Star-Crossed Lovers

“Dido and Aeneas * Helen and Paris * Layla and Majnoun * Antara and Bala * Prince Khosrow and Shirin * Pyramus and Thisbe * Romeo and Juliet * Abelard and Heloise * Tristan and Isolde

Only the saddest stories live forever.

Aeneas would betray his lover, Dido, the queen of Carthage (who had generously offered hospitality to his refugee-party from Troy) in order to follow his political destiny, while Paris would unwittingly start the whole gory cycle of the Trojan War by receiving the love of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, as reward from the Goddess Aphrodite.

The love of Majnoun (literally the ‘possessed’ or ‘mad one’) for his beloved friend from school, Layla, is perhaps the most influential of all the Arab world’s tales. The pair were separated by a family feud and after his beloved had been given to another man, Majnoun wasted his life away in the desert, a virgin ascetic composing love songs to his impossible dream. Scholars have traced fifty-nine variations of this tale, including the cycle of Antara and Abla; the Persian story of this love of Prince Khosrow for Princess Shirin; Pyramus and Thisbe; and the most famous spin-off of all—Romeo and Juliet(‘A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life; Whose misadventured piteous overthrows, Do with their death bury their parents’ strife’).

Medieval European love was equally unpromising. The story of Abelard and Heloise begins with the elderly male canon-scholar seducing his brilliant but poor young pupil in twelfth-century Paris. Once pregnant she is sent away to give birth in Brittany and then tricked with a ‘secret and private’ marriage before being consigned to a nunnery. Only after Heloise’s many admirers take their revenge on Abelard by castrating him does his proper love grow, and it is as chaste monk and nun that they enjoy the correspondence that would later be published.

Tristan and Isolde has inspired countless tellings, including Sir Thomas Malory’s creation of L’Morte d’Arthur. It has been traced to a twelfth century text but clearly looks back to a much older Celtic tradition in which the dashing young Tristan is sent to Ireland to bring back the beautiful Isolde for his uncle Mark, King of Cornwall. However, during their journey the two mistakenly drink a love potion destined to be consumed during the marriage ceremony. Thereafter their lives are full of deceit and romping adventure as they aspire to be good and dutiful to King Mark, yet stay true to their love. They can only break out of their fateful destiny by taking their own lives.”

Excerpted from: Rogerson, Barnaby. Rogerson’s Book of Numbers: The Culture of Numbers–from 1,001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World. New York: Picador, 2013.

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