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The myths and legends of Gordion

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The name Midas is inextricably associated with Gordion. Several Phrygian kings bore this name, and over the centuries a kind of composite mythical figure has emerged. The best-known legend, of Midas and the golden touch, tells how Midas captured the water demon, Silenus, after making him drunk by pouring wine into his spring. As ransom, Midas demanded of Dionysos the ability to turn all he touched into gold. After Dionysos granted this wish, Midas was dismayed to find he had been taken literally, and his food and even his own daughter were transformed. He begged Dionysos for release from the curse, and was ordered to wash his hands in the River Pactolus. The cure worked, and thereafter the river ran with gold.

According to another tale, Midas was called upon to judge a musical contest between Apollo and the satyr Marsyas. Midas decided in favour of Marsyas and in revenge Apollo caused him to grow the ears of an ass. (Marsyas came off even worse – the god skinned him alive.) To hide his new appendages, Midas wore a special hat, revealing them only to his barber who was sworn to secrecy on pain of death. Desperate to tell someone the king’s secret, the barber passed it on to the reeds of the river, which ever after whispered, “Midas has ass’s ears.”

Another story may have some basis in reality. During the reign of Gordius, an oracle foretold that a poor man who would enter Gordion by ox-cart would, one day, rule over the Phrygians. As the king and nobles were discussing this prediction, a farmer named Midas arrived at the city in his cart. Gordius, who had no heirs, saw this as the fulfilment of the prophecy and named Midas his successor. Subsequently, Midas had his cart placed in the temple of Cybele on the Gordion acropolis, where it was to stand for half a millennium. Somehow the belief arose that whoever untied the intricate knot that fixed the cart to its yoke would become master of Asia. During his stay in the city Alexander the Great decided not to untie the Gordian Knot, but to slice through it with his sword. The phrase “cutting the Gordian knot” is still used today, to describe solving any intractable problem in one swift move.

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