Motif-Index of Folk-Literature  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1932–37) is a taxonomy of folklore compiled by the American folklorist Stith Thompson (1885 – 1976) . It is considered the international key to folklore narratology and thematic literary criticism. It is based on Aarne–Thompson classification system by Antti Aarne (1867 – 1925) which Stith Thompson translated and expanded between 1928 and 1961.

On the expansion and different taxonomy, Thompson notes:

‘Outside of Europe ... Aarne’s [Tale Type] index is of little use. In the remoter parts of the world, whither any adequate study must lead us, the European tale-types are applicable to very few stories. Yet there is much common matter in the folk-literature of the world. The similarities consist not so often in complete tales as in single motifs. Accordingly, if an attempt is made to reduce the traditional narrative material of the earth to order (as, for example, the scientists have done with the worldwide phenomena of biology) it must be by means of a classification of single motifs - those details out of which full-fledged narratives are composed. It is these simple elements which can form a common basis for a systematic arrangement of the whole body of traditional literature.’


Major categories

Major categories include A, Mythological Motifs; B, Animal Motifs; C, Motifs of Tabu; D, Magic; E, the Dead; F, Marvels; G, Ogres; H, Tests; J, the Wise and the Foolish; K, Deceptions; L, Reversals of Fortune; M, Ordaining the Future; N, Chance and Fate; P, Society; Q, Rewards and Punishments; R, Captives and Fugitives; S, Unnatural Cruelty; T, Sex; U, the Nature of Life; V, Religion; W, Traits of Character; X, Humor; and Z, Miscellaneous Groups of Motifs.[1]

X700 – X799

The category X700 – X799 is reserved for sexual humour. It is left blank because in the words of Stith Thompson:

" ... Thousands of obscene motifs in which there is no point but the obscenity itself might logically come at this point, but they are entirely beyond the scope of the present work. They form a literature to themselves, with its own periodicals and collections. In view of the possibility that it might become desirable to classify these motifs and place them within the present index, space has been left from X700 to X799 for such motifs (Thompson 1955-8, 5:514)."

Full list of categories

A. Mythological motifs

A131.6. Horned god.
A901.1. Topographical changes or landmarks due to battle between gods.
A1212. Man created in Creator’s image.
A1460.1. Arts taught to man by angel.
A2480. Periodic habits of animals.
A2481.1. Why bears hibernate.

B. Animals

B11.11. Fight with dragon.
B161. Wisdom from serpent.
B455.3. Helpful eagle.
B733. Animals are spirit sighted.

C. Tabu

C31. Tabu: offending supernatural wife
C221.2.1. Tabu: eating animal helper
C401.6. Tabu: speaking while taking a bath
C942. Loss of strength from broken tabu

D. Magic

D998. †D998. Magic private parts--human. Taylor MLN XXXI (1916) 249 n. 2; Gaster Thespis 327.--N. A. Indian: *Thompson Tales 296 nn. 83a, 83b.
D1610.6. †D1610.6. Speaking privates. Man given advice by his private parts. (Cf. †D998.) N. A. Indian: *Thompson Tales 296 n. 83a, (Calif.): Gayton and Newman 84.
D1610.6.1. †D1610.6.1. Speaking vulva. Man has power to make vulvas speak. This is used as a chastity test. *Taylor MLN XXXI (1916) 249 n. 2; Von der Hagen III *v, 17; Italian Novella: Rotunda.
D1610.6.2. †D1610.6.2. Mentula loquens. A man‘s member speaks and can be silenced only by his mother-in-law. N. A. Indian: *Thompson Tales 296 n. 83b.
D1610.6.3. †D1610.6.3. Speaking buttocks. (Cf. †D999, †D1317.1.) N. A. Indian: *Thompson Tales 296 n. 83.
D1610.6.4. †D1610.6.4. Speaking excrements. (Cf. †D1022, †D1026.) S. A. Indian (Mataco, Amazon, Guiana, Tembé): Métraux MAFLS XL 122; Africa (Nigeria): Herskovits JAFL XLIV 466 No. 7. See also many references to †D1611.

E. The Dead

E64.16.1. Resuscitation by yak’s tail.
E221.3. Dead husband returns to reprove wife’s second husband (lover).
E251.3.2. Vampire milks cows dry.
E431.13. Corpse burned to prevent return.
E481.2. Land of dead across water.
E646. Reincarnation as meteor.
E755.2.5. Icy hell.:

F. Marvels

F162.8. Magic fountain in otherworld.
F343.13. Fairy gives mortals a child.
F511.0.4. Man carries his head under his arm.
F531.6.5.1. Giants can make selves invisible.
F569.1. Woman lays eggs and hatches them.
F771.1.10. Gingerbread house.
F932.1. River pursues fugitive.
F1083.0.1.3. Jerusalem suspended in air.

G. Ogres

G36. Taste of human flesh leads to habitual cannibalism.
G241.1. Witch rides on wolf.
G303.4.4.1. Devil has five claws.
G512.3.2. Ogre burned in his own oven.
G610.3. Stealing from ogre as task.

H. Tests

H35.3. Recognition by unique needle-work.
H316. Suitor test: apple thrown indicates princess’s choice.
H411.8. Magic bridge as chastity test. Cannot be crossed by unchaste.
H631.4. Riddle: what is strongest? Woman.
H1023.12. Task: catching a noise.
H1321.2. Quest for Water of Life.

I.. . .

J. The wise and the foolish

J141. Youth educated by seven sages.
J157.2. Fate of parents revealed in dream.
J267. Choice between flattering lies and unflattering truths.
J1250. Clever verbal retorts - general.
J1932.3. Sowing salt to produce salt.
J2527. Thief out of habit robs from his own purse.

K. Deceptions

K81.1. Deceptive eating contest: hole in bag.
K111.1. Alleged gold-dropping animal sold.
K311.4. Thief becomes monk in order to rob monastery.
K521.4.1.1. Girl escapes in male disguise.
K783.1. Enemy blinded with chili powder and overpowered.
K1392. Trickster and girls play obscene tricks on one another.
K1521. Paramour successfully hidden from husband.
K1955. Sham physician.

L. Reversal of fortune

L10.2. Abused son of younger co-wife becomes hero.
L114.1. Lazy hero.
L212. Choice among several gifts. The worst horse, armor, or the like proves best.
L315.12. Rabbit slays rhinoceros.
L419.2. King becomes beggar.

M. Ordaining the future

M113.1. Oath taken on sword.
M161.2. Vow to revenge (king, friends, father) or die.
M211. Man sells soul to devil.
M301.0.1. Prophet destined never to be believed.
M411.8.3. Curses on places because of offensive answer to saint.

N. Chance and fate

N2.3. Bodily members wagered.
N111. Fortuna. Luck (fate) thought of as a goddess.
N421.1. Progressive lucky bargains.
N452. Secret remedy overheard in conversation of animals (witches).
N511.1.10. Treasure buried under tree.
N731. Unexpected meeting of father and son.
N825.3.1. Help from old beggar woman.


P. Society

P14.19. King goes in disguise at night to observe his subjects.
P234. Father and daughter.
P251.6.7. Twelve brothers.
P310.5. Defeated enemy turns true friend.
P324.3. Guests’ life inviolable.
P424.5. Female physician.
P632.4. Color worn signifies rank.
P711. Patriotism.

Q. Rewards and Punishments

Q94. Reward for cure.
Q115. Reward: any boon that may be asked.
Q211. Murder punished.
Q415.5. Punishment: being devoured by tiger.
Q581. Villain nemesis. Person condemned to punishment he has suggested for others.

R. Captives and Fugitives

R11.1. Princess (maiden) abducted by monster (ogre).
R112.3. Rescue of prisoners from fairy stronghold.
R164. Rescue by giant.
R211.15. Captive hews through iron prison with sword.
R261.1. Pursuit by rolling head.
R355. Eloping girl recaptured by parents.

S. Unnatural Cruelty

S31. Cruel stepmother.
S139.2. Slain person dismembered.
S161. Mutilation: cutting off hands (arms).
S264. Sacrifice to rivers and seas.
S302.1. All new-born male children slaughtered.
S352. Animal aids abandoned child(ren).
S411.1. Misunderstood wife banished by husband.

T. Sex

T11.2. Love through sight of picture.
T92.1. The triangle plot and its solutions.
T97. Father opposed to daughter’s marriage.
T136.1. Wedding feast.
T203. Peace in marriage more important than truth.
T232. Woman deserts husband for unworthy lover.
T252. The overbearing wife.
T317.2. Repression of lust through prayer.
T417.1. Mother-in-law seduces son-in-law.
T516. Conception through dream.
T581.1. Birth of child in forest.
T615.1 Precocious speech (in child).

U. The Nature of Life

U11. Small trespasses punished; large crimes condoned.
U30. Rights of the strong.
U110. Appearances deceive.
U131. Familiarity takes away fear.
U232. No place secret enough for sin.

V. Religion

V41. Masses work miracles.
V112. Temples.
V221. Miraculous healing by saints.
V310. Particular dogmas.
V510. Religious visions.
V530. Pilgrimages.

W. Traits of Character

W33. Heroism.
W45. Honor.
W111. Laziness.
W195. Envy.
W211. Active imagination.

X. Humor

X52.1. Woman exposed to ridicule when her wig is snatched off by a monkey.
X135. The humor of stuttering
X410. Jokes on parsons.
X700. Humor concerning sex.
X811. Drunk man lying under his bed thinks he is lying in his shroud, is cured of drunkenness.
X905. Lying contests.
X1301. Lie: the great fish.
X1850. Other tall tales.


Z. Miscellaneous Groups of Motifs

See also

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