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HandWiki. Aarne–Thompson Classification Systems. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 20 April 2024).
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HandWiki. "Aarne–Thompson Classification Systems." Encyclopedia. Web. 05 December, 2022.
Aarne–Thompson Classification Systems

The Aarne–Thompson classification systems are indices used to classify folktales: the Aarne–Thompson Motif-Index (catalogued by alphabetical letters followed by numerals), the Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index (cataloged by AT or AaTh numbers), and the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification system (developed in 2004 and cataloged by ATU numbers). They are named after their authors, Antti Aarne, Stith Thompson, and Hans-Jörg Uther. The indices are used in folkloristics to organize, classify, and analyze folklore narratives and are essential tools for folklorists, as Alan Dundes explained in 1997 about the first two indices, "the identification of folk narratives through motif and/or tale type numbers has become an international sine qua non among bona fide folklorists".

folkloristics folktales folklore

1. Organizing Folktale Types

The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index divides tales into sections with an AT number for each entry. The names given are typical, but usage varies; the same tale type number may be referred to by its central motif or by one of the variant folktales of that type, which can also vary, especially when used in different countries and cultures. The tale type does not have to be accurate for every folktale. For example, The Cat as Helper (545B) also includes tales where a fox helps the hero. Closely related folktales are often grouped within a type. For example, tale types 400–424 all feature brides or wives as the primary protagonist, for instance The Quest for a Lost Bride (400) or the Animal Bride (402). Subtypes within a tale type are designated by the addition of a letter to the AT number, for instance: the Persecuted Heroine (510) has subtypes 510A, Cinderella, and 510B, Catskin (see other examples of tale types in the online resource links at the end of this article).

Antti Aarne was a student of Julius Krohn and his son Kaarle Krohn. Aarne developed their historic-geographic method of comparative folkloristics, and developed the initial version of what became the Aarne–Thompson tale type index for classifying folktales, first published in 1910.

The American folklorist Stith Thompson translated Aarne's motif-based classification system in 1928, enlarging its scope. With Thompson's second revisions to Aarne's catalogue in 1961, he created the "AT number system" (also referred to as "AaTh system"), which is often used today, more commonly in its updated "ATU number" form. According to D. L. Ashliman, "The Aarne–Thompson system catalogues some 2500 basic plots from which, for countless generations, European and Near Eastern storytellers have built their tales".[1]

The AT-number system was updated and expanded in 2004 with the publication of The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography by Hans-Jörg Uther. Uther noted that many of the earlier descriptions were cursory and often imprecise, that many "irregular types" are in fact old and widespread, and that "emphasis on oral tradition" often obscured "older, written versions of the tale types".[2] To remedy these shortcomings Uther developed the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification (ATU) system[3] and included more tales from eastern and southern Europe as well as "smaller narrative forms" in this expanded listing.[2]

2. Organising Motifs

The Aarne–Thompson Motif-Index of Folk-Literature organizes thousands of motifs into a similar system. 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", under which is the more specific entry S51.1 "Cruel mother-in-law plans death of daughter-in-law".

3. Critical Response

In his essay "The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique", Alan Dundes explains that the Aarne–Thompson indexes are some of the "most valuable tools in the professional folklorist's arsenal of aids for analysis".[4]

The tale type index was criticized by Vladimir Propp of the Formalist school of the 1920s for ignoring the functions of the motifs by which they are classified. Furthermore, Propp contended that using a "macro-level" analysis means that the stories that share motifs might not be classified together, while stories with wide divergences may be grouped under one tale type because the index must select some features as salient.[5] He also observed that while the distinction between animal tales and tales of the fantastic was basically correct—no one would classify Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf an animal tale because of the wolf—it did raise questions because animal tales often contained fantastic elements, and tales of the fantastic often contained animals; indeed a tale could shift categories if a peasant deceived a bear rather than a devil.[6]

In describing the motivation for his work,[2] Uther presents several criticisms of the original index. He points out that Thompson's focus on oral tradition sometimes neglects older versions of stories, even when written records exist, that the distribution of stories is uneven (with Eastern and Southern European as well as many other regions' folktale types being under-represented), and that some included folktale types have dubious importance. Similarly, Thompson had noted that the tale type index might well be called The Types of the Folk-Tales of Europe, West Asia, and the Lands Settled by these Peoples.[2] However, Alan Dundes notes that in spite of the flaws of tale type indexes (e. g., typos, redundancies, censorship, etc.; p. 198),[4] "they represent the keystones for the comparative method in folkloristics, a method which despite postmodern naysayers ... continues to be the hallmark of international folkloristics" (p. 200).[4]

4. Use in Folkloristics

A quantitative study, published by folklorist Sara Graça da Silva and anthropologist Jamshid J. Tehrani in 2016, tried to evaluate the time of emergence for the "Tales of Magic" (ATU 300–ATU 749), based on a phylogenetic model.[7] They found four of them to belong to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) stratum of magic tales, namely:

  • ATU 328 The Boy Steals Ogre's Treasure,
  • ATU 330 The Smith and the Devil (= KHM 81a),
  • ATU 402 The Animal Bride (= KHM 63 and 106), and
  • ATU 554 The Grateful Animals (= The White Snake, KHM 17, and The Queen Bee, KHM 62).

Ten more magic tales were found to be current throughout the Western branch of the Indo-European languages, comprising the main European language families derived from PIE (i. e. Balto-Slavic, Germanic and Italo-Celtic):

  • ATU 311 Rescue by Sister (= Fitcher's Bird, KHM 46),
  • ATU 332 Godfather Death (= KHM 44),
  • ATU 425C Beauty and the Beast,
  • ATU 470 Friends in Life and Death,
  • ATU 500 The Name of the Supernatural Helper (= Rumpelstiltskin, KHM 55),
  • ATU 505 The Grateful Dead,
  • ATU 531 The Clever Horse (= Ferdinand the Faithful and Ferdinand the Unfaithful, KHM 126),
  • ATU 592 The Dance among Thorns (= Der Jude im Dorn, KHM 110 is an example of this type of tale, and one of many racist and antisemitic folk tales that have been recorded),[8]
    • The original version of the "Dance Among the Thorns" tale-type comes from 15th century Europe, and features a monk who was forced to dance in a thorn bush, by a boy with a magic flute or fiddle. It reflected the anticlerical sentiment of many folk tales at the time, and implies that the monk deserves this punishment. An American version of this tale, told to folklorist Marie Campbell in 1958 in Kentucky, included this apology from the informant: "Seems like all the tales about Jews gives the Jews a bad name -- greedy, grabbing for cash money, cheating their work hands out of their wages -- I don't know what all. I never did know a Jew, never even met up with one." [9]
  • ATU 650A Strong John (= Der starke Hans, KHM 166), and
  • ATU 675 The Lazy Boy.


  1. Ashliman, D. L. 1987. A Guide to Folktales in the English Language: Based on the Aarne–Thompson Classification System. New York, Greenwood Press.
  2. Uther, Hans-Jörg. "Classifying folktales: The Third Revision of the Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index (FFC 184)". 
  3. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales, Donald Haase, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008, p. xxi.
  4. Dundes, Alan (1997) "The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique". Journal of Folklore Research Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 195–202.
  5. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale. Similarly, Alan Dundes points out that "Aarne’s mistake was not classifying tales on the basis of narrative plot rather than [on characters]" because "the same tale can be told with either animal or human characters" (197). "Introduction." Theory and History of Folklore. Ed. Anatoly Liberman. University of Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. pg ix
  6. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p. 5 f.
  7. Graça da Silva, Sara; Tehrani, Jamshid J. (January 2016). "Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales". Royal Society Open Science (The Royal Society). doi:10.1098/rsos.150645. Retrieved 5 April 2017. 
  8. Maarten Janssen. "Multilingual Folk Tale Database". Retrieved 2018-07-12. 
  9. "The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales [3 Volumes] - Donald Haase - Google Books". 2007-12-30. Retrieved 2018-07-12. 
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