Science sheds light on 250-year-old literary controversy

A multi-disciplinary research from the National University of Ireland Galway, Coventry University and University of Oxford have explored the mathematical properties of Scottish Gaelic epic poetry. Here, Dr Justin Tonra, a digital humanities expert from the National University of Ireland Galway, peruses original editions of Ossian from 1762 and 1763.
Oct 20 2016 Posted: 08:57 IST
  •  Were James Macpherson’s famous translations of the ancient Scottish bard Ossian less Homer from the Greek Classics and more like Oisín from Irish mythology?
  • Multi-disciplinary research from the National University of Ireland Galway, Coventry University and University of Oxford explored the mathematical properties of contested poems.

The social networks behind one of the most famous literary controversies of all time have been uncovered using modern complexity science.

Since James Macpherson published what he claimed were translations of ancient Scottish Gaelic poetry by a third-century bard named Ossian, scholars have questioned the authenticity of the works and whether they were misappropriated from Irish mythology or, as heralded at the time, authored by a Scottish equivalent to Homer.

Now, in a joint study by British and Irish universities and published today (Thursday, 20 October) in the journal Advances in Complex Systems, researchers have revealed the structures of the social networks underlying the Ossianic corpus and their remarkable similarities to Irish mythology.

The researchers mapped the characters at the heart of the works and the relationships between them to compare the social networks found in the Scottish epics with classical Greek literature and Irish mythology.

The study revealed that the networks in the Scottish poems bore little resemblance to epics by Homer, but strongly resembled those in mythological stories from Ireland.

The Ossianic poems are considered to be some of the most important literary works ever to have emerged from Britain or Ireland, given their influence over the Romantic period in literature and the arts. Figures from Brahms to Wordsworth reacted enthusiastically; Napoleon took a copy on his military campaigns and US President Thomas Jefferson believed that Ossian was the greatest poet that had ever existed.

The poems launched the romantic portrayal of the Scottish Highlands which persists, in many forms, to the present day and inspired Romantic nationalism all across Europe.

Macpherson and collaborators compared Ossian to Greek Classics in order to add authority to the Scottish epic. Although its characters had resonances in Irish mythology, they tried to distance the work from Irish sources. Macpherson also sought to invert the ancient relationship between Ireland and Scotland, reversing the direction of migration of populations and folklore. This provoked outrage by Irish scholars and triggered one of the most famous literary controversies of all time.

Revisionist scholarship and a recent 250th anniversary sparked revival of interest in Ossian and launched rehabilitation for Macpherson.

The new research found that the mathematical properties of the Ossianic networks are very different to those of Homer, but very similar to ancient Irish tales, specifically Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology, which features Fionn mac Cumhaill and his son Oisín.

The interdisciplinary research connects opposite ends of the academic spectrum. “By working together, it shows how science can open up new avenues of research in the humanities,” claims Professor Ralph Kenna, a statistical physicist based at Coventry University. “The opposite also applies,” he says, “as social structures discovered in Ossian inspire new questions in mathematics.”

Dr Justin Tonra, a digital humanities expert from the National University of Ireland, Galway adds: “From a humanities point of view, while it cannot fully resolve the debate about Ossian, this scientific analysis does reveal an insightful statistical picture: close similarity to the Irish texts which Macpherson explicitly rejected, and distance from the Greek sources which he sought to emulate.”

The paper will be published online this week at the journal website. It is also available for free from .


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