What is a Folklore Motif?

by Richard Kuehnel and Rado Lencek

The Classification of Folklore

An important step in scholarly analysis is a precise definition of terms. For folklore an appropriate classification system must be selected. According to Vladimir Propp the classification of folklore is not an easy task. He considers classification according to themes, as used by R.M. Volkov, to be a system that leads to chaos.1 He claims that the system used by Antti Aarne, in which themes are called "types," is pragmatic, but inconsistent and unscientific. A.N. Veselovskij's definition of motif as the simplest, indivisible narrative unit of a tale, is refuted by Propp on the premise that it is not a primary element, but in fact divisible. Propp suggests that Bedier, who defined folktales as a scheme of constants, called "elements," and variables, never clearly defined these terms. The inadequacies of these classification systems are further complicated by the fact that the terminology used to define them varies significantly from one researcher to the next. Propp concludes that the problem of classification is a fundamental obstacle to the analysis of folklore. His own system of classification is based on functions, which we will discuss shortly.

What is a Folklore Motif?

There appears to be a considerable amount of disagreement on the part of literary scholars as to what actually constitutes a motif. One definition comes from Stith Thompson, whose exhaustive study of motifs, the Motif-Index of Folk Literature, has been widely used by folklorists for many decades. His approach is almost entirely pragmatic, with the goal of offering researchers a valuable tool in the comparative study of folklore. He defines motif as any element in a tale that distinguishes it from other tales. It can be an unusual creature, a strange land or a significantly striking or amusing occurrence, i.e., any of the parts into which a tale can be analyzed.2 This broad definition expands even more when put into practice. Ernest Baughman, in applying Thompson's principles to the study of English and North American folklore, considered motifs to include concepts, phenomena, characteristics, powers, happenings, creatures, objects, and even short and simple stories.3 Jan Brunvand, another adherent to Thompson's methodology, has called the latter "one-motif tales."4

Thompson's understanding of motif certainly corresponds to a divisible element. Moreover, the position of motif in the hierarchical structure of the tale is left to the arbitrary decision of the individual folklorist. Thompson has purposely chosen a motif numbering system, remotely based upon the Library of Congress cataloging system, so that a given motif-index can be "indefinitely expanded at any time."5 In the course of expansion the researcher must decide what constitutes a motif, a class of motifs, or a subdivision of motifs. Baughman provides an example:

Motif E384: "Ghost summoned by music," is a whole-number motif. It has two subdivisions: E384.1, "Ghost is summoned by beating drum" and E384.2 "Ghost raised by whistling." Since the only difference between the two Motifs is the kind of music used to raise the ghost, it seems that the basic tale here is the summoning of the ghost by use of music, and it seems that the kind of music - although it is of interest - is not distinctive enough to give us two separate tales. Hence E384 is considered to be one tale. It has two English variants, one from each of its subdivisions.6

Here E384 is considered to be a whole-number motif, but Baughman contends that E384.1 and E384.2, its two subdivisions, are also motifs. Nevertheless he purposely selects the whole number motif as the basis for his analysis, "because of the great number of motif subdivisions."7

Thompson categorizes living water under the heading of "water of life," which he calls a division of motifs.8 The first motif in this division is E80 "resuscitation by water," followed by E82 "water of life and death, one kills, the other restores life," and E84 "the water of death." The motif subdivisions for resuscitation by water consist of:

E80.1 - Resuscitation by bathing
   E80.1.1 - Resuscitation by bathing in milk
E80.2 - Resuscitation by wet cloth over corpse
E80.3 - Resuscitation by water (in basket, overnight)
E80.4 - Resuscitation by holy water
   E80.4.1 - Resuscitation by dew from heaven.

The distinction between a division of motifs, a motif, and a subdivision of a motif appears to be arbitrary, and in some cases even ambiguous. E80.4 "resuscitation by holy water," for example, is related to D1242.1.2 "holy water as magic object," which is classified under an entirely different division of motifs:

D - Magic
D800-D1699 - Magic objects
D900-D1299 - Kinds of magic objects
D1242 - Magic fluid
   D1242.1 - Magic water (used as any type of magic agent).

D1242.1 would apparently include strong water, but this is classified differently:

D1300-D1599 - Functions of magic objects
D1300-D1379 - Magic objects effect changes in persons
D1330 - Magic object works physical change (related to D685 - transformation by magic object)
   D1335.2 - Magic strength-giving drink
      D1335.2.2 - Water as magic strength-giving drink.

The multiplicity of headings under which a particular motif can be found is often encountered with Thompson's method of classification, and has necessitated a complex structure of cross-references and even an index to the Index. What Thompson offers, therefore, is not a precise definition of motif, but a practical tool for locating actors, objects and events for the purposes of comparative folklore research. In this regard Thompson's research is extremely valuable.

Propp, rather than offer his own definition of motif, is content to refute the notion that a motif is a fundamental element. He instead proposes a new concept by which to categorize folktales - the function, which he defines as "the act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action."9 He considers it to be a stable, constant element, independent of the character who performs it, and thus constituting a fundamental component of a tale. He asserts that there are relatively few functions (thirty-one) in comparison to motifs.

Critics argue, however, that the investigation of a motif cannot ignore semantic meaning for the sake of morphology. Anatoly Liberman criticizes his approach on the grounds that to understand the function one must understand its performer:

Propp says that only actions (the stable elements of the tale) matter for his morphological purposes, whereas the dramatis personae (the variables) do not affect the tale's structure, so all primary definitions should be made solely in terms of actions. But to know the actions are the same, we have to know who performs them! There is certainly no difference between one villain or another carrying off the bride, as long as we know that the attacker is the villain.10

Levi-Strauss disputes Propp's attempt to separate form, which has morphological meaning, from arbitrary content:

There is not something abstract on one side and something concrete on the other. Form and content are of the same nature, susceptible to the same analysis. Content draws its reality from its structure and what is called form is the "structural formation" of the local structure forming the content.11


It would appear that the notion of motif as a fundamental element cannot be entirely abandoned, as Propp has suggested, but since the concept of motif, as used in contemporary folklore research, is ambiguous, it must be specifically defined for the particular study being conducted.


1 Propp, Vladimir, Morphology of the Folktale, 2nd ed., first edition translated by Lawrence Scott with introduction by Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson, second edition revised and edited by Louis A. Wagner with introduction by Alan Dundes, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), pp. 7-13. According to Volkov, folktales can be categorized by themes such as "about those unjustly persecuted," "about the hero-fool," and "about three brothers," comprising a total of fifteen themes. Volkov's views are contained in a Russian-language text published in the Ukraine in 1924.

2 Thompson, Stith, "Motif," Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, Marija Leach, ed., 2 vols., (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1949-50), II:753.

3 Baughman, Ernest Warren, Type and Motif-Index of the Folktales of England and North America, (The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1966) (also Indiana University Folklore Series, No. 20), p. xi.

4 Brunvand, Jan Harold, The Study of American Folklore, an Introduction, (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1968), p. 128.

5 Thompson, Stith, The Folktale, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p. 425.

6 Baughman, p. xix.

7 Baughman, p. xi.

8 Thompson, Stith, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 5 vols., (Bloomington: Indiana University Studies, 1955-58), II:412-413.

9 Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p. 21.

10 Propp, Vladimir, Theory and History of Folklore, edited, with introduction and notes by Anatoly Liberman, translated by Ariadna Martin and Richard Martin, et. al., (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. xxxii.

11 Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, vol. 2., translated by Monique Layton, (New York: Basic Books, 1976) p. 131.