Friday, 26 October 2012

If Achilles Used Facebook...

In a study published in Europhysics Letters, scientists use a mathematical approach to examine the social networks in three narratives: “The Iliad”, “Beowulf” and the Irish epic “Tain BoCuailnge.” If the social networks depicted appeared realistic, they surmised, perhaps they would reflect some degree of historical reality.

When we pick up a mythological text like “The Iliad” or “Beowulf,” we like to imagine that the societies they describe existed. Even if the stories are fiction, we believe that they tell us something about ancient Greece or the Anglo-Saxons, and that some of the characters and events were based on reality.
1.Howard David Johnson - Victorious Achilles
“Beowulf” is an Anglo-Saxon heroic epic, set in Scandinavia. Notwithstanding obvious embellishments, archaeology supports the historical authenticity associated with some of its characters. The main character, Beowulf, is believed to be fictional. “The Iliad,” is an epic poem attributed to Homer dating from the eighth century B.C. Some archaeological evidence suggests that the story is based on an actual conflict. We contrasted those two narratives with the Irish epic “Tain Bo Cuailnge” (usually called the “Tain”), which most believe to be completely fictional. The “Tain,” which survives in three manuscripts from between the 12th and 14th centuries, concerns a conflict between Connaught and Ulster, Ireland’s western and northern provinces.
2.Hans W. Schmidt Beowulf Illustration
To construct the social networks in each of the narratives, researchers created databases for the characters and their interactions, and categorized their relationships as hostile or friendly. The myth networks were found to have some of the characteristics, including the small-world property and structural balance (related to the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend), typical of real-world networks.
3.Táin Bó Cúailnge
The results showed, that all three were scale-free, unlike any of the intentionally fictional narratives they have examined. However, in the Irish myth, the top six characters are all unrealistically well connected. There are 398 other characters in the “Tain,” but after remove the weakest links (or single, direct encounters) between these characters and the Top 6, the narrative becomes as realistic as “Beowulf” from a social-network view. Perhaps these characters are amalgams of a number of entities that were fused as the narrative was passed down orally.

The studies approach is different from traditional approaches to comparative mythology. It is not literary analysis; it tells us nothing about events or the human condition. Instead, it promises a new way to analyze old material and find striking new perspectives and evidence — in this case, that which we call “myths” may not be as mythical as we thought.


Read the full article on NY Times.

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