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Motif is a word used by folklorists who analyze, interpret, and describe the traditional elements found in the lore of particular folk groups and compare the folklore of various regions and cultures of the world based on these motif patterns. Ultimately, folklorists identify motifs in folklore to interpret where, how, and why these motifs are used, so they can understand the values, customs, and ways of life of unique cultures.
In cultural anthropology and folkloristics, the meaning of motif encompasses the meanings of motif used in the areas of music, literary criticism, visual arts, and textile arts because folklorists study motifs (i.e., recurring elements) in each of these areas, motifs that create recognizable patterns in folklore and folk-art traditions.
Folklorists also use motif to refer to the recognizable and consistently repeated story elements (e.g., common characters, objects, actions, and events) that are used in the traditional plot structures, or tale types, of many stories and folktales. These motifs, which Dr. Margaret Read Macdonald calls “each small part of a tale,” were indexed in 1932 by Stith Thompson and published as the Motif-lndex of Folk-Literature (1982, x).
Thompson built upon the research of Antti Aarne (and the tale type index he created) when he compiled, classified, and numbered the traditional motifs of the mostly European folktale types in Aarne’s index and then cross referenced those motifs with Aarne’s tale types (Dundes). Folklorist Alan Dundes explains that Stith Thompson’s “six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature and the Aarne-Thompson tale type index constitute two of the most valuable tools in the professional folklorist's arsenal of aids for analysis” (195).
Comparing Motifs with Tale Types
- The chain of circumstances by which this helper joins the hero and certain details of his later experience are so uniform and well articulated as to form an easily recognizable motif, or rather cluster of motifs. This fact has caused some confusion to scholars who have not sufficiently distinguished between such a motif and the entire tale of which it forms only an important part. (emphasis added, 1977, 50)
The same is true for any character or other motif. In fact, Thompson also explains that a single motif may be found in numerous folktales “from all parts of the earth” (383).
Thompson’s explanations show that the sequential order of motifs is also an important factor for folklorists to consider as they interpret individual motifs found in various folktale types used internationally.
Accessing Thompson’s Motif-Index
Unfortunately, many of the source texts in Thompson’s Motif-Index are no longer found in print; however, Dr. Margaret Read McDonald’s Storytellers Sourcebook refers readers to stories in current books that also use motifs of folk literature. For example, Disney’s Cinderella contains many of the same traditional motifs that Read MacDonald points out in her preface to The Storyteller’s Sourcebook (e.g., Glass slipper, Cruel Stepmother, and Three-fold flight from ball) (x).
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), folkloristic use of motif is not summed up in the definition for literary criticism (“Motif,” def. 3a), but deserves its own separate sense of this definition (“Motif,” def. 3b). Similarly, the compound word motif index is used in cultural anthropology to denote “an index of standard motifs, esp. those found in folk tales” (OED, “Motif Index,” def. C2).
- Read MacDonald, Margaret. 1982. The Storyteller’s Sourcebook: A Subject, Title, and Motif Index for Folklore Collections for Children (First Edition). Detroit: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.
- 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. Berkley: University of California Press.
- “Motif.” Def. 3a and 3b. 2008. Oxford English Dictionary Online Database. 3rd ed. Oxford, Oxford UP, 1989. Brigham Young University. Web. 10 December 2011.
- “Motif Index.” Def. C2. 2008. Oxford English Dictionary Online Database. 3rd ed. Oxford, Oxford UP. Brigham Young University. Web. 10 December 2011.