Leave a Light on for Me: Hero and Leander

There’s an old, apocryphal tale regarding Ernest Hemingway that goes like this: one night, over drinks, a friend challenged the author to write something moving in under a paragraph.

As the story goes, Hemingway responded in two lines:

For Sale: Pair of baby shoes. Never used.

Regardless of the truth of the story, one point should be clear; sometimes brevity works.

The tale of Hero and Leander is extremely brief; however, it has inspired everything from poetic expansions, to ancient coinage, to classical paintings to musical compositions.

It even inspired that lovable rake, the always romantic Lord Byron, to go for a swim. But more on all of that later.

Here then is the myth of Hero and Leander.

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Hero was a virgin priestess of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. She lived in the city of Sestos, which is situated on the European side of the Hellespont strait, today called the Dardanelles. On the Asia Minor side of the strait was the city of Abydos (mentioned in the Iliad as an ally of Troy). Given their proximity, the two cities had a fair degree of cultural exchange.

And so it was that Hero went to visit Abydos during a festival, where a young man named Leander spotted her, and instantly fell in love. How much they communicated is unclear; however, she was taken enough by the young man that she agreed to let him visit her.

Hero dwelt in a tower by the beach, and told Leander that she would light a lamp that night to guide his way, which she did. And so Leander swam across the Hellespont to visit her. This continued though the warm summer nights, and in time, they became lovers (with Leander arguing that Aphrodite, being the Goddess of Love, would bless their union).

Now, in most classical myths, this would raise the ire of the Goddess, but if it did, there’s no mention of it. Instead, they continued their nightly trysts, with Hero lighting her  lamp, and Leander faithfully swimming across the Hellespont.

And then came the Winter…

One stormy night, the gales repeatedly extinguished Hero’s lamp, while the waves crashed around Leander. Unable to use her light to guide his way, he flailed helplessly in the waters, and eventually, was taken under by the Hellespont.

The next day, Hero saw her dead lover washed upon the shore, and in her grief, flung herself from the tower, joining her lover in death, and whatever may lie beyond.

Or to quote John Donne,

Both robbed of air, we both lie in one ground,
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drowned.

So let’s look at a handful of other artists who have been moved by the tale of Hero and Leander:

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It inspired the artisans of Abydos and Sestos to mint coins like the following:

hero coin 2
Minted in Abydos under the (Roman) rule of Severus Alexander, 222-235
hero coin 1
Minted in Sestos under the Roman Rule of Septimius Severus, 193-217

Ovid is credited with writing The Double Heroides (Ovid’s authorship has been questioned). The work contains six exchanges between three pairs of lovers: Helen and Paris, Hero and Leander and Cydippe and Acontius.

Christopher Marlowe wrote an extended poem describing the two lovers, though he never finished it. After his death, George Chapman completed the work.

Shakespeare makes allusions to the tale in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Othello, Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It.

The myth is central to John Keats‘ sonnet, On an Engraved Gem of Leander.

Alfred Tennyson wrote a poem entitled Hero to Leander

Handel composed a solocantata called Ero e Leandro

Ruben painted Hero and Leander, pictured below (and above):

hero and leander
Paul Peter Rubens, Hero and Leander, 1604

And then there is Lord Byron, who one lover described “as mad, mad, and dangerous to know”.

Not only did he compose a poem entitled Written After Swimming From Sestos To Abydos, but he actually made the swim across the Hellespont, which he also commemorated in Don Juan.

Now that, dear friends, is inspiration…

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