The great mythological tales exist in a netherworld between fact and fiction. Passed down orally from one generation to another, they tend to follow a similar outline (as Joseph Campbell pointed out), and impart some basic truths about human nature.
But are the often-fantastic tales they tell essentially true, or the products of mankind’s ancient imagination?
A pair of Irish researchers conducted a sophisticated statistical analysis of three canonical texts, and concluded they give plausibly realistic portraits of their respective societies—once you remove certain obviously fantastical elements, and assume certain characters are actually composites.
“We’re not saying that this or that actually happened, or even that the individual people portrayed in the stories are real,” said Padraig Mac Carron of Coventry University’s Applied Mathematics Research Centre, who co-authored the paper with his colleague Ralph Kenna. “We are saying that the overall society (that emerges from the stories) and interactions between characters seem realistic.”
Mac Carron and Kenna examined the social networks portrayed in Homer’s Iliad, which describes the internal and external struggles of the Greek army during the Trojan War; Beowulf, the story of a great Scandinavian warrior who defeats a monster; and the Tain Bo Cualinge, an ancient Irish epic in which a man must defend the province of Ulster singlehandedly.
The researchers identified 74 named characters in Beowulf, 404 in the Tain and 716 in the Iliad. They then charted the links between them, both friendly and hostile.
“Of the three myths, the network of characters in the Iliad has properties most similar to those of real social networks,” they write in the journal EPL (Europhysics Letters). “This similarity perhaps reflects the archaeological evidence supporting the historicity of some of the events (the tale describes).”
Similarly, the way the characters of Beowulf are linked together “has some properties similar to real social networks,” they write. This confirms the archaeological evidence that a number of the characters are based on real people, “although the events of the story often contain elements of fantasy.”
In contrast, the social network of the Tain “initially seems similar to that of the Marvel Universe, perhaps indicating it is the Iron Age equivalent of a comic book,” the researchers write. But if you remove the weakest links associated with six major characters who are “too super-human to be realistic,” the social network that results is “similar to the Iliad and to other real social networks.”
If you assume those six characters are “amalgams of several entities or proxies,” which were presumably fused as the story got retold and revised over the centuries, the society they inhabit seems as plausible and realistic as those of the other two myths.
So there may be a reason why these ancient tales evoke a feeling of deep truth that so many fictional works fail to convey. While they describe incredible adventures, these stories—at least according to this analysis—seem to have a solid grounding in the real world.