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Social Network Analysis Finds Truth in Myth

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 20, 2012
Beowulf wrestles 
with Grendel 
1933 Lynd Ward


An ancient tale tells us the monster Grendel, annoyed by the noise of warriors drinking and carousing in the great mead hall built by the Danish King Hrothgar, was moved to murder them all in their sleep. No one thinks the monster was real, but there may have been a real mead hall. While evidence is lost and blurred by passing centuries, the story of Beowulf, the mythical hero who slew the monster, may be rooted in actual events and places.


Historians, archeologists and literary scholars have long searched for evidence of reality hidden in ancient myths that have been altered and embellished with every retelling for centuries even before they were committed to writing. Now the science of social network analysis is offering new clues about what’s rooted in reality and what’s totally fictional.


Achilles tending the wounded 
Patroclus from The Iliad

A team of physicists mapped the social networks in three ancient narratives by creating a database of the characters and their interactions and categorizing their relationships as hostile of friendly. Beowulf contained 74 characters, The Iliad 716, and the Irish legend Tain Bo Cuailnge contained 404 characters. Padraig MacCarron and Ralph Kenna, physicists at the Applied Mathematical Research Centre at Coventry University in the United Kingdom, describe their work in "Universal Properties of Mythological Networks" from, a Letters Journal Exploring the Frontiers of Physics, and in the New York Times story "If Achilles Used Facebook...."


Scholars think Beowulf, the heroic epic set in sixth century Scandinavia, has historical inspiration. The Iliad’s Greek gods who intervened in a mythical Trojan War with their supernatural powers come from the realm of art and imagination. But the lives and times described may refer to happenings in the 8th century BCE, and archeologists think Homer, writing some 400 years later, is likely to have incorporated re-told and remembered tales of military conflict around Troy at the end of the Bronze Age.


Slays the Hound of Culain 
1904 Eleanor Hull
The Boys' Cuchulain

Many scholars have considered "Tain Bo Cuailnge" completely fictional. Often translated as the Cattle Raid of Cooley, the story tells how the rulers of Connaught make war on Ulster in order to steal a fabulously potent stud bull. Cu Chulain, a 17-year-old, is Ulster’s sole defender. John Bohannon writing in says recent archeological evidence suggests it could be based on real conflict 3,200 years ago in Ireland. Written manuscripts dating from 12th and 14th centuries tell of a fight between Connaught and Ulster in the north and west of Ireland, and social network analysis lends credence to the historical root.


Kenna and MacCarron found the mythical networks have characteristics of real world networks. All three have structural balance, which the authors explain is related to the real-world idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. They are small world networks, meaning connectivity among nodes leads to pathways that link a large number of nodes, and there never are more than a few degrees of separation between two people. They are scale free because their structure and dynamics are independent of the number of nodes in the network, and they were also highly clustered, with groups of people who are well connected. In addition, the networks were assortative, meaning that as in the real world, people connect with people who are similar to them.


The authors examined social networks in several intentionally fictional narratives, such as Harry Potter, and found that none were scale free. In most modern fiction, Bohannon explains, minor characters generally link to the main character. Bohannon quotes Kenna as saying that in deliberate fiction, everyone tends to be linked to everyone else in order to make the story easier to follow. Unlike the real-world and studied mythical networks, the fictional networks were disassortative, indicating many connections between unlike nodes.


As the authors explain in their Times piece, their approach is not literary or historical, and tells nothing about the human condition. "Instead,” they write, " it promises a new way to analyze old material and find striking new perspective and evidence-in this case, that which we call ‘myths’ may not be as mythical as we thought.”

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