Category Archive 'Sagas'

17 Jul 2014

Applying Math to Myth

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SagaConnections
Network combining the five major Icelandic sagas. White nodes represent characters who appear in more than one saga. There is a large overlap of characters from Laxdæla Saga (green) and Njáls Saga (red). The other sagas are Egil (blue), Vatnsdaela (yellow), and Gisla (light blue).

Veronique Greenwood, at the Verge, describes a fascinating application of the techniques of statistical physics to identify patterns and relationships in medieval literature.

An unusual article recently appeared in the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society and American Statistical Association.

It featured web-like diagrams of lines connecting nodes, a hallmark of research that analyzes networks. But each node, rather than being a plain dot, was the head of a burly, red-bearded Viking sporting a horned hat, his tresses blowing in the wind.

This whimsical-seeming piece of scholarship went on to describe the social network of more than 1,500 characters in the Icelandic Sagas, epic tales about the colonization of Iceland around a thousand years ago that were first written down a few hundred years after that. It was the work of a pair of statistical physicists, Ralph Kenna of University of Coventry in the UK and his graduate student Pádraig Mac Carron, now at Oxford, who are applying the tools of their trade to works of epic literature, legend, and myth.

For this particular analysis, they painstakingly recorded the relationship of every settler in 18 sagas. The resulting web of interactions helped shed light on theories humanities scholars have been discussing for years, and even picked up on some previously unnoticed patterns. Their work is part of a movement that promises a new way to approach old questions in literature, history, and archaeology, with fanciful diagrams as just the appetizer.

Demonstration of social network analysis, with red lines representing unfriendly connections and green lines representing friendly ones.

The story of how Kenna and Mac Carron got here begins with the Irish tale of the cattle-raid of Cooley, or the Táin Bó Cúailnge. That yarn tells how the warrior-queen Medb of Connacht rallies an army to steal a fine bull from Ulster, and how youthful Cúchulainn, an Ulster folk hero, stands against her. Complete with a maiden prophet with three pupils in each eye, wild chariot rides, and an enormous cast of characters, it’s a story to grip anyone’s imagination.

It’s a story that Kenna and Mac Carron, who are both Irish, have known since childhood. Several years ago, Kenna, who has a successful career as a physicist, found his thoughts returning to mythology. It wasn’t as big a departure as it might seem at first. “In statistical physics, you’re dealing with objects such as gasses that are comprised of molecules and atoms,” he says. “The system consists of many small entities, and so many of them you cannot deal with them individually, you have to deal with them statistically.” Some physicists have started to use similar methods to look at how large numbers of people interact to produce aspects of human society, and Kenna wondered whether they could be applied to myths and stories. The Táin, which comes to us in pieces from many different manuscripts, the oldest nearly 1,000 years old, is considered literature rather than historical account. But it might still encode, in a way statistics can reveal, information about the society that produced it. Math might also help classify tales in a new way, quantitatively, in addition to the usual qualitative classifications.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.


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