Ossian, the ‘Homer of the North’, and the truth behind the world’s greatest literary hoax

‘I am not ashamed to own that I think this rude bard of the North the greatest Poet that has ever existed,’ US founding father Thomas Jefferson wrote of the blind 3rd century Scottish poet Ossian, who was almost certainly made up in the 18th century

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
Friday 21 October 2016 00:03 BST
Ossian plays a harp and sings of Fingal to Malvina, a name probably made up by James Macpherson that became popular in Norway amid the success of the epic poems, in this 1810 painting by Johann Peter Krafft
Ossian plays a harp and sings of Fingal to Malvina, a name probably made up by James Macpherson that became popular in Norway amid the success of the epic poems, in this 1810 painting by Johann Peter Krafft

It has been described as the greatest-ever literary hoax, taking in world leaders from Napoleon to Thomas Jefferson and inspiring the likes of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron to create the Romantic movement of the late 18th century.

For decades, high society couldn’t get enough of the epic poetry of the blind 3rd century Scottish bard, Ossian, dubbed the ‘Homer of the North’, and his tales of the great warrior Fingal after it was ‘discovered’ by his ‘translator’ James Macpherson in the mid–1700s.

But doubts soon emerged. Could it be that Macpherson, also a poet, had adapted Irish folklore to create Scottish legends that would be taken seriously by a British elite obsessed by Classical Greece and Rome? Literary giant Samuel Johnson certainly thought so, condemning the “forgeries” and the “mountebank” behind them.

Now scientists have used mathematical techniques to compare patterns in the “social networks” of characters in Ossian with those in two key Irish stories – and discovered they are almost a perfect match, virtually ending any remaining debate.

Professor Ralph Kenna, of the Applied Mathematics Research Centre at Coventry University, said their results strongly suggested it was indeed a hoax and there was no such person as Ossian.

“I doubt it very much on a personal level. I wouldn’t think so,” he said.

“My personal opinion is certainly not. I would be on the side of Samuel Johnson, saying that it is very unlikely.

“If you take it [their study] together with everything else, it sounds more convincing that it was lifted from the Irish [stories].”

The researchers created “social networks” for each of the characters based on others they knew in the stories, according to a paper in the journal Advances in Complex Systems.

They then plotted the probability of a character having a lot of acquaintances against the number of people in an individual’s social network on a graph.

When Ossian was compared to two Irish stories, Acallam na Senorach and Lady Gregory’s text, the lines on the graph were virtually identical.

This means while some of the names may have been changed, the social networks of many of the characters were the same – something that was unlikely to occur by chance.

When plotted against Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, chosen because of the link made by Macpherson and his supporters to serve as a control, there were clear differences.

“In the past, people compared characters [in Ossian] to characters [in Irish folklore] … what we’re doing is comparing the set of links between them,” Professor Kenna said.

“Ossian is overlapping very strongly with the Irish stuff and it’s not overlapping so well with the Classical stuff.”

But despite the apparent hoax, in recent decades some have praised Macpherson for the quality of the work.

“They are saying he did good things. Before that people didn’t really value their past, their ancient heritage. His work really did inspire people to go looking at their national heritage,” Professor Kenna said.

“There’s no doubt it’s evocative and very beautiful and all that.

“I suppose he is the real Ossian. If he’d said ‘here’s a work of fiction’, that would have been absolutely fine.”

But even he was not quite prepared to say definitively that Ossian was a definitely hoax and they plan to carry out further analysis.

“We are saying there are very strong similarities … we leave it a little bit tantalising there at the end, so you’re interested in part two,” Professor Kenna said.

To modern ears, Ossian perhaps sounds a little melodramatic and wordy.

In one passage, the hero Fingal says: “Raise, ye bards, the song; raise the wars of the streamy Carun! Caracul has fled from our arms along the field of his pride. He sets far distant like a meteor, that encloses a spirit of night, when the winds drive it over the heath, and the dark woods are gleaming around. I heard a voice, or was it the breeze of my hills? Is it the huntress of Ardven, the white-handed daughter of Sarno? Look from the rocks, my love; let me hear the voice of Comala!”

When it was published, Scotland had just emerged from the Jacobite Rebellion, when Gaelic and Highland culture was suppressed.

But the astonishing international popularity of Ossian – despite the doubters – helped spark a revival that turned the Highlands into a romantic holiday destination and led the royal family to dress in tartan, which had been banned.

It has been described as “the Harry Potter of the 18th century”, but this was no children’s book and it attracted the attention of some of the world’s greatest names.

According to Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book, the second US President even wanted to learn Gaelic so he could read the work in its original language.

“The tender and the sublime emotions of the mind were never before so finely wrought up by human hand,” Jefferson wrote.

“I am not ashamed to own that I think this rude bard of the North the greatest Poet that has ever existed.

“Merely for the pleasure of reading his works I am become desirous of learning the language in which he sung and of possessing his songs in their original form.”

And in 1797, Jean-Pierre-Louis de Fontanes wrote in a gushing letter to Napoleon Bonaparte: “It is said that you always have a copy of Ossian in your pocket – even in the midst of battles.”

James Boswell, Johnson’s diarist, raised money to help Macpherson carry out further research to discover more of Ossian’s work.

But Boswell’s close friend Johnson smelled a rat, calling Macpherson “a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud” and the poems “forgeries”.

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