Thursday, March 15, 2012

Visualizing The Iliad

Among the many blogs I read, there are some which never almost never cross paths with my interests in mythology and literature. One of these is FlowingData, a blog that “explores how designers, statisticians, and computer scientists are using data to understand ourselves better — mainly through data visualization”. Catching up on recent posts this morning, I learned of a new data visualization project by Santiago Ortiz, in which he maps out the relationships between characters in The Iliad.

There are two distinct visualizations — actually three, since one of the visualizations is really a two-for-one. That’s the “network” view. It gives a grid on the left, mapping out the intersections between characters, and a sort of three-dimensional node map on the right. Move your mouse over either and observe the results!

This view, for my money, is the more difficult to use and understand, but take a look at the “stream” view (part of which is pictured above). In this two-dimensional view, the books of The Iliad are laid out horizontally (scroll with the mouse), with parallel streams representing the major characters. As in a word-cloud, the larger a character’s name, the more prominent his role at each point in the poem. It’s a little bit like the classic xkcd representation of The Lord of the Rings (if you haven’t seen it, follow this link; and note: it’s the film version).

Fascinating, eh? I think these sorts of creative visualizations can really help students grasp the complexity of expansive literary works like those of Homer, Virgil, and Tolkien.

Note: The visualizations use the HTML5 <canvas> element, so you’ll need a browser capable of rendering it. That’s most of them, but with the conspicuous exception of any version of Internet Explorer except the latest (version 9).


  1. This reminds me of a timeline in the back of the Bible that an uncle who was a Protestant minister gave me when I was a kid. I thought it was one of the most interesting things in the book. It listed various historical events down the pages (there were many) and years, and on each page there were several lines in different colors representing different nations, with the width of the line corresponding to its power and importance at the time. When a nation was conquered by another, its line merged with the conqueror's.

    I still remember that the line for Rome was purple, and by the end it was fatter than all the other lines put together. About the last event listed was Trajan's war with Parthia, marked by a short-term notch in the Roman line and a corresponding bump in the Persian one.

  2. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.