Introduction to the ATU Tale Types

Introduction to the ATU Tale Types

Hello, and welcome to the January 2021 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. In this edition, I'll be introducing you to three indexes of recurring motifs and plots found in folk tales. I'll also be providing you with a writing exercise extracted from Julia Cameron's excellent motivational book on the creative life, The Artist's Way. This dispatch has been released with the first of its companion Folklore & Fiction podcast episodes, and you'll find a link to that episode below. It's also the first in a two-year exploration of folkloric motifs and plots from around the world paired with writing exercises designed to help you make use of them as storytellers.

You might be wondering why an understanding of folklore indexing systems is important to storytelling and why I'm spending so much time on the topic. In truth, you don't need a folklorist's understanding of these systems, which you would likely find tedious, though it would help you to understand a bit more about their limitations than I'll be sharing here. What you do need, and what they amply provide, is a working knowledge of traditional story scaffolding. You also need the skills to build upon that scaffolding, and that's why each of the dispatches and podcasts in this series will include a writing exercise. Finally, I would add that while the first two of these indexes can be found online, the most recent of them (and the one I'll be referencing most often for various folkloristic reasons) is difficult to find in a library and expensive to buy, which is another reason I'll be sharing excerpts of it with you.

My goal in this new Folklore & Fiction series is to explain what these indexes are, provide you with a representative sample of the motifs and plots found in them, and encourage you to adopt and adapt traditional narrative elements into your storytelling. At the end of the series, I hope you'll be able to pick up one of these indexes, thumb through it until something sparks your imagination, find a few traditional tales that contain the motif or plot you've just discovered, and create something new with that sparkly bit of narrative.

Let's get started.

Motif, Tale Type, and Indexes

You'll encounter the terms "motif" and "tale type" quite a bit in this series, so I want to begin by telling you what they mean from a folkloristic perspective.


A motif is a small chunk of story that recurs in folk narrative with enough regularity that it can be seen as a recognizable pattern. Motifs have staying power in storytelling traditions because there's something about them that tellers and their audiences find satisfying enough to pass down and seek out again and again. Motifs are unique in some way as well; not just a hat but a magic cap, not just a carpet but a flying carpet, not just an animal but a talking animal, not just a mother but a wicked stepmother. 12 Sometimes motif categorizations overlap with tale type categorizations, and you'll see that for yourself next month when we look at an animal tale in which the motif and the tale type have the same label. But motifs are like chocolate chips; you might put them in cookies, in fudge, or directly in your mouth by the handful at two in the morning. Similarly, the same motif might be found in an animal tale, a tale of magic, a religious tale, and so on. Sometimes there are many motifs in a single tale as well.

Tale Type

The tale type is a concept invented by folklore scholars to categorize folk narrative story plots. There are broad categories in tale type indexes like Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, and Religious Tales. Inside those categories are sub-categories like Supernatural Power or Knowledge, and inside those sub-categories are numbered tale types like "650C The Youth Who Bathed Himself in the Blood of a Dragon" and "652 The Prince Whose Wishes Always Come True."3 Under each of these numbered tale types is a summary of the plot and a list of folk tale collections where stories containing the plot can be found.

An important criticism of tale types and their indexes is that these are built on a European understanding of folk narrative, but not all cultures in the world understand or transmit folk narratives the same way. I would agree, and one of the reasons I'm using the most recent index as a baseline for this series is because it tries to correct the problem by including non-European tales, though I also think there's plenty of room for new scholarship in this area.

Now let's talk about the indexes.

Verzeichnis der Märchentypen

This tale type index was written by the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne in 1910 and translated into English by the American folklorist Stith Thompson in 1928 under the title The Types of the Folk-Tale: A Classification and Bibliography. Antti Aarne's Verzeichnis Der Märchentypen. Aarne writes that his categorization system is limited to the Finnish manuscript collections, S. Grundtvig's Danish collections, and the Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm.4 But while Aarne's work was limited to European folk tales, it laid the foundation for Stith Thompson's contribution to the indexing effort. In 1961, Thompson revisited and expanded the text he had translated in 1928, creating the Aarne-Thompson (AT or AaTh) tale type system.

You can borrow a digital copy of The Types of the Folk-Tale: A Classification and Bibliography at

Motif-Index of Folk-Literature

This six-volume motif index was written by Stith Thompson between 1932-1936 and later revised between 1955-1958. Thompson writes in his introduction that while Aarne's work is useful to folklorists studying European tales, "the European tale-types are applicable to very few stories. Yet there is much common matter in the folk-literature of the world. The similarities consist not so often in complete tales as in single motifs. Accordingly, if an attempt is made to reduce the traditional narrative material of the whole earth to must be by means of a classification of single motifs — those details out of which full-fledged narratives are composed."5 So while Thompson respected and expanded upon Aarne's work in The Types of the Folk-Tale, he also recognized its limitations and hoped to create a more complete categorization of folk tales using the motifs found in them. Unfortunately, Thompson was also something of a prude, so there are gaps in the index where motifs he deemed obscene or taboo ought to be listed.6

You can download a few of these volumes at as community texts, and there are various abbreviated versions of the motif index on private websites around the Internet. I don't know the copyright status of those versions, so I'll leave you to find them on your own. However, I recently found a cool project from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences called MOMFER.7 It's a search engine of the motif index that uses computerized natural language and information retrieval systems to make the volumes searchable. You'll find a short article about MOMFER here, and it links to the search engine.

The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography

In 2004, Hans-Jörg Uther made several important updates to the AT/AaTh tale type system. Acknowledging that Aarne and Thompson's work was largely focused on the European folk tale tradition, he endeavoured to internationalize the tale type catalog by adding non-European tales. In Uther's introduction, he writes that where an imbalance favouring European tales persists in his index, "it is due not to any ethnocentric ideology, but merely reflects the present state of knowledge."8 Uther also writes that "it was necessary to correct gender biases in the characterization of the main actors, and to be explicit about sexual elements and themes (in contrast to the general AaTh description, "obscene")."9 So while it may be argued that not all cultures in the world understand or transmit folk narratives the same way, Uther did try to bring more non-European tales to the categorization system. He also made an effort to more specifically categorize those tales Thompson labeled "obscene." Uther's work resulted in the creation of the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) tale type system.

Now you understand a bit more about the reasons I'll be using this index as a baseline for the series. It's current, it includes more diverse tales, it's less gender-biased, and it straightforwardly categorizes explicit and taboo tales. But again, it's also difficult to find. If you're interested in perusing the volumes yourself, look them up on to see what public and university libraries nearby have copies. You also know what a motif is and what a tale type is, and you know something about the ways scholars have endeavoured to categorize folk tales. You'll need this knowledge as we go forward in the series, so you might want to bookmark this month's dispatch for future reference.

A Storytelling Exercise

Over the next two years, I'll bring you traditional stories and ballads, unpack them from a folkloristic perspective, and apply what I find to the storytelling craft. Sometimes the exercises I give you will be mine, and sometimes I'll adapt or extract them from respected guides to creativity. But because I haven't given you anything to work with this month, I'm going to write about a topic I think is especially important; the relationship between art and fear.

I'll start by sharing a fear of my own. I'm afraid of dying before I write all the stories in my head. There are days when I count the possible years left to me and the stories already in my queue and pray there's enough time. I feel the same fear about the music I want to make. Most of all, I'm angry with the hurtful people who tried to smother my creative fire over the years because even though they didn't succeed, they did slow me down while I dealt with the emotional consequences of their behaviours.

I don't think it's possible to understand how profoundly an artist can be wounded unless you're an artist who has been wounded, how much courage it takes to uncurl your fingers and take up the pen or the guitar pick again unless your own fingers have been balled into what you thought were permanent fists. To those of you who have felt this and who feel it now, I see you. And while I don't think a medicine or magic exists with the power to restore the time we've lost or soften the scars we bear, I do know that I'm a much sadder person without a pen or a guitar pick in my hand. I would be willing to bet you feel the same way about your own art.

Anything can happen to a body, a mind, a world. We've all seen that in the last year. So what we have to depend on is not the surety of a long life or the perfect circumstances for making art, but the press of ink to this line of text, this word, these letters, the press of fingers to these frets, the press of paint to this canvas. More importantly, I think that even though hurtful people can and will abuse our creative fire in ways that make us fearful, it is the art we make that pushes us past the fear. So it is my hope that you will find in the dispatches and podcasts to come good fuel for your creative fire and tools for making art that makes you whole.

With that hope in mind, I'd like to begin the year by inviting you to write an artist's prayer. Julia Cameron assigns this exercise in the "Week 4: Recovering a Sense of Integrity" chapter of The Artist's Way as part of a broader path to artistic recovery, but I think it can be of benefit to artists on its own. You don't need to follow any particular religious path to undertake this exercise, and the atheists among you can use the model to craft a personal statement of artistic purpose. I'll provide Cameron's model first, and then I'll share the artist's prayer I wrote a few years ago.


O Great Creator,
We are gathered together in your name
That we may be of greater service to you
And to our fellows.
We offer ourselves to you as instruments.
We open ourselves to your creativity in our lives.
We surrender to you our old ideas.
We welcome your new and more expansive ideas.
We trust that you will lead us.
We trust that it is safe to follow you.
We know you created us and that creativity
Is your nature and our own.
We ask you to unfold our lives
According to your plan, not our low self-worth.
Help us to believe that it is not too late
And that we are not too small or too flawed
To be healed—
By you and through each other—and made whole.
Help us to love one another,
To nurture each other’s unfolding,
To encourage each other’s growth,
And understand each other’s fears.
Help us to know that we are not alone,
That we are loved and lovable.
Help us to create as an act of worship to you.10


Gods and Goddesses of my hearth, receivers of my oaths, protectors and friends, ancestors of my blood, heart, and soul, spirits of the land, sea, and sky, hear me:

I take the place among you that was set aside for me at birth; a co-creator, a magician, a mother among equals, because only I can bring forth what is mine to create, these gifts of life that I give gladly in my own name and yours.

May I remember that I am strong enough, wise enough, and skilled enough to give these gifts.
May I remember that I have enough time to give them.
May I produce and distribute them with the greatest possible speed and to the highest possible good.

Help me when I stumble, doubt, and disbelieve.
Help me become a good mentor to others.

And when I am gone, help my creations to speak my name, my deeds, and my good into the unfolding universe for as long as they continue to be of use.

So be it.

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of ATU 60 "Fox and Crane Invite Each Other." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.


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  • 1. Alan Dundes, “The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique,” Journal of Folklore Research 34, no. 3 (September 1, 1997): 195.
  • 2. Stith Thompson, “Motif,” in Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, ed. Maria Leach and Jerome Fried (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1972): 753.
  • 3. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part 1: Animal Tales. Tales of Magic, Religious Tales. and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011): 356-357.
  • 4. Antti Aarne, The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography, trans. Stith Thompson, Reprint. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1971): 9.
  • 5. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Volume 1: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folk Tales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989): 10.
  • 6. Alan Dundes, “The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique,” Journal of Folklore Research 34, no. 3 (September 1, 1997): 198.
  • 7. Folgert Karsdorp et al., “MOMFER: A Search Engine of Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature,” Folklore 126, no. 1 (January 2, 2015): 37–52.
  • 8. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part 1: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011): 11.
  • 9. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part 1: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011): 12.
  • 10. Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: 25th Anniversary Edition, 25th Anniversary Edition. (New York: TarcherPerigee, 2016): Appendix 1.