Monday, January 23, 2012

King Midas and An Alchemical Touch?


We have all heard the story of King Midas and his golden touch. Everyone knows the moral of the story is simply not to be greedy, but is that all there is to the story? What if that straightforward moral lessen is only the surface of something much deeper? Perhaps even a veiled reference to alchemy? After a re-reading of the story with these questions in mind, I have come to the conclusion that there is much, much more to it. I shall tell the story using the version found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

And not content with this, Bacchus resolved to leave that land, and with a worthier train went to the vineyards of his own Tmolus and to Pactolus, though the river was not golden, nor admired for precious sands. His usual throng of Satyrs and of Bacchanals surrounded him; but not Silenus, who was then detained from him. The Phrygian folk had captured him, as he was staggering, faint with palsied age and wine. And after they bound him in garlands, they led him to their king Midas, to whom with the Cecropian Eumolpus, Thracian Orpheus had shown all the Bacchic rites. When Midas recognized his old time friend Silenus, who had been so often his companion in the rites of Bacchus, he kept joyful festival, with his old comrade, twice five days and nights. Upon the eleventh day, when Lucifer had dimmed the lofty multitude of stars, King Midas and Silenus went from there joyful together to the Lydian lands. There Midas put Silenus carefully under the care of his loved foster-child, young Bacchus. He with great delight, because he had his foster-father once again, allowed the king to choose his own reward—a welcome offer, but it led to harm. And Midas made this ill-advised reply: “Cause whatsoever I shall touch to change at once to yellow gold.”


After dwelling on the story, one word came to mind--chrysopoeia. Wikipedia defines chrysopoeia as:

“In alchemy, the term chrysopoeia means transmutation into gold (from the Greek khrusōn, gold, and poiēin, to make), although it is also symbolically used to indicate the philosopher's stone as the completion of the Great Work.”

Taking this into account, this uncomplicated story takes on a whole new meaning. This is the first clue that the story is in fact a hidden warning to the possible dangers of alchemical studies. Let’s look a little deeper and see what we find.

The fable begins with Silenus becoming trapped by King Midas’s men. Silenus was the father of the Satyrs as well as the foster father of Bacchus himself.

Satyrs love wine and women; they travel in the tail of Dionysus in a state of constant revelry. They are lovers of every physical pleasure. They are joyful and happy, but in their ecstasy are dangerous to humans, as the story of Midas shows. They are frequently represented as half-man, half-goat.

The Satyrs are forces of nature; they are both good and evil depending on the circumstances. Under agreeable circumstances they can be a great benefit, but they can easily become very dangerous. In order to master yourself and progress to the higher states, you must be able to control your own nature. I like to compare Silenus with Chiron the Centaur. Chiron was the teacher of both Achilles and Asclepius, and he was renown for his wisdom and patience. Chiron represents the higher potential of one who learns to balance the wildness of the beast with your higher nature within yourself. As Niccolo Machiavelli states in reference to Chiron in his famous book The Prince:


“All the allegory means, in making the teacher half beast and half man, is that a prince must know how to act according to the nature of both, and that he cannot survive otherwise.”

I chose Ovid’s rendition of the tale because it includes the detail that Midas was previously initiated into the Bacchic Rites. This is important because his prior experience gave Midas a false sense of security when dealing with Silenus (his untamed animal nature) and Bacchus (his higher nature). Unfortunately for our King, he was not yet ready for the higher art and his ignorance led him into the curse he thought would be a blessing. This is a clear warning to the dabbler in the esoteric doctrines. It reminds us to take heed that you do not think yourself a Master when you are really still a child.

Bacchus agreed to his unfortunate request, with grief that Midas chose for harm and not for good. The Berecynthian hero, king of Phrygia, with joy at his misfortune went away, and instantly began to test the worth of Bacchus' word by touching everything. Doubtful himself of his new power, he pulled a twig down from a holm-oak, growing on a low hung branch. The twig was turned to gold. He lifted up a dark stone from the ground and it turned pale with gold. He touched a clod and by his potent touch the clod became a mass of shining gold. He plucked some ripe, dry spears of grain, and all that wheat he touched was golden. Then he held an apple which he gathered from a tree, and you would think that the Hesperides had given it. If he but touched a lofty door, at once each door-post seemed to glisten. When he washed his hands in liquid streams, the lustrous drops upon his hands might have been those which once astonished Danae. He could not now conceive his large hopes in his grasping mind, as he imagined everything of gold. And, while he was rejoicing in great wealth, his servants set a table for his meal, with many dainties and with needful bread: but when he touched the gift of Ceres with his right hand, instantly the gift of Ceres stiffened to gold; or if he tried to bite with hungry teeth a tender bit of meat, the dainty, as his teeth but touched it, shone at once with yellow shreds and flakes of gold. And wine, another gift of Bacchus, when he mixed it in pure water, can be seen in his astonished mouth as liquid gold.

Here the trouble starts. He got the gift from the gods and in no time discovered that it is in fact a curse. As I already stated, Midas was previously initiated into the Bacchic Rites and would have had some knowledge of higher spiritual matters. However, because of his request we know that he was still very much rooted in Earthly matters; otherwise, he would not have misused this opportunity.

Alchemists hid their Philosophers Stone as well as their theurgic practices behind symbolic language. Many to this day believe that they were seeking to transmute actual lead into actual gold. Midas represents one of these people who are still blinded by the possibility of turning matter into gold. The wording is very important here--Midas specifically asked that everything be turned into “yellow gold.” In Alchemical texts, you will find that they are always speaking of transmutation into “Our Gold,” or “Our Water,” etc. This differentiates that they are not speaking of vulgar gold, as Midas mistakenly asked for. He asked for what he mistook to be the Stone, and alas, Bacchus was obliged to give him precisely what he asked for.

The practice of using magic or supernatural means to acquire wealth is generally viewed as contrary to spiritual advancement. Midas’s wish is akin to using demons to make financial gain. For instance, a pact could be made with a demon known as Lucifuge Rofocale, in which he agrees to lead you to the nearest treasure, after some brow-beating, in exchange for a small payment (Ceremonial Magic, Waite). As anyone familiar with Goethe’s story of Faust knows, these pacts never end well for the sorcerer. The prologue of The White People by Arthur Machen explains that:

“Holiness requires as great, or almost as great, an effort; but holiness works on lines that were natural once; it is an effort to recover the ecstasy that was before the Fall. But sin is an effort to gain the ecstasy and the knowledge that pertain alone to angels, and in making this effort man becomes a demon. . . . Evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavors to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall.”

Confounded by his strange misfortune—rich and wretched—he was anxious to escape from his unhappy wealth. He hated all he had so lately longed for. Plenty could not lessen hunger and no remedy relieved his dry, parched throat. The hated gold tormented him no more than he deserved. Lifting his hands and shining arms to heaven, he moaned. “Oh pardon me, father Lenaeus! [Lenaeus is a Roman surname for Bacchus] I have done wrong, but pity me, I pray, and save me from this curse that looked so fair.” How patient are the gods! Bacchus forthwith, because King Midas had confessed his fault, restored him and annulled the promise given, annulled the favor granted, and he said: “That you may not be always cased in gold, which you unhappily desired, depart to the stream that flows by that great town of Sardis and upward trace its waters, as they glide past Lydian heights, until you find their source. Then, where the spring leaps out from mountain rock, plunge head and body in the snowy foam. At once the flood will take away your curse.” King Midas did as he was told and plunged beneath the water at the river's source. And the gold virtue granted by the god, as it departed from his body, tinged the stream with gold. And even to this hour adjoining fields, touched by this ancient vein of gold, are hardened where the river flows and colored with the gold that Midas left.

Bacchus took pity on Midas because he still possessed a pure heart and was humble enough to ask for forgiveness. However, his deliverance was not free. King Midas had to travel to the appointed river and wash himself free of sin. No one else could do it for him. The real blessing was this second opportunity to save himself, not only of the curse of the Golden Touch but also the root cause which drove him into the snare in the first place. Midas is now literally washed clean by the grace of God and his own labor. Nothing less would have saved him.

In the end, Midas grew a great deal from the events. Before, he desired gold and sought after material wealth, and the golden touch made him hate all these things. He now realized that riches can be a torment and that you can’t eat gold.



There is a further link between Midas and alchemy. Gaius Julius Hyginus relates in his book Fabulae (Fable 274: Inventors and their Inventions) that: “King Midas, a Phrygian, son of Cybele, first discovered black and white lead.”

Black lead is graphite. It was thought to be a form of actual lead. That is why “lead pencils” are called lead even though they are made of graphite. White lead is used in lead paint.

I find this very interesting as turning lead into gold is a common theme of alchemy and it seems more than just a coincidence that we have an outside reference connecting Midas to lead as well as gold.

Revisiting this childhood fable has proven to be an eye-opening experience for me. It is amazing how stories like this look so differently through older eyes. The imagery of Bacchus (Higher Self) dancing and reveling with his foster father, Silenus (Lower Self), in and of itself is a positively wonderful statement. We are born to this world as the infant Bacchus and could not survive in it without Silenus to guide us and protect us. Silenus, or our instincts/id/subconscious helps us find the way to our base needs, i.e. food, shelter, and sex, being met.  

In the end, it is not surprising that these myths have survived the test of time and continue to be read to children today. I have no doubt that they will stand this test for many, many more millennia to come.


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The full text of the Metamorphosis used for this posting can be found Here

2 comments:

  1. Interesting interpretation of yours, O. I agree that the Greek myths can be interpreted upon an esoteric level, perhaps Jason and the Golden Fleece also has a hidden meaning. Lead to Gold or plumbum converit aurum invariably was the quest to attain higher spiritual status from base desires. I wish my own id or instincts or subconscious would assist me better to acquire a sex life!

    Browne had a copy of Hyginus in his Library, and it's probably the source of the opening imagery of 'The Garden of Cyrus'

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    1. Yes, I think most, if not all, of the old myths have much more depth than they’re given credit for nowadays. Then again, a lot of people (on both sides, i.e. “believers” as well as atheists) actually think the bible is only a collection of children’s stories with no more depth than simple moral lessons.

      As to your sex life--well, next time I’m in Norwich I’ll be your wing-man. However, I only have a rudimentary understanding of what a wing-man actually does, so I have a feeling the night would end with us at a pub discussing literature and alchemy, lol!

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