The Ossian Hoax
November 16, 2002 2:31 AM   Subscribe

Goethe's Werther exclaims "Ossian has, in heart, supplanted Homer" (more at ex-classics)
Napoleon carried a copy of Ossian with him and even commissioned a painting by Ingres. Ossian, son of Fingal, was a Gaelic Bard from the 3rd century A.D. and the author of an epic text discovered and translated in the 18th century by one James Macpherson. His works enthralled the artistic elite. Schubert set them to music. Goethe assisted in the German translation. Others, including Samuel Johnson were more skeptical and, in the end, were proven right - Ossian was a (well-constructed) hoax.
posted by Winterfell (11 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Thomas Jefferson was also highly taken with the Ossian poems--not surprisingly, as they were very much an Enlightenment cult. John Millar cited the poems as historical evidence in his influential The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks--along with another famous forgery, George Psalmanazar's book on "Formosa." Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan's The Wild Irish Girl argues that Ossian was actually Irish, not Scottish, and therefore ought to be understood as a great Irish epic poet. There is, incidentally, a scholarly edition of the Ossian poems still in print.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:17 AM on November 16, 2002

Exceptional, Winterfell. I do love a well-crafted hoax. I'm not sure whether my Scottish-Irish roots should be beaming with pride over the way Macpherson managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the literary elite, or if I should be appalled at the deception. A bit of both, perhaps. I've read through all of the links provided so far, and intend to do a little more digging later, as this is fascinating on so many levels. I assume Macpherson went to his death denying the hoax? Is there more of the correspondence between Johnson and Macpherson online?

From your last link: It took until the end of the 19th century for the verse to be definitively declared an invention. How was the hoax uncovered? Apologies if I missed the answers to any of these questions in your abundance of linkage - I read too quickly sometimes.
posted by iconomy at 8:19 AM on November 16, 2002

I am happy to have in my possession a (cheap and shoddy) 1979 reprint of MacPherson's first Ossianic publication, Fragments of Ancient Poetry; what's funny is that on the back cover they do their best to salvage something of the "ancient" crapola: "It was claimed the translations dated back to the 3rd Century A.D., although this has largely been refuted, research now placing them no earlier than 11th Century. As such they are among the earliest Scottish Gaelic poems." (Emphasis, and raised eyebrows, mine. And this balderdash was funded by the Scottish Arts Council!) Amid the fustian there are some lines that are still resonant: "Often by the setting moon I see the ghosts of my children." "Who is that on the hill like a sun-beam in a storm?"

I have recently learned that the Tale of the Host of Igor, the founding document of Russian literature, is now considered (by some, at least) to be a hoax. This has shocked me greatly, and I am going to try to get to the bottom of it. Next they're going to tell me Shakespeare didn't write his own plays...
posted by languagehat at 8:24 AM on November 16, 2002

This is such a cool story and one that I know as much as I know anything--very slightly and mostly by extension--from footnotes and asides at that, and in any case, far more connotatively than denotatively. So thanks for this incredible post with all these links so well put together.
posted by y2karl at 8:45 AM on November 16, 2002

Yeah, seriously, this was a great post. I first heard of Ossian when read The Sorrows of Young Wether. What's interesting about it is that Goethe uses Ossian as a fairly central feature of the book, much as he might have referenced Homer, for instance. The question of what sort of "truth" this gives to the work is really interesting.

I mostly bring up Ossian now as an example of what I feel Tolkien was originally doing (and what must have made absolutely no sense in the forties, when he wrote LotR) -- writing in the style of an ancient epic poet. (Tolkien was a philologist, remember.)

Another example: John Smith, the founder of Mormonism. If his Book of Mormon was a self-conscious scam (as opposed to the production of delusions, for example), he was doing the same thing... fascinating.
posted by tweebiscuit at 10:29 AM on November 16, 2002

Oh, and an interesting tidbit from exclassics you didn't mention: the popularity of the name "Oscar" is apparently entirely due to MacPherson's use of it in his forged works. Amazing. Oscar the Grouch has been living a lie.
posted by tweebiscuit at 10:32 AM on November 16, 2002

Following up on tweebiscuit's comment, I looked up Oscar in the invaluable Dictionary of First Names and found:
Oscar (m.) English and Irish: name, apparently composed of the Irish Gaelic elements os deer + cara friend, borne in the Fenian sagas by a grandson of Finn McCool. It was resuscitated by the antiquarian and poet James Macpherson (1736-96). This is now also a characteristically Scandinavian name; it was introduced there because Napoleon, being an admirer of the works of Macpherson, imposed the name on his godson Oscar Bernadotte, who became King Oscar I of Sweden in 1844. In more recent times it has been associated particularly with the Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).
This sort of happenstance migration of names fascinates me: Napoleon liked Macpherson, so newborn Swedes are named Oscar.
posted by languagehat at 11:06 AM on November 16, 2002 [1 favorite]

There's a famous passage in Boswell about Ossian, which I quote: "The subject having been introduced by Dr. Fordyce, Dr. Blair, relaying on the internal evidence of their antiquity, asked Dr. Johnson whether he thought any man of a modern age could have written such poems? Johnson replied, 'Yes, Sir, many men, many women, and many children.' Johnson, at this time, did not know that Dr. Blair had just published a Dissertation, not only defending their authenticity, but seriously ranking them with the poems of Homer and Virgil; and when he was afterwards informed of this circumstance, he expressed some displeasure at Dr. Fordyce's having suggested the topick, and said, 'I am not sorry that they got thus much for their pains. Sir, it was like leading one to talk of a book when the author is concealed behind a door.'"

Of the literary hoaxes described in one of the links, I'm particularly fond of William Henry Ireland's. As I recall, he was motivated in part to impress his father, who fancied himself a Shakespeare expert. Son William even forged a letter describing how one William Ireland once saved the Bard from drowning in the Thames. But his father went to his grave believing the forgeries were genuine, because his son was too much of a dunderhead to have created them.

Great links! Thanks.
posted by Man-Thing at 7:53 PM on November 16, 2002

I have a kindly and well-educated guardian angel who occasionally looks over my comments and then emails me and answers all of my questions. Really.

Thanks, guardian angel.
posted by iconomy at 4:21 PM on November 17, 2002

tweebiscuit: ...Goethe uses Ossian as a fairly central feature of [Werther], much as he might have referenced Homer, for instance.

Oh, Goethe did use both Homer and Ossian extensively in Werther. I think that the shift in Werther's affections from Homer ("Rosy-fingered Dawn") to Ossian ("O star of night descendant") doesn't just reflect, but drives his slide into despair and longing for death. Perhaps Nietzsche would have diagnosed a historical sickness, a side effect of Monumentalist use?

The question of what sort of "truth" this gives to the work is really interesting.

Yeah, that is interesting. I hadn't thought much about that before, but I suppose that even a scam gains some legitimacy through its creative use by sufficiently important successors. There'd be some spectrum spanning Aristotle's unintentional scientific howlers, Shakespeare's half-intentional historical howlers, and MacPherson's intentional literary falsification...

Winterfell, between xp+yp=c and this Ossian, your well-crafted, polymathic posts are a pleasure.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 7:28 PM on November 17, 2002

The Ossian mythos did derive from actual Gaelic legends, stories that show up in various forms featuring Finn MacCool, Taliesin, and King Arthur
posted by xian at 11:58 PM on November 17, 2002

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