Aarne-Thompson classification systems

The Aarne–Thompson classification systems are indices used to classify folktales: the Aarne–Thompson Motif-Index (catalogued by alphabetical letters followed by numerals), the Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index (cataloged by AT or AaTh numbers), and the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification system (developed in 2004 and cataloged by ATU numbers). The indices are used in folkloristics to organize, classify, and analyze folklore narratives and are essential tools for folklorists because, as Alan Dundes explained in 1997 about the first two indices, "the identification of folk narratives through motif and/or tale type numbers has become an international sine qua non among bona fide folklorists".[1]

Use in folkloristics

In his essay "The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique", Alan Dundes explains that the Aarne–Thompson indexes are some of the "most valuable tools in the professional folklorist's arsenal of aids for analysis".[1] Antti Aarne was a student of Julius Krohn and his son Kaarle Krohn. Aarne further developed their historic-geographic method of comparative folkloristics, and developed the initial version of what became the Aarne–Thompson tale type index for classifying folktales, first published in 1910.

The American folklorist Stith Thompson translated Aarne's motif-based classification system in 1928, enlarging its scope. With Thompson's second revisions to Aarne's catalogue in 1961, he created the AT-number system (also referred to as AaTh system), which is often used today, more commonly in its updated ATU number form (See §Hans-Jörg Uther, below.).

According to D. L. Ashliman, "The Aarne–Thompson system catalogues some 2500 basic plots from which, for countless generations, European and Near Eastern storytellers have built their tales".[2]

Organizing folktale types

The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index divides tales into sections with an "AT" number for each entry. The names given are typical, but usage varies; the same tale type number may be referred to by its central motif or by one of the variant folktales of that type, which can also vary, especially when used in different countries and cultures. The tale type does not have to be accurate for every folktale. For example, The Cat as Helper (545B) also includes tales where a fox helps the hero. Closely related folktales are often grouped within a type. For example, Tale Types 400-424 all feature Brides/Wives as the primary protagonist. For instance, The Quest for a Lost Bride (400) or the Animal Bride (402). Subtypes within a Tale Type are designated by the addition of a letter to the AT #, for instance: the Persecuted Heroine (510) has subtypes 510A, Cinderella, and 510B, Catskin (see other examples of tale types in the online resource links at the end of this article).

The Aarne-Thompson Motif-Index organizes thousands of motifs into a similar system. Entries are first organized by an umbrella topic (for example, category "S" is "Unnatural Cruelty"). Entries are then divided into more specific subcategories. For example, entry "S50. Cruel relatives-in-law", under which is the more specific entry "S51.1. Cruel mother-in-law plans death of daughter-in-law".

Hans-Jörg Uther

The AT-number system was updated and expanded in 2004 with the publication of The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography by Hans-Jörg Uther. Uther noted that many of the earlier descriptions were cursory and that the existing system did not allow for expansion.[3] To remedy these shortcomings Uther developed the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification (ATU number)[4] system and included international folktales in this expanded listing.


The tale type index was criticized by Vladimir Propp of the Formalist school of the 1920s for ignoring the functions of the motifs by which they are classified. Furthermore, Propp contended that using a "macro-level" analysis means that the stories that share motifs might not be classified together, while stories with wide divergences may be grouped under one tale type because the index must select some features as salient.[5] He also observed that while the distinction between animal tales and tales of the fantastic was basically correct—no one would classify Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf an animal tale because of the wolf—it did raise questions because animal tales often contained fantastic elements, and tales of the fantastic often contained animals; indeed a tale could shift categories if a peasant deceived a bear rather than a devil.[6]

In describing the motivation for his work,[3] Uther presents several criticisms of the original index. He points out that Thompson's focus on oral tradition sometimes neglects older versions of stories, even when written records exist, that the distribution of stories is uneven (with Eastern and Southern European as well as many other regions' folktale types being under-represented), and that some included folktale types have dubious importance.

Similarly, Thompson noted that it might well be called The Types of the Folk-Tales of Europe, West Asia, and the Lands Settled by these Peoples.[3] However, Alan Dundes notes that in spite of the flaws of tale type indexes (e.g., typos, redundancies, censorship, etc.),[1](p. 198) "they represent the keystones for the comparative method in folkloristics, a method which despite postmodern naysayers ... continues to be the hallmark of international folkloristics".[1](p. 200)

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Dundes, Alan (1997) "The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique". Journal of Folklore Research Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 195–202.
  2. Ashliman, D. L. 1987. A Guide to Folktales in the English Language: Based on the Aarne–Thompson Classification System. New York, Greenwood Press.
  3. 1 2 3 Uther, Hans-Jörg. "Classifying folktales: The Third Revision of the Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index (FFC 184)". folklorefellow.fi.
  4. p. xxi, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales, Donald Haase, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008, ISBN 0-313-33441-2.
  5. Propp, Vladimir. Similarly, Alan Dundes points out that "Aarne’s mistake was not classifying tales on the basis of narrative plot rather than ... [on characters because] the same tale can be told with either animal or human characters" (197). "Introduction." Theory and History of Folklore. Ed. Anatoly Liberman. University of Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. pg ix
  6. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p5–6, ISBN 0-292-78376-0


  • Antti Aarne. 1961. The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography, The Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, Helsinki. ISBN 951-41-0132-4
  • Ashliman, D. L. 1987. A Guide to Folktales in the English Language: Based on the Aarne–Thompson Classification System. New York, Greenwood Press.
  • Dundes, Alan. 1997. “The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique.” Journal of Folklore Research 34(3): 195–202.
  • Thompson, Stith. 1977. The Folktale. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Uther, Hans-Jörg. 2004. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Based on the system of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. FF Communications no. 284–286. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. Three volumes. ISBN 951-41-0955-4 (vol. 1), ISBN 951-41-0961-9 (vol. 2), ISBN 951-41-0963-5 (vol. 3.)
  • "Folktale types" (PDF).  (40kb). University of Wisconsin-Madison – Scandinavian Studies. Accessed June 14, 2010.

External links

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