It’s tough being a legend of Greek mythology. While your stories are great and your lives are envied, no one really believes you existed because there’s generally no proof … not even of the lands you were said to rule over. Nothing says “myth” like references to a lost kingdom, so a new discovery of one may help move a mythical Greek figure a little closer to reality. That figure is King Midas of the ‘golden touch’ fame, and the lost kingdom is the one which conquered Midas’ Phrygia, causing the king to kill himself by drinking the blood of an ox. Where was that gold finger when he needed it?
“The storm gods delivered the [opposing] kings to his majesty.”
That doesn’t sound like much of a clue to solving a mystery but, according to a press release, it was enough to convince Asst. Prof. James Osborne of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago that he was holding a stone carved with a proclamation that the ancient city of Türkmen-Karahöyük in southern Turkey was once the capital of a kingdom ruled by a King Hartapu who conquered Muska, now known as Phrygia, and its ruler, King Midas, somewhere around the 8th century BCE. The discovery was a case of being in the right place at the right time – Osborne was leading a team of scholars and students doing research on Türkmen-Karahöyük when a farmer informed them of a stone with strange carvings in a nearby canal. (Photo here.)
“My colleague Michele Massa and I rushed straight there, and we could see it still sticking out of the water, so we jumped right down into the canal—up to our waists wading around. Right away it was clear it was ancient, and we recognized the script it was written in: Luwian, the language used in the Bronze and Iron ages in the area.”
Luwian was an archaic language spoken during the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE in central and western Anatolia and northern Syria by early Indo-Europeans or Anatolians. In another stroke of luck, Osborne works down the hall from two of the foremost experts in the world on Luwian: Petra Goedegebuure and Theo P.J. van den Hout. They translated the inscription on the stele and the rest is ancient Greek history. The time matches that of King Midas and the name ‘Hartapu’ solves another mystery, identifying a name carved into a volcano 10 miles away.
“King Midas has an ass’s ears… King Midas has an ass’s ears…”
Everyone knows about Midas’ golden touch (more on this later) but the funnier (maybe not for him) legacy is the tale of Midas hearing a singing contest between Apollo and Pan. Midas liked Pan’s version, causing Apollo to declare that Midas must have ass’s ears and then gave him a pair. Midas hid the ears from everyone but his barber, who had to tell someone so he yelled the secret into a hole and filled it. Unfortunately, the nearby reeds heard it and were said to whisper “King Midas has an ass’s ears!” when the wind blew.
The golden touch story isn’t much better. Midas saves the life of the satyr Silenus. In gratitude, Dionysus (god of wine, pleasure, festivity, madness and wild frenzy) grants Midas one wish and the king, despite already being rich, asks for the golden touch. Brilliant move … until Midas went to grab something to eat rather than hoard. Oh, and also his daughter Zoe. Luckily, Dionysus was in a festive mood so he cancelled the wish and saved the king from golden starvation and killing off his heirs.
It’s difficult to pin down any real history of a King Midas. Greek and Assyrian writings mention a Midas who ruled Phrygia in the late 8th century BCE and married a Greek princess, Damodice, who some believe invented the coin form of money (a better way to get rich than the golden touch – obviously smarter than her spouse with the ass’s ears). There’s also mention of a “Mita”, king of the Mushki, who may have been the same person. Phrygia was a real place, as was Midaeum, which would have been named after a Midas, and Gordium, named for his possible father (possibly by adoption) Gordius of the Gordian knot fame – and that takes us back into legend territory.
What we know for sure is that the lost kingdom with no name run by King Hartapu is no longer lost. The rest requires a golden apple or a crown with really long earflaps.