Hero and Leander  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Liebestod, forbidden love, Lovers of Teruel

Hero and Leander is a Greek myth, relating the story of Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite who dwelt in a tower in Sestos, at the edge of the Hellespont, and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the other side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to be with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide his way.

Succumbing to Leander's soft words, and to his argument that Aphrodite, as goddess of love, would scorn the worship of a virgin, Hero allowed him to make love to her. This routine lasted through the warm summer. But one stormy winter night, the waves tossed Leander in the sea and the breezes blew out Hero's light, and Leander lost his way, and was drowned. Hero threw herself from the tower in grief and died as well.


In high culture


The myth of Hero and Leander has been used extensively in literature and the arts:

  • Hero and Leander (poem) by Christopher Marlowe
  • Ovid treated the narrative in his Heroides, 18 and 19, an exchange of letters between the lovers. Leander has been unable to swim across to Hero in her tower because of bad weather, her summons to him to make the effort will prove fatal to her lover.
  • Byzantine poet Musaeus also wrote a poem; Aldus Manutius made it one of his first publications (c. 1493) after he set up his famous printing press in Venice (his humanistic aim was to make Ancient Greek Literature available to scholars). Musaeus's poem had early translations into European languages by Tasso (Italian), Boscán (Spanish) and Marot (French). This poem was widely believed in the Renaissance to have been pre-Homeric: George Chapman reflects at the end of his completion of Marlowe's version that the dead lovers had the honour of being 'the first that ever poet sung’. Chapman's 1616 translation has the title The divine poem of Musaeus. First of all bookes. Translated according to the original, by Geo: Chapman. Staplyton, the mid-17th century translator, had read Scaliger's repudiation of this mistaken belief, but still could not resist citing Virgil's 'Musaeum ante omnes' (Aeneid VI, 666) on the title page of his translation (Virgil's reference was to an earlier Musaeus).
  • Renaissance poet Christopher Marlowe began an expansive version of the narrative. His story does not get as far as Leander's nocturnal swim, and the guiding lamp that gets extinguished, but ends after the two have become lovers (Hero and Leander (poem));
  • George Chapman completed Marlowe's poem after Marlowe's death; this version was often reprinted in the first half of the 17th century, with editions in 1598 (Linley); 1600 and 1606 (Flasket); 1609, 1613, 1617, 1622 (Blount); 1629 (Hawkins); and 1637 (Leake).
  • Sir Walter Ralegh alludes to the story, in his 'The Ocean's Love to Cynthia', in which Hero has fallen asleep, and fails to keep alight the lamp that guides Leander on his swim (more kindly versions, like Chapman's, have her desperately struggling to keep the lamp burning).
  • Shakespeare also alludes to this story in the opening scene of Two Gentlemen of Verona, in a dialogue between Valentine and Proteus (the two gentlemen in the play):
VALENTINE- And on a love-book pray for my success?
PROTEUS- Upon some book I love I'll pray for thee.
VALENTINE- That's on some shallow story of deep love: How young Leander cross'd the Hellespont.
PROTEUS- That's a deep story of a deeper love: For he was more than over shoes in love.
VALENTINE- 'Tis true; for you are over boots in love, And yet you never swum the Hellespont.
  • Ben Jonson's play Bartholomew Fair features a puppet show of Hero and Leander in Act V, translated to London, with the Thames serving as the Hellespont between the lovers.
  • It is also the subject of a novel by Milorad Pavić;
  • Leander is also the subject of Sonnet XXIX by Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega of the 16th Century;
  • The story has also been briefly alluded to in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, both when Benedick states that Leander was "never so truly turned over and over as my poor self in love" and in the name of the character Hero, who, despite accusations to the contrary, remains chaste before her marriage. It was also briefly alluded to in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in the form of a malapropism accidentally using the names Helen and Limander in the place of Hero and Leander. The most famous Shakespearean allusion is, however, the debunking one by Rosalind, in Act IV scene I of As You Like It:
Leander, he would have lived many a fair year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish coroners of that age found it was 'Hero of Sestos.' But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.
  • Sir Robert Stapylton published a translation of Musaeus's poem in 1645, which he republished with annotations in 1647, also including his versions of Ovid's Heroides 18 and 19. His dedication of the volume to 'the Ladyes' expresses the wish that the poem might encourage married women to have sex with their partners: ‘Courtship here is directed to a Sacred end, and onely invites you after our Deluge of bloud …to restore your now unpeopled Country’. Stapylton also wrote a heroic tragedy on the lovers, unperformed, but published in 1669.
  • In the same year, William Wycherley published his 'Hero and Leander in Burlesque', a lengthy parody, culminating a tradition of parodic treatments initiated by Ben Jonson. Versions by Alexander Radcliffe, and a scatological treatment of the theme probably by James Smith followed.
  • Hero and Leander (Hero y Lleandro) is the title of one of the first preserved works of Asturian literature, written by Antón de Marirreguera.
  • Hero and Leander inspired the feat commemorated in the poem, "Written After Swimming from Sestos To Abydos" by Lord Byron. Byron found the swim hard going, and caught a cold.
  • Composer Adam Guettel's song cycle Myths and Hymns features the song "Hero and Leander" sung from the perspective of Leander.
  • Metaphysical poet John Donne composed a two-line poem featuring the famous lovers
Both robbed of air, we both lie in one ground
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drowned.
  • Herman Melville also makes a reference to the myth in his novel, "Mardi," on page 124 of the Northwestern-Newberry edition.


In the visual arts, 'Hero and Leander' was a popular theme. From about 1625, Mortlake tapestries were being woven: there is a set at the Primate's Palace in Bratislava. Another large tapestry hangs beside the main staircase in Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. There are 17th century paintings by Nicholas Regnier (c.1626, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia), Rubens, and Dominico Feti (1623). There are many later treatments, including Leighton's Last Watch of Hero in which the heroine's anxiety is signalled by the way she twists the curtain-cloth in her hand, and Rod Patterson's Leander[1] which shows only the swimmer. Hero and Leander is a piece of art which displays Leander jumping into the river and Hero lying dead on the ground in the distance. This piece is on display at NOCCA in New Orleans, Louisiana. CY Twombly also did a series of paintings based on Hero and Leander called 'Hero and Leandro' in the early 1980's.


Leander's Tower on the Bosphorus was named after this legend by the ancient Greeks and later the Byzantines.

At present the tower is known with the name Kız Kulesi, meaning Maiden's Tower.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Hero and Leander" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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