You’ve heard of King Midas of the “Golden Touch,” monarch of ancient Phrygia (See theoi.com’s Midas entry for classical Greek and Roman sources.)
Probably you’ve heard Nathaniel Hawthorne’s version, which makes Midas into a moralistic fable about gold-greed and appreciating the simple things in life. Hawthorne supplies King Midas with a daughter to drive the lesson home: turning her to gold by accident is the climax of the tale, proving to the king that his love of gold is a curse. In most versions of the story, ancient and modern, he comes to regret the gift, and is instructed to bathe himself in a river to wash away the curse. This river is Patoclus in ancient Phrygia (modern Turkey), whose waters were famous for their gold dust. The tale of the Golden Touch was thus originally aetiological: not a parable about avarice, but a myth that arose to explain a natural phenomenon. (Greek: αἰτία = “cause”).
However, that is not the end of the tale of King Midas. He has a peculiar characteristic: the ears of an ass! Sarah Morris (“Midas as Mule,” APA 2004) showed that these “ass’ ears” go back to Bronze Age depictions of royalty in the region, which must have puzzled later Greeks: hence a myth, another aetiological myth, to explain them away. Early myths say he had satyr’s blood (due to his close association with Pan, often considered to come from that part of the world), but later sources bring Midas into the mythical musical contest between Apollo and another satyr, Marsyas. Midas draws Apollo’s wrath by judging in Marsyas’ favor, and Apollo gives Midas donkey ears as commentary and punishment.
I can find no older version of the musical contest than the Roman poet Ovid (Metamorphosis 11), but it sounds classical enough. I think Ovid may have supplied the tale of Midas’ barber. The barber, as much as the Golden Touch, has passed into fable and reappeared in local folktales around the world (notably in several Celtic variants.)
But I’m getting distracted by sources, when the story is my point. Ovid tells it thus. Mortified by his humiliating ears, Midas hides them under a Phrygian cap. The only one who knows of them is sworn to secrecy: his barber. But the poor man is fit to burst with his secret. Finally, the barber goes to a remote riverbank, digs a hole, whispers, “MIDAS HAS DONKEY EARS!” into the hole, buries it and runs away. Unfortunately the river’s reeds pick up the secret and whisper, whisper, whisper it until the whole country hears about it. (Another very common folklore motif: the reed or tree that takes in the “secret” and betrays it as a harp, pipe, or other instrument).
Ovid’s tale ends there. I had heard one further elaboration which I cannot track down— it’s amazing how these old myths keep getting pieces tacked on, as different listeners or bards wonder, “but what about…?” In this case, what happened to the barber? As I heard it, Midas was going to kill the man but relented, realizing his foolish secret was not worth a man’s life. At that point, the gods felt Midas had learned his lesson (once again) and restored his human ears.
Midas’ tale has a great deal of poignancy for me in my own life: I have strong barber tendencies, and do not always choose my riverbank carefully. Also, I am minded of how it plays out again in the real world. No wonder the barber’s story has been picked up by Chaucer, Mary Shelley, and many others! We have whistleblowers who call kings to account. We have leaks and secret-spillings that are not so nobly motivated, done for personal gain or (like the barber) simply because someone cannot keep quiet. We have Wikileaks, which seems to be a shrine to Midas’ barber, considering it a right and obligation to tell the secrets maintained under the hats of the great.
Sometimes the secret is mere donkey ears, and betraying it is simply a matter of betrayal, broken trust. Sometimes the secret may cause great harm by being kept. Sometimes it will do great harm when the reeds get wind of it. The barber seldom has the full facts or judgment to know which kind of secret it is.
“Midas has donkey ears!” We are all barbers with secrets to keep, and the web is a mighty large stand of reeds.
Ancient Sources and Modern Retellings of the Midas Myth: