Hero and Leander

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Burne Jones Hero Lights a fire

Image: Hero lighting the Beacon for Leander by Edward Burne-Jones (Wiki Commons)

Read by Jana.
Adapted by Bertie.

Hello, this is Jana, and I’m here with a love story from ancient times. We’re in a romantic mood, because we are recording this just before St Valentine’s day. First we must set the scene.

The Dardanelles is a stretch of seawater that separates the continents of Europe and Asia. In ancient times, this thin, winding sea, that looks something like a broad river, was called the Hellespont. It’s very deep and about three quarters of a mile wide at its narrowest point. Do you think it would be safe to attempt to swim across it? Listen to this story, to find out.

Two cities used to watch one another across the Hellespont: Abydos, on the side of Asia, and Sestos on the side of Europe.

In Sestos, there lived a priestess of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The name of this Priestess was Hero, and she was so lovely that Nature herself was jealous of her beauty. Her hair shone as brightly as Apollo’s brilliant sun-crown. Indeed, the sun god longed for her to be his bride, and to sit beside him on his burning throne. But he understood that he had no chance to win her love, because Hero had dedicated her life to Aphrodite, and had sworn never to marry.

Every year, the people of Sestos held a festival in honour of their favourite goddess, Aphrodite. The streets were filled with music, dancing and celebration, especially around the temple of the goddess. People travelled from far and wide to Sestos, hoping to complete their search for love. There were rare beauties to be seen, as bright as the stars in the sky, but the loveliest of them all was Hero. Her looks stole away the mind of anyone who gazed upon her.

One evening during the festival, she came down from the high tower where she lived overlooking the sea, and walked through the town on her way to the temple of Aphrodite. Her dress shimmered with embroidered stars as she walked, and the wide green sleeves flowed loosely by her sides. On her golden hair, she wore a myrtle wreath. Her necklace sparkled like diamonds, although it was in fact made of sea-smooth pebbles that she had collected from the beach and polished.

Many praised her sweet scent as she passed by. Indeed, Soldiers, who had fought fearlessly in bloody battles, were dumbstruck and went weak at the knees when they caught sight of her.

When she reached the temple gates, her modest hazel eyes met the glance of a young man who was leaning against the gate. His name was Leander.

Leander came from Abydos, on the Asian side of the Hellespont. He never cut his hair, and his dark locks flowed down onto his shoulders. He had pleasant, smiling lips, and eyes that were so expressive that they greeted you and embraced you even before he spoke. He walked tall, and straight as a wand, and his shoulders were as broad as a warrior’s from the age of heroes.

Leander casually picked a grape from the vine that climbed around the gate, and popped it into his mouth.

As Hero passed through the gate, she briefly let her eyes take note of the red grape juice on Leander’s lips. Once inside, she trod lightly over the pavement that shone like crystal, and was known as Aphrodite’s glass. Beneath her passing feet, lay mosaics depicting the love stories of the gods.

All these romantic tales of love shone below the gracious feet of Hero as she walked lightly over them.

Leander watched her walk, and he savoured the sweet pain of Cupid’s arrow deep in his heart. For a while he stood so still that a passer by might have mistaken him for a stone statue of beautiful Adonis. Then he knew what he must do. He ran to overtake the lady, and knelt down on one knee before her. She, seeing him in her way, blushed crimson as if she were ashamed. And that made him love her all the more. He reached out and touched her finger-tip with his own, and she trembled, before drawing her hand away. They say that love is blind, but more often it is mute and cannot speak. If you had been there, you might have seen the silent sparks of light and living fire flashing between the pair. And only then did Leander begin to sigh, and press his suit.

“Oh Mirror of Aphrodite, let me speak,” he said at last.“Be not unkind to me. Do not tell me to go. Instead, heal my heart that is so wounded by love for you.”

“But,” she said, “You have only set eyes on me for the first time just now.”

“Whoever loved, that loved not at first sight?” he asked.

And she, the priestess to the goddess of love, had no answer to that. The simple plain truth was that she loved him too. “I cannot return your love,” she lied, “I have made an oath to Aphrodite.”

And Leander spotted a truthful tear like a transparent pearl on her cheek.

“Do not tell me that you are bound by a promise,” he insisted, “that was made when you were too young to know better. It is wisely said:
“It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is overruled by fate”

“Legally speaking you are correct,” she conceded meekly. “We can be held responsible only for our actions, and not for our feelings.”

“So true!”Leander encouraged her. “Action is everything in a human life! We are nothing more than the sum of our deeds. How best to honour your mistress, The Queen of Love? Why isn’t it obvious? Devote your entire heart and soul to Love, starting right now!”

She cast her eyes down, and then, after some moments of silence, she said in a low voice to Leander:

“Too many observers are watching us now. Tongues will wag. We must meet another time in secret. There is a tower that looks down on the yellow beach where it listens to the rattling and murmuring sea. It is often visited by swans and sparrows. At the top of that tower is the room where I sleep. Tomorrow night I shall hang a lamp from my window as a signal so that you may see it. The only other person who lives in the tower is an old lady who watches to keep me safe. She is always fast asleep by sundown. Come to my tower tomorrow after dark, rescue me, and we shall run away together and be married in a temple far from here.”

“Lady,” said he, “For such a sweet reward, I would swim across the sea if there was no other way to reach you. For now, farewell. Oh, and my name, by the way, is Leander - your husband.”

“And I am Hero, your wife,” she replied.

He parted with a flamboyant bow, and strode off in search of his father among the crowds. That night he sailed back to Abydos in his father’s merchant ship. But when he returned home, he did not seem to be there at all. He had left his heart across the Hellespont with Hero.

The following evening, his father sailed away in his ship on a new journey, leaving Leander by the edge of the murmuring sea. The stars shone down and glittered on the waves - but one light shone brighter than the rest - the lamp that Hero lit from her window across the water. Leander stood upon a rock and fixed his eyes upon that light. “Oh Hero, Oh Hero!” he moaned, “Will the water part to let me walk across to you?”

But the sigh of the rising and falling waves whispered the reply - “No.” Nor did he have a boat. There was only one way to travel across the sea.

He stripped off his clothes, and shouting, “Love here I come,” dived in with a splash.

His strong arms propelled his smooth body swiftly across the water, as his head bobbed over the waves. It so happened that Poseidon, the sea god, looked up from the swirling depths, and caught sight of Leander pulling the water in the moonlight. The sea god saw the swimmer’s smooth skin and his flowing hair and was amazed by his beauty. He desired to know him better.

And placing his great seashell to his lips, Poseidon trumpeted out the command for the winds to blow and waves to wrap around the lone swimmer, and to drag him down to his palace. The storm came out of nowhere. Suddenly Leander was knocked this way and that by giant waves. He struggled and splashed, gulped in and spluttered out sea water, and prayed to Aphrodite to save him for the sake of Love. But he strove in vain, for down, down, he sank through the swirling waters until he found himself before the golden walls of Poseidon’s palace, surrounded by brightly coloured trees of coral. He heard the sweet music of the mermaids and was swimming with the haughty sea-horses. He felt utterly confused, and was not sure if he was drowned or breathing. The sea-horses led him through the palace’s gates of pearl to the emerald green throne of Poseidon. There the good-humoured sea god embraced him like an old friend, and asked if he had plunged down into the sea from Heaven like a shooting star.

“No, sir,” said Leander, “I am a mortal.”

“Then sit closer. Stay a while. Stay forever!” boomed Poseidon. “You outshine my immortal brothers with your beauty. You are as pretty - no prettier - than my pearly sea palace! You have arrived at your true home where you belong, far from the ugly world of common mortals.”

“But sir,” pleaded Leander, who was down on one knee, “ I swore to the woman I love that the waves of the sea would not keep me from her, even if I had to swim. I risked my mortal life for her love, and she is waiting for me. If I do not turn up tonight, she may die of heartbreak - and then the face of nature herself will be less lovely - for the life of Hero, my love, makes the world more beautiful.”

“Your words are as ingenious as your face is lovely,” said Poseiden. “It is a pity to let you go, but I shall, since your heart is faithful to this mortal woman - Hero you said her name was. She must be a sight worth seeing for you to turn away my gift of everlasting life and luxury. But before you go, at least take this trifle, a silver bracelet that I myself have worn. It will keep you safe forever from the sea, and whether you swim or sail, you shall never drown.”

A seahorse passed the gift to Leander, who departed with heartfelt thanks, before swimming on his way towards the light lit by Hero in the window of her tower. The flame danced and flickered in the breeze. Many times a gust of wind had almost put it out, but the faithful flame kept burning for Leander, until at last, he reached his love.

And that was the story of Hero and Leander, adapted for Storynory by Bertie, with some inspiration from Christopher Marlow.

And you may like to know that we are adding special content for our supporters on Patreon. It’s similar to our stories on Storynory, but just a little bit more grown-up. We think that maybe mum and dad or older brothers and sisters can enjoy it. For example, you can hear Richard reading a speech from Othello. And I’ve uploaded a poem called Hero to Leander by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It’s based on this same story, and it’s terribly romantic.

For now, from me, Jana