‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’
That is what the craftsman asks as he kneels with his young son upon the banks of the river Pactolus.
Together, they are panning the riverbed. The son scoops wet heaps onto the metal dish, while the craftsman gently, nervously, swirls the mixture.
His motion forces it to separate: water, sand, silt.
The craftsman sighs and chucks it away.
And so the process begins again: scoop, swirl, separate, sigh.
Water, sand, silt.
Scoop, swirl, separate, sigh.
Water, sand, silt.
Scoop, swirl, separate…smile. For this time, something glitters amidst the sand and the silt: gold. Gold so fine it could fill an hourglass and measure minutes in luxury.
The son shrieks in delight: the gods have answered their wishes. But the craftsman shushes him, scolds him; for he knows how fickle wishes of gold can be.
Is not the river Pactolus the result of such a folly? The story of King Midas and his golden touch.
The Muses open their story with a marvel worthy of alchemists and conjurers: a rose bud turning to gold. The transmutation is not the flow of molten metal but like the spread of frost, all fractal patterns and crooked fingers. As the gold stretches beyond the petals, it begins to harden the leaves and stiffen the stem. It passes even beneath the soil; when King Midas grasps the plant, it pulls free from the ground in one movement and the roots are fine gilded spindles.
His touch truly is gold.
How has the king come upon such a gift, you ask? Only by a god of course.
For a month now, the plane of Phrygia has played host to the parade of the satyrs, creatures half-man half-beast. At their head rides the reveller, Dionysus, god of wine and wild things. And at their tail, seated backwards upon a donkey, rides the oldest of the satyrs.
Do not think this position some dishonour. No, the old satyr only trails the procession because he is supremely drunk. Sloshed. So inebriated that the hangover would slay a mortal man. Before long, he has fallen far enough behind that he’s lost altogether. That is how the servants of King Midas come to find a lone donkey grazing in the furthest pastures of the palace, an old satyr, pot-bellied and bald, slumped in its saddle.
Now King Midas knows the stories – he knows the dangers of denying welcome to gods, even minor ones. He knows too the rewards. So he follows the rights of hospitality to the letter.
Phrygia may be a poor place when tallied in metals and jewels, but in vittles and vines, it is second to none, and for ten days and ten nights, he feasts the old satyr with banquet upon banquet.
As is custom, only on the final day, does Midas ask his guest’s identity.
‘I am Silenus, firstborn of the satyrs and foster father to Dionysus.’
As he escorts old Silenus back to the parade, the king’s glee is palpable. And when he sees the delight with which Dionysus greets his foster father, Midas is sure of a reward. It proves to be a wish; Dionysus will grant the ging anything he desires.
‘Phrygia is a poor kingdom. I wish for a golden touch that I might be richer than any king before me.’
It is a wish only a man would make, and a god could deliver. Dionysus grants it with childlike delight. From his finger, he slips a ring, twists of vine crowned with a seed.
‘Plant this in your palace gardens, and you will have your wish.’
For an afternoon, Midas indulges in his auromania, and the sound of transmutation fills the halls of his palace, a scratching like hoarfrost as gold creeps across statues, pillars and flagstones.
But the delight does not last long. When his servants serve him fruit upon a newly minted platter, the true meaning of his wish becomes clear. He picks up an apple and before it has even reached his lips, it is cast in gold.
He tears through the palace pantries, leaving an auric trail in his desperate wake, but nothing can sate his hunger. Nothing can slake his thirst. Water beads into metal upon his tongue till he retches gold fine as sand.
Finally, Midas slumps in his gleaming throne and his tears clang against the stone floor.
His wish has proved itself little more than pyrite – fool’s gold.
He can ride no horse – his prize stallion is a glittering effigy at the stable door.
He can ride no chariot – the weight of gold is too great.
So Midas must walk by foot.
That is how the satyrs of Dionysus come to find a lone man, weak and parched, collapsed at the edge of their parade.
When they bring him before the reveller, Midas begs to have his wish reversed. But Dionysus only responds with confusion.
You see, one must never forget that deathless gods do not see the world the way that mortals do. Gods do not thirst, they do not hunger. And so Dionysus granted the wish the only way he knew how: as only a god could enjoy, and a mortal would suffer.
Indeed Dionysus’s confusion is so great that he toys with the idea of refusing altogether. It is only Silenus who changes his mind: after all, how could the god of wine refuse a man a drink.
‘Bathe in the waters of the river Pactolus, and you will have your wish undone.’
All night, as Midas’s body floats in the river, the Pactolus flows with gold like thick clouds of ink. The grains stain the water for miles and miles until they settle amidst the sand and the silt.
Only when day breaks does the king finally turn his head and dare a drink.
Water laps at his cracked lips.
It tastes of metal, of gold.
But only faintly.
Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast
Written by Andrew Hulse