Curious what is generally in each chapter? Download the first PDF below to get a general synopsis of the entire Motif-Index (note: each chapter will go into more detail).
How do I find other tales like these? Use the bibliography below (second link).
“Motifs designated with the letter A cover such things as the nature of gods and the universe, the origin of people, and the primordial organization of human life and society. A few examples of A motifs are:
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.
“This covers everything about animals except their primordial origins, which are covered under the A motifs.Here we find out about animals that speak, giant snakes, magic animals, and animals that help out humans in their adventures. A few examples of B motifs are:
B11.11. Fight with dragon.
B161. Wisdom from serpent.
B455.3. Helpful eagle.
B733. Animals are spirit sighted.
“These motifs cover forbidden things, both things that are forbidden within a given tale and things that are forbidden in a given society. This includes such things as Pandora’s box, which she is forbidden to open, the temptation of a forbidden room, the incest prohibition, and the consequences when a tabu is broken. A few examples of C motifs are:
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
“There are many D motifs because magic is prominent in both Märchen [fairy tales] and myths. These motifs may refer to the types of magical transformation, to magical objects, or to magic powers. A few examples of D motifs are:
D174. Transformation: man to cuttlefish.
D711. Disenchantment by decapitation.
D1069.1. Magic handkerchief.
D1573.1. Much butter made from little milk by power of saint.
D1964.1 Savage elephant lulled to sleep by virgin.
D2143.1. Rain produced by magic.
D2197. Magic dominance over animals.
“Ghosts and revenants are frequent characters in folk literature, and under the E motifs we find descriptions of their appearance and motivations.Here we also find information about how the dead are resuscitated in traditional literature, beliefs about the nature of the soul, and beliefs about reincarnation. few examples of E motifs are:
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.
It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between D. Magic and F. Marvels. [We] can offer two guidelines: first, magic is not natural. Therefore, something amazing but natural such as a marvelously strong hero, would be found under F. Marvels and not under D. Magic.If, however, a puny hero put on a belt of tremendous strength, that would fall under D. Magic. The second guideline is that magic requires a deliberate action. Therefore, although we may not think of fairies as natural, they are categorized under F. Marvels rather than D. Magic because they merely existed, in spite of any action taken by the hero or villain.Under marvels we also find beliefs about the otherworld (Tir Na Nog, Avalon, Hell, or FairyLand) and how to get there. A few examples of F motifs are:
F162.8. Magic fountain in otherworld.
F343.13. Fairy gives mortals a child.
F511.0.4. Man carries his head under his arm.
F5184.108.40.206. 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.
“Thompson uses the term “ogre” as a generic form of monster, not as a specific sort of monster.Therefore, under ogres we find information about cannibals and cannibalism, and witches, giants and trolls.We also have those motifs that refer to how the character fell into the ogre’s power. Finally we learn how to defeat the ogre, because in traditional literature, particularly Märchen, the ogre is usually defeated. Any motifs referring to the devil, his appearance, motivations, or actions, are also found under G. Ogres. A few examples of G motifs are:
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.
“This is another very long category of motifs because tests abound in folk literature. These include tests to prove one’s identity, tests of cleverness, strength or skill, riddles, and quests that heroes are sent on. A few examples of H motifs are:
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. Thompson doesn’t use an I motif category because it would be too easily confused with the number 1.
“Many folktales follow the adventures of a fool, who goes through the world thinking that he is doing well, when actually he is making a fool of himself.These adventures are followed here, as are the deeds of the especially clever. A few examples of J motifs are:
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.
“This includes not only the obvious types of deception such as adultery but also more subtle things such as lying, theft, bluffing, and hypocrites. A few examples of K motifs are:
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.
K5220.127.116.11. 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.
“Märchen often tell the story of a young person, down on his or her luck, who goes out into the world and has a series of successful adventures that lead to his or her being married to a prince or princess and becoming wealthy and powerful. We see a lot of reversals of fortune in Märchen, including the poor becoming wealthy, the youngest son inheriting the kingdom, and the person marrying far above his or her apparent social station.All of these are covered here.Of course, not all reversals of fortune are positive; the villain often loses his or her money, the evil judge his or her position, and that is covered here, too. A few examples of L motifs are:
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.
“This category covers not only prophecy but also vows, oaths, bargains, promises, curses and judgments. A few examples of M motifs are:
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.
“This category includes gambling, the nature of luck and fate, lucky and unlucky accidents, treasure, and helpers. A few examples of N motifs are:
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.
O. Thompson also does not use the letter O to designate motifs, probably because it is too easily confused with the number 0.
“This category covers social customs, the government, trades and professions, family and friendships, and the nature of leaders or the royalty. A few examples of the P motifs are:
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.
“Folktales often end with the hero or heroine receiving a great reward and the villain receiving a terrible punishment. Such things are covered in this category, which looks at the deeds that are either rewarded or punished, and the nature of the rewards or punishments received. A few examples of the Q motifs are:
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.
“People are often taken or held prisoner in folktales, and this category covers how they are captured, their rescue or escape, and their pursuit and potential recapture. A few examples of the R motifs are:
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.
“Essentially, this category is about those villains who do cruel things either without reason or out of proportion to the reason. Here we have cruel relatives such as the wicked stepmother, horrible murders, abandoned children, and cruel persecutions. A few examples of the S motifs are:
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.
“This category covers love, marriage, chastity, celibacy, childbirth and rearing, and illicit sexual relations. A few examples of the T motifs are:
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).
“. . .This [could be considered] the simple philosophy category. It includes observations about the need to obey one’s parents and government, explanations about why life is unfair, and other such aphorisms. A few examples of the U motifs are:
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.
“It is sometimes difficult to differentiate between D. Magic and V. Religion. Essentially, V. Religion is about religious ritual such as prayer, religious beliefs about things like angels and saints, or religious buildings and objects. Therefore, a miracle would be covered under V. Religion, as would miraculous affects caused by prayer. A few examples of the V motifs are:
V41. Masses work miracles.
V221. Miraculous healing by saints.
V310. Particular dogmas.
V510. Religious visions.
“This category is subdivided into two kinds of traits: favorable and unfavorable. Some examples of favorable traits of character often found in folktales are bravery, kindness, generosity, and humility. Unfavorable traits include greed, arrogance, and cruelty. A few examples of the W motifs are:
W211. Active imagination.
“This includes things like humor about sex, about social standing, about races or nations, about appearance or disability, and based on lies, exaggeration, or drunkenness. A few examples of the X motifs are:
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.
Y. Thompson doesn’t assign motifs under Y, perhaps because it looks something like a 7.
“. . . there are always extraneous elements that don’t fit into a specific organizational scheme. Under Z we find such things as frequent numbers of episodes in tales (three is the most frequent number in Indo-European Märchen); the symbolism of colors, objects, or words; the nature of heroes; and other things that don’t fit into the A-X Motif categories. A few examples of the Z motifs are:
Z18. Formulistic conversations.
Z22.1. The Twelve Days (Gifts) of Christmas.
Z65.1. Red as blood, white as snow.
Z71.1. Formulistic number: three.
Z111. Death personified.
Z143.1. Black as symbol of grief.
Z255. Hero born out of wedlock.
Z311. Achilles heel. Invulnerability except in one spot.
As you've seen, the motif entries are organized by motif number, which includes letters and number. Motif entries are nested, meaning there is a broad category and the letters, numbers, and decimal points allow you to get more specific in each category. Here's a breakdown:
A. Mythological Motifs.
A1700. Creation of animals.
A1800. Creation of mammals.
A1810. Creation of Felidae (felines).
A1811. Creation of [domestic] cat.
A1811.1. Cat from transformed eagle.
A1811.2. Creation of cat: sneezed from lion’s nostrils.
A1811.3. Cat of divine origin; is really praying when he purrs.
A1815. Creation of tiger.
A1817. Creation of jaguar.
A1820. Creation of mustelidae (weasels, otters, etc.).
A1821. Creation of otter.
A1821.1. Creation of sea otter.
A1824. Creation of martens.
A1830. Creation of canidae (canines) and other carnivores.
A1831. Creation of dog.
A1831.1. Dog created as watch-dog for Jesus.
A1831.2. First lapdog in Ireland.
A1832. Creation of fox.
A1833. Creation of wolf.
"The arrangement of th references has been made according ot a relatively uniform plan.
- Text is from page 24 of Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature, organization and layout edited for clarity.
Works that use Thompon's Motif-Index classification system are indicated with ⦿.