Maths Meets Myths – Investigations of Networks in Ancient Narratives

Ralph Kenna
Coventry University

In recent years we have developed a network-science approach to the analysis of ancient epic narratives. Our first investigations focused on comparative mythology and our first publication generated enormous interest and impact worldwide. Here, after a very brief outline our experiences in this interdisciplinary world, I recount the long relationship between statistical physics and the social sciences and contextualise network theory as opening a new bridge to interdisciplinary collaborations between science and the humanities.

I then summarise the techniques involved in complex network theory and report on a study of the societies underlying four mythological epics: Njáls Saga (Iceland), the Iliad (Greece), Beowulf (England) and the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Ireland). I quantitatively compare these to each other as well as to other networks, real and fictitious.

In a second application, I tell of a 250-year old controversy surrounding the Scottish narrative Ossian, one of the most important and influential works ever to have emerged from Britain or Ireland. This had a profound influence on Romanticism in literature and the arts and invited comparisons with major works of the Homeric tradition. The authenticity of the poems has long been questioned but in recent years Ossian has enjoyed a revival initiated by revisionist scholarship in the humanities. Here I compare the societal networks underlying Ossian with those of ancient Greek and Irish sources. I reveal a structural affinity between Ossian and Irish mythology, despite explicit rejection of the latter’s authority in the commentary which accompanies the Ossianic texts.

In summary, I introduce a new way to analyse old material and to develop new perspectives which may help shed mathematical light on the societies underlying ancient mythological epics.

Presentation (PDF File)

Back to Workshop IV: Mathematical Analysis of Cultural Expressive Forms: Text Data