Menus Subscribe Search

Homer’s Facebook Suggests Iliad is True

• July 24, 2012 • 4:00 PM

A new analysis of the characters of three well-known mythical tales suggests the fantastic tales are grounded in reality.

Greek Mythology The great mythological tales exist in a netherworld between fact and fiction. Passed down orally from one generation to another, they tend to follow a similar outline (as Joseph Campbell pointed out), and impart some basic truths about human nature.

But are the often-fantastic tales they tell essentially true, or the products of mankind’s ancient imagination?

A pair of Irish researchers conducted a sophisticated statistical analysis of three canonical texts, and concluded they give plausibly realistic portraits of their respective societies—once you remove certain obviously fantastical elements, and assume certain characters are actually composites.

“We’re not saying that this or that actually happened, or even that the individual people portrayed in the stories are real,” said Padraig Mac Carron of Coventry University’s Applied Mathematics Research Centre, who co-authored the paper with his colleague Ralph Kenna. “We are saying that the overall society (that emerges from the stories) and interactions between characters seem realistic.”

Mac Carron and Kenna examined the social networks portrayed in Homer’s Iliad, which describes the internal and external struggles of the Greek army during the Trojan War; Beowulf, the story of a great Scandinavian warrior who defeats a monster; and the Tain Bo Cualinge, an ancient Irish epic in which a man must defend the province of Ulster singlehandedly.

The researchers identified 74 named characters in Beowulf, 404 in the Tain and 716 in the Iliad. They then charted the links between them, both friendly and hostile.

“Of the three myths, the network of characters in the Iliad has properties most similar to those of real social networks,” they write in the journal EPL (Europhysics Letters). “This similarity perhaps reflects the archaeological evidence supporting the historicity of some of the events (the tale describes).”

Similarly, the way the characters of Beowulf are linked together “has some properties similar to real social networks,” they write. This confirms the archaeological evidence that a number of the characters are based on real people, “although the events of the story often contain elements of fantasy.”

In contrast, the social network of the Tain “initially seems similar to that of the Marvel Universe, perhaps indicating it is the Iron Age equivalent of a comic book,” the researchers write. But if you remove the weakest links associated with six major characters who are “too super-human to be realistic,” the social network that results is “similar to the Iliad and to other real social networks.”

If you assume those six characters are “amalgams of several entities or proxies,” which were presumably fused as the story got retold and revised over the centuries, the society they inhabit seems as plausible and realistic as those of the other two myths.

So there may be a reason why these ancient tales evoke a feeling of deep truth that so many fictional works fail to convey. While they describe incredible adventures, these stories—at least according to this analysis—seem to have a solid grounding in the real world.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.