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Myth Monday - Hero and Leander

By June 18, 2012

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Leander Addresses a Love Letter to Hero
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The Star-Crossed Lovers

The story of Hero and Leander may remind us of the Romeo and Juliet or Pyramus and Thisbe stories.

Two young, good-looking, single people fall madly in love, despite parental or societal disapproval. They keep meeting each other through unconventional schemes and then, when they see that the other has apparently been killed, the other lover commits suicide rather than live deprived of the first. In the story of Hero and Leander, the first partner is actually dead -- no mistaking the destructive forces of the sea, and so the second, seeing him far below, lying motionless, presumably face down on the beach, leaps from her lofty residential tower to take her own life. John Donne (1572-1631) wrote the following epigram about their ends:

Both robb'd of air, we both lie in one ground;
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drown'd.
Poems of John Donne. vol II., E. K. Chambers, ed. London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1896.

It's not entirely parental disapproval that kept the Mediterranean couple Hero and Leander apart. The young woman, Hero, was a priestess of Aphrodite who, according to Sikes, was not allowed to marry a foreigner, which was the status of the young man. They lived on the opposite sides of the Hellespont and so, in different countries. She lived in Sestos, in Thrace, while he lived in Abydos, locations not known for certain.

"The distance of his swim -- from one harbour to the other -- was about three miles and a half, although Strabo says that the actual width of the straits near Abydos is less than a mile. Both Sestos and Abydos have been completely destroyed, but the site of the former was at or near Jallova, half-way between Crithia and Gallipoh, while the latter must have been at Nagara Point."

Hero & Leander, translated from the Greek by E.E. Sikes. Methuen (1920).

Capsule Version of the Story

One summer day, the youth Leander has an opportunity to speak to Hero, who is working in her official priestly capacity. He tells her all the reasons they are meant for each other. Since Cupid is working behind the scenes, and they are, after all, in a precinct sacred to the love goddess, it isn't too surprising that she is taken in by his arguments, if not his looks. Since they know they can't legally marry they decide to enjoy a nightly rendezvous. Although the distance separating them isn't that great, it is across the sea. To see his love, Leander is willing to swim the Hellespont each night if only Hero will put a lit lamp in her lighthouse-like tower. Beside her lamp or candle, she eagerly awaits his nightly visits; but then winter, and a stormy sea come. She can't persuade him to wait until spring and she can't keep the flame alight. Lost at sea, Leander is buffeted and killed, landing on the sand beneath the tower residence of Hero. She no longer wishes to live since the love of her life is dead, so she leaps to her death on top of him.

The Tradition

The story of Hero and Leander was well known in antiquity, although we don't know its origin. Could it have been based on real events or made up by an Alexandrian scholar, as Norwood [citation below] explains? The Augustan Age poet Vergil (70-19 B.C.) is the earliest extant allusion to it [Sikes], made without providing the couples' names:

What of the youth, in whose marrow fierce Love fans the mighty flame? Lo! in the turmoil of bursting storms, late in the black night, he swims the straits. Above him thunders Heaven's mighty portal, and the billows, dashing on the cliffs, echo the cry; yet neither his hapless parent can call him back, nor though of the maiden doomed to die on his untimely corpse.
Georgics, by Vergil; translated by H. R. Fairclough

The geographer Strabo (c. 64 B.C. - c. A.D. 21) alludes to Hero's tower, Statius (c. 45-96 A.D.) refers to the story (Theb. vi. 535) and Ovid (43 B.C. - A.D. 14) writes of it in his paired epistolary "Hero and Leander" in Heroides 18-9 [Kline translation].

The most complete, straightforward, but literary account comes from an almost anonymous, perhaps Alexandrian, probably 5th century A.D. Greek writer, called Musaeus (Musiaos) or Musaeus Grammaticus. He wrote a short epic in just over 340 lines of hexameter. [ See: Hero [and] Leander. ]

The story has charmed more recent writers as well:

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) wrote a long Hero and Leander in 1598 (completed by George Chapman (c. 1559-1634)).

Lord Byron (1788-1824) was inspired by the story to try to swim across the Hellespont to see if the conditions of the love story were even possible. (He succeeded, with difficulty).

Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867) includes the story of Hero and Leander in his mythology, the German Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) wrote a 260 line ballad, and F. Grillparzer (1791-1872) wrote a drama on the subject.

Housman (1859-1936) summarizes the plot when he writes:

By Sesto town, in Hero's tower,
     On Hero's heart Leander lies;
The signal torch has burned its hour
     And sputters as it dies.

Beneath him, in the nighted firth,
     Between two continents complain
The seas he swam from earth to earth
     And he must swim again.

"The Classics in the Poetry of Housman," by Herbert C. Lipscomb; The Classical Journal, Vol. 37, No. 5 (Feb., 1942), pp. 295-298



Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?
  22. Pandora's Box
  23. Achilles and His Heel
  24. Hercules and His Labors
  25. The First Humans
  26. The Death of Pentheus


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