Sunday, September 2, 2012

A few notes on Midas

According to Hyginus, Fab. 46, Zeus killed Erechtheus with a thunderbolt at the request of Poseidon, who was enraged at the Athenians for killing his son Eumolpus.

Ovid says in passing that Midas, along with Eumolpus, was tutored by Orpheus:
King Midas, to whom, with Athenian Eumolpus, Orpheus of Thrace had taught the Bacchic rites.
If one looks into Eumolpus a little, it is immediately clear he's a major culture hero -- son of Poseidon, a teacher of Heracles (as Theocritus notes in Idyll 24), and a bridge between Silenus, Dionysus and Orpheus, and the Eleusinian Mysteries.* As Wikipedia notes,

Triptolemos,Demeter, Persephone

The Eleusinian Mysteries (Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) were initiation ceremonies held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis in ancient Greece. Of all the mysteries celebrated in ancient times, these were held to be the ones of greatest importance.
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter signals Eumolpus's importance:
She to Triptolemus taught, and to Diocles, driver of horses,
Also to mighty Eumolpus, to Celeus, leader of peoples,
Cult of the holy rites, to them all her mystery telling. HH Dem. 474-476
As a son of Poseidon, Eumolpus is also linked to the pre-Athena days of Athens - before the contest by which the city chose Athena over the sea God, as depicted by Athena in Book 6.

The point here is that Midas, although he has come down to us in fables as the prototypical fool, is linked with Eumolpus as learning Bacchic rites directly from Orpheus. Midas recognizes Silenus, the tutor of Bacchus, and entertains him for 10 days, then returns him to his ward, who allows him any wish.

Bacchus and Midas: Poussin

We then get two familiar stories about Midas -- the golden touch and the ears of the ass -- and we might consider why, in the course of describing the dissemination of the Orphic tradition, Ovid puts them together here. Midas seems to indicate a decline, a possibly errant or degenerate path of the Orphic tradition -- quite different from what Eumolpus taught at Eleusis.

In part, this would be Ovid's way of indicating differences between the central Greek tradition and that which perhaps got bowdlerized in Anatolia. If so -- and this is just speculation -- is Ovid suggesting something about the background of Troy, something in the roots of Rome? How might this relate to the tale of Peleus and Thetis, both of whom bring into play their own complex histories?

Peleus and Thetis: Leonard Porter 

*The Eumolpidae: (Greek: Ευμολπιδαι) were a family of priests at Eleusis who maintained the Eleusinian Mysteries during the Hellenic era. As hierophants, they popularized the cult and allowed many more to be initiated into the secrets of Demeter and Persephone. The legendary genealogy of the Eumolpidae cast them as descendants of Eumolpus, one of the first priests of Demeter at Eleusis, through his second son, Herald-Keryx.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome!

    Brendan Ryan

    The Middlesex Company
    Houston, Texas