» ST Motif Help
One use of the Tales Online Thompson Motif Index search is to facilitate access to the tales contained in Tales Online which have been assigned relevant motifs. All tales in the database have been analyzed and assigned relevant Tale Type numbers along with their accompanying descriptors, 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.
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: a letter and a series of numbers that 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 A184.108.40.206 Three-eyed god. There is no motif that indicates a god with nine eyes, so an analyst might use c A220.127.116.11 Three-eyed god to indicate that the god isn't actually a three-eyed god but is close.
Click on the motif section to begin entering the motifs enclosed in the analyst's work.
When entering the motif letter and number, there is no space between the letter and the accompanying number.Also, only the first letter of the descriptor is capitalized. The entire descriptor and explanation are entered, as occurs in the "tale type". Many tales will have a number of motifs depending upon the involvement of the story. When you have completed entering a motif, click "search" and if an appropriate tale(s) is available, it or they will appear on the "search results" page(s).
>> • Motif Indices • Motif Entries • Organization of Motif Index • Motif Numbers • Index to the Motif Index • Finding the Motif You Want • Troubleshooting • <<
[NOTE: Most of the following section, with some modifications, has been written for us by Esther Clinton, who was a doctoral candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, and one of our earliest tale analysts.This material is under copyright and the property of Tales Unlimited, Inc.]
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 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. However, 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. The entire volume number 6, the index volume to all of the motifs is also contained in this section.
As you will notice, each section can be either searched or browsed by clicking the appropriate link below the search area.
The Motif Index strives to cover all motifs, whether they show up in Märchen, [fairy tales] legends, or myths. Thompson also intended the Motif Index to cover motifs from all over the world, as the following quote from his introduction demonstrates:
'Outside of Europe, however, 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.'
With the avowed goal of systematically arranging the details that compose traditional literature, [fairy tales, folktales, myths, legends] Thompson devised the Motif Index.
Motif entries look like this. [We] have reproduced a motif entry verbatim here, adding [our] own comments in smaller type set off by brackets.
The letters used to designate the individual motif tell us something about a motif's character. Thompson used the letters of the alphabet to organize his motifs as follows:
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 wide.
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. A 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.
F518.104.22.168. 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.
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.
K522.214.171.124. 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.
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.
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.
So now that we understand what the letters in a motif number mean, what about the numbers? Let's look a little at the motifs dealing with the creation of animals in order to understand the numbers. A1700. Creation of animals. begins this list. Then we see how the animals were created starting with A1710. Creation of animals through transformation. A1800. starts the Creation of mammals. A1810. is the Creation of Felidae (felines). A1811. Creation of cat. refers to the domestic cat. But there are several ways that cats are created in traditional narratives, so these are designated as A1811.x. For example, A1811.1. Cat from transformed eagle, is followed by A1811.2. Creation of cat: sneezed from lion's nostrils, and finally A1811.3. Cat of divine origin. is really praying when he purrs. Then we're back to different types of cats with A1815. Creation of tiger. This could be diagrammed like an outline:
You can see how the motifs are nested into one another numerically. In fact, this nesting can move beyond single decimal points to two or even three decimal points. Here's an example:
Theoretically one could continue out to twelve decimal points, although more than three is unusual.
The motif designations, such as A2030, are used as a form of shorthand, just as the AT Tale Types are used to succinctly refer to a particular tale. The Tales Online team has chosen to include the written descriptors along with the letter and number code for two reasons. First, very few people, even among folklorists, know the Motif code by heart. Secondly, it serves as a check to ensure that a single typo doesn't irrevocably change the meaning of a given motif.
The index to the Motif Index, found in the sixth volume of the motif index, is useful if one is persistent, and flexible, enough to try a variety of terms that may reflect similar or related entries in the index to the Motif Index. Use of this dogged approach will help you find what you need.
The terms in the index are organized in alphabetical order. Plurals follow the singular example of the same word, even when the spelling is different. For example, the word "mice" will be found after the word "mouse" not after the word "mewing" and before "Michael". This allows indexers to seamlessly move from singular to plural forms of the same term, rather than having to flip between "mice" and "mouse".
So now we're looking under the term "mice". Here's what the entry looks like:
Mice army saves kingdom from invasion K632.1; consecrate bishop (lie) X1226.1; cursed M414.8.1; dying of hunger since priest receives only forty florins a year J1269.10; escape into their holes where weasels cannot follow them L332; engendered after flood from rottenness: no mice on ark A1853.1.1; gnaw enemies' bowstrings and prevent pursuit K632; gnaw through metal B747.3; gnawing garments bad omen D18126.96.36.199.4; hitched to wagon B558.5; and hogs let loose put elephant cavalry to flight K2351.3; overcome camel L315.10; win war with woodcutters L318. - Army of m. B268.6; bargain with king of m. M244.1; cat hangs on wall pretending to be dead but m. detect plan K2061.9; cat makes truce with m. then eats them K815.13; clock ticking thought to be gnawing of m. J1789.2; why m. eat grease and salmon A24188.8.131.52; exterminating m. infesting city H1109.4; giant man-eating m. B16.2.8; giant m. B871.2.7; how m. can rid themselves of cats H1292.10; iron-eating m. J1531.2; king of m. B241.2.5; land of m. B221.5; lies about m. X1226; troll has team of m. G304.3.2.1; weasel paints self to deceive m. J951.4.
Notice that there are two main sections of references to mice motifs. The first motifs listed are those that begin with the word "mice", then give the rest of the descriptor and, finally, the motif number. Here we have "mice army saves kingdom from invasion K632.1". The motifs listed in this section are in alphabetical order by the term following the word "mice"; we therefore have "escape into their holes..." between "dying of hunger..." and "engendered after flood..." Any motifs that can easily be reworded such that the term "mice" comes first are, but some motifs can't be easily reworded.
Such motifs are separated from the others by a dash, and occur in alphabetical order by the first word in the motif descriptor. The word "mice" is signified by the letter "m." in order to conserve space. In this section of the mice motif references, we have such entries as "Army of m. B268.6" and "giant man-eating m. J1531.2".
So you've read a tale and identified something that appears to be a motif. For example, you're reading Cinderella and you've come across the motif of the heroine working as a servant. If you have identified the tale type, look at the motifs listed under that tale type in the Tale Type Index. Not all of the motifs listed will be applicable, but many of them will be.For example, motif K1816. Disguise as menial., is likely to be listed there. But what if it isn't? How do you search for Cinderella working as a servant?
First, figure out the most important term to look for in the index. Remember that it's generally easier to search for nouns than it is for other forms of speech. Well, we have two options for nouns here: Cinderella and servant. If we were looking for one of the primary motifs associated with Cinderella, like wicked stepmother or the shoe identity test, it would make sense to look up "Cinderella". But we're looking for a motif that isn't so directly connected with Cinderella, so [we] suggest using the other noun: "servant."
A look at the motifs listed under the term "servant" in the index doesn't yield something that fits the Cinderella tale. So now what? First, try to think about what is listed there.Most of the entries under "servant" refer to people who serve as servants for their entire lives. Cinderella didn't; for her, it was more a period of servitude. So try the term "servitude". Nothing there. How about "service"? Nothing there, either. Go through as many synonyms as you can (maid, worker), and hopefully you'll come up with the term Thompson used: "menial". As you use the motif index, you'll become more and more familiar with the terms that Thompson uses, and you'll be able to find specific motifs faster and faster.
Let [us] give you another example of a motif: devil has eyes like saucers.How do you look this up in the index to the Motif Index? Following the advice given above to search for nouns, you have three options: devil, eye(s), and saucer(s). Knowing that you may need to look under all of them (remember to be persistent!), which one should you start with?
Well, you'll find this motif listed under both "devil" and "saucer". You'll also find useful information under the term "eyes", as discussed in the following paragraph. But the term "devil" has a page and a half of motifs, and you'll find it difficult to keep track of all the options here. In fact, when [we] first looked up this motif under "devil", [we] skipped right over it twice. If you can, avoid scanning long pages of motifs; no matter how careful you try to be, you're likely to miss something. Even if you find what you're looking for, it will take you longer than necessary. The term "saucer" only lists two possibilities, and one of them is exactly what we're looking for: "Devil has s. eyes G303.4.1.2.4". When given a choice between searching under a term that you think will have many motifs and a term that is likely to list only a few, always start with the term that you think will list only a few motifs.
Looking under the term "eyes" for the devil with eyes like saucers motif will yield the following entry: "devil's e. G303.4.1.2ff". This means that you can find motifs that refer to the nature of the devil's eyes under motif G303.4.1.2 and successive motifs.So get out the "G" volume of the Motif Index and look up G303.4.1.2. As you look through the successive motifs, you'll soon find G303.4.1.2.4. Devil has saucer eyes, the desired motif.The Motif Index is organized so that similar motifs are often found near one another, so if you find reference to a similar motif in the index you can use that as a guide to where to look in the Motif Index.
What should you do when you only find a similar motif, not the exact one you're looking for? Remember that the language in the motif and tale type indices is quite specific; when Thompson used the term "tiger," he meant tiger, not domestic cat or cheetah or even lion. So let's say you've found a motif in which a domestic cat is grateful for the heroine acting as her midwife, but you can only find "midwife to tiger" in the motif index. That's the same idea, but not quite right. How do you indicate that this motif is close but not exact? You have two options, the first of which is to prefix the motif with a lower case "c" to indicate "compare to". You write this as follows:
c B387. Woman assists tigress as midwife.
What if the actual motif is very close to the motif listed, so that you would only need to change one word in the Thompson motif to indicate the appropriate motif? What if, instead of helping a domestic cat, the heroine acted as midwife to a lioness? How do you indicate this? Simply insert the proper term, in parentheses, into the motif as given by Thompson:
B387. Woman assists tigress (lioness) as midwife.
It is sometimes difficult to decide whether to use "c" or parentheses to indicate that the motif is close, but not quite right.In general, if the difference is a simple one, such as the difference between a lioness and a tigress, use parentheses.If the difference requires changing more than one word, or if it is a qualitative difference (as in the examples given above; it takes little personal courage to assist a pregnant house cat, but assisting a lioness in labor poses a distinct danger to life and limb), use the lower case "c".