London | The blind 3rd century poet Ossian – dubbed the ‘Homer of the North’ – may have never actually existed, as scientists have found that his tales were merely 18th-century copies of Irish folklore, putting an end to the 250-year-old literary controversy.
Poems by the Scottish bard Ossain 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 German Johannes Brahms to to English poet William Wordsworth reacted enthusiastically. French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte took a copy on his military campaigns and US President Thomas Jefferson believed that Ossian was the greatest poet to have ever existed.
However, since James Macpherson published what he claimed were translations of ancient Scottish Gaelic poetry by Ossian, scholars have questioned the authenticity of the works, which were heralded as the Scottish equivalent to Homer at the time.
Researchers including those from University of Oxford in the UK, showed that the structures of the social networks underlying the Ossian’s works and their 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 showed that the networks in the Scottish poems bore no resemblance to epics by Homer, but strongly resembled those in mythological stories from Ireland.
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.
“By working together, it shows how science can open up new avenues of research in the humanities. The opposite also applies, as social structures discovered in Ossian inspire new questions in mathematics,” said Ralph Kenna, a statistical physicist based at Coventry University in the UK.
“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,” said Justin Tonra, from the National University of Ireland.
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