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Hero and Leander

Hero and Leander

Nationality/Culture

Greek

Pronunciation

HEER-oh and lee-AN-dur

Alternate Names

Hero and Lymander

Appears In

Ovid's Heroides

Lineage

Unknown

Character Overview

Hero and Leander were famous lovers in Greek mythology . Hero, who lived in the town of Sestos (pronounced SES-tohs), served as a priestess of the goddess Aphrodite (pronounced af-ro-DYE-tee). Leander was a youth from the nearby town of Abydos (pronounced uh-BYE-duhs), located across a narrow strip of water called the Hellespont (pronounced HEL-uh-spont), now known as the Dardanelles.

Hero and Leander met at a festival and fell in love. However, because she was a priestess of Aphrodite, Hero had to remain a virgin and was forbidden to marry. The two lovers decided to see each other secretly. Each night Hero would leave a lamp burning in a window of the tower in which she lived, and Leander would swim across the Hellespont, using the light to guide his way. One winter night, the wind blew out the flame in the lamp, causing Leander to lose his way and drown. The next morning, when Hero saw his lifeless body washed up on the shore, she killed herself by jumping out of the tower.

Hero and Leander in Context

The myth of Hero and Leander can be seen as a cautionary tale meant to enforce the rules of ancient Greek culture. In particular, the myth warns of the dangers of not obeying religious vows. In a more general sense, the tale cautions against sexual relationships outside the tradition of marriage. Myths were often used as a way to discourage certain behaviors, especially those that would be hard to control through government means.

A Mythic Feat

English poet Lord Byron was so inspired by Leander's swimming prowess that he undertook the swim across the Hellespont himself. After nearly drowning on his first attempt, Byron successfully followed in Leander's wake on May 3, 1810—supposedly making him the first person since Leander himself to complete the swim.

Key Themes and Symbols

One of the main themes of the tale of Hero and Leander is forbidden love. Hero, as a priestess of Aphrodite, was sworn to remain a virgin; therefore, a love affair was a violation of her vows and the rules of the temple. Another related theme is the wrath of the gods. Because Hero and Leander violated the rules of the gods, they were both doomed to die tragically.

In the myth, summer is a symbol of flourishing love, as shown by the fact that the lovers' affair begins in the warm summer months. By contrast, winter symbolizes the stormy fate of their doomed relationship, and a winter wind blows out the candle that guides Leander across the sea.

Hero and Leander in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Although well known in ancient Greece, Ovid preserved and popularized the tale of Hero and Leander in his Heroides. In 1598 the English author Christopher Marlowe used the story as the basis of his poem Hero and Leander. Lord Byron, John Keats, and Lord Tennyson were other well-known poets who wrote of the lovers. The tale also inspired paintings by Rubens, Turner, and Rossetti. The myth of Hero and Leander was referenced in several of William Shakespeare's plays, most notably As You Like Lt and Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The myth of Hero and Leander could be classified as a tale of “star-crossed lovers,” much like the tale of Romeo and Juliet. Both tales center on two young lovers who are fated to be kept apart. Find another example of this kind of tale in literature, television, or film, and describe it. How does it differ from the myth of Hero and Leander?

SEE ALSO Aphrodite; Greek Mythology

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