Has Evidence of King Midas’ Demise Been Found? 1

Archaeologists in Turkey may have finally identified the remnants of an ancient metropolis on the Konya Plain in the south of the country. The discovery happened when a local farmer told them about a strange inscribed stone that was half-submerged in a nearby irrigation canal. The stone block recorded information about a 3,000-year-old victory that provides tangible historical evidence for the demise of King Midas, he of the famous “Midas Touch.”

The stone itself was discovered and translated last summer by scholars from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute as part of an international project to survey a large Bronze and Iron Age settlement (3500-100 B.C.) in Türkemn-Karahöyük. Archaeologists knew that the settlement was an unexcavated ancient city, but they didn’t know its historical significance or even who had lived there. The stone, which contained ancient writing, had the potential to change things.

Chicago professor James Osborne described how, having spoken to the farmer, he and colleague Michele Massa, of the British Institute at Ankara, rushed to the canal and waded in waist-deep water looking for the stone. “Right away,” he said, “it was clear that the stone was an ancient artifact.” They instantly recognized the inscription as Luwian (a hieroglyphic language used in the region during the Bronze and Iron Ages) and set about trying to remove the block from the water.

Once the stone was dragged out of the irrigation canal by tractor, cleaned, and photographed, Osborne and his Oriental Institute colleagues got to work on translating the partially eroded inscription. They realized that it was an announcement of King Hartapu’s military victory over the neighboring kingdom of Phrygia (identified in the stone block, or stele, as Muska), the ancient kingdom that was ruled over by King Midas. According to the translation, “The storm gods delivered the [opposing] kings to his majesty [Hartapu].” Linguistic analysis determined that the stele was probably created in the late eighth century B.C., when Midas ruled in Phrygia.  

Osborne thinks that the city at Türkemn-Karahöyük, which was one of the largest ancient cities in the period, was the capital city of King Hartapu. Hartapu himself was, until this discovery, very much a mystery to scholars. He was a late Hittite king who was known to us from inscriptions, but no one was certain where his kingdom actually was. Now, it seems, we know where his kingdom was based even if we still don’t know exactly what it was called.

For those interested in mythology, the fact that the stele dates to the tail-end of the eighth century, the period when King Midas lived, is very exciting. Though there were three historical members of the Phrygian monarchy known as Midas, the most famous is associated with wealth and, in particular, gold. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Midas acquired his powers as a gift from the god Dionysus (also known as Bacchus) for offering Dionysus’ foster father Silenus hospitality. Silenus had wandered off in a drunken stupor and found himself at the court of King Midas, where he spent 10 days drinking and regaling the court with stories. When Silenus returned to Dionysius, Dionysius told Midas he could choose his own reward.  Midas hastily responded that he wanted anything he touched to turn to gold.

The problem, of course, was that Midas was unable to eat anything. In Ovid’s version a distraught and hangry Midas begs Dionysus for help and the ‘gift’ is revoked. In the 19th century children’s version written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Midas accidentally turns his own daughter into gold. Aristotle is less forgiving and writes in his Politics that Midas’s insatiable greed led to his death from starvation. In all three versions the lesson is clear: wealth is less important than family and food. 

Other versions of the Midas story also have him dying in unpleasant ways. According to Hyginus, the Roman-era author of a collection of fantastic tales called the Fabulae, Midas didn’t learn much from his run-in with Dionysus. After losing his alchemical powers he became a devotee of the half-goat deity Pan. In a musical contest between Pan and Apollo, Midas foolishly pronounced that Pan was the winner. The incensed Apollo punished Midas by turning his ears into those of a donkey. Unable to conceal his disfigurement, Midas committed suicide by drinking bull’s blood.

If dying in this way seems improbable, bear in mind that bull’s blood was thought to have killed an Athenian politician, an Egyptian pharaoh, and, of course, Midas. Ancient medicine held that ox blood congealed more quickly than other forms of blood so drinking it would result in death by choking. In her book Gods and Robots, Adrienne Mayor notes that bovine thrombin (the blood-clotting enzyme) has been used in surgery since the 1800s and that it, in fact, still sometimes carries the risk of a “fatal cross reaction.”

None of these were happy ways to die, but when it comes to burial places, Midas had it pretty good. An enormous tomb in Gordium (modern Yassihüyük, Turkey), the capital of the ancient Phyrgian empire, has been identified in the modern period as the tomb of King Midas. Also known as the Great Tumulus, the vast tomb was clearly built for a man of great importance, although it is unclear if that man was actual Midas. If it is his tomb then we may even have a sense of Midas’s physical appearance from the remains of the person buried there. A reconstruction of the face of the skull from the Great Tumulus is on display at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.

If there’s a moral to these stories it is surely this: careful what you wish for, steer clear of ox’s blood, and monuments to even the greatest conquerors end up buried in ditches.