The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature is a six volume catalogue of motifs, granular elements of folklore, composed by American folklorist Stith Thompson (1932–1936, revised and expanded 1955–1958). Often referred to as Thompson's motif-index, the catalogue has been extensively used in folklore studies, where folklorists commonly use it in tandem with the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index (ATU), an index used for folktale type analysis.

As standard tools

The motif-index and the ATU indices are regarded as standard tools in the study of folklore. For example, folklorist Mary Beth Stein said that, "Together with Thompson's six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, with which it is cross-indexed, The Types of Folktale constitutes the most important reference work and research tool for comparative folk-tale analysis.[1] Alan Dundes, who was an outspoken critic, also said substantially the same thing, without confining the application to comparative studies: "[the indices] index constitute two of the most valuable tools in the professional folklorist's arsenal of aids for analysis".[2]

Concise outlines of both indices appear in Thompson's The Folktale (1946).[3]


In the context of the index, Thompson has defined motif as follows: "A motif is the smallest element in a tale having a power to persist in tradition. In order to have this power it must have something unusual and striking about it".[4]

But in the Motif-index itself, Thompson had also provided a more "cautious" definition:[5] "[a]nything that goes to make up a traditional narrative ... When the term motif is employed, it is always in a very loose sense, and is made to include any of the elements of narrative structure".[6]

This use of the noun motif is specialized to the field of folklore studies. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, folkloristic use of the noun motif is not summed up in the definition for literary criticism ("Motif", def. 3a), but deserves its own separate sense of this definition ("Motif", def. 3b).[7] Similarly, the compound noun motif index is used in cultural anthropology to denote "an index of standard motifs, esp. those found in folk tales".[8]


Thompson discusses composing the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature in his autobiography, A Folklorist's Progress: Reflection of a Scholar's Life.[9] In producing the motif-index, Thompson built upon the research of Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne, who in 1910 published an index of European tale-types. Thompson himself had revised this in 1928 to cover the region from Europe to Asia: this is known as the Aarne-Thompson tale type index.[10] In his Motif-Index, Thompson then compiled, classified, and numbered the traditional motifs of the mostly European folktale types in the tale-type index.[11][page range too broad]

Thompson's motif-index organizes thousands of motifs. Entries are first organized by an umbrella topic (for example, category S is "Unnatural Cruelty"). Entries are then divided into more specific subcategories. For example, entry S50 "Cruel relatives-in-law" contains the sub-entry S51.1 "Cruel mother-in-law plans death of daughter-in-law". Thompson's The Folktale includes the following overview of the motif-index:[12]

  • A. Mythological motifs
  • B. Animals
    • B0-B99 Mythical animals
    • B100-B199 Magic animals
      • B100-B119 Treasure animals
      • B120-B169 Animals with magic wisdom
      • B170-B199 Other magic animals
    • B200-B299 Animals with human traits
    • B300-B599 Friendly animals
      • B300-B349 Helpful animals―general
      • B350-B399 Grateful Animals
      • B400-B499 Kinds of helpful animals
      • B500-B599 Services of helpful animals
      • B600-B699 Marriage of person to animal
      • B700-B799 Fanciful traits of animals
  • C. Taboo
    • C0-C99 Taboo connected with supernatural beings
    • C100-C199 Sex taboo
    • C200-C299 Eating and drinking taboo
    • C300-C399 Looking taboo
    • C400-C499 Speaking taboo
    • C900-C999 Punishment for breaking taboo
      • C 961.1 Transformation to pillar of salt for breaking taboo
  • D. Magic
    • D0-D699 Transformation
      • D10-D99 Transformation of man to different man
      • D100-D199 Transformation: man to animal
      • D200-D299 Transformation: man to object
      • D300-D399 Transformation: animals to person
      • D400-D499 Other forms of transformation
      • D450-D499 Transformation: object to object
      • D500-D599 Means of transformation
      • D600-D699 Miscellaneous transformation incidents
    • D700-D799 Repeated transformation
    • D800-D1699 Magic Objects
      • D800-D899 Ownership of magic objects
      • D900-D1299 Kinds of magic objects
        • D990—D1029. Magic bodily members
        • D1070 Magic ornaments
        • D1080 Magic weapons
        • D1081 Magic swords
          • D1081.1 Sword of magic origin
        • D1470 Magic object as provider
      • D1520 Magic object affords miraculous transportation
      • D1550 Magic object miraculously opens and closes
      • D1600—D1699 Characteristics of magic objects
    • D1700—2199 Magic Powers and Manifestations
      • D1710—D1799 Manifestations of magic power
        • D1711 Magician
        • D1719 Possession of magic powers — miscellaneous
          • D1719.5 Magic power of a fairy
          • D1719.6 Magic power of a Holy Cross
        • D1720 Acquisition of magic powers
        • D1740 Loss of magic powers
        • D 1761 Magic results produced by wishing
    • D1800—D2199 Possession and means of employment of magic
      • D1800—D1949 Lasting magic qualities
        • D1830 Magic strength
        • D1831 Magic strength resides in hair
      • D1950—D2049 Magic characteristics
      • D2050—D2099 Destructive magic powers
      • D2100—D2199 Other manifestations of magic power
        • D2100 Magic wealth
  • E. The Dead
  • F. Marvels
    • F0-F199 Otherworldly journeys
    • F200-F699 Marvelous creatures
    • F700-F899 Extraordinary places and things
  • G. Ogres (and Satan)
  • H. Tests
    • H0-H199 Identity tests: Recognition
    • H300-H499 Marriage tests
    • H500-H899 Tests of cleverness
    • H900-H1199 Tests of prowess: Tasks
    • H1200-H1399 Tests of prowess: Quests
  • J. The Wise and the Foolish
    • J0-J199 Acquisition and possession of wisdom/knowledge
    • J200-J1099 Wise and unwise conduct
    • J1100-J1699 Cleverness
      • J1185.1. Scheherazade: story with indefinite sequels told to stave off execution.
    • J1700-J2799 Fools (and other unwise persons)
  • K. Deceptions
    • K0-K99 Contests Won by Deception
    • K100-K299 Deceptive Bargains
    • K300-K499 Thefts and Cheats
    • K500-K699 Escape by Deception
    • K700-K799 Capture by Deception
    • K800-K999 Fatal Deception
    • K1000-K1199 Deception into Self-Injury
    • K1200-K1299 Deception into Humiliating Position
    • K1300-K1399 Seduction or Deceptive Marriage
    • K1400-K1499 Dupe's Property Destroyed
    • K1400-K1599 Deceptions Connected with Adultery
    • K1600-K1699 Deceiver Falls into own Trap
    • K1700-K1799 Deception through Bluffing
    • K1800-K1899 Deceptions by Disguise or Illusion
    • K1900-K1999 Impostures
    • K2100-K2199 False Accusations
  • L. Reversal of Fortune
  • M. Ordaining the Future
  • N. Chance and Fate
  • P. Society
  • Q. Rewards and Punishment
  • R. Captives and Fugitives
  • S. Unnatural Cruelty
  • T. Sex
  • U. The Nature of Life
  • V. Religion
  • W. Traits of Character
  • X. Humor
  • Z. Miscellaneous Groups of Motifs

Relation to tale-type index

The idea has been expressed that a combined set of motifs (in the motif-index) may constitute a folktale narrative (cf. the description of the Motif-Index as "a huge catalogue of folk narratives elements that may variously combine to form whole folk narratives" by Jan Harold Brunvand).[13]

This idea had already been anticipated by Alexander Veselovsky who wrote that "cluster of motifs" constituted a "plot", influencing Russian formalists like Vladimir Propp, whose study prefigured Stith Thompson's Motif-Index, as has been pointed out.[14]

In the book The Folktale, Stith Thompson invokes this phrase "cluster of motifs" in several passages, as here, in connection with tales involving the dead helper:[note 1]

The chain of circumstances by which this helper joins the hero and certain details of his later experience are so uniform and well articulated as to form an easily recognizable motif, or rather cluster of motifs. This fact has caused some confusion to scholars who have not sufficiently distinguished between such a motif and the entire tale of which it forms only an important part.[15]

But in this instance, Thompson is warning that the motif cluster is rather "only a framework for the adventures of the hero",[15] containing "at least three different tales within".[16]

Thompson also explains that a single motif may be found in numerous folktales "from all parts of the earth" (383).[15]

Editions (print and digitised)

Print editions

Digitisations of the second edition (book format)

Other motif indices

Many folklorists have produced extensive motif and tale-type indices for culture areas not covered by Thompson, or covered only to a limited extent. For surveys, see

Examples of related folklore studies indices include the following:

See also


  1. ^ The grateful dead (E341).



  1. ^ Stein (2015:1).
  2. ^ Dundes (1997: 195)
  3. ^ Thompson (1977 [1946]: 481-500)
  4. ^ Thompson (1977: 415).
  5. ^ Benson (1999: 23)
  6. ^ Motif-index 19
  7. ^ "Motif". Def. 3a and 3b. 2008. Oxford English Dictionary Online Database. 3rd ed. Oxford, Oxford UP, 1989. Web. 10 December 2011.
  8. ^ "Motif Index". Def. C2. 2008. Oxford English Dictionary Online Database. 3rd ed. Oxford, Oxford UP. Web. 10 December 2011.
  9. ^ Cf. Thompson (1996: 89, 100, 307).
  10. ^ Uther (2004: 284-286).
  11. ^ Dundes (1997: 195-202).
  12. ^ Thompson (1946: 488-).
  13. ^ Brunvand, Jan Harold (1976), Folklore: A Study and Research Guide, St. Martin's Press, p. 15
  14. ^ Benson (1999: 23–24, 252–253 n9, 10)
  15. ^ a b c Thompson (1977:50).
  16. ^ Thompson (1977:52).
  17. ^ See further Allen Smith, 'JAL Guide to Software, Courseware and CD-ROM: Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature', Journal of Academic Librarianship, 20, no. 4 (1994), 255.