Scottish bard Ossian ‘fabricated’ from Irish mythology

Researchers link mathematical properties of ‘epic’ texts to hero tales of Fenian cycle

 Ossian, the legendary Scottish bard, may not even have existed. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ossian, the legendary Scottish bard, may not even have existed. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

A Scottish bard named Ossian who is said to have inspired French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, English poet William Wordsworth and former US president Thomas Jefferson was probably a “fabrication” borrowed from Irish mythology.

A joint study by Irish and British researchers has found that the mathematical properties of the Ossianic networks are “remarkably similar” to those of the Fenian cycle “hero tales” of Fionn MacCumhaill, Oisín and the Fianna.

“Ossian”, supposedly a third century Scottish bard, earned renown throughout Europe from 1762 when Scottish poet James Macpherson “discovered” and published translations of his work.

The Ossianic poems influenced the Romantic period in literature and the arts, with German composer Johannes Brahms and Wordsworth reacting “enthusiastically” to them.

Napoleon is said to have taken a copy on his military campaigns and President Jefferson believed that Ossian was the greatest poet ever.

In notes and supplementary manuscripts to the “Scottish epic”, Macpherson made comparisons with the Greek and Roman classics, including the work of Homer and Virgil, to give them “greater cultural significance”, NUI Galway (NUIG) lecturer in English Justin Tonra says.

Research by Dr Tonra, an expert in “digital humanities”, along with that of colleagues from Oxford and Coventry universities in Britain, mapped the characters at the heart of the works and the relationships between them, using mathematics and physics.

The study, published on Thursday in the journal Advances in Complex Systems, says the networks in the Scottish poems bear little resemblance to epics by Homer, but strongly resemble the Fenian cycle in Irish mythology.

Centuries-long controversy

Dr Tonra said that while Macpherson is known to have seen Irish texts relating the Fenian myths, and acknowledged their existence, he claimed the tales originated in Scotland.

By “reversing the direction of migration of populations and folklore”, Macpherson provoked outrage by Irish scholars and sparked off a 250-year-old controversy.

Dr Tonra said Ossian may never have existed, and that Macpherson’s “translations” were a “mish-mash” of oral poetry collected in the Scottish highlands, along with manuscripts documenting same, and sections the Fenian myth texts.

It wasn’t a forgery, nor was it plagiarism, but “appropriation”, Dr Tonra said.

Coventry University statistical physicist Prof Ralph Kenna, a statistical physicist, said the research showed how science could open up new avenues of research in the humanities.