Hero and Leander were lovers
living at each side of the Hellespont.
4023: Hippolyte le Roy 1857-1943: Hero. Museum voor schone kunsten, Gent.
The lovers and their
Abydus in the Troad
(north-western Asia Minor), and Sestus in the
Thracian Chersonesus, are cities facing each other
across one of the narrowest points of the strait
called Hellespont after Athamas 1's daughter Helle, who
once fell from a flying ram into these waters, and
drowned. These cities were held during the
War by Hyrtacus' son Asius 1, whom King Idomeneus 1 of Crete killed (see also TROJAN
Hero, a priestess of
Aphrodite, lived alone (by the will of her parents), and attended by a single maid, at the edge of Sestus in a high tower by the sea, perhaps the same "Tower of Hero," south-west of the town that was later known in historical times, but was already a ruin when Augustus was emperor of Rome. By lighting a lamp she turned the tower into a lighthouse which guided her lover to her.
Leander, a young man from
Abydus, swam every night guided by the lamp which
his mistress lit at the top of the tower, a
distance of more than 1300 meters across the
Hellespont, from Abydus to Sestus, in order to
spend the night with his beloved Hero; and before
dawn, Leander returned to his city by the same
means. It has been remarked that on account of the
rapid currents in the Hellespont, it is easier to
cross from Sestus to Abydus than from Abydus to
Hero's simple life in
Before meeting Leander, the
young girl lived in chastity, neither entering
dances nor other gatherings, Being very beautiful,
and apparently believing that
"… at sight of beauty women are envious." (Mus.37).
she also avoided mingling among
the girls of her age. Instead, and by the will of
her parents, Hero lived retired in a tower by the
sea, appeasing Aphrodite and Eros by sacrifices rather than through the
delights of the couch.
A festival was celebrated in
Sestus to honour Adonis and Aphrodite. This event resembled the kind of public arrangement that nowadays is called "international festival." For people came from many cities, not only from Phrygia, but also from such distant places as
Thessaly in northern Greece, Cyprus, or Lebanon.
These events, regardless of their purpose, are
always appreciated, particularly by the young
people, since they offer excellent opportunities to
meet some wonderful sweetheart to spent a lovely
Abydus and Sestus are in the Troad and the Thracian Chersonesus (Gallipoli), facing each other in one of the narrowest points of the Hellespont.
Hero had no plans of her own,
except her service as a priestess. But since she
naturally flashed lovely radiance from her face,
reminding of Selene's white cheeks; and since, as they
assert, a meadow of roses appeared in her limbs
when she moved; and since from these limbs flowed
not three Graces but one hundred, many young men
surrendered to her their minds, hearts, and eyes,
although they had come to the Sestus' festival to
sacrifice to the immortals. And since instant
beauty is more sharply perceived than beauty
remote, they believed that they had never before
seen such an example of delicacy and loveliness,
although they had previously investigated beauty in
as many cities as they could, and particularly in
Sparta, land of ravishing women such as
Words and silence
Dazzled by Hero's beauty then,
many youths lost themselves in words, saying that
they would accept instant death if they could first
sleep with Hero, or that they would prefer to marry
her than to be immortal, or that they never got
tired of looking at her. And since while some talk
others act, Leander, letting his love drive out his
fears, approached Hero with voiceless gestures.
This is how Love often introduces himself; for words are
too slow when beauty must find its way to the soul,
as they say, through the eye. And some, as Hero and
Leander, take each other's hands before they have
uttered a word.
Conversation in the
Hand in hand Leander led Hero
into the temple. There Leander prayed her to take
pity on his desire. He kissed her throat. He told
her that Aphrodite takes no pleasure in virgins; that he
was at her feet shot down by Love; that he declared that she was like a
goddess for him. Hero at first protested and
threatened him. But, after hearing him, she
remained speechless for a while, yet glowing in her
heart and trembling at his beauty; and that finally
"Stranger, likely with your words
you might rouse even a stone." (Hero to Leander. Mus.174).
A nice thing to hear. But she
also reminded him that her parents would not allow
her to marry a foreigner, and that if he stayed in
the land as an alien, he would not be able to
conceal their love, for
"… that same deed that a man does in silence, he hears of in the crossways." (Hero to Leander. Mus.183).
It was then that Leander,
conquered by Love, declared:
"… for the sake of your love I will cross even the wild waves." (Leander to Hero. Mus.203).
and told her that he came from
the opposite city Abydus. He then bade her to light
a lamp from her tower so that he, swimming in the
dark, could find his way to her. And he called her
lamp his life and the star on which he would keep
his watch, forgetting all about Bootes or
Orion or other constellations
This is how Hero and Leander
became secret lovers, letting the lamp watch over
them and their nightly love, as Leander crossed the
waves using himself as a vessel. Long sleepless
nights they spent together; but before dawn they
parted and he again, taking the lamp in the tower
as a landmark, swam back to Abydus. No wonder that,
during the day, they prayed for darkness to come
soon; for while all others slept they found great
joy and delight in each other's company.
Waiting for the
At dusk Leander spent his time
along the shore, awaiting the signal, and when the
light faded and Night approached, Hero lit the lamp in the
tower. And he burned with the burning lamp on
seeing it; and feeling that Aphrodite, who was born in the sea, would protect
him, he rushed naked from the beach, flinging his
body into the sea. Once in the water, Leander was
his own ship, own oarsman, and own escort, always
directing his course towards the flaring lamp,
which Hero sheltered with her cloak.
3115 (detail): Leander swims over the Hellespont to meet his mistress Hero. Bernard Picart (1673-1733), Fabeln der Alten (Musen-Tempel), 1754.
This is how Leander reached
Sestus from Abydus, arriving every night to the
opposite coast with hard toil. Once he stood before
the tower's portals, she folded her arms around
him, and having led him to her chamber, she
anointed his body with oil, quenching the smell of
the sea. And then she would say:
"Here on my breasts, repose the
sweat of your labouring" (Hero to Leander. Mus.271).
before entering into
rites of most wise Aphrodite" (Mus.273).
as Musaeus' discretion puts it.
And his discernment also tells that this was a
wedding without dance, and a bedding without hymns;
that Hera, goddess of marriage, was not honoured;
that parents did not intone the hymenaeal; that, in
few words, no formal rites were performed. In
addition, his judiciousness adds that Dawn never saw the bridegroom in the
marriage-bed, since Leander, still feeling Hero's
embraces, plunged into the sea and swam back to
Abydus while still dark. On her side the girl,
fearing her parents, lived a maiden by day and a
wife by night.
This unstable arrangement did
not last more than the warm season. For when winter
came, the sea changed and even sailors drew up
their ships. Yet Leander's love was not hindered by
the new frosty weather, and therefore he soon saw
himself borne on the back of fierce waves, which
the WINDS arouse when they fight each other: Eurus against Zephyrus 1 and Boreas 1 against Notus. And when one wintry night Leander found himself at sea in the middle of such a windy war, a gust blew out the lamp in Hero's tower, and Leander, being left in the dark without landmarks, lost his way and perished.
Hero follows him
The day after, Leander's body
reached the foot of the tower, and when Hero saw
him flayed by the rocks, she teared her robe from
round her breasts and cast herself down from the
tower, her dead body remaining beside his. This is
how Hero perished; for human bodies have no wings.
Yet those who pass through life together in
friendship and love, some say, grow wings of
"… when they depart from the body, they are not winged, to be sure, but their wings have begun to grow, so that the madness of love brings them no small reward; for it is the law that those who have once begun their upward progress shall never again pass into darkness and the journey under the earth, but shall live a happy life in the light as they journey together, and because of their love shall be alike in their plumage when they receive their wings." (Plato, Phaedrus 256d).
No one ever learned about their
love, except Hero's old maid, who was the only
witness; but those who are remembered for telling
this story are Musaeus Grammaticus and the poet
Publius Ovidius Naso, who both received it from
someone else. Leander's love could be difficult to
emulate, but his athletic performance was replayed
many years later, in AD 1810, by the English poet
Lord Byron, who swam from Sestus to Abydus in one
hour and ten minutes, although no priestess of
Aphrodite awaited him on the other side.