Having rid himself at last of the golden touch, King Midas no longer wished for riches, nor even for power. He wished to lead the simple life and to listen to the piping of Pan along with the goat-herds on the mountains or the wild creatures in the woods. Thus it befell that he was present one day at a contest between Pan and Apollo himself. It was a day of merry-making for nymphs and fauns and dryads, and all those who lived in the lonely solitudes of Phrygia came to listen to the music of the god who ruled them. For as Pan sat in the shade of a forest one night and piped on his reeds until the very shadows danced, and the water of the stream by which he sat leapt high over the mossy stones it passed, and laughed aloud in its glee, the god had so gloried in his own power that he cried:
“Who speaks of Apollo and his lyre? Some of the gods may be well pleased with his music, and mayhap a bloodless man or two. But my music strikes to the heart of the earth itself. It stirs with rapture the very sap of the trees, and awakes to life and joy the innermost soul of all things mortal.”
Apollo heard his boast, and heard it angrily.
“Oh, thou whose soul is the soul of the untilled ground!” he said, “wouldst thou place thy music, that is like the wind in the reeds, beside my music, which is as the music of the spheres?”
And Pan, splashing with his goat’s feet amongst the water-lilies of the stream on the bank of which he sat, laughed loudly and cried:
“Yea, would I, Apollo! Willingly would I play thee a match—thou on thy golden lyre—I on my reeds from the river.”
Thus did it come to pass that Apollo and Pan matched against each other their music, and King Midas was one of the judges.
First of all Pan took his fragile reeds, and as he played, the leaves on the trees shivered, and the sleeping lilies raised their heads, and the birds ceased their song to listen and then flew straight to their mates. And all the beauty of the world grew more beautiful, and all its terror grew yet more grim, and still Pan piped on, and laughed to see the nymphs and the fauns first dance in joyousness and then tremble in fear, and the buds to blossom, and the stags to bellow in their lordship of the hills. When he ceased, it was as though a tensely-drawn string had broken, and all the earth lay breathless and mute. And Pan turned proudly to the golden-haired god who had listened as he had spoken through the hearts of reeds to the hearts of men.
“Canst, then, make music like unto my music, Apollo?” he said.
Then Apollo, his purple robes barely hiding the perfection of his limbs, a wreath of laurel crowning his yellow curls, looked down at Pan from his godlike height and smiled in silence. For a moment his hand silently played over the golden strings of his lyre, and then his finger-tips gently touched them. And every creature there who had a soul, felt that that soul had wings, and the wings sped them straight to Olympus. Far away from all earth-bound creatures they flew, and dwelt in magnificent serenity amongst the Immortals. No longer was there strife. No more was there fierce warring between the actual and the unknown. The green fields and thick woods had faded into nothingness, and their creatures, and the fair nymphs and dryads, and the wild fauns and centaurs longed and fought no more, and man had ceased to desire the impossible. Throbbing nature and passionately desiring life faded into dust before the melody that Apollo called forth, and when his strings had ceased to quiver and only the faintly remembered echo of his music remained, it was as though the earth had passed away and all things had become new.
For the space of many seconds all was silence.
Then, in low voice, Apollo asked:
“Ye who listen—who is the victor?”
And earth and sea and sky, and all the creatures of earth and sky, and of the deep, replied as one:
“The victory is thine, Divine Apollo.”
Yet was there one dissentient voice.
Midas, utterly not understanding, was relieved when the music of Apollo ceased. “If only Pan would play again,” he murmured to himself. “I wish to live, and Pan’s music gives me life. I love the woolly vine-buds and the fragrant pine-leaves, and the scent of the violets in the spring. The smell of the fresh-ploughed earth is dear to me, the breath of the kine that have grazed in the meadows of wild parsley and of asphodel. I want to drink red wine and to eat and love and fight and work and be joyous and sad, fierce and strong, and very weary, and to sleep the dead sleep of men who live only as weak mortals do.”
Therefore he raised his voice, and called very loud: “Pan’s music is sweeter and truer and greater than the music of Apollo. Pan is the victor, and I, King Midas, give him the victor’s crown!”
With scorn ineffable the sun-god turned upon Midas, his peasant’s face transfigured by his proud decision. For a little he gazed at him in silence, and his look might have turned a sunbeam to an icicle.
Then he spoke: “The ears of a donkey have heard my music,” he said. “Henceforth shall Midas have donkey ears.”
And when Midas, in terror, clapped his hands to his crisp black hair, he found growing far beyond it, the long, pointed ears of a donkey. Perhaps what hurt him most, as he fled away, was the shout of merriment that came from Pan. And fauns and nymphs and satyrs echoed that shout most joyously.
Willingly would he have hidden in the woods, but there he found no hiding-place. The trees and shrubs and flowering things seemed to shake in cruel mockery. Back to his court he went and sent for the court hairdresser, that he might bribe him to devise a covering for these long, peaked, hairy symbols of his folly. Gladly the hairdresser accepted many and many oboli, many and many golden gifts, and all Phrygia wondered, while it copied, the strange headdress of the king.
But although much gold had bought his silence, the court barber was unquiet of heart. All day and all through the night he was tormented by his weighty secret. And then, at length, silence was to him a torture too great to be borne; he sought a lonely place, there dug a deep hole, and, kneeling by it, softly whispered to the damp earth: “King Midas has donkey ears.”
Greatly relieved, he hastened home, and was well content until, on the spot where his secret lay buried, rushes grew up. And when the winds blew through them, the rushes whispered for all those who passed by to hear: “King Midas has donkey ears! King Midas has donkey ears!” Those who listen very carefully to what the green rushes in marshy places whisper as the wind passes through them, may hear the same thing to this day.
Folklore Citation: Lang, Jean. A Book of Myths. NY: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1914. This story is in the public domain and is part of the cited work.