As a wee little one, I drank in folktales in all colors, reading the olive book of fairy tales, the crimson book, the lilac book.
And based on these insights, I tried rustling through the coats in our large wooden wardrobe into Narnia, or sweeping under the rug to find a virtuous girl’s gold.
So I turned to writing stories, mostly in the clip-art-full Creative Writer computer program of the early 1990s. It strikes me now, of course, that these interests in folktales and in writing could be combined.
What is a Motif Index?
One thing I’m often asked for as an anthropology librarian is for help in finding folk stories. In one recent case, a researcher wanted all the medieval stories about pear trees and fertility…
Luckily, we have folklore indexes. From about 1860 to 1960, folklorists collected stories from around the world, transcribing their recordings and then analyzing them for meanings and connections.
But some people went even further. In 1910, Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne published his own system for classifying folktales, which Stith Thompson translated into English a few decades later. You can find a simple version of Thompson’s index at Ruthenia.ru, listing types of folktales such as:
B22.214.171.124. Serpents play with precious green stone.
B126.96.36.199. Dragon’s pearl stolen.
B11.6.3. Dragon feeds on treasure.
B11.6.4. Dragon guards holy land.
B11.6.5. Dragon guards hermit’s food, frightens off robbers.
B11.6.6. Dragon guards bridge to otherworld.
B11.6.7. Dragon eats an ox at every meal.
B11.6.8. Dragon flies to its nest with human being.
B188.8.131.52. Dragon flies away with lion.
B11.6.9. Dragon gnaws the roots of tree.
B11.6.10. Sandalwood tree is guarded by dragon with venomous breath.
As you can see, a “motif” isn’t the whole story. Instead, it’s an element or part of a tale. Aarne and Thompson then organized these elements into a hierarchy that could be browsed, or searched using an index. (The story hierarchy reminds me of Dewey’s system of organizing books, which I’ve written about here.)
T34.1. Sudden love as woman pours drink for man at festival. Icelandic: *Boberg.
T35.0.2. Magic sleep causes lover to miss appointment with mistress. Irish myth: Cross.
T81.2. Death from unrequited love. Virgil Aeneid IV 505ff.
Those bits at the end refer to a culture the theme came from and published sources of the tale. Some versions also include links to related motifs. And if you’re looking for everything about cows or maidens, there’s also an index to the index. I know.
These older indexes had complicated numbers and lots of duplication, so in 2004 Hans-Jörg Uther wrote up a full revision called The Types of International Folktales. He simplified the numbering, changed the titles, and added better summaries and references, but his system remains focused on European folktales. Here’s an example:
Uther’s three-volume set isn’t available to read online, and it’s rather expensive, so you might check the world catalog of books (WorldCat) to see if it’s in a library nearby.
If you don’t have access to the printed book, there’s an outline of his system at the Multi-Lingual Folk Tale Database. Under enchanted wives and husbands, click ATU 408 to read Tre sitroner in Norwegian or The Three Lemons in English.
However, this website doesn’t include summaries or variants, so again the printed book is better if you can find a copy!
How to create your own stories with folk motifs
While some people try to categorize all the stories ever, I find these lists more useful for sparking ideas of your own.
On the Story Seeds website, searching Thompson’s list for spiders finds this motif:
A2243.1 Spider hands box to ant and refuses to take it back: hence ants carry huge loads.
So many questions!
And so much creativity.
Then, start brainstorming your own stories, or invite your kids to write one of their own.
If you do write anything, let me know what it is!