The day after Thanksgiving I purchased a beat-up but beautiful old edition of Bulfinch’s Mythology. I flipped open the fusty book and landed on the fable of Hero and Leander. It’s a brief entry in Bulfinch’s but the tale of love and tragedy is potent. It has captured the imagination of the poets Byron and Keats and the painters Turner and Twombly.
Two lovers, Hero and Leander, are separated by a strait (which was once swam by Byron to prove it could be done). So it was, Leander swam the strait night after night to visit his lover, who lit a torch from her tower to guide his way. One fateful winter night, a storm caused rough waters and the wind extinguished Hero’s torch. Leander perished and Hero, in agony, leapt from the tower to her death.
The plausibility of Hero and Leander’s story makes it so much more powerful. So much so, that many, in the tradition of Byron, swim the strait of Hellespont every year (now known as the Dardanelles) to prove, and maybe to experience, Leander’s nightly feat.
The winds are high on Helle’s wave,
As on that night of stormiest weather,
When Love, who sent, forgot to save,
The young, the beautiful, the brave…
words Mark Ho-Kane
image Hero and Leander by Mark Ho-Kane
image Hero and Leander's Farewell by William Turner
image Bulfinch's Mythology, 1963
image Hero and Leander by Cy Twombly
image New York Times map, 1915