Classification of Folktales
By Elisabeth Zwick
IST 616
Assignment 2
Definition : Originally developed by Antti Aarne
and later revised by Stith Thompson, this
classification system is a multivolume index that
catalogues folktales by tale type or motif. This
allows folklorists and others interested in the field to
draw parallels between plots, characters, and other
story elements of folktales from different countries
(Getty, 1997).
Domain and Entities
Domain: The domain or scope of the Aarne-Thompson
system is all known and recorded folk and fairytales.
Although many of the tales included are in print form, many
have a long oral tradition (Smith, 1996), and some tales
archived on the web have been assigned Aarne-Thompson
(AT) numbers (Thomsen, 2003).
Entities: The units or entities that the system represents are
the fairy or folktales themselves, usually listed by their title.
The types of tales are the different classes of the system.
In 1910 Antti Aarne published a list of tale types, intending it
to be the first catalogue of international folktales. However,
it was only based on three sources – Grimm’s tales,
Gruntvig’s Danish tales, and Finnish folklore. Starting in
1928, Stitch Thompson began revising Aarne’s system. In
The Folktale (1946) Thompson proposed the idea that the
tales of people from “Ireland to India” be represented in an
updated index, and by 1961, he added tale types and
references representing tales from southern and eastern
Europe and from India (Goldberg, 1997).
The Aarne-Thompson system is made up of a series of
classes, subclasses, and entities that are based on tale type or
motif. There are broad classes, such as “Religious tales” or
“Animal tales” that contain smaller subclasses and entities
within those subclasses. See the example for animal tales on
the next slide.
Example of Structure
In the example above, the major class or tale type would be “Animal
Tales.” One subclass would be “Wild Animals” with “The Clever Fox
(Other Animal)” being a subclass within “Wild Animals”
(Kinnes, An entity in “The
Clever Fox” class could be Aesop’s fable about the fox and the crow.
Relationships Among
the Entities
and Classes
 The explicit relationships between the entities and
subclasses is that the individual entities are typically titles
of fairy or folktales that belong to the subclasses because
their motif or major element is named by the subclass.
The subclasses fit into the classes because the classes are
made of up of generalized tale types, such as “Tales of
 Implicitly, this means that the motifs and elements of tales
can be examined cross-culturally – thus folktales from
different countries and parts of the world can be more
easily compared.
The relationships in the Aarne-Thompson classification have a tree structure –
they are not all the same or generic. For instance, although “Animal Tales”
has subclasses for “Wild Animals” and “Domestic Animals” it also has
subclasses or categories for “Wild Animals and Humans” and “Other Animals
and Objects.”
Aarne-Thompson can be interpreted as a facetted classification system,
because tales can be classified according to different elements or aspects. For
instance, the African folktale Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters could be classified
as a “Tale of Magic” or “Wild Animals” tale, or it might be classified more
specifically as a Cinderella type tale. Given that the system was written from
a Eurocentric viewpoint, this has lead to many challenges and issues with the
system that will be explored in a later slide.
Dimensions, differentiations, and
 Notations for the system are made with the abbreviations AaTh or AT
and numbers. For some entities letters are also included, and for some
revisions and additions by Thompson asterisks are also included
(Uther, 2000). For instance, one version of Cinderella is classified
“AT 510A” (Dundes, 1997).
 In the Aarne-Thompson system tales are classified according to type,
with Aarne and Thompson defining the types. That is why some tales
can be compared cross-culturally, but there is a Eurocentric approach
to the system. Other dimensions that fairy and folktales could be
classified by author or country or region, but they are NOT classified
this way in the Aarne-Thompson system.
Strengths of System
 The structure of the system allows for experts and educators to
draw parallels between elements of folktales from different
countries and cultures. This is particularly true for tales about
magic, of which Cinderella stories are the most common
worldwide example (Getty, 1997).
 In the case of areas of the world and cultures where folktales draw
from a variety of influences, such as Cajun tales or Puerto Rican
Juan Bobo tales, the system makes it easier to trace the influences
(Laestra, 1999).
 The Aarne-Thompson system has led to the influence of
intercultural studies in the United States due to its structure (Smith
et. al, 1996).
Strengths and Evaluation
 Because the system is not classified by author or
geographic region or country, it can accommodate new
titles and entities.
 Overall I would classify the system as hospitable and
somewhat flexible, and definitely useful in terms of
comparing tales across cultures. However, given the
number of revisions to the system and the fact that the
notations are numbers-based, I feel there are ambiguities
and that the system is far from perfect and will probably
continue to be revised.
Challenges and Criticisms of
As mentioned earlier, tales can have a combination of types or elements,
which can lead to confusion when classifying new tales that weren’t in the
original index or its revisions by Thompson (Dundes, 1997).
The system is Eurocentric, and even with the revisions by Thompson, left out
many African and Native American folktales (Dundes, 1997).
The system is more focused on fictional, imaginative, or magic-based tales
and not on historical narrative. This shortchanges the folklore of countries
like Ireland, where much of the folklore centers on the Great Famine (Ciosain,
Various authors have criticized the Aarne-Thompson system for being genderbiased (Hallissey, 1996). Torborg Lundell documented many examples of
how the index focuses on male activity over female and portrays women as
passive (Ragan, 2009).
The notations for the system are numbers, and with the Thompson revisions,
some tales contain many asterisks, which is confusing and often
incomprehensible for those unfamiliar with the system (Uther, 2000).
Recent Revision: ATU
 One of the latest revisions of the Aarne-Thompson system is by
Hans-Jorg Uther, a German professor (Bode, 2006).
 Uther rewrote the descriptions of the tales to reflect the latest
research and added 250 new types (which includes both
subclasses and entities). He also documented the distribution of
each tale type on an international basis (Bode, 2006).
 Uther emphasized research and written tales over oral traditions
(Uther, 2000).
 Many folktales have begun to be classified and indexed
according to the updated Aarne-Thompson-Uther system, or
ATU number.
Bode, A. (2006). The types of international folktales. A classification and bibliography: Based on the system of Antti Aarne and Stith
Thompson. Bookbird, 44(1), 47-47. Retrieved from
Ciosain, N. (2004). Approaching a folklore archive: The Irish folklore commission and the memory of the great famine. Folklore,
115(2), 222-232. Retrieved from
Dundes, A. (1997). The motif-index and the tale type index: A critique. Journal of Folklore Research, 34(3), 195-202. Retrieved from
Getty, L. (1997). Maidens and their guardians: Reinterpreting the "Rapunzel" tale. Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of
Literature, 30(2), 37-52. Retrieved from
Goldberg, C. (1997). Dilemma tales in the tale type index: The theme of joint efforts. Journal of Folklore Research, 34(3), 179-193.
Retrieved from
Hallissy, M. (1996). Fairy tale as myth / myth as fairy tale. Studies in Short Fiction, 33(3), 442-443. Retrieved from
Kinnes, T. (2011). AT Types of Folktales. Retrieved from
References (cont.)
Lastra, S. (1999). Juan Bobo: A folkloric information system. Library Trends, 47(3), 529-557. Retrieved from
Ragan, K. (2009). What happened to the heroines in folktales? An analysis by gender of a multicultural sample of
published folktales collected from storytellers. Marvels & Tales, 23(2), 227-247,217,452. Retrieved from
Smith, M. et. al. (1996). Definitions of folklore. Journal of Folklore Research, 33(3), 255-264. Retrieved from
Thomsen, E. (2003). Folktales on the world wide web. Collection Building, 22(3), 146-146. Retrieved from
Uther, H. (2000). The Third Revision of the Aarne-Thompson Tale Type Index (FFC 184). Enzyklopadie des Marchens.
Retrieved from

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