About the Thompson Motif Index

What is the Stith Thompson Motif Index?

Just as the early publications of folktale collections led folklorists to realize that the same tales existed in different times and in different countries, it also led to the realization that there were certain details in folktales that showed up in many different tales. Some of these details were characters, such as the wicked stepmother or the wicked witch, while others were plot details, such as the importance of the number three, or the fact that trolls turn to stone when they are caught by the sunlight. Folklorists call these details motifs, and in 1955, Stith Thompson compiled a five-volume list of these narrative elements and a one volume index into the Motif Index. Tales Online uses the revised version of this index, published by Thompson in 1966.

How does the Index work in the Tales Online database?

For the 1,000 individually-indexed tales included in the database, a professional or advanced student folklorist has assigned motif numbers, their accompanying descriptors, characters and character roles, and settings. Some tales have also been assigned a genre and age appropriateness rating, as well as miscellaneous keywords. A Researcher and Institution subscription gives users access to a "by motif" search of these tales which compiles a list of tales from a variety of sources and cultures based on the shared thematic elements described by the Motif Index. This search can be performed either by entering a motif descriptor keyword or a motif number, depending on the desired narrowness of the search. 

Beyond this additional searching method, resources related to the Stith Thompson Motif Index are also available with a Researcher or Institution subscription.  A list of major motif numbers and their associated short descriptors is available as an easy-to-navigate PDF file, allowing users to search the motif descriptors by keyword. In addition, a browseable, more detailed listing of the Index is also available. Some tales are also tagged with motif variants that specify a more specific descriptor (see examples below).

Motif Index Terms

Motif: A motif may refer to a character, action, setting, or object.

Descriptor: a short verbal explanation of what each motif is about.

Motif number: a shorthand way of referring to specific details found in folktales. These usually consist of a letter and then a series of numbers.

Motif Examples

Exact motif number: A1142 has the descriptor “Origin of thunder,” meaning that a tale marked with motif A1142 includes or describes how thunder came to the world.

Variant motif number: A1142.1 has the descriptor “Deity’s voice makes thunder,” meaning that a tale marked with motif A1142.1 includes or describes how a deity’s voice causes thunder to come to the world.

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