How can you tell if an ancient story is completely fictional or based on reality? One method, says a team of physicists, is to map out the social network of the characters and test whether it looks like a real social network. When they used that method for three ancient myths, they found that the characters have surprisingly realistic relationships.
Ancient stories are called myths for a reason. No one believes that Beowulf, the hero of the Anglo-Saxon epic, slew a talking monster named Grendel. Or that the Greek gods described in The Iliad actually appeared on Earth to intervene in the Trojan War. But historians and archaeologists agree that much of those ancient narratives was based on real people and events. The supernatural features of the narrative were then layered onto reality.
Ralph Kenna and Pádraig Mac Carron, physicists at Coventry University in the United Kingdom, wondered if reality leaves its mark on mythological narratives through the relationships between characters. So they built social network maps for three ancient texts. Along with Beowulf and The Iliad , they included an Irish epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge. The Irish epic’s origins are murky. Most scholars assume that it is completely fictional, but recent archaeological evidence suggests that it could be based in part on a real conflict in Ireland 3200 years ago.
The full paper is available online free for 30 days, though the site requires registration.