Aristotle and Phyllis: matriarchy for millennia from India to France

matriarchy in Islamic dress

Both male and female historians have tended to suppress the historical record of matriarchy. Matriarchy is a social system in which men, born and nurtured by women, are then subordinate to their mothers, wives, and female lovers. Matriarchy has dominated human history to the present.[1] The figure of a woman riding a man as if riding a beast has been popular in cultures from India to France for at least the past two millennia. That figure indicates the historical importance of matriarchy.

The Panchatantra, a collection of tales arising in India about 2000 years ago, provides an early example of the matriarchy figure. The frame story of the Panchatantra, Book IV, tells of a crocodile who sought to kill his good friend. The crocodile sought to kill his friend because the crocodile’s wife wanted to eat his friend’s heart. The wife said that she would starve herself to death unless the crocodile killed his friend for her. The crocodile, ruled by his wife, sought to kill his friend.

While the frame story of Panchatantra, Book IV, is an exposition of matriarchy, the enduring figure of matriarchy occurs as a tale within that frame. The friend, who is a monkey, learned of the crocodile’s plot to kill him. After having escaped, the monkey told the crocodile a story about a king. A long time ago, a king ruled the whole world. The king’s wife got angry with him. The king responded to his wife:

“Beloved, I cannot live a moment without you. I will fall at your feet and beg your pardon.” She said: “If you hold a bit in your mouth and let me climb on your back and drive you, and if, when driven, you neigh like a horse, then I will relent.” [2]

The king obeyed his wife. He accepted a bridle in his mouth and neighed like a horse while carrying his wife around on his back. That’s the power of matriarchy.

The matriarchy figure spread across Mesopotamia. The figure occurs in an early Arabic book doubtfully attributed to al-Jahiz, a leading ninth-century Baghdad intellectual.[3] A Turkish manuscript in the library of the King of France in 1770 included the matriarchy figure as the centerpiece of a story of a young sultan and his old vizir.[4]

In the Turkish story, an old vizir chastised the young sultan for spending so much time enjoying the pleasures of the slave women of his seraglio. After the sultan greatly reduced his time in pleasure with the women, the women protested. One of the sultan’s slave girls asked to be given to the vizir. She wanted to demonstrate that he could not resist her power. The sultan agreed to the transfer. The vizir soon became enamored of his new slave girl. Despite the vizir falling to his knees and imploring her, the slave girl treated him severely and refused to have sex with him. But she offered him a bargain: if he would obey her completely for one day, then she would yield to his passionate desire. The vizir acquiesced:

“I can refuse you nothing,” replied the old vizir {to the slave girl}; “you shall for ever experience from me an equal complaisance.”

The slave girl used her power over the vizir to create the figure of matriarchy:

“This,” said she to the vizir, “is the criterion of your love; let me see how far your boasted complaisance will go. You must submit to bear this saddle and bridle, and suffer me to mount upon your back.”

The poor vizir, with half reluctance, half pleasantry, put himself into the posture of a horse, and submitted to the girt and bridle [5]

Not merely a wife, but even a slave girl, can rule a male ruler.

In western Europe, the earliest surviving instance of this matriarchy figure is from an early thirteenth-century fable / lay. Its characters are Alexander the Great, Aristotle his tutor, and Alexander’s Indian mistress, who is repeatedly described as having blond hair. She later acquired the name Phyllis. Aristotle admonished Alexander to give up his mistress. Alexander did so for many days, but then surrendered to his desire and returned to his mistress. The mistress promised Alexander that she would avenge herself on his “pale old tutor”:

His logic and his grammar will do him no good against me. He will be a skillful fencer indeed if, now that I have made up my mind, Mother Nature does not subdue him through me. [6]

The mistress arose early in the morning and went out into the garden:

dressed in nothing but her shift … in all her figure there was nothing that did not rightly belong there. And do not think that she had a wimple or band about her head; her beautiful tresses, long and blond, set off her loveliness. … Barefoot, bareheaded, ungirdled, she went her way, raising the skirts of her tunic and singing

The scholar Aristotle’s thoughts became his desire for the mistress’s body. The mistress declared to Aristotle:

“Ah, tutor,” she said, “before I yield to your folly, you must, if you are so stricken with love, consent to do a strange thing for me. For I have been seized with a great desire to ride astride you over the grass in this garden. And I want you to wear a saddle, for so I shall ride more respectably.”

The old man replied joyfully that he would do that willingly and as one who belonged to her entirely. The God of Love must really have overwhelmed him to make him carry a palfrey’s saddle on his shoulder into the garden. You can imagine how mad he looked carrying it. And she busied herself to put it on his back. Love can indeed work miracles with an old codger, since Nature so commands, if he can cause the greatest scholar in the world to be saddled like an old nag and crawl on all fours over the grass … He let the girl get up on his back and so he carried her. [7]

The matriarchy figure of a woman riding a man as if he were a beast — the story of Aristotle and Phyllis — subsequently became widespread in European literature and art.

The Aristotle-Phyllis matriarchy figure probably was transmitted to Europe from an ancient Indian source such as the Panchatantra. The geographic and historical range of the matriarchy figure testifies to the importance of matriarchy across a wide range of times and societies. In common sense, sex is natural and powerful.[8] Yet discussion of matriarchy is difficult and often suppressed. The matriarchy figure is a rare means for expressing the actual, underlying natural distribution of power by sex in human societies.[9]

Many scholars have confused matriarchy and patriarchy. According to the newest literary theory, the root(ster) of that confusion is male fear of inadequacy in penetration. Every male ruler has a mother, and most, at least one female lover. The implication of binary difference is a relation of domination and subordination, like that of hydrogen and oxygen. Foucault. Butler. Increased scholarly appreciation for the social construction of the social construction of gender has engendered a more fecund gender field of scholarly literature. An important result has been the development of demasculinized discourse and the installation of new leading metaphor: matriarchy encompasses patriarchy.

If Chaucer has any authority over the scandal of gender difference that this tale exposes, it is of an implicated sort that can only laugh at the absurdity of a system that often works despite its flimsy claims to authority. … each of these performances, because they are revealed to be absurd, demonstrates the ways that men and women collaborate to make fictions of gender convincing. [10]

The rest is silence.

woman riding man

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[1] Matriarchy, like patriarchy, is somewhat misleading as a descriptive term. While most rulers throughout history have been men, very few men have been rulers. Among the few that have been rulers, some have not been fathers. Among the many men who have not been rulers, many have also not been fathers.

Human society, like other primate societies, is more accurately described as gynocentric. I use the term matriarchy here to refer to women’s social power and control. Medieval European literature highlighted men’s subservience to women. Such subservience in more subtle forms has been prevalent across cultures and throughout history.

[2] Panchatantra, Book IV (“Loss of Gains”), story of “King Joy {Nanda} and Secretary Splendor {Vararuci},” trans. from Sanskrit, Ryder (1925) pp. 408-9. The actors in the tales of the Panchatantra are predominately animals, but unlike the animals in Aesop’s fables, the animals in the Panchatantra are sex-typed and act like humans. A surviving eighth-century Arabic translation of the Panchatrantra, known as Kalila Wa-Dimna, includes the frame story (“The Story of the Tortoise and the Ape”), but not the embedded tale with the matriarchy figure of the woman riding on the back of her lover. See Keith-Falconer (1885) pp. 158-168. Kalila Wa-Dimna in translation was widely known in medieval western Europe as the Fables of Bidpai.

[3] Sarton (1930), p. 9, states that it occurs in al-Jahiz’s Kitab al-mahasin wa al-addad (The Treatise on Good Qualities and Their Antonyms). Montgomery (2005) p. 232 lists al-Jahiz’s authorship of that work as doubtful.

[4] Cardonne (1771), vol. 1, pp. 14-18. The story uses the terms sultan, seraglio, and odalisque. These are Turkish terms. In addition, a note on id. p. 15 states:

when the Grand Seignior dies, the slaves, who have had no children by that prince, are married to the grandees of the Porte.

“Porte” most plausibly refers to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, rather than the major inland cities of Mesopotamia. Thus I assume that the story is from a Turkish manuscript.

[5] Id. p. 17 (including previous quote).

[6] Henri d’Andeli, “The Lay of Aristotle {Le lai d’Aristote},” trans. from Old French, Hellman & O’Gorman (1965) p. 172. Brook & Burgess (2011) provides an edition and English translation based on MS S: Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouv. acq. fr. 1104 (view online). This lay is now regarded as a composition of Henri de Valenciennes. Id. pp. 10-4. For a review of sources an analogues, Brook & Burgess (2011) pp. 20-3.

Henri de Valenciennes apparently created this lay from a similar story. He begins by emphasizing that his story is “without scandal or baseness.” Trans. Hellman & O’Gorman (1965) p. 168. The lay repeatedly refers to Alexander’s Indian mistress as having blond hair. That seems like a pointed contrast. Moreover, Alexander declares:

For a man can love only one woman, and truly he cannot please more than one.

Id. p. 170. That’s a pointed contrast with the western stereotype of eastern men. Eastern tales seem to have been part of the common culture of learned persons in thirteenth-century France.

The cleric Jacques de Vitry included a version of this story in his Sermons for particular weekdays and ordinary days {Sermones Feriales et Communes} as Sermon 15, “About Aristotle and Alexander’s wife {De Aristotile et uxore Alexandri}.” He composed these sermons while serving as the Cardinal of Tusculum between 1229 and 1240. According to Jacques de Vitry’s account, when Alexander discovered Aristotle allowing Alexander’s wife to ride him as a horse, Aristotle shrewdly explained:

Now surely you must consider how faithfully I was watching out for your youthfulness. If indeed the malice and cunning of the woman so prevailed that she deceived and held an old man captive, one who is the most prudent of mortals, and who has argued with many great masters, it demonstrated to me how much more power she might have over you to deceive, allure, and defraud, unless you beware through my example.

{ Nunc pro certo perpendere debes, quod fideliter adolescencie tue consului. Si enim versucia mulieris et malicia tantum prevaluit, quod senem et prudentissimum inter omnes mortales decepti et captivum duxit, et qui multis et magnis conclusi magistris michi conclusit: quanto magis te decipere, allicere et circumvenire prevaleret, nisi exemplo meo tibi caveres. }

Latin text from Greven (1914) p. 16, English translation (modified slightly) from Arrathoon (1984) pp. 293-4, which translates the full sermon.

A thirteenth-century German version names Alexander’s mistress as “Fillus” (Phyllis). Sarton (1930) p. 10. The tale and matriarchy figure subsequently became widely known in medieval Europe as “Alexander and Phyllis.” Recent scholarly advances, in accordance with dominant ideology, have tended to transform the name to “Phyllis and Alexander.”

Matheolus, who was a keen student of the leading medieval writer Marie de France, referred to the story of Phyllis and Aristotle in his Latin Lamentations, Bk. I, ll. 463-503. Van Hamel (1892) pp. 33-36. Matheolus includes details, including that of Aristotle with a bridle under his beard, not included in d’Andeli’s tale.

Johann Herolt (d. 1468), also called Discipulus, included a version as an exemplum in Latin in his Promptuarium Exemplorum and attributed it to Jacques de Vitry. Here is Herolt’s Latin text and an English translation (with added fairy-tale opening and closing).

[7] Id. pp. 172-3, 175-6 (inc. previous quote).

[8] Writing from a position of academic prominence about the time of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, George Sarton concluded his study of the matriarchy figure:

The candid and ingenious clerk who had the idea seven hundred years ago of bringing an old story up-to-date and giving new zest to it by changing a Muslim vizir into a Greek philosopher, did not do so without a good purpose. He wanted to put his brethren on guard against their greatest peril. This warning is just as timely to-day as it ever was. If the infallible Master failed as ignominiously, any excess of confidence in ourselves is mere foolishness. We must not feel too secure in our virtue, nor ever take our salvation for granted, for we are all the time surrounded by dangerous creatures.

Sarton (1930) pp. 18-9. By dangerous creatures Sarton poetically refers to men’s natural selves.

[9] Smith (1995) misinterprets candid representation of men’s subservience to women as “the Power of Women topos.” That fundamental interpretative error has been prevalent in scholarly work in recent decades.

Medieval men protested against women insisting on ruling over men. The biblical book Genesis poignantly taught Jews and Christians the equal human dignity of women and men. Medieval Christian doctrine insisted that marriage be a conjugal partnership, not the men-abasing sexual feudalism of courtly love. Nonetheless, men’s equality to women wasn’t generally recognized. A work of men’s sexed protest from no later than early-thirteenth-century Europe complained about women’s rule over men: “She wants to be lady-lord over her lord {domini vult esse domina}.” About not getting married {De coniuge non ducenda} J4.4, Latin text from Rigg (1986) p. 88, my English translation. Rigg translated “domini vult esse domina” as “(she) rules the roost in his domain.” The phrase “his domain” is an interpretive translation based on fundamental misunderstanding of the medieval European gender order. The home wasn’t the husband’s domain. It was the wife’s domain.

[10] Crocker (2003) p. 195. In Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, a wife climbs on her husband’s back to move up into a tree, where she has sex with her lover. The wife then convinces the husband that his sight of that act was false. Men’s inferiority in guile was well-recognized in medieval literature.

[images] (1) Woodcut of Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533). Size 41 x 29 cm. Published in Sarton (1930) and a German journal in 1897. This woodcut was not originally labeled “Aristotle and Phyllis.” Id. provides a review of the iconography and five images. (2) Woman riding man. Hand-colored photograph c. 1880s, made into a postcard by A. Block, Le Moulin Rouge, Paris. From the collection of Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), professor of psychiatry at Graz and Vienna. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, preserved as photo number L0028609, library reference Archives and Manuscripts PP/KEB/E/6/5. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Arrathoon, Leigh A. 1984. “Jacques de Vitry, the Tale of Calogrenant, La Chastelaine de Vergi, and the genres of medieval narrative fiction.” Ch. 9 (pp. 281-368) in Arrathoon, Leigh A. The Craft of Fiction: essays in medieval poetics. Rochester, MI: Solaris Press.

Brook, Leslie C. and Glyn S. Burgess. 2011. Henri de Valenciennes: The Lay of Aristote. Liverpool Online Series, 16. Liverpool: University of Liverpool, Department of Modern Languages and Cultures.

Cardonne, Denis Dominique. 1771. A miscellany of eastern learning: translated from Turkish, Arabian, and Persian manuscripts, in the library of the King of France. London: Printed for J. Wilkie … and B. Law (originally published in French in 1770).

Crocker, Holly A. (Holly Adryan). 2003. “Performative Passivity and Fantasies of Masculinity in the Merchant’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review. 38 (2): 178-198.

Greven, Joseph, ed. 1914. Die Exempla aus den Sermones feriales et communes des Jakob von Vitry. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Hellman, Robert, and Richard O’Gorman. 1965. Fabliaux; ribald tales from the old French. New York: Crowell.

Keith-Falconer, I. G. N., ed. and trans. 1885. Kalilah and Dimnah: or, The Fables of Bidpai: being an account of their literary history. Cambridge: University Press.

Montgomery, James E. 2005. “Al-Jahiz.” Pp. 231-242 in Cooperson, Michael, and Shawkat M. Toorawa. 2005. Arabic literary culture, 500-925. Dictionary of Literary Biography, v. 311. Detroit: Thomson Gale.

Rigg, A. G. 1986. Gawain on Marriage: the textual tradition of the De coniuge non ducenda with critical edition and translation. Toronto, Ont., Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Ryder, Arthur W., trans. 1925. The Panchatantra. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Sarton, George. 1930. “Aristotle and Phyllis.” Isis. 14 (1).

Smith, Susan L. 1995. The power of women: a topos in medieval art and literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. and trans. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

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