Like many characters in Greek mythology, Midas gets to be his own symbol. Why? Because he's super old. Take a look:
By now you probably know that the version of the Midas myth we're using for our discussion was written down by a Roman poet named Ovid, in a book called Metamorphoses.
- Ovid finished the Metamorphoses around 8 CE.
- 1,300 years later, King Midas appeared in The Canterbury Tales, by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
- 300 years after Chaucer, the story of King Midas was retranslated by John Dryden, poet laureate of England.
- 200 years after Dryden, in 1852, American novelist Nathan Hawthorne took a shot at the story.
So… 1852 – 8 = 1,844. That's right: people have been retelling the story of King Midas for at least 1,844 years. And we're still talking about it today… so, yeah. You know the rule: when you're over two millennia old, you get to be your own symbol. It's only fair. If you live that long, you'll become symbolic, too.
Okay, that's all well and good, but what does King Midas symbolize? Let's think about it.
Within the story, Midas is a symbol of greed and the dangers that go along with it. Period. No tricks, no long, complicated, English teacher analysis ending in confusion. Midas = Greed. Greed = Bad. End of story.
But mix in 2,000 years of societal evolution and the story changes.
We Americans are part of a capitalist society. That means that we like to buy and sell stuff. Because we like to buy and sell stuff, we've made some changes to our understanding of greed. Making lots of money is no longer strictly seen as being greedy. In fact, in a modern context, making a steady profit is a sign of success. It's a good thing.
That, of course, changes the way we view the story of King Midas. Yes, Midas is still greedy, and yes, he still suffers for his greed. But the idea of having a golden touch, of being able to make money easily, is something we now value in modern society. Today, when we say that someone "has the golden touch," we mean it as a compliment. Don't believe us? We defer to the New York Times.
So somehow "the golden touch" has gone from being a negative symbol of greed to being a positive symbol of monetary success. Crazy, huh?
The Real Deal
Get this: King Midas was a real dude. Historians generally accept that a man named Midas ruled over the kingdom of Phrygia, in central Anatolia (now modern-day Turkey), around the 8th century BCE. How's that for mythology coming to life?