A recent post by the brilliant Martin Shaw got me thinking about my old sparring partner, Midas.
Shaw is a myth-sayer — the best, the deepest, this generation has been honored to produce. I can’t recommend highly enough his “House of Beasts & Vines,” on Substack. For the price of a pint a month, as he puts it, you will take to the road of his life as it unfolds, through and with the wisdom of sacred stories.
Or, read any of his books, available here.
Shaw’s essay is entitled “Having the Ears of a Horse: Place, Listening, and the Road of Story.” In it, he mentions King Mark of Cornwall who, in the Arthurian tale of Tristan and Isolde, is saddled with horse’s ears.
As you might suspect from the title, Shaw suggests the ungainly appendages have something to offer.
The image he evokes, of a king trying vainly to hide tall equine ears in his hair or under a hat, sent me back to Midas. As many of you know, I’ve long pondered him, and his relationship to money, and the insatiable lust for the stuff that makes him resemble so many billionaires we could name. Midas, at least, had the sense to realize that being able to transform whatever he touched into gold was deadly, and begged to be relieved of the destructive power.
But washing himself clean of the Midas Curse was not the end of his story. Till now, I had dismissed what happens next, taking it for an unrelated anecdote.
In fact, the mistake Midas barely survived led to an epiphany. Now, says Ovid, the once avid hoarder abhors riches. This transfigured Midas joins the company of an ancient god. “Inhabit[ing] the woods and fields, [he] followed Pan, who dwells always in mountain caves.”
Pan: the god of the forests and meadows and the mountain wilds. Pan, whose horned man’s torso springs from the hairy hind end of a goat. He’s an unending transformation, in the constant process of happening.
Skimming over this story, I used to picture, you know, a goat. Of the “you silly goat” variety. But Shaw’s hint made me think again.
It so happens, I’ve been considering the iconography of ancient South Arabia. (Don’t ask.) There, a stylized form recurs, marching across architectural friezes: a majestic goat called an ibex.
From: Alessio Agostini, “Seasonal Offerings Among the Minaeans,” Arabian Archeology and Epigraphy 31:2
What if that’s who Pan was? One of those magnificent ibexes of the wild, with swooping horns that reach almost back to their shoulders, who make their lives in the high rocky crags of the Anatolian mountains?
That goat suggests quite a different prospect.
So…Pan leads his company to the heights of the Tmolus Range, overlooking Sardis. (Myths are often meaningfully embedded in the particulars of place.) There, he takes out his reed pipes and “warbl[es] a gay tune.” Delighting in the music, he reckons it prettier even than the harmonies the dazzling sun-god Apollo can draw from the strings of his lyre.
A contest is agreed. The mountain itself is to be judge.
Isn’t it true? Don’t rocky cliffs applaud music with music of their own?
Disentangling himself from the forest around, the “old god” Pan sits with oak leaves still wreathing his “azure hair,” and acorns hanging from his temples. He plays what Ovid now deems to be no gay tune, but a few “rustic” and “uncouth” notes. Then purple-robed Apollo, handling a lyre “adorned with gems and Indian ivory,” strums a “charming melody.”
The mountain votes for Apollo. Everyone agrees.
And so, an angry Apollo “forbids his stupid ears to hold their native human shape, and drawing them out to a hideous length, he fills them with gray hairs and makes them both unsteady, wagging at their lower part. Still human, only this one part condemned, Midas had the ears of a slow-moving ass.”
The king took to wearing a Phrygian cap, or a purple turban, depending on the version, “which hid his foul disgrace from laughter.”
I always took the stupidity and shame in Ovid’s account at face value. But is that right? If Midas first received a curse disguised as a blessing, is it possible that he is now receiving a blessing disguised as a curse?
I’m wondering if we shouldn’t be asking what manner of ass lent his ears. Are we to envisage a sad-sack Eeyore type of beast, the resigned carrier of our burdens and butt of our jokes? Or are we to imagine something that differs from tame donkey as ibex differs from goat?
Here’s a reference closer to the place I write this from, the Cacapon in spate roaring past my window, convoying whole uprooted trees like barges.
Is this ass the kind of animal Jesuit missionary Paul Lejeune (1591-1664) had in mind when describing indigenous people living in what is now Canada? Those freedom-lovers, he complained, “imagine that they ought by right of birth to enjoy the liberty of wild ass colts.” (Quoted in Graeber and Wengrow: The Dawn of Everything.)
Is Midas, in other words, on to something? Having suffered the fearful hunger that money-addiction brings on, has he made a deliberate choice? To regain something humans were in the process of losing?
For, the contest between Pan and Apollo is a contest between epochs.
Pan comes from an earlier age, when humans were far more in tune with their natural surroundings. So closely did they observe the habits and sense the humors of other living beings, that they may have seemed almost to merge with them. Native American peoples often named their clans after elk or wolf or raven or eel, thus assuming a family bond — and the responsibilities that attended it.
Apollo, by contrast, is a citified god, whose sun-chariot spreads the bright and explicit light of rational intellect. In Ovid’s account, he’s all gold and jewels, his instrument inlayed with costly ivory, no doubt from the tusks of an elephant killed for the purpose.
Midas knows where that leads. Elephants are almost extinct, and we are still hungry. He chooses Pan. And gets his ass’s hearing aids.
I wonder how Midas felt about his new furry ears, which could wobble and prick in every direction, which could pick up sounds humans no longer grasp, and respond in elegant gesture. Look up the word “ear,” and you get associations like this: “notice” “appreciation,” “discrimination,” “sensitivity.” A lot of wisdom there. Maybe Midas loved them ears. Maybe, in merging him partly with wild ass, they made him not less than human, as Ovid presumes, but more than.
So now I find myself wondering: could this second part of the Midas story be at least as important as the first? Perhaps it is offering us Homo sapiens an invitation to re-learn how to listen with wild ears.
I think the most important challenge facing our species today — more important than the crisis in Ukraine, or even corruption, though it’s related to both — is our relationship to the rest of the natural world. And I’m not sure how we address it without wild ears.
So what if we start by hearing how backwards we have gotten these stories. We use the words “goat” and “ass” — once sacred beings — as insults. We actually admire people cursed with the Midas Touch. We use the word “myth” to mean something that’s not true.
Who pulled off that act of disinformation?