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Hero and Leander
Τὰ καθ᾽ Ἡρὼ καὶ Λέανδρον

4023: Hippolyte le Roy 1857-1943: Hero. Museum voor schone kunsten, Gent.

Hero and Leander were lovers living at each side of the Hellespont.

The lovers and their cities

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 Trojan War by Hyrtacus' son Asius 1, whom King Idomeneus 1 of Crete killed (see also TROJAN LEADERS).

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 Sestus.

Hero's simple life in Sestus

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.

"International" festival

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 time with.

Abydus and Sestus are in the Troad and the Thracian Chersonesus (Gallipoli), facing each other in one of the narrowest points of the Hellespont.

Her beauty

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 Helen.

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 temple

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 she said:

"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 and stars.

Secret lovers

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 lamp

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.

Secret union

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

"the 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.

Leander's death

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 another kind:

"… 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).

Epilogue

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.


Related sections Other couples: Philemon & Baucis, Pyramus & Thisbe 1, Ceyx & Alcyone 2  
Sources
Abbreviations

Musaeus Grammaticus: Hero and Leander; Ov.Her.18, 19; Strab.13.1.22.

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