How Ancient Epics are Just Like Modern Social Networks

It's not every day you run into a publication that uses statistics to argue ancient epics were based on fact, judging by their social networks — yet here we are. "Universal Properties of Mythological Networks" is a newly published article in the journal Europhysics Letters, and researchers Pádraig Mac Carron and Ralph Kenna have described and analyzed the way characters interact in famous sagas, and compared them to real human society.

The researchers analyzed the Iliad, Beowulf, and the Irish epic, the Táin Bó Cuailnge — from each story, every character was identified, and their interactions with other characters were marked as friendly or hostile. There were 74 characters identified in Beowulf, 404 in the Táin and 716 in the Iliad, and the distributions and interactions were mapped.

How Ancient Epics are Just Like Modern Social Networks

What they found was that the networks of interaction in these stories closely resembles those of real networks of individuals, especially when compared to works of known fiction — they were pitted against Hugo's Les Misérables (N = 77), Shakespeare's Richard III (N = 70), Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring (the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with N = 118) and Rowling's Harry Potter (N = 72). By a significant margin, the epics portrayed a network of people that seemed more similar to fact than fiction, especially as how interconnected all the characters are in the fictional works.

The researchers argue that this is evidence of some degree of historical fact being the basis for the stories. Of the three, the Iliad appears to mirror real social networks the closest, then Beowulf. The Táin was slightly problematic, and had some features that seemed more fantastic, but the authors traced these issues to just six characters of the 716, and that this is most likely due to multiple other characters being combined in oral traditions.

This is an incredibly interesting use of statistical analysis. Generally, when people try and prove the historicity of myth, it's down to archaeological and historical evidence. But this? Using statistical analysis to compare how close to reality the character interactions are? That's pretty freaking cool.