Motif (Folkloristics): History
Please note this is an old version of this entry, which may differ significantly from the current revision.
Subjects: Cultural Studies

Motif is a word used by folklorists who analyze, interpret, and describe the traditional elements found in the lore of particular folk groups and compare the folklore of various regions and cultures of the world based on these motif patterns. Ultimately, folklorists identify motifs in folklore to interpret where, how, and why these motifs are used, so they can understand the values, customs, and ways of life of unique cultures. In cultural anthropology and folkloristics, the meaning of motif encompasses the meanings of motif used in the areas of music, literary criticism, visual arts, and textile arts because folklorists study motifs (i.e., recurring elements) in each of these areas, motifs that create recognizable patterns in folklore and folk-art traditions.

  • cultural anthropology
  • traditional elements
  • folkloristics

1. Thompson’s Motif-Index

Folklorists also use motif to refer to the recognizable and consistently repeated story elements (e.g., common characters, objects, actions, and events) that are used in the traditional plot structures, or tale types, of many stories and folktales. These motifs, which Dr. Margaret Read Macdonald calls “each small part of a tale,”[1] were indexed in 1932 by Stith Thompson and published as the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature.[1]

Thompson built upon the research of Antti Aarne (and the tale type index he created) when he compiled, classified, and numbered the traditional motifs of the mostly European folktale types in Aarne’s index and then cross referenced those motifs with Aarne’s tale types (Dundes).[2] Folklorist Alan Dundes explains that Stith Thompson’s “six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature and the Aarne-Thompson tale type index constitute two of the most valuable tools in the professional folklorist's arsenal of aids for analysis”.[2]

Below is a sample of the index's headings.[3]

  • A. Mythological motifs
    • A0-A99. Creator
      • A21 Creator from above
        • A21.1. Male and female creators
    • A100-A499 Gods
    • A500-A599 Demigods and Culture Heroes
    • A500-A599 Cosmogony and cosmology
    • A900-A999 Topological
    • A1000-A1099 World calamities
    • A1100-A1199 Establishment of natural order
    • A1100-A1699 Creation and ordering of human life
      • A1411 Theft of light
      • A1415 Theft of fire
    • A1700-A1799 Creation of animal life
    • A2200-A2599 Animal characteristics
    • A2600-A2699 Origins of trees and plants
  • B. Animals
    • B0-B99 Mythical animals
    • B100-B199 Magic animals
      • B100-B119 Treasure animals
      • B120-B169 Animals with magic wisdom
      • B170-B199 Other magic animals
    • B200-B299 Animals with human traits
    • B300-B599 Friendly animals
      • B300-B349 Helpful animals―general
      • B350-B399 Grateful Animals
      • B400-B499 Kinds of helpful animals
      • B500-B599 Services of helpful animals
      • B600-B699 Marriage of person to animal
      • B700-B799 Fanciful traits of animals
  • C. Taboo
    • C0-C99 Taboo connected with supernatural beings
    • C100-C199 Sex taboo
    • C200-C299 Eating and drinking taboo
    • C300-C399 Looking taboo
    • C400-C499 Speaking taboo
    • C900-C999 Punishment for breaking taboo
      • C 961.1 Transformation to pillar of salt for breaking taboo
  • D. Magic
    • D0-D699 Transformation
      • D10-D99 Transformation of man to different man
      • D100-D199 Transformation: man to animal
        • D113.1. 1 Werewolf
      • D200-D299 Transformation: man to object
      • D300-D399 Transformation: animals to person
        • D361.1 Swan maiden
      • D400-D499 Other forms of transformation
      • D450-D499 Transformation: object to object
      • D500-D599 Means of transformation
      • D600-D699 Miscellaneous transformation incidents
    • D700-D799 Repeated transformation
      • D732 Loathly lady
    • D800-D1699 Magic Objects
      • D800-D899 Ownership of magic objects
      • D900-D1299 Kinds of magic objects
        • D990—D1029. Magic bodily members
        • D1080 Magic weapons
        • D1081 Magic swords
          • D1081.1 Sword of magic origin
      • D1600—D1699 Characteristics of magic objects
    • D1700—2199 Magic Powers and Manifestations
      • D1710—D1799 Manifestations of magic power
        • D1711 Magician
        • D1719 Possession of magic powers — miscellaneous
          • D1719.5 Magic power of a fairy
          • D1719.6 Magic power of a Holy Cross
        • D1720 Acquisition of magic powers
        • D1740 Loss of magic powers
        • D 1761 Magic results produced by wishing
    • D1800—D2199 Possession and means of employment of magic
      • D1800—D1949 Lasting magic qualities
        • D1830 Magic strength
        • D1831 Magic strength resides in hair
      • D1950—D2049 Magic characteristics
        • D1960 Magic sleep
          • D1960.2 Kyffhäuser or King asleep in mountain
      • D2050—D2099 Destructive magic powers
      • D2100—D2199 Other manifestations of magic power
        • D2100 Magic wealth
  • E. The Dead
    • E0-E199 Resuscitation
    • E200-E599 Ghosts and other revenants
    • E600-E699 Reincarnation
    • E700-E799
  • F. Marvels
    • F0-F199 Otherworldly journeys
    • F200-F699 Marvelous creatures
    • F700-F899 Extraordinary places and things
  • G. Ogres (and Satan)
    • G10-G399 Kinds of ogres
    • G100-G199 Giant ogres
    • G200-G299 Witches
    • G300-G399 Other ogres
    • G400-G499 Falling into ogre's power
    • G500-G599 Ogre defeated
  • H. Tests
    • H0-H199 Identity tests: Recognition
    • H300-H499 Marriage tests
    • H500-H899 Tests of cleverness
    • H900-H1199 Tests of prowess: Tasks
    • H1200-H1399 Tests of prowess: Quests
  • J. The Wise and the Foolish
    • J0-J199 Acquisition and possession of wisdom/knowledge
    • J200-J1099 Wise and unwise conduct
    • J1100-J1699 Cleverness
    • J1700-J2799 Fools (and other unwise persons)
  • K. Deceptions
    • K0-K99 Contests Won by Deception
    • K100-K299 Deceptive Bargains
    • K300-K499 Thefts and Cheats
    • K500-K699 Escape by Deception
    • K700-K799 Capture by Deception
    • K800-K999 Fatal Deception
    • K1000-K1199 Deception into Self-Injury
    • K1200-K1299 Deception into Humiliating Position
    • K1300-K1399 Seduction or Deceptive Marriage
    • K1400-K1499 Dupe's Property Destroyed
    • K1400-K1599 Deceptions Connected with Adultery
    • K1600-K1699 Deceiver Falls into own Trap
    • K1700-K1799 Deception through Bluffing
    • K1800-K1899 Deceptions by Disguise or Illusion
    • K1900-K1999 Impostures
    • K2100-K2199 False Accusations
  • L. Reversal of Fortune
  • M. Ordaining the Future
  • N. Chance and Fate
  • P. Society
  • Q. Rewards and Punishment
  • R. Captives and Fugitives
  • S. Unusual Cruelty
  • T. Sex
  • U. The Nature of Life
  • V. Religion
  • W. Traits of Character
  • X. Humor
  • Z. Miscellaneous Groups of Motifs

2. Comparing Motifs with Tale Types

In the book The Folktale, folklorist Stith Thompson explains how motifs and tale types are interrelated as he describes the role of one type of character found in many folk narratives, the helper:

The chain of circumstances by which this helper joins the hero and certain details of his later experience are so uniform and well articulated as to form an easily recognizable motif, or rather cluster of motifs. This fact has caused some confusion to scholars who have not sufficiently distinguished between such a motif and the entire tale of which it forms only an important part. (emphasis added, 1977, 50)[4]

The same is true for any character or other motif. In fact, Thompson also explains that a single motif may be found in numerous folktales “from all parts of the earth” (383).[4]

Thompson’s explanations show that the sequential order of motifs is also an important factor for folklorists to consider as they interpret individual motifs found in various folktale types used internationally.

3. Accessing Thompson's Motif-Index

Many of the source texts in Thompson's Motif-Index are no longer currently in print. Dr. Margaret Read McDonald's Storytellers Sourcebook[1] refers readers to stories in current books that also use motifs of folk literature. For example, Disney’s Cinderella contains many of the same traditional motifs that Read MacDonald points out in her preface to The Storyteller’s Sourcebook (e.g., Glass slipper, Cruel Stepmother, and Three-fold flight from ball) (x).[1]

4. Other Motif Indices

Many folklorists have produced extensive motif and tale-type indices for culture areas not covered by Thompson, or covered only to a limited extent. For surveys, see

  • Azzolina, David S. 1987. Tale type- and motif-indexes: An annotated bibliography. New York, London: Garland.
  • Uther, Hans-Jörg (1996). "Type- and Motif-Indices 1980-1995: An Inventory". Asian Folklore Studies 55 (2): 299–317. doi:10.2307/1178824. 

The following are some important examples:

  • Baughman, Ernest (1966) Type and Motif-Index of the Folktales of England and North America.
  • Boberg, Inger M. (1966) Motif-Index of Early Icelandic Literature. Bibliotheca Arnamagnæana 27. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.
  • Bordman, Gerald (1963) Motif-Index of the English Metrical Romances.
  • Bray, Dorothy Ann (1992) A list of motifs in the lives of the early Irish saints. FF Communications 252. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.
  • Cross, Tom Peete (1952) Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature. Indiana University Publications, Folklore Series 7. Bloomington: Indiana University.
  • El-Shamy, Hasan (1995) Folk Traditions in the Arab World: A Guide to Motif Classification. 2 Vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • El-Shamy, Hasan (2006) Motif Index of The Thousand and One Nights. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Goldberg, Harriet (1998) Motif-index of medieval Spanish folk narratives.
  • Goldberg, Harriet (2000) Motif-index of folk narratives in the pan-hispanic romancero.
  • Guerreau-Jalabert, Anita (1992) Index des Motifs Narratifs dans les Romans Arthuriens Français en Vers (XIIe-XIIIe Siècles)/Motif-Index of French Arthurian Verse Romances (12th-13th century). Publications Romanes et Françaises 202. Geneva: Droz.
  • Haboucha, Reginetta (1992) Types and motifs of the Judeo-Spanish folktales. New York, London: Garland.
  • Jason, Heda (2000) Motif, type, and genre: a manual for compilation of indices & a bibliography of indices and indexing.
  • Kristić, Branislav (1984) Indeks motiva narodnih pesama balkanskih Slovena. Ed. I. Nikolié. Belgrad: Minerva.
  • Lichtblau, K., S. Obermayer, and C. Tuczay, (1982) Motiv-Index der deutschsprachigen weltlichen Erzählliteratur von den Anfangen bis 1400. Fabula 23: 293-95.
  • Marzolph, Ulrich (1983) Motiv-Index der arabischen literarischen Anekdote. Fabula 24: 275-7.
  • Neugaard, Edward (1993) Motif-index of medieval Catalan folktales. Binghampton, N.Y: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies.
  • Neuland, Lena (1981) Motif-index of Latvian folktales and legends. FF Communications 229. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.
  • Sakaoǧlu, S. (1980) Anadolu-tiur efsanelerinde tas kesilme motifi ve efsanelerin tip katalogu. Ankara: Ankara Universitesi Basemev.
  • Smith, R. E. (1980) Type-index and motif-index of the Roman de Renard. Uppsala: Etnologiska Institutionen.
  • Tracy, Ann B. (1981) The gothic novel 1790-1830: Plot summaries and index to motifs. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
  • Wurzbach, Natascha and Simone Salz (1995) Motif index of the Child corpus: The English and Scottish popular ballad. Berlin: de Gruyter.

5. Special Usage

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), folkloristic use of motif is not summed up in the definition for literary criticism (“Motif,” def. 3a), but deserves its own separate sense of this definition (“Motif,” def. 3b).[5] Similarly, the compound word motif index is used in cultural anthropology to denote “an index of standard motifs, esp. those found in folk tales” (OED, “Motif Index,” def. C2).[6]

The content is sourced from:


  1. Read MacDonald, Margaret. 1982. The Storyteller’s Sourcebook: A Subject, Title, and Motif Index for Folklore Collections for Children (First Edition). Detroit: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.
  2. Dundes, Alan. 1997. “The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique.” Journal of Folklore Research 34(3): 195–202.
  3. Thompson 1946, The Folktale, p.488-
  4. Thompson, Stith. 1977. The Folktale. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. “Motif.” Def. 3a and 3b. 2008. Oxford English Dictionary Online Database. 3rd ed. Oxford, Oxford UP, 1989. Brigham Young University. Web. 10 December 2011.
  6. “Motif Index.” Def. C2. 2008. Oxford English Dictionary Online Database. 3rd ed. Oxford, Oxford UP. Brigham Young University. Web. 10 December 2011.
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