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ENG 275: Speculative Fiction (2022): Overview of the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature

This is a guide for Professor De Groot's Speculative Fiction course.

How do I start?

You have two options: 

1) Browse Thompson's

Motif-Index of folk-literature (ONLINE) OR

Motif-Index of folk-literature (PRINT) for inspiration.

2) Look at the Uther's The types of international folktales for inspiration on what motifs to look for in Thompson's index.

Regardless of the method, you must select a motif from Thompson's index with at least 3 decimal places (e.g. H151.6.1, NOT H151.6).

Both sets of books are on reserve for this course.

Key Terms

Motif: a term used by folklorists to describe individual details within a tale.  A motif may refer to a character, action, setting, or object.

Descriptor: a short verbal explanation of what each motif is about.  For example, the descriptor for motif A1010 is “Deluge,” meaning that motif A1010 describes world floods such as the one survived by Noah.

Motif number: Motif numbers, which usually consist of a letter and then a series of numbers, are a shorthand way of referring to specific details found in folktales.  The motif number for “Deluge” is A1010.  Unless otherwise indicated, numbers given by Tales Online are taken from Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Traditional Folk Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955, 6 vols.

c    A small c in front of a motif indicates that the tale includes a motif similar to, but not identical to, the listed motif.  For example, consider motif A123.3.1.1 Three-eyed god.  There is no motif that indicates a god with nine eyes, so an analyst might use c A123.3.1.1 Three-eyed god to indicate that the god isn’t actually a three-eyed god but is close.

Project Steps

STEP 1 – Find a motif and write down the number and the name. Example: K341.2.1. Animal feigns death repeatedly and then entices owner from goods. Remember: you must select a motif from Thompson's index with at least 3 decimal places.

STEP 2 – Write down the ENTIRE list of references for your motif. Remember: references are separated by a semicolon (;). 

STEP 3 – Look up the references in the front bibliography. This will give you the title of the book and you’ll look for full text of the book in the next step. 

STEP 4 – Search for the full text for the book and the tale (see potential sources tab for suggestions on where to search). The numbers listed with the motif could be: page numbers, tale numbers, line numbers, chapter numbers, or something else. You'll need to do some detective work to figure out how the book you're looking at is organized. 

OPTIONAL STEP 5 – Your reference could take you to another motif-index (a good example of this is Thompson-Balys, Motif and Type Index of the Oral Tales of India). In that case you'll follow steps 1-4 in the new motif index.

What is the 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." Esther Clinton of Tales Unlimited, Inc.

A motif is a recognizable, recurring narrative element in folktales or stories. Examples include:

  • characters
  • objects
  • events
  • actions

Understanding a Motif Entry

ATU Tale Type article by Atlas Obscura

Your Librarian

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Rebecca Seipp
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MSIS, Information Science
The University of Texas at Austin
BA, History
Southwestern University