Maths study sheds light on ancient classics

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Wednesday 25 July 2012

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Ancient mythological epics such as the 'Iliad' and 'Beowulf' may be more closely based on real-life societies than previously thought, according to a study published in the European Physical Society's journal Europhysics Letters.

The study, which is authored by Pádraig Mac Carron and Ralph Kenna from Coventry University, performs detailed analyses of Homer's Iliad, the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and the Irish classic 'Táin Bó Cúailnge' to explore how the interactions between characters compare with those of real social networks.

Using mathematics, Mac Carron and Kenna attempt to discriminate real from imaginary social networks and place mythological narratives on the spectrum between them. Their findings indicate that the three myths indeed have structures similar to real social networks and their properties are quite dissimilar to those of fictional narratives.

The Iliad is an epic poem attributed to Homer and dated to the 8th century BC. Beowulf is an Old English heroic epic, set in Scandinavia – a single codex survives which is dated from between the 8th and early 11th centuries. The Táin Bó Cuailnge – an Irish epic – survives in three 12th and 14th century manuscripts. All three are believed to have been handed down orally throughout the generations before being committed to writing.

Mac Carron and Kenna compared the network structures of the three myths to each other as well as to real social networks such as those between movie actors, scientific co-authors as well as online social networks. They also compared them to fictitious societies such as those depicted in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Marvel comics (Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, etc).

Their findings indicate that the society in the Iliad in particular has a realistic structure (obviously fabulous entities notwithstanding). Similarly, the society depicted in Beowulf has many properties akin to real social networks, although the main character is too “super-human” to have been real. At first sight, the Irish narrative is the least realistic, but the artificiality appears to be linked to only six of the 716 characters.

Mac Carron and Kenna speculate that each of these six characters may in fact be an amalgam that became fused and exaggerated as the narrative was passed down orally through the generations. The beauty of the mathematical treatment is that it allows the exaggerated connections of these six characters to be adjusted, which results in the entire society starting to look more believable.

The academic paper 'Universal Properties of Mythological Networks' is available to download here.

For further information, please contact Alex Roache, External Press & Media Relations Officer, Coventry University, on +44 24 7679 5050 or email

Alternatively, contact Pádraig Mac Carron directly on