quest. Heracles was the son of Zeus, as were Castor and Polydeuces. Euphemus was the son of Poseidon.  Peleus was the father of Achilles. Argo, the ship which carried the expedition, was named after its builder Argus, who was given direction by the goddess Athena.  It was made of a type of wood which would not rot in seawater, had space for fifty  rowers, yet was so light that it could be carried for 12 days by the crew.

The heroes seemed in no hurry to accomplish their quest, spending a year with the women of Lemnos. Once past the Hellespont, named for Helles, the sister of Phrixius, who had fallen off the winged ram and drowned there, they landed at Arctonnesus, or Bear Island.  When six-armed giants, called Gegeneis, attacked their ship, they were all slain by Heracles and left in a pile on the beach.  At Bithynia, the hero Polydeuces would accept a challenge by Amycus, the king of the Bebryces, to a boxing match.  Amycus, the son of Poseidon, challenged all newcomers to fight and always killed them.  Polydeuces, himself the son of Zeus, killed Amycus with a blow that crushed his skull.  At Salmydessus, in Thrace, the winged brothers Calais and Zetes chased away the Harpies, who had been harassing the blind king Phineas.  The Argonauts were able to row safely between the Symplegades (Clashing Rocks), with help of Athena, although the tip of the stern-oar of the Argo was caught.

When Jason arrived at Colchis, the king Aeetes agreed to give him the Golden Fleece, provided he could pass a test.  He would have to yoke a team of fire-breathing bulls to a plough in order to sow a field with dragon's teeth.  He would then have to kill the armed men who emerged from the dragon's teeth he had sown.  Medea, the daughter of Aeetes, had fallen in love with Jason and helped him.  He was given a magic potion which made him immune to the fire of the bulls, allowing him to yoke them and plow the field.  Jason confused the armed men by throwing a boulder into their midst, causing them to fight among themselves.  Aeetes refused to give Jason the Fleece, despite the completion of the three tasks.  Medea once again helped.  She used her magic to put the dragon guarding the Fleece to sleep.  Jason retrieved it and the Argonauts fled aboard the Argo.  Before reaching Greece, the Argo was blown off course and a huge tidal wave took it far inland in Libya. It was carried to Lake Tritonis in southern Tunisia.  At the conclusion of the quest, the Argo would be taken to Corinth, as a dedication by the Argonauts to Poseidon.

For all his efforts, Jason never did recover the throne of Iolcus. According to some versions the Argonauts simply gave the fleece to Pelias and left for Corinth to dedicate the Argo.  According to other versions Jason conspired with Medea to have Pelias murdered and was forced to leave by the Iolcans, who refused to have a murderer as king.  The murder was actually committed by Pelias' daughters.  Medea convinced them that she could rejuvenate Pelias if they would only cut him up and boil him in a pot.  To prove that her powers were real, she cut up a ram and brought it back to life.  Convinced by the demonstration, they cut up their father, as she instructed. Medea, however, did not resurrect Pelias and the Argonauts were able to capture the city.  Jason himself would die, according to some accounts, at Corinth.  While he sat in the shade of the Argo, the bowsprit fell off the rotting ship and killed him.

Suggestions for further reading.

Peter L. Bernstein, "The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession. " John Wiley & Sons, Inc., (New York, NY 2000)

Thomas Bulfinch, "Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable. " Doubleday & Company, Inc., (Garden City, NY 1968)

Roberta Conlan, Managing Ed., "Lost Civilizations: Anatolia: Cauldron of Cultures. " Time-Life Books, (Alexandria, VA 1995)

Michael Grant & John Hazel, "Who's Who in Classical Mythology. " Oxford University Press, (New York, NY 1993)

Gustav Schwab, "Gods and Heroes: Myths and Epics of Ancient Greece. " Pantheon Books, (New York, NY 1946)

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