Study finds numbers add up in Irish epic


Researchers have used mathematics to conclude that ancient Irish epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge, may be more closely based on real-life societies than previously thought.

The study takes a numerical look at how interactions between characters in the ancient Táin Bó Cúailnge compare with real social networks.

Two Irish academics compared the social network structures in the story to each other, to real social networks and to fictitious societies such as in Harry Potter and Marvel comics.

The study by Padraig Mac Carron and Ralph Kenna of the applied mathematics research centre at Coventry University, England was published in the European physics journal, EPL, yesterday.

The society in the 1st century story of the Táin Bó Cúailnge looked artificial at first analysis of the networks between 404 characters in the story.

However, the researchers found the society reflected real rather than fictional networks when the weakest links to six of the characters are removed.

These six characters included Medb, Queen of Connacht; Conchobor, King of Ulster and Cúchulainn. They were "similar to superheroes of the Marvel universe" and are "too superhuman" or too well-connected to be real, researchers said.

The researchers suggest that each of theses superhuman characters may be an amalgam of many which became fused and exaggerated as the story was passed down orally through generations.

When the study mathematically adjusts for these six characters, the entire society portrayed in the ancient Irish story begins to look more believable.

Táin Bó Cúailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley) portrays a war over the brown bull of Cooley which sees the armies of Queen Medb and her husband Alill fight against Ulster's single-handed teenage defender Cú Chulainn. The tale was passed orally and survives in 12th century manuscripts.

The study also looked at Homer's Iliad and Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and found that the society in the Iliad had a realistic structure while most of the society in Beowulf had many properties like real social networks.

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