In what might be the weirdest piece I’ve ever read in the New York Times, researchers describe their efforts to prove in the least definitive manner possible — looking at the social networks described in the Iliad — that events depicted therein — which are generally understood to have occurred — might have actually occurred:
If the social networks depicted appeared realistic, we surmised, perhaps they would reflect some degree of historical reality.
Why are they attempting to determine whether the events depicted in the Iliad actually happened, especially when they note that “Archaeological evidence suggests that at least some of the societies and events in such stories did exist”?
No explanation is given.
They also look at Beowulf and Tain Bo Cuailnge, whose events, respectively, fewer people and no one believe to have occurred.
And what do they discover, based on their social-network analysis?
To construct the social networks in each of the narratives, we created databases for the characters and their interactions, and we categorized their relationships as hostile or friendly.
The myth networks were found to have some of the characteristics, including the small-world property and structural balance (related to the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend), typical of real-world networks.
Intentionally fictional narratives like “Harry Potter” also have these properties. However, “The Iliad” is assortative as well — a potential real-life indicator that these fictional networks lack. “Beowulf” is also assortative, but only if the main character, who is very different from the rest, is removed from the network. The “Tain,” like the fictional networks we studied, is disassortative.
These and other features may corroborate scholars’ belief in the narratives’ historical basis: i.e., the societies underlying “The Iliad” and “Beowulf” may have traces of reality, while that of the “Tain” appears more artificial.
In other words, the Iliad seems more likely to have a basis in reality than Beowulf. And both seem to be more realistic than the Tain, which everyone already believed to be entirely fictional.
Was any of this ever in dispute? Was there a lot of doubt that the Trojan War actually happened? And do we feel better about whether or not it took place because the social networks in the epic seem to be realistic ones?