Archetypes & Motifs in Myth & Fable

A basic introduction to comparative mythology with discussion of motifs, themes, archetypes, the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index, and basic Jungian psychology.

Table of Contents

The Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index

"Apollo and Daphne" a marble sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, recounting a Greek myth I did NOT get to hear about in my first week of Classics.

This depicts the story in which Daphne would rather turn into a bay tree than hook up with a complete stranger (here being Apollo who probably wanted to rape her because basically all the male Greek gods were rapists)

Undergrad, first week of Greek Classics.

Me, waiting to hear about Theseus slaying the Minotaur, or Heracles’ corpse engulfed in flames on Mount Oeta, or maybe even Zeus hoe-ing around and humping everything that moves (and maybe some things that don’t). Instead, to my outrage I am hit with a pile of readings about… Germanic fairy tales?!

The course was meant to be about ancient Greek Tragedies! As a frequently absent university student fond of the good nap, I had dragged by body out of bed and shown up at some heinously early (probably quite reasonable) hour, and was being presented with Little Red Riding Hood!

As my ire softened and I stopped furiously snapchatting people about my indignation, I caught wind of a discussion of the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index (ATU Index). This is a massive catalogue of folktales, originally German but expanded beyond, which codifies and categorises folktale stories, components, and motifs.

 The nature of stories passed via word of mouth, the oral tradition, is that the narrative is chiefly in the hands of the storyteller. Every time the tale is shared it can be twisted, certain elements forgotten, certain added or embellished, some elements just mentioned in passing. Maybe Cinderella’s slipper wasn’t glass but rather gold. Maybe the Little Red Riding Hood was too smart to be eaten by the Wolf, maybe she was eaten but the Woodsman rescued her. Maybe Goldilocks’ bears ate soup not porridge.

 Do these differences matter? No. Small changes like the material of a shoe, or the culinary nature of an ursine dinner does not fundamentally change the story. So how do we categorise what is shared between different tellings of the same-ish folktale.

 This is where the ATU Index comes in. The ATU Index, or more correctly, the ATU Index and Thompson Motif Index are a collection of tale-types, motifs, stereotyped characters and ideas in folk tales.

 For example, categorized tales:

  • Little Red Riding Hood (ATU 333)
  • Cinderella (ATU 510A)
    • not to be mistaken for Catskin (ATU 510B), the similar but different narrative about a ill-treated daughter of a lord who runs away and lives as a peasant and wishes to attend a Ball against orders. She sneaks away and meets a young lord who wishes to marry her. Drama ensues.
  • The Chinese Tale of Hua Mulan (ATU 514), a legendary “Shift of Sex Tale”

The Thompson Motif Index

And for motifs we might look at Swan Lake’s use of “D300-D399 Transformation: animals to person”, specifically the subset “D361.1 Swan maiden

 We could apply this to a narrative arising from outside of the Germanic-Sphere. Perhaps, the tale of Aladdin with his magic Lamp (“D800-D899 Ownership of magic objects”) which causes “D2100 Magic wealth”. Or his monkey side-kick Abu in the Disney adaptation “B300-B349 Helpful animals―general”. We might go on to discuss his Disguise as Price Ali (“K1800-K1899 Deceptions by Disguise or Illusion”), and arguably if we are cynical enough “K1300-K1399 Seduction or Deceptive Marriage”.

We continue on ad nauseum, but the point is, this system allows us to see the connections between these motifs, these stories, and even these cultures in the way they handle elements of folktale.

How does this apply to our Ancient Greeks? Well what is the story of the titan Prometheus stealing fire from Olympus to give to humanity, and his eternal repeating punishment, if not “A1100-A1699 Creation and ordering of human life” and subset “A1415 Theft of fire” from “A100-A499 Gods” resulting in “Q500. Tedious punishments” and “E670. Repeated reincarnation”.

These motifs seem to transcend age and culture, be it the “D113.1. 1 Werewolf” of the historical Swiss Werewolf Trials, or the “D10-D99 Transformation of man to different man” of Harry Potter’s Polyjuice Potion, the “C961.1 Transformation to pillar of salt for breaking taboo” of the Bible’s Wife of Lot or the Greek’s Eurydice.

Whilst some of the vocabulary of the system is evidently grounded in Germanic folktale, the applications have extended beyond cultures. For example, concepts like “G. Ogres”, can be considered to include general Non-Mundane Beasts or perhaps Demons

This system of analysing folktales creates a lens though which we can view all narratives. No culture’s legends are so unique that they cannot tick a couple of boxes. No ancient fable is so remote that it’s structure cannot be identified. These systems show us that humans are not so different and our stories are the same. For what is the purpose of storytelling? To explain the phenomenon of lightning to our pre-electrophysical communities? To teach our children not to walk idly in the woods on their way to Grandma? Or maybe just to keep us entertained while we huddle around the fire or drift off to sleep, dreaming of shoes made of glass and bears eating porridge. 

GEEK NOTES: Jung’s Collective Unconscious & Archetypes 


Banner image edited from an attic red vase

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