Etymology & Historical Origin of the Baby Name Phyllis
Phyllis is an ancient Greek name (Φυλλίς) meaning “foliage”, from “phyllon” meaning "leaf". It is a female given name borne from Greek mythology. In most accounts, Phyllis is remembered as a Thracian Princess (Thrace was an ancient region located in modern-day southeastern Bulgaria, a tiny section of northeastern Greece and the European piece of Turkey). Demophon, a Greek Prince and son of Theseus (King of Athens), was returning home from the Trojan War (after the Greeks defeated the Trojans) and met Phyllis as he was passing through Thrace. The stories diverge greatly from here, but we’ll tell you the two most popular accounts. In one legend, the Prince of Athens and the Princess of Thrace fell in love. Demophon had to get back to his father in Athens but promised to return to Thrace to marry Phyllis as soon as he was able. However, various circumstances prevented his return and she either died of a broken heart or hung herself in despair. When Demophon finally did return, he found his dead amour transformed into an almond tree. When he embraced her lifeless tree trunk, she instantly blossomed. In another tale, Demophon and Phyllis do marry in Thrace before he leaves for Athens, although he promises to come back for her. Phyllis sends him off with a token – a small casket she tells him to open only if there is no chance of his return. Eventually time passed and he forgot Phyllis, even though she waited patiently for him on the shores of Thrace. One day he became curious about the casket and decided to open it. Apparently, whatever lay inside that box horrified him so much he jumped on his horse and quickly rode off to escape its contents. In his mad dash to get away, Demophon fell from his horse and was impaled by his own sword. In all mythologies, however, Phyllis always ends up as an almond tree (hence her “foliage” or “leaf”-like etymology). Other historians surmise she was transformed into a hazelnut tree. Either way, she’s a nutty tree. Phyllis has long been used among English speakers (since the 16th century) probably as the result of Renaissance revival interest in the famous 4th century B.C. Greek story involving Aristotle, Alexander the Great and a very beautiful, crafty woman named Phyllis. Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor, and Phyllis was Alexander’s wife (or favorite mistress, depending on the version). Aristotle encouraged Alexander to abstain from sexual relations with Phyllis lest it distract him from his more important kingly duties. Phyllis became irritated by Aristotle’s interference in her sexual affairs, so she decided to take her revenge on the old man. Through her feminine wiles and charms, she talked the legendary philosopher into allowing her to ride him (buck-naked, by the way) like a horse while he wore a bit and bridle. This absurd scene was witnessed by Alexander who questioned his teacher: if a woman can trick and dominate a wise old man like Aristotle, what defense is there for naïve young men against the seduction of women? The cautionary tale known as “Phyllis Rides Aristotle” was a favorite among Renaissance artists. And that, my dear reader, is the story of Phyllis.