Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, was a trivia-obsessed ten-year-old, and now he’s raising a few quiz kids of his own. This month he launches a new series of amazing-facts books for kids, The Junior Genius Guides. Since the first two books in the series introduce young readers to Maps and Geography and Greek Mythology, respectively, we’ve asked him to set us straight this month and debunk some popular misconceptions about classical mythology, which has always been all Greek to us. Myths about myths?! May Zeus have mercy on our souls.
The Debunker: Did King Midas Turn His Daughter into Gold?
Readers of Greek mythology know that Midas, king of Phrygia, was the Kevin Bacon of classical times: he shows up in story after story, and always does something awesome. My favorite is the myth where he gets asked to judge a divine music contest, and refuses to admit that Apollo is a better musician than Pan. Apollo punishes him with donkey ears, a fact which he desperately tries to hide from everyone. But his barber finds out, and is dying to tell the secret. Finally, he goes down to the riverbank and tells the reeds there, “Midas has ass’s ears!” But the reeds begin to whisper that phrase to everyone who passes by, and Midas puts the barber to death. Talk about blaming the messenger.
The most famous story about Midas is the one from the Roman poet Ovid, about the gift of the golden touch. The greedy king asks that everything he touches be turned to gold, envisioning a life of lavish, Trump-like luxury. Of course, he gets his comeuppance when it turns out that there are easily predictable down sides to his stupid wish! Echoes of the Midas story come down to us in the stories of Bernie Madoff and Jordan Belfort and every other would-be Goldfinger laid low by his naked lust for wealth.
But the Midas myth does not include the famous ending of the story: Midas absent-mindedly turning his own daughter into a golden statue. (Dad of the Year!) In Ovid’s original version, Midas realizes his folly when he can no longer eat or drink, because olives and wine (or whatever they have for brunch in Phrygia) turn to gold the second they enter his mouth. The god Dionysus takes pity on him and has him bathe in the river Pactolus, and his 24-karat curse is taken away. The daughter was a 19th-century addition courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who gave her the improbably un-Greek name of “Marygold.” That’s a little on-the-nose, don’t you think, Nathaniel?
Quick Quiz: In what state would you find the U.S. Bullion Depository, which holds 3 percent of all gold that’s ever been mined on Earth?
Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.