I.B.Tauris (2017) h/b 284pp £69 (ISBN 9781784539566)

The story, legend or myth of Hero and Leander is in essence very simple. The two lovers live on opposite sides of the Hellespont and every night Leander swims across from Abydos to Hero in Sestos, guided by a light she displays. One night in stormy weather, the light is blown out, Leander drowns and Hero commits suicide. This apparently simple story is indeed more complex than the bare outline conveys, and it has inspired many different responses and diverse interpretations. One element, which attracts athletic young men, is the physical prowess required for Leander’s feat of swimming. Byron swam from Sestos to Abydos in May 1810 in an hour and ten minutes, but only after earlier failure caused by the wind and tide. Just what a challenge it was for a lover is evident from an understatement in one of Byron’s letters, ‘I doubt whether Leander’s conjugal affection must not have been a little chilled in his passage to Paradise.’ M. quotes his ‘delightfully ironic’ poem On Swimming the Hellespont. Now there is even an annual Hellespont and Dardanelles swim attracting many open water swimmers.

Elements of the myth and its interpretation are given prominence at various times: the light as a symbol of love, Hero’s tower, the obstacles to the couple’s happiness (parents, Hero’s priesthood, physical separation), their impatience, boldness and recklessness, even carelessness, and their deaths. Neoplatonic and Christian elements eventually enter the narrative, in particular the soul and body divide. And there are moral questions too (whether they died through fate or choice), but they can even be united in death and love happily ever after. These elements and much more emerge from M.’s detailed narrative as she follows the history of the myth in literature (with occasional reference to visual depictions).

M. has sensibly limited the scope of her discussion to the classical world and middle ages since the vast quantity of response to this most engaging of love stories would inevitably have made the book too unwieldy. On the dust jacket, Evelyn De Morgan’s painting of Hero holding high her torch gives us a hint of the later tradition that M. sketches briefly in her concluding chapter. The early history of the myth is nebulous and it is not until Ovid’s Heroides 18 and 19 that we have a detailed treatment in Latin. In Greek, Musaeus’ Hero and Leander was not written until the end of the western empire in the late 5th century. His name has caused some to identify him with the mythical Musaeus, and M. nicely shows how Aldus Manutius used ‘the most ancient poet’ for publication in 1495 as the first in a series of Greek texts.

With her impressive range of reference and clarity of style M. makes this a most attractive study for anyone who is interested in the development and adaptability of ancient myth through antiquity and beyond.

Alan Beale