Stith 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.

In 1966 he published a revised version of this index. We have entered most of the contents of the Motif Index into this section of the database. We have included in the database all of the motifs, descriptors, cross references, along with the general outline and detailed synopsis for each alphabet used. However, we have omitted the introductory material included by Thompson, his bibliography, and all of his abbreviated bibliographic references that appear in the printed volumes accompanying the majority of the motifs.

How does the Index work in the Tales Online database?

For each tale included in the Tales Online database, motif numbers along with their accompanying descriptors, characters and character roles have been indicated, and settings identified along with the genre and age appropriateness. We have also assigned relevant keywords to each tale; words that are not contained in the short summaries, or descriptors.

All tale motifs have been linked to the entire Thompson Motif Index. As a result, entering an appropriate Motif number or descriptor or word within a descriptor will bring up all of the tales in the database which contain either the exact number or descriptor word if such a term(s) or number has been used.

Relevant 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.
Note: A small ‘c’ in front of a motif indicates that the tale includes a motif similar to, but not identical to, the listed motif. See the example below.

Motif examples

Direct motif example: The descriptor for motif A1010 is “Deluge,” meaning that a tale marked with motif A1010 includes or describes world floods such as the one survived by Noah.

Related motif example: The descriptor for motif A123.3.1.1 is “Three-eyed god”. There is no motif that indicates a god with nine eyes, so in this case an analyst might use cA123.3.1.1 to indicate that the god isn’t actually a three-eyed god but is close.