Introduction and Synopses for

Ovid, Heroides XVIII and XIX

Text of Heroides XVIII; Synopsis of Heroides XVIII

Text of Heroides XIX; Synopsis of Heroides XIX

The Basic Situation

Hero and Leander were in love.  However, Hero lived in the city of Sestos, while Leander lived in Abydos, and Hero was forbidden to marry a foreigner.  They were not actually all that far from one another, at least not in terms of physical distance.  What separated them was the Hellespont (the Dardanelles, in modern-day Turkey), a strait which helps connect the Black Sea with the Mediterranean and which separates Europe (where Hero lived) from Asia (where Leander was); at its narrowest point, this strait is only a little over a mile wide.  Consequently they managed to consummate their love and carry on an affair for most of the summer.  Each night, Leander would swim across the Hellespont, guided by a light that Hero set in the window of the tower where she lived.  They would spend the night making love and then, before dawn, Leander would swim back to Abydos.  As winter storms approached and the sea became rough, however, it was more difficult for Leander to make the crossing.  One night, the light in Hero's tower was blown out by the winds as Leander made his nightly swim.  He lost his bearings and was drowned in the Hellespont.  The currents drove his body up onto the shore beneath Hero's tower.  When she saw it, she committed suicide by throwing herself from the tower.

The Background

It might help to start off with a little geography.  The two lovers are situated in Sestos and Abydos, two cities which are on opposite sides of the Hellespont; Sestos is in Europe, while Abydos is in Asia Minor  The Hellespont, whose modern name is the Dardanelles, is a narrow strait in modern-day Turkey which leads roughly north-eastward out of the Mediterranean Sea.  After a few miles, the strait widens out into a larger body of water called the Propontis, or Sea of Marmora, and then narrows again to another strait called the Bosporus (the modern Turkish city of Istanbul is on the shores of the Bosporus). The strait of the Bosporus leads into another much larger body of water to the north, the Black Sea, which is bordered by Turkey, Russia, the Ukraine, and a number of other modern-day countries.  Today the Dardanelles is one of the busiest seaways in the world; in ancient times, trade between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean was even more important, and the Hellespont was a vital gateway for commerce, one which had considerable strategic importance.

One of the keys to the Hellespont's strategic importance was its width.  At its narrowest point it is only a little over a mile wide, and so it was narrow enough to be controlled by a city on its shores.  Its width is also important in the story of Hero and Leander--the distance between the shores was short enough for Leander to swim across.  But also, because it is the narrowest portion of a connection between two large bodies of water, it is prone to vicious currents; add to this some serious seasonal storms and the potential for high winds, and the one-mile crossing can become a difficult and potentially fatal endeavor.

Now, back to Hero and Leander.  While the two lovers actually lived quite close to one another in terms of physical distance, they were separated by more than geography.  Hero was an extraordinarily beautiful young woman, who was a priestess of Venus, the goddess of love.  Either because of her parents' wishes or because of the rules of the cult of Venus (Aphrodite) in Sestos, she was forbidden to marry a foreigner.  As a result, when she and Leander met during a festival in Sestos and fell in love, it was as love which they could not acknowledge.  Leander was from Abydos, across the Hellespont in Asia, and so he was a foreigner even if he only lived a few miles away.

The two lovers were not going to let parental or religious prohibitions stand in their way, though, and Leander devised a plan.  After it got dark each night, he would swim across the Hellespont to Sestos.  He and Hero could then spend the night with one another, and he would swim back just before dawn so that no one would know that they had been together.  To aid him in his crossing, Hero would place a light in her window (she lived at the top of a tower near the seashore) in order to give Leander something to navigate by.

The plan worked perfectly through the summer months, and the two spent night after night in one another's arms.  However as summer ended, things changed.  Winter storms began to move in and the weather grew wild.  The sea became rough and dangerous, and Leander could no longer swim the distance safely every night.  Still, he longed for Hero's company and he continued to chance the crossing even when conditions were not ideal.  Then, one night during stormy, windy weather, the light in Hero's tower was blown out.  With no beacon to guide him, Leander lost his way and was drowned at sea.

The next morning, Hero looked down from her tower and saw Leander's lifeless body where it had washed up on the shore near her home.  Distraught with grief, she threw herself from the top of the tower, committing suicide so that she could join her lover in death.

This exchange of letters takes place after the winter storms have begun, just before the night on which Leander is drowned.  The two lovers are missing each other greatly, but they are also contemplating the risks involved in the dangerous nocturnal swim.

[Note:  The story of Hero and Leander still seems to strike a chord in modern times, and Leander's legendary prowess in swimming has not been forgotten.  For a very long time it was widely assumed that it would be suicidal to attempt to swim the treacherous Dardanelles (or Hellespont).  But in 1810, the English poet Lord Byron, who was an accomplished swimmer, set out to prove that Leander's feat was possible.  On his second try, he succeeded in swimming across; his time was one hour and ten minutes for the crossing.  The swimming of the Dardanelles is now an annual event, with hundreds of people participating each year; the Turkish government even closes the busy strait to ships during the race.  The fastest time to date is 48 minutes.]

The Letters:  Heroides XVIII

Lines 1-16:  [Note:  The first two lines are often regarded as spurious (i.e., they were added to the poem by someone other than Ovid), and they are often omitted.  It is easy to see why, since lines 1 and 2 essentially repeat what lines 3 and 4 say.]  Leander starts his letter with a kind of apology--he is sending the letter when he would rather come himself.  He identifies both himself and Hero only by their home towns ("man of Abydos," "girl of Sestos"), emphasizing the geographic differences that keep them apart.  He hopes that she will read the letter "with unwilling eyes," presumably because she would rather see him in person, and he reproaches the goss for not being "favorable," since the weather keeps him from swimming to her the way he usually does.  He goes on to describe the weather, emphasizing the danger.  He has only found one sailor who is willing to venture out into the storm.  In case she might think that he is not eager enough to come to her, he says that he "would have gone aboard with" this sailor, except that the whole town could see him and he would not have been able to conceal his trip from his parent--their secret love "would not have been hidden" any longer.

Lines 17-26:  He describes sending the letter off; he gets sentimental about its fate, saying that he "Murmured" to himself about how it would be touched by her "lovely hand" and even brushed by her lips as she bit through the string with which it was tied.  He then reiterates his longing to come to her, saying that he wishes his hand would "swim rather than write" and insisting that his limbs are more suited for swimming anyway.

Lines 27-38:  Leander opens this section by reminding her that the weather has prevented his journey for seven days, and insists that he has not slept during that entire time.  He says that he sits on the shore and gazes across the Hellespont towards her home on the other side, traveling "in my mind" even though his body can not make the trip.  He even thinks he can see the "watchful light" at the top of her tower.  He closes the section by telling her that he has attempted the crossing three times in spite of the weather, but the waves beat him back and "submerged my face as I swam."

Lines 39-48:  He next reproaches the weather, fixing on the god of the north wind, Boreas, as the deity responsible for his delay.  He reminds Boreas that he too has been in love, referring to the Athenian ("Actaean") maiden Orithyia, whom Boreas abducted and married.  He asks Boreas how he would feel if someone closed his "airy approach" to "your joys."  He closes the section by praying for Boreas to go easier on him, and assuring him that if he does so, then the ruler of the winds, Aeolus ("son of Hippotes") will not be harsh to Boreas himself.

Lines 49-54:  But Boreas is not heeding his prayers, and the waves continue to be whipped up by the wind.  Leander then turns his attention to another solution to his problem, one that is no more practical than the first one was.  He wishes for wings such as the ones that Daedalus and Icarus used for flying, even though the sea where Icarus plunged to his death "is not far from here."  He says that he would endure anything if only he could fly across the stormy waters to Hero.

Lines 55-76:  As this section opens, Leander admits that his flights of fancy are not doing anything to alter the realities of the weather ("wind and sea deny all things to me"), and goes on to recall the first time he crossed the Hellespont to be with Hero.  When it had just gotten dark, he left his home, took off his clothes at the shore, and plunged into the sea.  The moon was out, offering "a trembling light," and he addressed the goddess of the moon, Diana, reminding her of her own lover, Endymion, and asking her to favor his "stolen love."  He says that the goddess had loved a mortal man, and asserts that his own lover "is a goddess herself."  He is careful to avoid seeming presumptuous and says that she is not quite so beautiful as Diana or Venus, but he invites the deity to "see for yourself" if she does not believe him.  Hero, he says, outshines all other beauties just as the moon outshines the stars.  He ends the section by insisting that Diana (Cynthia--another name for Diana) must "have a blind eye" if she doubts him.

Lines 77-84:  In this short section, he evokes the beauty of the night on that first crossing.  As he swam  easily through the calm waters, the sea gleamed with "a brightness like day" beneath the moon.  Everything was silent except for the sound of his body moving through the water.  This description of beauty ends on a slightly ominous note, however.  The only birds that cried out, he says, were the kingfishers--the Halcyons, calling out to their beloved Ceyx.  Since Ceyx was drowned at sea, and his body washed up on shore for his grieving wife to find, there is a foreshadowing of Leander's own fate here.

Lines 85-106:  In this section, he continues to describe his first long swim to join Hero.  His arms grew tired, he says, but when he lifted himself up he could see the light in Hero's tower.  Instantly his strength returned; he forged onward, and "the waves seemed more yielding."  Love kept him warm even in the coldness of the waters, and the closer he got, the more "pleasure" he felt in his efforts.  When he is sure that she can see him coming, he becomes even stronger as he labors "to please my lady."  He recounts how Hero's old nurse can hardly keep her from "going down into the sea," and was unable to prevent Hero from getting her foot wet along the shore  He ends the section by describing their happy reunion--how they embraced and kissed, and how she put her own clothing around his wet body and dried his hair, which was "soaked with the rain of the sea."

Lines 107-112:  In this section, he gives a brief account of the "joys" of the night that followed his first arrival from the sea.  He gives no details, simply saying that the night, the tower, and the guiding lamp know what happened, and that "the joys of that night can not be counted."  He points out that, since the time they had was so short, they "took care" not to waste any of it.

Lines 113-126: Leander finishes his account of his first night with Hero.  Dawn was nearing, and the morning star (Lucifer) had already risen.  They piled "up our kisses in haste" as the time for departure approached, leaving the tower only upon "the nurse's harsh warning."  As he swims back toward Abydos, Leander looks back at Hero for as long as he can still see her, and he complains that the way back is much harder than the journey to see her was, like "an uphill ascent through sluggish water."  He closes the section by saying that he is now an unwilling resident in his own home.

Lines 127-144:  Having completed his account of their first night together, Leander returns to his complaint about their separation.  They are joined by love, but separated by their homelands.  He asks why one of them could not move to the other's country.  He then asks why such a "slight cause" as the wind should be able to be an obstacle.  He points out that the dolphins and the fish already know him well, and he has traveled the Hellespont so frequently that his route is almost a beaten path.  He has complained before that there was no other way for him to get to Hero, but now he has to complain that even this road is closed by the winds and weather.  He describes the wildness of the Hellespont ("the sea of Athamas' daughter"), and suggests that it was very much like this when it acquired its name--thus ending the section on a somber reminder of the first famous death to occur in the strait, the death of Helle.

Lines 145-150:  In this short section, Leander continues his reference to the mythological origin of the Hellespont's name, saying that he envies Phrixus, who was able to fly across the strait on the back of a golden ram (his sister, Helle, fell from the ram and was killed as they flew over the water, thus giving the Hellespont its name).  But, he says, reaffirming his willingness to undertake the arduous swim, he does not actually need a flying ram or even a ship.  If the weather would just permit it, he could make the crossing with no other help than the strength of his own arms.

Lines 151-162:  In this section, Leander returns to his eagerness to dare the waters of the Hellespont in order to reach Hero.  He insists that he does not need any of the usual aids for navigation; he goes on to give a list of the constellations used by sailors, linking them to the mythological lovers who were associated with them.  Instead of all these stars in the sky, he says, he steers by another light--the one that burns at the top of Hero's tower.  With that lamp as his guide, he could swim all the way to Colchis and the shores of the Black Sea, and he could swim better than the sea-gods Palaemon and Glaucus ("him whom the bitter herb made suddenly a god").

Lines 163-184:  Leander continues to talk about his swimming, emphasizing the power of the love that drives him onward.  When he grows tired, he says, he simply reminds himself of what awaits him on the other side and "immediately" his strength is renewed.  He praises Hero as "worthy of the heavens," but beseeches her to "still linger on earth" with him, or else show him the "way to the gods" so that he can be with her.  He bemoans the fact that they are so close to one another and yet still can not be together; he says that he could almost wish that she were in some distant land, so that he would not be tantalized by hope and so that he would not be seared by "the flame with which I burn."  She is so close that he can almost touch her, but that "almost" is what drives him to tears.  He ends the section by comparing himself to Tantalus, who was punished by having food and drink always close by but never quite within his reach. 

Lines 185-202:  In this section, Leander gives way to something like a fit of despair.  He can only hold Hero "when the waves wish it;" the weather and the sea are unpredictable, and he is at their mercy.  Summer is not even quite over yet, and already storms hold him prisoner; what will happen when winter comes, he asks, referencing a variety of constellations seen primarily  in the winter months.  He promises that he will still attempt the crossing if the stormy weather holds for even a few more nights.  If this happens, then either a "happy boldness" will safeguard him, or he will die in the attempt.  He ends the section by imagining his own death, hoping that his body will "be cast forth on those shores" where Hero lives.  He envisions her weeping over his lifeless body and saying that she is to blame for his death.

Lines 203-216:  Leander pulls back from his despair and makes a kind of apology for giving voice to it.  He acknowledges that she will be "displeased by this omen of my ruin," and asks that she add her prayers to his that the storm may end.  He only needs "a brief calm," he says, and then the storm may rage one, so long as he is with her.  There is no better place for him than with her, and once he is there, the stormy north wind (Boreas) "may shut me in."  He says that he will be "cautious" about his return trip, and he will not complain that he is held back both by the wind and by the embrace of Hero's arms.

Lines 217-220:  He closes the letter by promising once again to come as soon as the storm allows him to.  He reminds Hero to keep the lamp alight in her tower to guide him. and says that he will follow the letter in person "with least delay."

The Letters:  Heroides XIX

Lines 1-8: Hero begins her letter by urging Leander to come to her--so that she can have his greeting in person rather than just "in words."  She apologizes for pressing him so hard, but says that she "can not love patiently."  She claims that, although the love with equal intensity ("we burn with equal fires"), she is weaker than he is, just as women are weaker than men in general.  She insists that, if there is a "delay of a little more time," she will "fail," or die.

Lines 9-32:  Hero continues talking about the advantages that men enjoy over women at the beginning of this section.  Men, she says, have many activities available to them:  they spend time at the market-place or the wrestling-ground; they ride, or hunt, or fish during the day; they go drinking at night.  She however, as a woman, does not have these opportunities, and all that is left to her is to love; she does love Leander, she says, "more than could be given back to me."  Then she shifts into a description of the activities that occupy her own time.  She whispers about him to her "old nurse" and wonders what could be causing his delay in coming.  She "rebukes" the stormy sea, and when it calms a little, she complains that he should be able to come but must not want to.  She cries while she does this, and the nurse wipes her tears away.  She even looks for his footprints along the shore, even though she knows that the waves would have wiped them out immediately.  She asks at the port for anyone who has come from Abydos, Leander's home, or who is going there.  She kisses the clothes that he left behind when he went back into the Hellespont.

Lines 33-38:  Hero continues her account of her own activities in this short section, shifting from the occupations of the day to those of the night.  Once the day has passed, she says, she immediately sets the lamp in her tower to act as a guide for Leander.  Then she spends the tedious hours of waiting spinning thread and practicing a "woman's art."

Lines 39-54:  She starts this section with a rhetorical question:  What does she talk about through the long hours of darkness?  Her answer is that she speaks only of Leander.  She imagines where he must be at that moment.  She asks her nurse if he is leaving the house now, or taking off his clothes and rubbing his body with oil for the swim. She adds a touch of humor when she comments that the old nurse usually nods at these questions--not because she cares, but because she is falling asleep.  She imagines that he must be underway in his swim across the Hellespont by now and, as she drops the "few strands" of thread that she has finished, she asks whether he could be halfway across the strait.  She prays for a "favorable breeze" for Leander, and she "believes every noise to be your arrival."

Lines 55-76:  As Hero finishes her description of her daily activities, she falls prey to self-doubt.  As the night grows later, she falls asleep.  She wonders if, after all, Leander comes to her "unwillingly," and then she dreams of Leander.  She describes in detail how he arrives at the shore, how she throws her clothing around him and how they embrace.  She refuses to describe what happens next, however, saying that these things "should be left unsaid by the modest tongue," no matter how enjoyable they are.  But then she awakes, and he departs "when sleep does."  She asks that their "eager loves" be joined in actual fact, and she rebukes Leander for having left her alone for "so many lonely nights."  She admits that conditions are not "suitable for swimming" right now, but last night, she says, the wind was calmer.  She asks why he did not come when he had the chance.  There might be many opportunities in the future, she says, but this one was better because it was earlier.

Lines 77-90:  She opens this section with the admission that conditions at sea are "changed quickly," but she immediately points out that this would mean that he should hurry, and therefore get to her in less time.  If the weather changed after his arrival and he was trapped with her in Sestos, then "no storm would harm you in my embrace."  She says that she would listen to the storm with pleasure, and "would pray for the sea never to be calm" so that he would stay with her.  Then she returns to her doubts and reproaches.  She asks why he is "more fearful of the waves" than he was when he came before. She says that she remember that he came when the sea was almost this "savage and threatening," and she feared that she would be responsible for his death.  Why, she asks, is he so afraid now, instead of being the "great swimmer who despised the waters?"

Lines 91-98:  In this section, she raises a new fear.  She says that he can be less bold than he used to be and swim when the sea is calm, so long as he continues to love her as he did before.  She says that she does not fear that the wind may delay their love, but "that, like the wind, your love may wander,"  She ends this short section by saying she is afraid that she may no longer seem worth the risk to him.

Lines 99-118:  In this section, she raises further fears.  She starts by wondering whether her status as a foreigner is an obstacle, so that she may seem "no match for an Abydosian marriage-bed."  But then she moves on to a more important fear--that perhaps Leander does not come because he is with "some mistress" instead of with her.  She hopes that she might die rather "than be wounded by such a crime."  She is quick to point out that he has not "given me signs that such grief will come," but she fears "everything," and the fact that he is absent makes it worse.  She exclaims that those whose lovers are with them are fortunate, because they know what is true and do not have "to fear the false."  Because she is not with him, "groundless wrongs move me."  She ends the section by wishing once more that he would come, and adding that, if he does not come, she hopes that it is the weather or his father's interference, not "some woman," that is the obstacle.  She says that she would die if she knew he was unfaithful, and urges him to "sin immediately" if he wishes her death.

Lines 119-150: Hero starts this section by summarily rejecting her fears that Leadner might be unfaithful to her, saying instead that it is the "envious storm" that keeps him away.  After two more lines in which she laments the severity of the weather, she goes on to speculate on the possible reasons for the storm.  She starts with the myth from which the Hellespont got its name.  Helle and her twin brother Phrixus, fleeing from a hostile stepmother, flew across the strait on the back of a flying golden ram; Phrixus made it safely, but Helle fell to her death in the sea.  So perhaps, Hero says, it is Helle's "dutiful mother" (the nymph Nephele, who sent her children the ram on which they escaped) who is weeping for her daughter and causing the rain.  Or perhaps it is the evil stepmother, turned miraculously into a sea-goddess, who is harassing the strait that bears her daughter's name.  Playing on this myth, Hero comments that the strait does not act kindly toward girls:  The Hellespont killed Helle, and it is wounding Hero by keeping Leander from her.  But the real responsible party, she decides, is Neptune.  He is the supreme god of the sea, and so he must have control over it.  She chastises Neptune, urging him to remember his own loves ("your own flames") and not impede the loves of others.  She then goes on to give a long list of Neptune's lovers, naming seven of them and referring to others "whose names I remember having read."  (for details on these love affairs, see the notes.)  She asks why Neptune, with his wealth of amorous experience, would "close off to us with storms" Leander's nightly crossing.  She rebukes him, telling him that he should take his storms to the "broad sea," rather than this narrow strait.  He should "toss about great ships," or "whole fleets," rather than harassing "a swimming youth"--there is no glory in such a small achievement.  She also points out that there is no reason for the god's hostility; Leander is of noble birth, but he is not related to Neptune's old foe, Ulysses.  She ends the section by beseeching Neptune to "give grace and save both of us;" although she is not swimming with Leander, her "hope hang[s] upon the same waters."

Lines 151-164:  In this section, Hero turns sharply back to her own immediate situation.  She is writing by the light of a lamp, and the lamp sputters.  She takes this as a good omen; the nurse drips an offering of wine into the fire and agrees--she says that tomorrow there "will be more" of us.  She urges Leander to make this omen come true by swimming across the strait.  She calls him a "deserter," and begs him to come home to "your camp."  She tells him he has nothing to fear; Venus, the goddess of love, was born out of the foam of the sea, and she will protect him in his crossing.  She ends the section by saying that she has wished to make the crossing herself, but the Hellespont is "safer for males"--both Phryxus and Helle flew across it, but only Helle was drowned.

Lines 165-180:  In the first part of this section, Hero suggests a somewhat whimsical compromise for their problem.  If Leander thinks that there is not enough time, or that his strength will not be equal to swimming both across and back, then they can each swim and meet one another in the middle of the strait, exchanging kisses on the waves before returning home; this, she says, would at least be better than nothing.  In the middle of the section, she laments the two opposing forces that torment her--her love for Leander, and her shame at revealing that love--and wishes that one or the other of them "would cease."  She says that these two forces are "badly joined," and she is uncertain which she will follow.  She ends the section by drawing parallels with two other mythical lovers:  Jason, who eloped with Medea; and Paris, who abducted Helen.  Both of them returned from their journeys with their lovers; but Leander, she points out, journeys to her but always leaves her behind when he departs.

Lines 181-190:  In this section, Hero shifts course sharply once again, and expresses her fears for Leander's safety.  She tells him that his actions are rash, and points out that even well-made ships "are drowned by the sea," and that "sailors fear to swim" because swimming is usually the result of shipwreck.  But, in the middle of the section, she says that she does not really want to persuade him to be cautious; instead, she wants him to "be stronger...than my warnings," and come anyway.  She ends the section by saying that she wants him to "cast your tired arms...about my shoulders."

Lines 191-210:  Hero brings her letter to a close on an ominous note, one that foreshadows Leander's drowning and her own suicide.  Her fears for Leander reemerge as she speaks of her sense of foreboding.  She feels a "trembling chill" whenever she looks at the sea, and she is "troubled by a dream" that she had the previous night.  Even though she tried to nullify the dream's power with sacrifices, it came at the time, just before dawn, when "true dreams" usually come.  She dreamed of "a dolphin swimming through the windy waters," which was cast ashore and died on the beach.  She urges him not to laugh at her dream and not to try to cross except in "a calm sea."  She asks him to "spare" his lover, "who will never be safe unless you are safe."  She ends the letter on a note of hope, since it is possible "that peace is near in the broken waves," and Leander may be able to cross in safety.  In the meantime, she says, her letter must make the "hated delay" easier to bear.




This page created and maintained by James M. Hunter

Comments and suggestions welcome:

Last updated 06/23/2013