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Mythological Networks

 

Can Network Theory determine whether narrative works are fictional or historical? In lecture we discussed properties of social networks that should occur if it the networks are real, namely the strong triadic closure property and the property of structural balance.  In this article by Padraig MacCarron and Ralph Kenna in the online opinion section of the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/opinion/sunday/the-social-networks-of-myths.html?_r=1&hp summarizes and links to their scholarly article, which describe their study of three mythological works to determine whether they are complete works of fiction or based on a historical reality.

MacCaron and Kenna first use previous scholarly work to determine properties of real social networks, and find that real networks are highly assortative and structurally balanced. Just like we discussed in lecture they see that nodes connected with strong edges have closure and form large groups of associated friends and lack many local bridges, due to an extension of the strong triadic closure property called the small world property. However, in known works of fiction like Harry Potter, MacCaron and Kenna find the networks highly disassortative, the characters have many non-shared and weak edges and do not have closure between these edges. Furthermore, they also find that both real and fictional networks are structurally balance; there are always an odd number of positive edges between a triangle of nodes in the networks. Therefore, when using network theory to analyze the three mythological works, MacCaron and Kenna’s main test will be how assortative the networks of the characters will be.

MacCaron and Kenna use this metric to analyze the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the Iliad by Homer and an 12th century Irish myth Tain Bo Cuillange.  Each of these three works have different levels of historicity associated with them; archaeological evidence supports events similar to the ones Homer describes in the Iliad and characters mentioned in Beowulf (besides the main character Beowulf), while many scholars believe Tain Bo Cuillange to be completely fictional.  MacCaron and Kenna found the Iliad and Beowulf (at least when removing the main character from the network) to contain highly assortative networks, while the network of Tain Bo Cuillange was highly disassortative. However, once removing 6 of the characters, who clearly are fictional and possess many weak edges with all different types of characters, the network becomes highly associative, thus possibly suggesting that Tain Bo Cuillange has a basis in Irish history, unlike previously thought. Thus, network theory can be used as another measurement of the historicity of certain myths; I, for one, would find it interesting if this analysis has or could be done on a work like the Bible.

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