Motifs are the building blocks of stories, and yes, they even get their own index!
Since motifs show up everywhere in folk narrative, it’s important to get a sense of how we use the term in folklore scholarship and how we incorporate motifs in our research.
Folklorist Stith Thompson defines motif as:
A motif is the smallest element in a tale having a power to persist in tradition. In order to have this power it must have something unusual and striking about it. Most motifs fall into three classes. First are the actors in a tale – gods, or unusual animals, or marvelous creatures like witches, ogres, or fairies, or even conventionalized human characters like the favorite youngest child or the cruel stepmother. Second come certain items in the background of the action – magic objects, unusual customs, strange beliefs, and the like. In the third place there are single incidents – and these comprise the great majority of motifs. (415-416)
If you’re a fan of TV tropes, you can think of motifs as being like tropes: sometimes the simplest of details in a narrative, sometimes whole plot hooks. If it’s a detail that can hop from one story to another in its entirety, then you’ve got a motif.
Motifs are usually explicit in a folk narrative text, meaning that they usually appear in the language that comprises the text. Got a story with a wicked witch? Guess what, you’ve got yourself a motif! It’s also common to see motifs cluster by genre, as in, there are motifs you expect to see popping up more in fairy tales than in legends or myths, and so on.
How do we study motifs? By indexing them. Now, unlike the tale type index which solely classifies folktale plots, the motif index classifies motifs from all genres of folk narrative: folktale, myth, legend, epic, and so on. The system that Stith Thompson came up with when he published The Motif-Index of Folk Literature (1932-36) was to “bring together material from everywhere and arrange it by a logical system” (423). At first, this meant lots and lots of notecards, since this was done in the era before computers. Ultimately, Thompson’s goal was “arranging and assorting narrative material so that it can be easily found” (424) rather than sorting materials by location or genre.
So, for example, you might look under category D for magic, or category E for the dead, if you want to learn about ghosts. Every letter of the alphabet is represented, with thousands of entries each, and with Z as the catch-all for miscellaneous motifs.
The body is a motif in many folk narrative texts and genres, which is something I nerded out about in my keynote on the body in folklore. How body motifs are presented can tell us a lot about a given culture’s values and worldview, their views on gender, and so on. Categorizing motifs can be an incredibly useful way for getting at how folklore functions, and the “why” of its transmission and performance, and so on.
Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977 .