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From a Myth to un-Buried Cities

King Midas' Facial Reconstruction

In Greek mythology, Midas is popularly remembered for his ability to turn everything he touched into gold: the Midas touch. In alchemy, the transmutation of an object into gold is known as chrysopoeia.

Midas was king of Pessinus, a city of Phrygia, who as a child was adopted by the king Gordias and Cybele, the goddess whose consort he was, and who by some accounts was the goddess-mother of Midas himself. Some accounts place the youth of Midas in Macedonian Bermion In Mygdonia Midas was known for his garden of roses: Herodotus remarks on the settlement of the ancient kings of Macedon on the slopes of Mount Bermion "the place called the garden of Midas son of Gordias, where roses grow of themselves, each bearing sixty blossoms and of surpassing fragrance. In this garden, according to the Macedonian story, Silenos was taken captive." According to Iliad (v.860), he had one son, Lityerses, the demonic reaper of men; but in some variations of the myth he had a daughter, Zoë or "life" instead.

The Great Tumulus at Mid Anatolia

In 1957 archaeologists connected with the University of Pennsylvania opened a chamber tomb at the heart of the Great Tumulus (height : 53 m, diameter : about 300 m) on the site of ancient Gordion (modern Yassihöyük, Turkey), where there are located more than 100 tumuli of different sizes and of different periods. They discovered an early eighth century royal burial, complete with remains of the funeral feast and "the best collection of Iron Age drinking vessels ever uncovered". This inner chamber was rather large : 5.15 by 6.20 m. The height of the ceiling was 3.25 m. On a wooden bedstead in the corner of the chamber lay a skeleton of a man of 1.59 m height and about 60 years old. In the room there were decorated tables and panels, and many vessels with grave offerings. Though no identifying texts were associated with the site, it is popularly dubbed the "Tomb of Midas" (Penn). But later investigations showed that this funerary monument couldn't have been constructed after the Cimmerian invasion in the early seventh century BCE. Therefore it is now believed to be the monument for an earlier king than Midas.

A "tomb of Midas" identified in the nineteenth century at Midas Sehri on the basis of the word "Mida", identified in incompletely translated Phrygian inscriptions, is not today interpreted as a tomb, but instead a site sacred to Cybele.


Once, as Ovid relates in Metamorphoses X Dionysus found his old schoolmaster and foster father, the satyr Silenus, missing. The old satyr had been drinking wine, and had wandered away drunk, and was found by some Phrygian peasants, who carried him to their king, Midas (alternatively, he passed out in Midas' rose garden). Midas recognized him, and treated him hospitably, entertaining him for ten days and nights with politeness, while Silenus entertained Midas and his friends with stories and songs. On the eleventh day he brought Silenus back to Dionysus in Lydia. Dionysus offered Midas his choice of whatever reward he wanted. Midas asked that whatever he might touch should be changed into gold. Midas rejoiced in his new power, which he hastened to put to the test. He touched an oak twig and a stone and both turned to gold. Overjoyed, as soon as he got home, he ordered the servants to set a feast on the table. "So Midas, king of Lydia, swelled at first with pride when he found he could transform everything he touched to gold: but when he beheld his food grow rigid and his drink harden into golden ice then he understood that this gift was a bane and in his loathing for gold cursed his prayer" (Claudian, In Rufinem). In a version told by Nathaniel Hawthorne, he found that when he touched his daughter, she turned into a statue as well.

Now he hated the gift he had coveted. He prayed to Dionysus, begging to be delivered from starvation. Dionysus heard and consented; he told Midas to wash in the river Pactolus. He did so, and when he touched the waters, the power passed into the river, and the river sands became changed into gold. This explained why the river Pactolus was so rich in gold and the wealth of the dynasty claiming Midas as forefather, no doubt the impetus for this etiological myth. (Graves). Gold was perhaps not the only metallic source of Midas' riches: "King Midas, a Phrygian, son of Cybele, first discovered black and white lead."

Midas, now hating wealth and splendor, moved to the country and became a worshipper of Pan, the god of the fields and satyr. Roman mythographers asserted that his tutor in music was Orpheus. Once Pan had the audacity to compare his music with that of Apollo, and to challenge Apollo, the god of the lyre, to a trial of skill (also see Marsyas). Tmolus, the mountain-god, was chosen as umpire. Pan blew on his pipes, and with his rustic melody gave great satisfaction to himself and his faithful follower, Midas, who happened to be present. Then Apollo struck the strings of his lyre. Tmolus at once awarded the victory to Apollo, and all but Midas agreed with the judgment. He dissented, and questioned the justice of the award. Apollo would not suffer such a depraved pair of ears any longer, and caused them to become the ears of a donkey. The myth is illustrated by two paintings "Apollo and Marsyas" by Palma il Giovane (1544-1628), one depicting the scene before, and one after the punishment.

Midas was mortified at this mishap. He attempted to hide his misfortune with an ample turban or headdress. But his hairdresser of course knew the secret. He was told not to mention it. He could not keep the secret; so he went out into the meadow, dug a hole in the ground, whispered the story into it, and covered the hole up. A thick bed of reeds sprang up in the meadow, and began whispering the story and saying "King Midas has a donkey's ears."

Sarah Morris demonstrated (Morris 2004) that donkeys' ears were a Bronze Age royal attribute, borne by King Tarkasnawa (Greek Tarkondemos) of Mira, on a seal inscribed in both Hittite cuneiform and Luwian hieroglyphs: in this connection the myth would appear to justify for Greeks the exotic attribute.

Livestock on the way to Gordium, Polatli, Turkey


Gordias (or Gordius) was a royal name in the mythic prehistory of Phrygia. In the mythological age, kings of Phrygia were alternately named Gordias and Midas.

In the founding myth of Gordium, the first Gordias was a Phrygian farmer. When an eagle landed on the pole of his ox-cart, he interpreted it as a sign that he would one day become a king. The eagle did not stir as he drove the cart to the oracle of Sabazios at the old, more easterly cult center, Telmissus, in the part of Phrygia that later became part of Galatia. At the gates of the city he encountered a seeress, who counselled him to offer sacrifices to Zeus/Sabazios:

"'Let me come with you, peasant,' she said, 'to make sure that you select the right victims.' "By all means,' replied Gordius. 'You appear to be a wise and considerate young woman. Are you prepared to marry me?' 'As soon as the sacrifices have been offered,' she answered."

Meanwhile, the Phrygians, suddenly finding themselves without a king, consulted the oracle and were told to acclaim as king the first man to ride up to the temple in a cart. It was the farmer Gordias who appeared, riding in his ox-cart with his patroness.

Gordias founded the city of Gordium, which became the Phrygian capital. His ox-cart was preserved in the acropolis. In this manner the founding myth justified the succession of Gordium to Telmissus as cult center of Phrygia. Its yoke was secured with an intricate knot called the Gordian Knot. The legend of Gordium, widely disseminated by the publicists of Alexander the Great said that he who could unravel it would be master of 'Asia' which was equated at the time with Anatolia. Instead, Alexander sliced the knot in half with his sword, in 333 BCE.

With Cybele, or under her patronage as Great Mother, goddess of Phrygia, Gordias adopted Midas, who was recast as his son in later mythology.

A later Gordias was a Phrygian king, the father with Eurynome of Adrastus. Adrastus accidentally killed his own brother and had to flee to Lycia. Wikipedia


Gordium (Greek: Gordion, Turkish Gordiyon) was the capital of ancient Phrygia. It was located at the site of modern Yassihüyük, about 70-80 km southwest of Ankara (capital of Turkey), in the immediate vicinity of Polatlı district.

Gordium is situated on the place where the ancient Royal road between Lydia and Assyria/Babylonia crosses the river Sangarius (Sakarya River), which flows from central Anatolia to the Black Sea. Remains of the road are still visible.

The city became the capital of the Phrygians, a Thracian tribe that had invaded and settled in Asia Minor. They created a large kingdom in the 8th century BCE, that occupied the greater part of Asia Minor west of the river Halys. The kings of Phrygia built large tombs near Gordium. These wooden chambers were covered by artificial hills called tumuli. There are about 80 of them. In the eighth century, the citadel was fortified and in the next century, the town became very large indeed. A palace was built in the citadel. To the south of it was a lower city, and a large suburb was to be found on the other bank of the Sangarius.

The most famous king of Phrygia was the quasi-legendary Midas. Contemporary Assyrian sources dating at least 717 to 709 BC call him Mit-ta-a. During his reign, according to Strabo, a nomadic tribe called Cimmerians invaded Asia Minor, and in 710/709, Midas was forced to ask for help from the Assyrian king Sargon II. However, this did not prevent the Cimmerian invasion. In 696/695, Midas committed suicide after a lost battle. There are traces of destruction at Gordium. Archaeology and radiocarbon were claimed to indicate that the traces are older than the attack by the Cimmerians, and so attest to an otherwise unrecorded early Iron Age destruction in the early 9th century. The archaeological interpretation has been argued against, however, and the radiocarbon analysis seems to be erroneous.

The so-called 'mound of Midas', the Great Tumulus near Gordium, was excavated in 1957. Its diameter is a little short of 300 meters and it is 43 meters high. In the wooden chamber, which measured 5 × 6 meters, a man's corpse was found, and even the contents of his last dinner could be reconstructed. The tumulus also contained one of the oldest alphabetic inscriptions outside Phoenicia (c.740 BCE). On chronological grounds, the possibility that the dead man was indeed king Midas can be excluded. He may have been the famous king's father or grandfather.

After half a century of confusion, western Asia Minor was reunited by the Lydians, whose first great king was Gyges (c.680-c.644). One of his successors, Alyattes (c.600-560), built a massive fortress on a hill near the citadel.

When Lydia was conquered by the Persian king Cyrus the Great and its last king Croesus killed (547), a Persian garrison took possession of this fortress. Gordium was now included in the satrapy of Greater Phrygia. The garrison stayed there until the last months of 334, when the Macedonian commander Parmenion captured the city. During the winter, his king Alexander the Great joined him, traditionally cutting the Gordian Knot in the palace.

After the troubles following the death of Alexander, Gordium was first ruled by the Seleucid kings of Asia, then by the Galatian Celts (the remains of their human sacrifices have been found), then by the Attalid rulers of Pergamum, and eventually by the Romans. It remained one of the most important commercial centers in the region, but the size of the city itself diminished. The old center -citadel and lower town- was abandoned after the Roman conquest in 189 BCE; only the western suburbs remained occupied in the Roman era. Wikipedia


In antiquity, Phrygia (Greek: Φρυγία) was a kingdom in the west central part of Anatolia, in what is now modern day Turkey. The Phrygians (Phruges or Phryges) initially lived in the Southern Balkans; according to Herodotus under the name of Bryges(/Briges), changing it to "Phruges" after their final migration to Anatolia, via the Hellespont.

During the floruit of the city-state of Troy a part of the Bryges emigrated to Anatolia as Trojan allies or under the protection of Troy. The Trojan language did not survive; consequently, its exact relationship to the Phrygian language and the affinity of Phrygian society to that of Troy remain open questions. Similarly the date of migration and the relationship of the Phrygians to the Hittite empire are unknown. A conventional date of c. 1200 BC often is used, at the very end of the empire. It is certain that Phrygia was constituted on Hittite land, and yet not at the very center of Hittite power in the big bend of the Halys river, where Ankara now is.

Subsequently the state of Phrygia arose in the 8th century BC with capital at Gordium. During this period the Phrygians extended eastward and encroached upon the kingdom of Urartu, the descendants of the Hurrians, a former rival of the Hittites.

Meanwhile the Phrygian kingdom was overwhelmed by Iranian Cimmerian invaders c. 690 BC, then briefly conquered by its neighbor Lydia, before it passed successively into the Persian Empire of Cyrus, the empire of Alexander and his successors, was taken by the Attalids of Pergamon, and eventually became part of the Roman Empire. The Phrygian language survived until about the 6th century AD, when it finally gave way to Greek.

Phrygians are mentioned by Homer as dwelling in two regions of Anatolia:

In Ascania, the region around Lake Ascania in Bithynia of northwest Anatolia. The Trojan allies mentioned in the Catalog of Trojans are from there.
In the "swift-horsed" country of Phrygia, a land of "many fortresses", on the banks of the Sangarius (now Sakarya River), the third longest river in modern Turkey, which flows north and west to empty into the Black Sea. There Otreus is king. Priam once was there on the occasion of the war of the Phrygians against the Amazons and reports seeing many horses and that the leaders of the Phrygians were Otreus and Mygdon. Priam's wife's brother, Asios, was the son of Dymas, a Phrygian.

Later, Phrygia was conceived as lying west of the Halys River (now Kızıl River) and east of Mysia and Lydia.


It was the 'Great Mother', Cybele, as the Greeks and Romans knew her, who was originally worshiped in the mountains of Phrygia, where she was known as 'Mountain Mother'. In her typical Phrygian form, she wears a long belted dress, a polos (a high cylindrical headdress), and a veil covering the whole body. The later version of Cybele was established by a pupil of Phidias, the sculptor Agoracritus, and became the image most widely adopted by Cybele's expanding following, both in the Aegean world and at Rome. It shows her humanized though still enthroned, her hand resting on an attendant lion and the other holding the tympanon a circular frame drum, similar to a tambourine.

The Phrygians also venerated Sabazios, the sky and father–god depicted on horseback. Although the Greeks associated Sabazios with Zeus, representations of him, even at Roman times, show him as a horseman god. His conflicts with the indigenous Mother Goddess, whose creature was the Lunar Bull, may be surmised in the way that Sabazios' horse places a hoof on the head of a bull, in a Roman relief at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Phrygia developed an advanced Bronze Age culture. The earliest traditions of Greek music of Greece, derived from Phrygia and transmitted through the Greek colonies in Anatolia, included the Phrygian mode, which was considered to be the warlike mode in ancient Greek music. Phrygian Midas, the king of the "golden touch", was tutored in music by Orpheus himself, according to the myth. Another musical invention that came from Phrygia was the aulos, a reed instrument with two pipes. Marsyas, the satyr who first formed the instrument using the hollowed antler of a stag, was a Phrygian follower of Cybele. He unwisely competed in music with Olympian Apollo, and inevitably lost. Whereupon Apollo flayed Marsyas alive and provocatively hung his skin on Cybele's own sacred tree, a pine.

Phrygia retained a separate cultural identity. Classical Greek iconography identifies the Trojan Paris as non-Greek by his Phrygian cap, which was worn by Mithras and survived into modern imagery as the "Liberty cap" of the American and French revolutionaries. The Phrygians spoke an Indo-European language. (See Phrygian language.) Although the Phrygians adopted the alphabet originated by the Phoenicians, and several dozen inscriptions in the Phrygian language have been found, they remain untranslated, and so much of what is thought to be known of Phrygia is second-hand information from Greek sources.

Mythic past

Mythic kings of Phrygia were alternately named Gordias and Midas. Some sources place Tantalus as a king in Phrygia. Tantalus is endlessly punished in Tartarus because he killed his son Pelops and sacrificially offered him to the Olympians, a reference to the suppression of human sacrifice. In the mythic age before the Trojan war, during a time of interregnum, Gordius (or 'Gordias'), a Phrygian farmer, became king, fulfilling an oracular prophecy. The kingless Phrygians had turned for guidance to the oracle of Sabazios ("Zeus" to the Greeks) at Telmissus, in the part of Phrygia that later became part of Galatia. They had been instructed by the oracle to acclaim as their king the first man who rode up to the god's temple in a cart. That man was Gordias (Gordios, Gordius), a farmer, who dedicated the ox-cart in question, tied to its shaft with the "Gordian Knot." Gordias refounded a capital at Gordium in west central Anatolia, situated on the old trackway through the heart of Anatolia that became Darius' Persian "Royal Road" from Pessinus to Ancyra, and not far from the River Sangarius.

Myths surrounding the first king Midas connect him with Silenus and other satyrs and with Dionysus, who granted him the famous "golden touch." In another episode he judged a musical contest between Apollo, playing the lyre, and Pan, playing the rustic pan pipes. Midas judged in favor of Pan, and Apollo awarded him the ears of an ass.

The mythic Midas of Thrace, accompanied by a band of his people, travelled to Asia Minor to wash away the taint of his unwelcome "golden touch" in the river Pactolus. Leaving the gold in the river's sands, Midas found himself in Phrygia, where he was adopted by the childless king Gordias and taken under the protection of Cybele. Acting as the visible representative of Cybele, and under her authority, it would seem, a Phrygian king could designate his successor.

According to the Iliad, the Phrygians were Trojan allies during the Trojan War. The Phrygia of Homer's Iliad appears to be located in the area that embraced the Ascanian lake and the northern flow of the Sangarius river, and so was much more limited in extent than classical Phrygia. Homer's Iliad also includes a reminiscence by the Trojan king Priam, who had in his youth come to aid the Phrygians against the Amazons (Iliad 3.189). During this episode (a generation before the Trojan War), the Phrygians were said to be led by Otreus and Mygdon. Both appear to be little more than eponyms: there was a place named Otrea on the Ascanian lake, in the vicinity of the later Nicaea; and the Mygdones were a people of Asia Minor, who resided near Lake Dascylitis (there was also a Mygdonia in Macedonia). During the Trojan War, the Phrygians sent forces to aid Troy, led by Ascanius and Phorcys, the sons of Aretaon. Asius, son of Dymas and brother of Hecabe, is another Phrygian noble who fought before Troy. Quintus Smyrnaeus mentions another Phrygian prince, named Coroebus, son of Mygdon, who fought and died at Troy; he had sued for the hand of the Trojan princess Cassandra in marriage. King Priam's wife Hecabe is usually said to be of Phrygian birth, as a daughter of King Dymas.

The Phrygian Sibyl was the priestess presiding over the Apollonian oracle at Phrygia.

According to Herodotus (Histories 2.9), the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus II had two children raised in isolation in order to find the original language. The children were reported to have uttered bekos which is Phrygian for "bread", so Psammetichus admitted that the Phrygians were a nation older than the Egyptians.

Josephus claimed the Phrygians were founded by the biblical figure Togarmah grandson of Japheth and son of Gomer: "and Thrugramma the Thrugrammeans, who, as the Greeks resolved, were named Phrygians".



After the collapse of the Hittite Empire at the beginning of the 12th century BC, the political vacuum in central/western Anatolia was filled by a wave of Indo-European migrants and "Sea Peoples", including the Phrygians, who established their kingdom, with a capital eventually at Gordium. It is still not known whether the Phrygians were actively involved in the collapse of the Hittite capital Hattusa, or whether they simply moved into the vacuum that followed the collapse of Hittite hegemony. The so called Handmade Knobbed Ware was found by archaeologists at sites from this period in Western Anatolia. According to Greek mythographers, the first Phrygian Midas had been king of the Moschi (Mushki), also known as Bryges (Brigi) in the western part of archaic Thrace.

8th to 7th centuries

Assyrian sources from the 8th century BC speak of a king Mita of the Mushki, identified with king Midas of Phrygia. An Assyrian inscription records Mita as an ally of Sargon of Assyria in 709 BC. A distinctive Phrygian pottery called Polished Ware appears in the 8th century BC. The Phrygians founded a powerful kingdom which lasted until the Lydian ascendancy (7th century BC). Under kings alternately named Gordias and Midas, the independent Phrygian kingdom of the 8th and 7th centuries BC maintained close trade contacts with her neighbours in the east and the Greeks in the west. Phrygia seems to have been able to co-exist with whichever was the dominant power in eastern Anatolia at the time.

The invasion of Anatolia in the late 8th century BC to early 7th century BC by the Cimmerians was to prove fatal to independent Phrygia. Cimmerian pressure and attacks culminated in the suicide of its last king, Midas, according to legend. Gordium fell to the Cimmerians in 696 BC and was sacked and burnt, as reported much later by Herodotus.

A series of digs have opened Gordium as one of Turkey's most revealing archeological sites. Excavations confirm a violent destruction of Gordion around 675 BC. A tomb of the Midas period, popularly identified as the "Tomb of Midas" revealed a wooden structure deeply buried under a vast tumulus, containing grave goods, coffin, furniture, food offerings, (Archaeological Museum, Ankara). The Gordium site contains a considerable later building program, perhaps by Alyattes, the Lydian king, in the 6th century BC.

Minor Phrygian kingdoms continued to exist after the end of the Phrygian empire, and the Phrygian art and culture continued to flourish. Cimmerian people stayed in Anatolia but do not appear to have created a kingdom of their own. The Lydians repulsed the Cimmerians in the 620s, and Phrygia was subsumed into a short-lived Lydian empire. The eastern part of the former Phrygian empire fell into the hands of the Medes in 585 BC.

Tumuli on the way to Gordium, Polatli, Ankara

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