Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

Tags: ,

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

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

Follow us


Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

What Makes You Neurotic?

A new study gets to the root of our anxieties.

Fecal Donor Banks Are Possible and Could Save Lives

Defrosted fecal matter can be gross to talk about, but the benefits are too remarkable to tiptoe around.

How Junk Food Companies Manipulate Your Tongue

We mistakenly think that harder foods contain fewer calories, and those mistakes can affect our belt sizes.

What Steve Jobs’ Death Teaches Us About Public Health

Studies have shown that when public figures die from disease, the public takes notice. New research suggests this could be the key to reaching those who are most at risk.

Speed-Reading Apps Will Not Revolutionize Anything, Except Your Understanding

The one-word-at-a-time presentation eliminates the eye movements that help you comprehend what you're reading.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014