- “Too Difficult for a Single Man to Understand”: Medea’s Out-Jutting Foot
The Aegeus scene, set squarely in the middle of Euripides’ Medea, has received a great deal of critical attention, set in motion largely by the enigmatic comment of Aristotle that this episode is improperly motivated (alogia).1 For all that Medea needs a safe haven, and for all that Aegeus’s childlessness links him to the central themes of the play, these thematic echoes retroactively supplied by critics do not quite remove the surprise of his arrival on stage. Aegeus remains a foreign presence, a haphazard addition and affront to any organic unity of the plot.2 But one part of the scene has escaped critical notice almost entirely. For Aegeus himself seems all too aware of his status, and this leads him to motivate his presence in Corinth. Aegeus is on the way back from asking the Delphic oracle to suggest a cure for his childlessness, and on the way to Troezen to see his friend Pittheus about its meaning (674–88):
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Medea: What then did Phoebus tell you about children? Aegeus: Words too wise for mortal to interpret. Medea: Is it lawful for me to hear the response? Aegeus: Most certainly: it calls for a wise mind. Medea: What then did the god say? Tell me, if it is lawful to hear. Aegeus: “Do not the wineskin’s salient foot untie . . .” Medea: Until you do what or come to what country? Aegeus: “ . . . until you come to hearth and home again.” Medea: And what were you in need of that you sailed to this land? Aegeus: There is a man named Pittheus, king of Trozen. Medea: The son of Pelops and a man most pious, they say. Aegeus: It is with him that I wish to share the god’s response. Medea: The man is wise and experienced in such matters. Aegeus: What is more, he is closest of all my allies. Medea: Well good luck attend you, and may you obtain what you desire.3
The oracle is mentioned and then forgotten. This is more puzzling because we are teased with the possibility of a solution. Aegeus tells it to the “wise mind” ( 677) of Medea, and the oracle is uttered only after Medea ensures it is appropriate for her to hear it. But she does not preempt Pittheus’s future interpretation.4 She stays silent, wishes Aegeus well, and then attention turns to her tears and the duplicity of Jason. Aegeus and his oracle are left to go their own way.
If critics show little interest in the oracle, it is because, first, they refuse to identify with the puzzlement of Aegeus, and are instead quite sure what the oracle means. This suggests that the king himself must be stupid, and some indeed have seen a disturbing comic absurdity here.5 A hapless, impotent king blunders through Corinth, his dignity further battered by his interpretive obtuseness. A second reason for neglect is that the solution of the oracular riddle is a sexual one. The “out-jutting foot,” so the story goes, is the penis, and the oracle is telling Aegeus not to have sex before he returns.6 We are given this key and left to put together the rest of the correspondence between assorted parts of the wineskin and the sexual act on our own. Deemed quietly unsuitable for the lofty genre of tragedy, the oracle is passed over, its obviousness almost as embarrassing as its sexual subject matter, as if Aegeus had caught the Pythia on a particularly uninspired day. However, it is strange that, if the oracle is so simple, Medea does not interpret it for him. Surely the friendly thing to do for this “wise mind” would be to tell him to head back to Athens. Yet she seems to be paralyzed, or even indifferent. So we should at least [End Page 4] consider the possibility that Aegeus is no more, nor less, stupid than many others when confronted with oracular pronouncements.
Let us for now accept the...