Phyllis Rides Aristotle

In the 1400s and 1500s the story of Phyllis riding Aristotle was popular in art and literature in France and Germany, illustrated by artists and associated with stories from the Bible, Greeks and Romans warning men about the dangers of giving women power over them, known collectively as the Power of Women tales, Weibermacht in German.  The story about Aristotle first appears in the early 1200s in the sermon of Jacques de Vitry, who ridiculed Aristotle, and in a court poem Le Lai d’Aristote by Henri d’Andely, praising love as all powerful, superior to reason.  Maurice Delbouille argued that there are glaring similarities to the earlier Arabic story of Al-Jahiz of the 800s, The Vizier Saddled & Bridled.  The story seems to have nothing to do with the life of Aristotle or ancient times, told centuries after Aristotle was long dead.

The basic story is that the wise elder Aristotle scolds his young student Alexander for ignoring his studies and state for his lover, and then the lover, an unnamed Indian woman or Phyllis, servant of the Greek Queen, takes revenge by seducing Aristotle, demanding he let her ride him like a horse to have her, and then shows this to Alexander.  Aristotle admits that love conquers all, or flees in shame to another country where he ponders the evils of women and passion. Either way, Aristotle warns Alexander that his own failure serves as the perfect example of how dangerous women are to all men, particularly the young and the powerful.

The image of Aristotle ridden by Phyllis is found in art, architecture, tapestries, furniture and as a metaphor in sermons of the time.  Just as Adam was deceived by Eve as the first man, and Samson was bested by Delilah, even though he was the strongest of men, Aristotle was bested by Phyllis even though he was the wisest of men, warning strong and wise men not to underestimate the dangers of women, passion and seduction.  Sometimes the images of Samson and the lion, not Delilah, are paired with Phyllis and Aristotle, comparing seduction to consumption, and sex to death. The popular use of the image in items shared by married couples suggests it was not just a serious warning to men but also a joke between men and women that women can or do have power over men in some ways, particularly in the home, something psychologists and sociologists have argued about.

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