What are Tale-Types & Motifs?

Tales are composed of elements called “motifs,” which are combined in any number of ways to create a plot. Many tales have the same patterns of motifs. These patterns are called “tale-types.” Identifying the building-blocks and patterns of narratives is helpful in studying, comparing, and analyzing them. For a very brief overview of this process, see: Motif Index, What it Is and What it Does from the British Columbia Folklore Society. Below are a few important definitions:

A Function or mytheme is a plot point which directs the course of the tale and appears in set orders.  

A motif is the smallest definite element of a tale.

A Tale type (or tale-type) is a recurring, self-sufficient plot or group of motifs.

The Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index

The Finnish scholar, Antti Aarne, compiled the first major tale-type index in 1910. The work was limited to European tales and was later expanded by, first, Stith Thompson, and, then, Hans-Jörg Uther. Stith Thompson translated and expanded Aarne’s tale-type index. His work categorized mostly European tales, with a selection of Near Eastern tales, into different general, abstracted types. His and Aarne’s work are collectively referred to as the “AT number system.” Each tale type is assigned a number identifier and a title (e.g. 510A Cinderella tale-type). In 2004, Aarne and Thompson’s tale-type system was expanded by Hans-Jörg Uther. Known as the “ATU tale-type index”, or “the ATU index” for short, this index is a standard reference in folklore studies.

The ATU index allows researchers to identify the underlying structure of a tale and to cross-reference it with other tales from all around the world which share the same elements or themes. Each tale-type entry describes which themes and motifs comprise a specific tale-type. Motifs each have an identifying number, which can be cross-referenced with Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. In this way, researchers can identify similar story plots, and even vastly different tales which share motifs.  

ATU Tale-Type Classification

The Aaarne-Thompson-Uther tale-type index (ATU index) classifies story plots into seven broad categories. Each category is assigned a group of numbers. For example, tale-types which are “Tales of Magic” are tale-types 300 to 749. All tale-types in the index are prefaced with either “AT” or “ATU” to indicate whether they are an original tale-type outlined in Aarne and Thompson’s 1928 or 1961 index or whether they have been re-organized or created by Uther in the new 2004 index, respectively.

1-299             Animal Tales
300-749         Tales of Magic
750-849         Religious Tales
850-999         Realistic Tales
1000-1199     Tales of the Stupid Ogre (Giant, Devil)
1200-1999     Anecdotes and Jokes
2000-2399     Formula Tales

How to Read an ATU Index Entry

If a researcher were studying the tale Cinderella, they would find it cataloged under “Tales of Magic” in the ATU index. The story is tale-type 510 (ATU 510) or “The Persecuted Heroine”. This tale type has two variant types, ATU 510A “Cinderella” tale-type and ATU 510B “Catskin” tale-type. Each ATU index entry contains:

  • Tale-type title
  • Summary of plot
  • Motif references
  • Other tale-types with which it is often combined
  • Comments
  • Bibliography of relevant scholarship


How To Read an ATU Entry


The Motif-Index of Folk Literature

Stith Thompson compiled a massive index of motifs found in European and Eastern folktales between 1932 and 1958. His work, The Motif-Index of Folk Literature, is used by folklorists to identify the elements or “building blocks” which make up a tale. The index assigns a number to each motif and lists tales in which it appears. This allows researchers to identify different tales which contain the same motif, as well as the range of functions of a certain motif in tales, and is useful for comparative analysis. The limits of the index are its geographical range; it is mainly restricted to Europe, though it does recognize a number of Eastern tales. Subsequently, various scholars have created cultural or regional specific indexes to supplement and expand Thompson’s work.

The Motif-Index of Folk Literature Classification

The Motif-Index of Folk Literature organizes motifs into twenty-six different classes, lettered A to Z. Each motif, then, is given a letter to designate its type and a number to identify it.

A. Mythological Motifs
B. Animal Motifs
C. Motifs of Tabu
D. Magic
E. The Dead
F. Marvels
G. Ogres
H. Tests
J. The Wise and the Foolish
K. Deceptions
L. Reversals of Fortune
M. Ordaining the Future
N. Chance and Fate
P. Society
Q. Rewards and Punishments
R. Captives and Fugitives
S. Unnatural Cruelty
T. Sex
U. The Nature of Life
V. Religion
W. Traits of Character
X. Humor
Z. Miscellaneous Groups of Motifs

How to Read a Motif-Index Entry

If a researcher were trying to find the slipper motif in Cinderella, they should search for “slipper” or “shoe” in the subject index which accompanies Thompson’s Motif-Index. According to the index, the word “slipper” is relevant to the H36 motif. Each entry contains:

  • Motif number
  • Motif title (and description)
  • Culture(s) and text(s) in which motif is found
  • Related motifs


How to Read a Motif-Index Entry

Online Resources for Motifs, Tale Types, Propp Functions & Mythemes

ATU-AT-Motif guide 
Although incomplete, a great portion of the AT and ATU classification schemes can be found on this site curated by academic librarian Michael Muchow. He has linked many of them to tales stored on the Internet Archive website. Students in this course may be particularly interested to view the following sections:

Folk Tales Online
A helpful guide to finding folk tales online, created by academic librarian Michael Muchow. Students in this course may be particularly interested to view the following section:

Unpacking World Folk-literature: Thompson's Motif Index, ATU's Tale Type Index, Propp's Functions and Lévi-Strauss's Structural Analysis for Folk Tales Found Around the World 
This site is curated by Shawn Urban and hosted at the University of Alberta. It has some overlap with Muchow's resource, above, but includes some unique items. It links to the Multilingual Folk Tale Database (MFTD). Neither is exhaustive. Students in this course may be particularly interested to view the following sections:

Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts
This site is provided by retired professor D.L. Ashliman and hosted at the University of Pittsburgh. Again, there is some overlap with the other sources listed above, but some entries are unique. It is not exhaustive. Students in this course may be particularly interested to view the following section: