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How to Use the Motif Index

In 1959 the indefatigable folklorist, Stith Thompson, published his Motif Index: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jestbooks and local legends.

You will find both the 1959 edition and the revised and enlarged 1989 edition of this six-volume basic thematic index in the Reference Section of the Anthropology Library as well as in the Reference Room of the Main Library under the call number GR72.56.T48.1989. Anyone trying to identify themes or elements in folk literature needs to use all six volumes of the Motif Index.

Volume 1 contains a general synopsis of the index which outlines the broad classifications used by Thompson, e.g. A=Mythological motifs, B=Animals, C=Tabu, and so forth. In this volume you will also find the Bibliography and key to Abbreviations used in the subsequent volumes.

Volume 6 is an alphabetically arranged subject index ranging from "Aaron's tenser (pistol)" to "Zuni".

How to go from a theme or motif to source material:

Let's suppose you want to know where to find a folkloric explanation of the biological feature, the Adam's apple.

  1. First go to the alphabetical index in volume 6 where you find "Adam's apple, origin of, A1319.1".
  2. Second you go to volume 1, which contains Motifs A through C, and find number A1319.1. A1319.1 Origin of Adam's apple. Forbidden fruit sticks in Adam's throat -- *Dh 1 208ff.; *Fb "Adamsaeble" IV 4. - Finnish: Aarne FFC VIII 5 No. 16, XXX111 52 No. 16; Lappish: Qvigstad FFC LX 35 No. 10; Lithuanian: Balys Legends No. 34; U.S.: Baughman; Jewish: Neuman.
  3. Third you go to the Abbreviation section of volume 1 so that you can identify the source works that contain fuller explanations of the origins of the Adam's apple.

    *Dh = Dahnhardt, Oscar. Natursagen. 4 vols. Leipzig, 1909-1912.

    *Fb = Feilberg, H.F. Bidrag til en Ordbog over jyske Almuesmal. 4 vols. Kobenhavn, 1886-1914.

    FFC = FF Communicufions, published by the Folklore Fellows. Helsinki. The folklorist Aarne has two articles, one in volume 8, number 16 and another in volume 33, no. 16. Mr. Qvigstad's article is in volume 40, number 10.

And so on. Finally look up the author or title in Gladis or Melvyl or the card catalog in the Main Library Loan Hall to identify the location of the book you want to consult for a fuller discussion of the motif you are pursuing.

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