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Midas the King has ass’s ears


Keeping secrets is recognised to be a cause of stress. And when people reveal their secrets their health improves. Source : Neuroscientist and novelist David Eagleman on The Forum (BBC World Service), 3rd June 2010

The story of King Midas that follows is essentially the same as the old Irish tale of Lowry Lynch.  King Lowry Lynch had horse's ears, something he was concerned to keep quiet. To cover them he grew his hair long, and had it cut once a year. The barber, who was chosen by lot, was immediately put to death.

A widow, hearing that her only son had been chosen to cut the king's hair, begged the king not to kill him. He agreed, so long as the barber kept his secret.  

But the burden of the secret made the barber ill. A druid advised him to go to a crossroads and tell his secret to the first tree he came to, and he would be relieved of his burden and be well again. He told the secret to a large willow. Soon afterwards, Craiftine the court poet and harper chanced to break his harp, and needed a new one. Now it happens that the best tree for making a harp is a willow; and the willow Craiftine chose was none other than the tree the barber had told his secret to.

Whenever Craiftine played it, the harp sang "Lowry Lynch has horse's ears". Lowry Lynch admitted his secret and repented of all the barbers he had put to death. 

That’s the Irish version of tale. The King Midas story that follows comes from ancient Greece.  The first known written version was set down by the Roman poet Ovid. 46 variants of the tale are known from disparate languages, countries and regions. So far as I can tell, folklorists are agreed that Ovid is the ultimate source for them all.

Incidentally the King Midas who appears in this story is the same Midas who had the touch - he could turn everything to gold.  This sounds cool, but actually it ended badly for him. That however is another story. This one is called Midas the King has ass’s ears.  I learnt it at school when I was about 9 under the heading of Greek Myths. Ovid by the way says nothing of twelve barbers, they were my idea.

Wikipedia entry on Midas.

The story

Once upon a time in Greece there was a certain city whose king was Midas. King Midas
had ass’s ears, of which he was deeply ashamed. He had been given them by the god Apollo for insulting his musical skill, and to hide them the King grew his hair long. The only person who knew about the ass's ears was the Royal Barber who came every week to trim the King’s hair and keep it neat.  King Midas couldn't remember a time when the Royal Barber hadn't cut his hair.  The barber was an old man and was the soul of discretion, and King Midas trusted him implicitly with his shameful secret. 

In this bronze wall fountain,  from a 16th Century original,
King Midas's hair doesn't cover his asses ears.  
From the catalogue of Lassco, dealers in antiques and curiosities

Old men die, and one day the Royal Barber died. King Midas was sad, but he was also anxious. How would he find another barber who would be as discreet?

Now it happened that in the city there were twelve barbers, so King Midas summoned them all to the palace to interview them for the appointment of Royal Barber.  While they waited in an antechamber, he hid and listened to their conversation.  Most of the barbers, all but one in fact, were garrulous and talkative and competed with each other in telling ribald stories, mainly about their clients.  This lot will not do thought Midas, they won't do at all, and he sent them home.  All except one, who the King had noticed stood apart from the group and didn’t seem to talk to anyone. So King Midas interviewed him for the job and found that he lived on his own and had few if any friends.  He didn’t seem to have many clients either, from which the King inferred that perhaps he wasn’t much of a barber. But he did seem to be the sort of person who could keep a secret, so the King gave him the job.  Come here next Thursday and trim my hair he said to Demetrios, for that was the barber’s name.

Demetrios came to the palace to trim the King’s hair for the first time, he thought, What's this, an ass’s ear!  A comedy ear, obviously, but what do I say about it?  If I mention it, might the King be offended?  On the other hand if I don’t mention it, could that be worse?  He may think the reason I'm saying nothing is I think it’s real and not a comedy ear at all.

He pondered this but decided to stay quiet. The next Thursday the comedy ear was there again.
Demetrios dropped his scissors into the King’s hair, and pretending it was an accident, fumbled the ear.  It’s REAL he said to himself.  For a whole week, Demetrios hardly slept, for fretting about the King’s ear.  Surely I must be mistaken, hoped Demetrios.  On the third occasion that he cut the King’s hair, there could be no doubt.  Demetrios said to himself: MIDAS THE KING HAS ASS’S EARS.

Walking home afterwards Demetrios was in turmoil.  I am the only person who knows the King’s secret he said to himself.  How can I carry this burden?  I must find someone to share it.  But who?  I know so few people;  and no-one well enough to tell this dreadful thing.

The path home led
Demetrios along a river bank and past a bed of bulrushes.  I'll tell the bulrushes he said to himself. He knelt down and whispered to the bulrushes, Midas the King has ass’s ears.  A weight was lifted from his shoulders.  He sauntered home with a quick light step.

A breeze arose. The bulrushes swayed, and as they did so, they whispered to each other: Midas the King has ass’s ears.  Few people walked along the river bank, but those who did heard the bulrushes whispering. The rumour soon spread.  Some said : The bulrushes are whispering Midas the King has ass’s ears.  Others said : No, bulrushes don’t talk, it’s only the wind.  And others again didn’t mention the bulrushes, just saying : Have you heard, Midas the King has ass’s ears.

I can't tell you how the story ends because I don’t know.  Did the rumour that Midas the King has ass’s ears reach the ass’s ears of Midas the King?  I rather hope not.  If it did, he would surely have died of shame, but not before he had punished the barber severely.   Being a king is lonely, and I think it’s likely that no-one would have dared to mention the rumour to the King, nor to be overheard by him. It’s the sort of thing that could get you in prison if not worse. Perhaps
Demetrios the barber didn’t hear the rumour either.  After all, he had no friends to tell him.  Maybe the only two people in the city that didn’t hear the rumour were Midas the king and Demetrios the barber.  

We might be tempted to wonder if maybe these two lonely people even became friends.  But whatever else may have happened, I'm afraid that’s one thing that could never happen.  Because of this big thing that neither of them could talk about.  The King knew that the barber knew his secret; and he knew that the barber knew he knew. But still it was a thing that could never be said between them.