WTF am I looking at?

When you start looking at art history you come across a lot of images that have you asking a lot of questions. Like the story that plays out in the pictures, I have chosen today.

The story behind these images and several variations to the Alexander the Great story is that he once studied with Aristotle. In one of them, Alexander had a mistress named Phyllis, who is said to have been a very beautiful woman. Aristotle could see some major chemistry between Alexander and her, so he suggested to Alexander that he not have sex with her and devote himself solely to his philosophy studies.

Of course, she got pretty pissed off when Alexander told her that the philosopher thought she was too much of a distraction for him and that he had to buckle down on his studies and not have sex with her anymore.

Aristotle and Phyllis

Aristotle and Phyllis. Master M.Z. Engraving, Art Institute of Chicago.

Engraving, Lucas van Leyden, c. 1520

Engraving, Lucas van Leyden, c. 1520.

Giddy-Up Aristotle

So of course, Phyllis started plotting her revenge.

She began charming and flirting with the old philosopher, who, in turn, becomes captivated by her himself.

He desires her, wants her, wants to be with her, and he tells her so.

She then convinces the mesmerized old philosopher that she would really, really like to ride him around like a pony…dominatrix style!

Unbeknownst to Aristotle, she arranges to have Alexander watch as she rides the intellectual around the courtyard.

You’ve been a bad boy

Everyone knows Aristotle’s views on women.  One just has to look at this one passage in his “Politics” to get a sense of the man.

“Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind”. [2]

His attitude about women doesn’t score him any points!

Sokrates, Julio Ruelas 1902.

SokratesJulio Ruelas (1870–1907), 1902.

Aristotle and Phyllis

Woodcut of Aristotle ridden by Phyllis by Hans Baldung, 1515

You need to be punished

The moral of the story was supposed to be that smart men should stay away from beautiful women for fear they become too distracted and lose focus on their studies, their jobs and their livelihoods.  In other words, think with your brain and not with your dick.

Easier said than done.

The actual lesson is that even one of the most misogynous men in history was outsmarted and brought to his knees, and quite literally so by a woman.

The humiliation of Aristotle illustrates very well that old saying, “Pride comes before a fall.”

Jeu du cheval d'aristote

Illustration pour le jeu “Le cheval d’Aristote” by Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin circa 1810

Parlour games and kink

The story of Aristotle and Phyllis was all the rage from the middle ages onwards in “proper society.”  The image above of “Le cheval d’Aristote” illustrates a popular  “punishment” during a board game in which a man is obliged to get on all fours and carry a woman around in circles so other players can kiss her. I guess there’s nothing like having a beautiful woman ride you around the parlour with a whip in hand while others enjoy intimacy with her.

The poster shows people under the influence of a hypnotist, including a young woman riding an older man around like a pony. The suggestion here is the loss of self-control and overtones of sexual freedom that we can see clearly in the two men kissing in the same illustration, something unheard of at the time this poster was printed.

So basically anything of a sexual nature happening in the room isn’t the participants fault.

Hypnotist directing group of people to do unusual things

[Hypnotist directing group of people to do unusual things: woman riding man, man playing broom like a guitar, two men embracing] Creator(s): Donaldson Lith. Co., Library of Congress


We tend to think that our ancestors were all conservatives and only engaged in sex missionary style once in a while. We overlook the fact that there were gay relationships too. We seem to think that sex and sexual desire didn’t exist in the past.  We ignore the fact that there are indeed different strokes for different folks.  Sexuality is very nuanced, to say the least.

What is wonderful about art is that it reflects the society in which it exists.  The story of Aristotle and Phyllis is an old one, yet generations of artists chose to illustrate the tale.  These images were trendy and widely collected during the artist’s lifetimes, making me think that our ancestor’s sexual tastes were more varied than we think.

The story that inspired the art

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 dishevelled 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.

AND they lived happily ever after.

(translated from Latin)  [1]


[1]  The Latin and English are found here.

[2] Aristotle, The Politics, Book I Translated by Benjamin Jowett here


The Library of Congress

Lousiana Tech (translation of the Aristotle and Phyllis story from Latin to English)

Phyllis and Aristotle (Wikipedia)