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In Greek mythology, Midas was the king of Phrygia, son of Gordius, who had made the Gordian Knot. Midas is famous for two stories, both involving the gods Dionysus, Apollo, and Pan.
In one story, Silenus, a satyr who is a follower of Dionysus, is caught be some revelers who take him to the king. Recognizing Silenus as one of Dionysus’ train, Midas make sure Silenus can rejoin the god. Pleased with the return of his follower, Dionysus allows Midas to choose a gift.
Midas chooses the golden touch, which Dionysus bestows on him, and Midas tests it out on his way home to the palace, turning this and that to gold, and admiring the results. According to some versions, it is when Midas gets home and sits down to eat that he realizes the folly of his request. Everything he tries to eat becomes golden, and inedible, long before it reaches his mouth. In other versions, Midas isn’t completely turned around by not being able to eat, but his young daughter, running to give him a hug and turning to gold is the key to his revelation that he has chosen very unwisely.
In any case, Midas soon comes to his senses and begs Dionysus to take the gift away. Dionysus cryptically instructs him that to be healed, he must bathe at the source of the river Pactolus, which is near the city of Sardis. Midas follows the directions and is relieved of his burdensome gift, but as a result, the sands of the Pactolus turn up traces of gold. Today, in defiance of the myth, the term “the Midas touch” is used in a positive way to suggest that someone is so lucky that every plan or project they undertake turns out incredibly.
In the second notable Midas story, he is a follower of the god Pan and very fond of Pan’s pipe-playing. So are a group of nymphs, and Pan, to impress them, brags that his music is superior to Apollo’s. Naturally, a contest is held, with Midas and the nymphs as judges. Pan plays his pipes, and Apollo appears and plays his lyre. The nymphs all vote for Apollo, but Midas votes for Pan. In response, Apollo gives him donkey’s ears.
In order to avoid the embarrassment of his new ears, Midas fashions a head-covering. But the one person he can’t hide his ears from is his barber, whom he swears to secrecy. The barber keeps the secret until he can’t bear it any longer. Then he goes to a field, digs a hole in the ground, and whispers into the dirt, “King Midas has ass’s ears!”
The barber thinks that he has been clever and the secret is safe. But reeds grow up from that spot of earth, and as the wind blows through them, they whisper the secret aloud.