The Myth of Leander

Retold by Alan Oldham

Having rowed at Leander for the better part of a decade, I am constantly amazed that very few people actually know the myth of our eponymous hero, Leander. And so I shall dedicate this article to Leander and do so in the memory of the late beloved Claude Saunders, who lived and loved as Leander did and never ceased to hope even in the darkest days of desperation.

Once, long ago, there lived a beautiful young princess, whose father was the ruler of Sestus, a city on the Asian side of the Hellespont, which separates Europe from Asia. The name of this girl was Hero. On the opposite shore sat a town of comparable size and wealth called Abydus. Only a few miles of water flowed between these two towns, but it was swift and treacherous, tumbling forth with powerful currents and undertows down from the Black Sea in the East into the Aegean and on into the Mediterranean.

As a girl, Hero’s father had handed her over into the service of the goddess Venus, in whose temple she served as a priestess with several other chaste young maidens of the kingdom. This temple had a tall tower from which she would often gaze out over the waters and wonder what marvelous things might exist beyond the confines of the holy sanctuary. Many years she spent in the service of the goddess and her beauty only grew with the passing years, until rumors of it had spread all across Asia and Europe. All of this made the king, her father, even more protective, and he ordered that no man was to set foot within the temple.

In Abydus lived a handsome young man called Leander. His good looks and charm had won him great renown, no less than the enthusiasm with which he sought out adventure and honour in the surrounding countryside. When the stories of the beauty of Hero, the princess in the tower across the water reached his ears, Leander thirsted for the chance to gaze upon such a wondrous site. With a friend he secretly stole out of the city by night and sailed across the Hellespont to make the attempt. Being such a prodigiously intelligent individual, Leander had no trouble dodging the temple guards and gaining entrance to the tower undetected. He was on a mission and the closer he came, the faster he ran, until he emerged from the tower stairs and caught sight of the innocent young Hero, peering out longingly, as she ever had done, from her tower window. The sight of such radiant beauty struck Leander dumb and abruptly halted his gallop, as though he had run into a glass door, and he was unable to move forward for a time.

As Leander stood and took in the loveliness of the girl, Hero arose from her seat as she became aware of his presence at her door. She showed no fear, but the fear any girl shows for her modesty, having been burst in on within her own bed chamber, by an unannounced man, and one seemingly unable even to explain himself. She slowly approached and, greeted him in soft, kind words.

The words were like music to Leander, which awoke him gently from his stupor. He fell upon his knees in tears and begged her with words of undying love to return with him to Abydus, but she would not consent, knowing her father’s will and the law of the temple. She also sought to test the truth in Leander’s protestations of love. But she too felt something for this stranger, that same something she had sought many years at her window. With the night fast ending, Leander had to leave, and so he departed, promising fervently that he would return the next night, and the night after that, to be with his beloved Hero.

Hero, who was more than a little flattered by all of this sudden attention from the handsome youth, eagerly agreed to the future meetings. And promised that she would lead his way by placing a lamp in her tower window to guide his course across the treacherous Hellespont.

Leander arrived home at dawn and told no one but his friend what had happened in Sestus. So he passed the rest of the day in eager anticipation for that night’s journey. When night descended, Leander, fearful of discovery, dared not cross over the water by boat, yet so great was his desire, that he waded into the Hellespont and, diving into the mighty flood, swam to Sestus. He had Hero’s light to guide him, so he knew his course was true. Having spent the night in each other’s company, speaking words of love and endless happiness, they once again were forced to part. Leander once again returned to the water and swam across to Abydus before the raising of the sun. No one knew of their secret love, and it went on. Night after night Leander would make this journey, blind to the dangers, seeing only the guiding light of Hero.

On one particular evening the East wind, incited by Venus out of jealousy for the young lovers, raged so fiercely that it looked impossible even for the fish to survive the blasting currents and waves surging past between the towns. But bold Leander would not be deterred from his nightly swim and he set out toward his love amid the raging winds.

In her tower, Hero nervously gazed from her window, where her guiding lamp was placed. She prayed earnestly that Leander would not attempt to cross that night, but these petitions scattered in the wind. Venus was not yet content when she saw Leander crossing still, and she sent a wind to snuff out the little light at Hero’s window. The lamp flickered and looked as if it would die, but Hero protected it with the robes and kept the flame alive, lest Leander loose his course and be lost forever. So with trembling hands she held the beacon and wept that her lover might not make the journey.

As Leander crossed he could see nothing but water and spray, except for that small light of Hero’s, which gave him strength to continue. A mighty wave crashed just then upon his struggling frame and drove him down below the surf. Yet brave Leander would not be pushed aside from his intended course and so arose to the surface and gasped the stinging salt-spray air to swim still onwards towards that warm and welcoming signal. And yet again a great wave crashed upon his weary limbs and dragged him underneath the crashing wash. But as before Leander was determined to press on, for even now his Hero’s light was glowing from the shore. With all his might and power he tried to press on, against the blasting storm. A third and final monster wave came crashing over him and forced Leander down again. With one last longing glance, he lifted his eyes for the last time upon that happy light, which flickered and went out in a sudden rush of wind.

Now as that last great wave covered over his sinking body, the guiding light was lit anew and Hero, who had no idea of poor Leander’s fate, continued to await his arrival. The storm dispersed with the dawn and Hero looked out to see what may have happened to Leander. When she saw his body washing against the shore she desperately threw herself from the tower to rest with her beloved Leander.

The romantic poet, Lord Byron, captures the spirit of Leander perfectly in these brief lines. It is in this story that we as Leander oarsmen and -women can find inspiration for striving indefatigably towards our goals, no matter how seemingly unattainable. This is the story captured in such brilliantly simply in our Club Coat of Arms: The torch over the water, symbolizing that after which we are always striving; the three great wave that must be over come to reach our goal, or else die in the attempt, but never give up hope:

The winds are high on Helle’s wave,
As on that night of stormy water
When Love, who sent, forgot to save
The young, the beautiful, the brave,
The lonley hope of Sestos’ daughter.
Oh! when alone along the sky
Her turret-torch was blazing high,
Though rising gale, and breaking foam,
And shrieking sea-birds warn’d him home;
And clouds aloft and tides below,
With signs and sounds, forbade to go,
He could not see, he would not hear,
Or sound or sign foreboding fear;
His eye but saw that light of love,
The only star it hail’d above;
His ear but rang with hero’s song,
‘Ye waves, divide not lovers long!’
That tale is old, but love anew
May nerve young hearts to prove as true.
— Lord Byron