On the third of May 1810, the twenty-two year-old British poet and writer Lord Byron entered the waters of the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles), and swam for his life, zigzagging through the strong currents, to retrace the legendary crossings made by Leander in pursuit of forbidden love. Byron was already no stranger to the theme, and went on to a succession of scandalous relationships of his own, including an affair with his half-sister that resulted in her pregnancy.
There can be no more hapless lovers than Hero and Leander. It was bad enough that his parents would have disapproved, so the relationship had to be kept secret. But when the couple were separated by the Hellespont, one of the world’s treacherous stretches of water, Leander was left with only one option: to swim. The crossings Leander made of the Hellespont were about a mile as the crow flies. Given the strong and often conflicting currents that rip through the strait, and its surprisingly cold water, they might seem almost suicidal.
Legend tells us that Leander, a young man living in Abydos on the south-eastern (Asia Minor) bank of the Hellespont, and Hero, a beautiful young woman living in Sestos on the north-western (European, Thracian Chersonese) bank, fell deeply in love. But in fear of Leander’s parental disapproval, they had to meet in secret, so he took to swimming that hazardous mile each evening that he visited Hero, and later its return.
Their relationship developed, and was consummated, and they appear to have established a reliable routine. Leander navigated his way across not using the stars, but by the light that Hero provided on top of the tower in which she lived, an ancient lighthouse.
Edward Burne-Jones shows her bent over, placing small kindling on a fire, in his Hero Lighting the Beacon for Leander (1875-77). Three little flowers suggest that this is at ground level rather than on top of a tower, though.
A decade later, Evelyn De Morgan’s Hero Holding the Beacon for Leander (c 1885) places Hero down on the shore, holding a small torch aloft, looking out for her lover as he makes his way through the choppy water. Interestingly, there is a red thread, wool perhaps, running from her clothing, under her left hand, which may be a reference to the thread of life, or that of time.
William Etty painted two works based on this legend. The first, The Parting of Hero and Leander (1827), shows the two lovers embraced one night, at the moment that Leander is about to start his swim back over the Hellespont to Abydos.
Ovid devotes a pair of letters in his Heroides (Heroines) to this tragedy.
The first is written by Leander to Hero, after a week of stormy weather had prevented him from swimming over to her. He explains the situation, tells her that he set off three times, only to be beaten back by the waves, and how he yearns for calm weather so that they can be together again. In its last lines he asks that Hero keeps her light constant, where he can see it, ominous words indeed.
Hero’s reply is hardly reassuring: she can’t bear their being apart, her passion burns, and if he doesn’t get there soon, she writes that she will surely die. In its later lines she urges him to be cautious, and to wait for better conditions, but the damage has already been done.
Soon after receiving her letter, Leander gave it another go, although the storm had hardly abated. As he was in the middle of the Hellespont, the wind and rain extinguished Hero’s beacon.
Frederic, Lord Leighton’s Last Watch of Hero (1880) shows Hero watching anxiously for Leander to complete the crossing.
JMW Turner’s The Parting of Hero and Leander (1837) is a dramatic and complex work with elements of both the precursor to the climax, and the climax itself. Sestos is on the left, with a couple of towers visible on the coast, neither of which contains Hero’s light. Leander is seen swimming across the narrow strait (its width shown far smaller than in reality), from right to left, to join Hero. Behind him on the bank at Abydos are spirits emerging, indicating his imminent death.
Turner shows Hero holding up a lantern, conflicting with accounts of the legend placing the beacon at the top of Hero’s tower, and ignoring the important detail of the beacon being extinguished by the storm. Turner exhibited this painting in 1837, providing his own verse to tell the story, most probably based on Lord Byron’s account in his Written After Swimming From Sestos To Abydos.
The legend continues that, deprived of the guidance of Hero’s beacon, Leander couldn’t reach Sestos, and drowned. Hero saw her lover’s lifeless body, so threw herself from the top of her tower to join her lover in death. This is the climactic scene most favoured in art.
Peter Paul Rubens youthful account in his Hero and Leander of about 1604 is big on storm and drama, but difficult to read clearly. Leander’s body is being brought through the huge waves by a team of Naiads, as Hero, wearing a brilliant red gown, plunges to her death at the right.
Domenico Fetti’s slightly later Hero Mourning the Dead Leander (1621-22) features curiously calm waters. A more modest group of Naiads in the centre are tending to Leander’s corpse, as a winged Cupid cries over them. At the right, Hero falls head-first from her tower to inevitable death. On the left, Fetti provides a couple of evil-looking sea monsters, and Venus making her way on her large clam shell.
William Etty’s second painting of the story, Hero, Having Thrown herself from the Tower at the Sight of Leander Drowned, Dies on his Body (1829), also shows the ending: Leander has already drowned, Hero already thrown herself from the tower, and is now in the (rather unconvincing) throes of death, just about to join her lover in the afterlife.
This legend has also given rise to some sparklingly terse summaries. In Shakespeare’s play As You Like It (Act IV, Scene I), the character Rosalind summarises the tale with extreme cynicism:
“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.”
The most succinct, though, is John Donne’s epigram:
“Both robbed of air, we both lie in one ground,
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drowned.”