The Curious History of Phyllis on Aristotle

The cover story on the latest edition of Distillations, the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s excellent magazine, traces the history of truth serums and related efforts to compel people to tell a truth they might want to keep secret. The section on hypnosis, “the first modern method for coaxing out buried truths,” includes these images.

Two examples of hypnotists at work in Distillations article, “Stranger than Fiction.” The top image is described as “A mesmerist at work in the advertising poster.” The bottom Virgil Finlay’s cover art from the July 1954 issue of Fate, the “special hypnotism issue.”
Two examples of hypnotists at work in Distillations article, “Stranger than Fiction.” The top image is described as “A mesmerist at work in the advertising poster.” The bottom Virgil Finlay’s cover art from the July 1954 issue of Fate, the “special hypnotism issue.”

The top image is lithograph poster from ca. 1900. It shows a hypnotist doing what hypnotists did best: making people behave in strange and unusual ways. Among the strange behaviors the one that jumps out as most remarkable is the centuries old visual trope of a young woman riding an old man. This is clearly an example of Phyllis on Aristotle.

The story of Phyllis on Aristotle dates back to the 13th century in German and French versions, but is much better known from John Herold’s Latin version from the 14th century.[1] Herold was a Dominican who compiled a number of exempla that could be used in sermons. According to this version, Aristotle had warned his student, Alexander the Great, to avoid intimate affairs with his wife, Phyllis. Alexander should, instead, concentrate on philosophy. Phyllis was understandably upset that her husband was shunning her and particularly angry at Aristotle for encouraging him to do so. To exact revenge, Phyllis started flirting with the old philosopher until finally seducing him and humiliating him by riding him like a horse while Alexander hid and watched. The story is short and worth reading:

Once upon a time, Aristotle taught Alexander that he should restrain himself from frequently approaching his wife, who was very beautiful, lest he should impede his spirit from seeking the general good. Alexander acquiesced to him. The queen, when she perceived this and was upset, began to draw Aristotle to love her. Many times she crossed paths with him alone, with bare feet and disheveled hair, so that she might entice him.

At last, being enticed, he began to solicit her carnally. She says,

“This I will certainly not do, unless I see a sign of love, lest you be testing me. Therefore, come to my chamber crawling on hand and foot, in order to carry me like a horse. Then I’ll know that you aren’t deluding me.”

When he had consented to that condition, she secretly told the matter to Alexander, who lying in wait apprehended him carrying the queen. When Alexander wished to kill Aristotle, in order to excuse himself, Aristotle says,

“If thus it happened to me, an old man most wise, that I was deceived by a woman, you can see that I taught you well, that it could happen to you, a young man.”

Hearing that, the king spared him, and made progress in Aristotle’s teachings.[2]

The point of this exemplum seems to have been to warn men of the threatening power of women. If even the wise and most learned Aristotle could be reduced to a rude animal by lust and the wiles of a woman, how much more would lesser men suffer. Initially the story probably reinforced other exempla that illustrated similar ideas, e.g., Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah.

This early 16th-century drawing of Phyllis Riding Aristotle by Master M.Z. (ca. 1500) depicts a clothed Phyllis riding Aristotle in a walled garden while Alexander (?) watches (original at the Art Institute of Chicago).
This early 16th-century drawing of Phyllis Riding Aristotle by Master M.Z. (ca. 1500) depicts a clothed Phyllis riding Aristotle in a walled garden while Alexander (?) watches (original at the Art Institute of Chicago).

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries fear of powerful women and their ability to overturn accepted social and cultural norms breathed new life and significance into the story. At the same time a market for mass produced images was emerging throughout Europe.[3] Artists quickly adapted the story and produced countless drawings, woodcuts, engravings, and paintings of Phyllis on Aristotle, making it one of the most common and recognizable visual expressions of the power of women topos. These images reinforced a constellation of anxieties and fears that also contributed to witchcraft accusations and persecutions across Europe.

Hans Baldung Grien’s early drawing from 1503 depicted a clothed Phyllis holding a riding crop and reigns sitting on Aristotle. In this drawing he set the scene somewhere outside of town. (See the original Phyllis and Aristotle by Hans Baldung Grien (1503) at the Louvre).
Hans Baldung Grien’s early drawing from 1503 depicted a clothed Phyllis holding a riding crop and reigns sitting on Aristotle. In this drawing he set the scene somewhere outside of town. (See the original Phyllis and Aristotle by Hans Baldung Grien (1503) at the Louvre).

In the early part of the century German artists seemed to corner the market on Phyllis riding Aristotle. In 1530 Lucas Cranach the Elder painted a colorful version of the story, showing an opulently dressed but otherwise somewhat restrained Phyllis riding Aristotle somewhere out in the country. Unlike most of these depictions, Cranach’s Phyllis is not holding a riding crop or a set of reigns, grasping instead Aristotle’s beard.

In Lucas Cranach the Elder’s version of Phyllis and Aristotle from 1530, Phyllis doesn’t have a riding crop or reigns, but holds tightly on to Aristotle’s beard. This copy sold recently at Sotheby’s for $4Mil.
In Lucas Cranach the Elder’s version of Phyllis and Aristotle from 1530, Phyllis doesn’t have a riding crop or reigns, but holds tightly on to Aristotle’s beard. This copy sold recently at Sotheby’s for $4Mil.

Subduing Aristotle was, apparently, not sufficiently degrading (or perhaps titillating). Soon artists were depicting Phyllis naked. In 1513 Hans Baldung Grien produced another version of the story, this time a woodcut showing a naked Phyllis holding in one hand a riding whip suggestively behind Aristotle and in the other the reigns that were attached to the bit in the philosopher’s mouth. In this version Phyllis rides Aristotle around inside a walled garden.

In this version Hans Baldung Grien depicts Phyllis naked, dominating Aristotle with a whip and reigns.
In this version Hans Baldung Grien depicts Phyllis naked, dominating Aristotle with a whip and reigns.

By the middle of the century a naked Phyllis was common, still brandishing a riding crop and holding the reigns, the bit firmly in Aristotle’s mouth.

Johannes Sadeler’s engraving from the mid- to late-16th century reflects the standard visual vocabulary that had come to represent the story of Phyllis riding Aristotle. Source: Phyllis and Aristotle by Johannes Sadeler, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953 (53.601.10(25)) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/652755
Johannes Sadeler’s engraving from the mid- to late-16th century reflects the standard visual vocabulary that had come to represent the story of Phyllis riding Aristotle. Source: Phyllis and Aristotle by Johannes Sadeler, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953 (53.601.10(25))
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/652755.

In the context of profound social and cultural changes of the 16th and early 17th centuries, and not least the problem of witchcraft, we can see these images as expressions of male anxiety and fear. But they enjoyed a curious history that seems to have outlived their obvious relevance. Three hundred years later the story of Phyllis on Aristotle enjoyed a revival of sorts.

Throughout the 19th century the tradition of Phyllis on Aristotle resurfaces in a number of diverse places. In the earliest years of the century, Père Enfantin included a brief description of a kind of parlor game where one penalty required a young man to get down on hands and knees and to walk around the circle of players carrying a young woman on his back. Each man she passed kissed her.[4]

Père Enfantin described an odd parlor game that repurposed the Phyllis on Aristotle topos from 500 years earlier. This illustration from his book shows a young woman riding around on a man and being kissed by another player. A PDF copy of this book is available from the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek MDZ portal: Le Petit Savant de Société, vol. 4 (Paris, [1800]).
Père Enfantin described an odd parlor game that repurposed the Phyllis on Aristotle topos from 500 years earlier. This illustration from his book shows a young woman riding around on a man and being kissed by another player. A PDF copy of this book is available from the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek MDZ portal: Le Petit Savant de Société, vol. 4 (Paris, [1800]).

Towards the end of the century, the French playwright Pierre Wolff wrote a play titled Le Cheval d’Aristote. And then, bringing us back to where we started, at the end of the century the story of Phyllis on Aristotle found a place in the hypnotism movements in the U.S.

These two posters were produced by the Donaldson Lithography Co. They were generic—in the empty space at the top performers or theaters would have printed the details about the performance, e.g., the hypnotist’s name, the date, and probably the location of the show. Both posters depict a young woman holding a riding crop and reigns. The originals are at the Library of Congress: poster on the left and poster on the right.
These two posters were produced by the Donaldson Lithography Co. They were generic—in the empty space at the top performers or theaters would have printed the details about the performance, e.g., the hypnotist’s name, the date, and probably the location of the show. Both posters depict a young woman holding a riding crop and reigns. The originals are at the Library of Congress: poster on the left and poster on the right.

Around the turn of the 20th century the Donaldson Lithography Company produced a set of posters that hypnotists or theaters could use to advertise their shows.[5] The hypnotist dressed in his fine suit stood to one side and made people do all sorts of extraordinary things. Two of these posters use the Phyllis on Aristotle story to reflect the powers of the hypnotist to invert or overturn social and cultural norms. In one the young woman has subdued an older man. In the other, the young woman rides a man who bucks in an effort to throw her off.[6]

We can easily explain the enduring relevance of the Phyllis on Aristotle motif as just the perennial male anxiety about powerful women. There is, no doubt, considerable truth to that explanation, but it doesn’t help us understand why this particular story of women upending society and more specifically this particular visual trope remained popular. Whatever the reason, the ever youthful and attractive Phyllis was still riding around on Aristotle more than 400 years after overcoming the old philosopher.

Oskar Kokoschka’s 1913 version of Phyllis on Aristotle depicts Phyllis with riding crop and reigns riding Aristotle around inside some room while three figures watch. “Aristoteles und Phyllis at the L.A. County Museum of Art.
Oskar Kokoschka’s 1913 version of Phyllis on Aristotle depicts Phyllis with riding crop and reigns riding Aristotle around inside some room while three figures watch. “Aristoteles und Phyllis at the L.A. County Museum of Art.

  1. The grandfather of the history of science, George Sarton, wrote a useful history of early versions of this story in 1930: “Aristotle and Phyllis” Isis 14(1930): 8–19. Sarton’s article is a useful introduction to this history and fun to read as an artifact from the history of the history of science. He doesn’t shy away from injecting his own opinion throughout the article, e.g., when discussing the various names used to refer to the young woman he says: “I … shall always call the damsel PHYLLIS, if only to help drive out the other name [Campaspe], which is not half as nice.”  ↩

  2. The Latin and english are found here. For those interested, here is the Latin:

    Aristotles, cum doceret Alexandrum ut se contineret ab accessu frequenti uxoris suae, quae erat pulcra valde, ne animum suum a communi providentia impediret, et Alexander ei acquiesceret, hoc advertens regina et dolens, coepit Aristotelem trahere ad amorem suum, quia multociens sola transibat cum pedibus nudis et dissoluto crine, ut eum alliceret.

    Tandem allectus coepit eam sollicitare carnaliter, quae ait,

    “Hoc omnino non faciam, nisi videro signa amoris, ne me tentes: ergo veni ad meam cameram, reptando manibus et pedibus, sicut equus me portando, tunc scio quod non illudes mihi.”

    Cui conditioni cum consensisset, illa intimavit hoc Alexandro; qui expectans apprehendit eum reginam portantem. Quem cum vellet occidere, ait Aristoteles sic se excusando,

    “Si sic accidit seni sapientissimo, ut a muliere deciperar, potes videre quod bene docueram te, quid accidere potest tibi juveni.”

    Quod audiens rex, ei perpercit, et in doctrina eius profecit.  ↩

  3. Mass produced in the 16th century didn’t look anything like mass produced in 20th. Nevertheless, through printing artists and printers produced images that could be sold to and collected by larger audiences than ever before. Throughout the 16th century the market for printed images continued to grow.  ↩

  4. Listed as the first of the “Pénitences désagréables” is “Le cheval d’Aristote:”

    Le cavalier qui est condamné à remplir cette pénitence, est obligé de se mettre à quatre patte parterre et il promène autour du cercle, et dans cette attitude, une dame désignée par la société.
    Cette dame, assise sur son dos, est embrassée par tous les cavaliers devant lesquels elle passe.

    Père Enfantin, Le Petit savant de société, ouvrage dédié à la jeunesse des deux sexes, contenant la manière de jouer tous les jeux innocens dont on s’amuse en société, et les pénitences qui s’y ordonnent, avec la manière de s’y conformer en les exécutant vol. 4 (Paris, [1810]), 23  ↩

  5. The top of the posters were left blank so that the performer or the venue could print the performer’s name and details of the show, such as the hypnotist’s name, date and time of the show, and location.  ↩

  6. I note that in both images a sign of the hypnotist’s power to upend social norms is to make men play brooms as if musical instruments. I get that playing a broom as if a musical instrument is silly, but I don’t understand how it inverts typical social norms the way a woman riding a man or the two men kissing (or even the policeman brandishing a sausage rather than a nightstick) invert traditional values. I would love to know why the broom as musical instrument was meaningful.  ↩