Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index

The Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index (ATU Index) is a catalogue of folktale types used in folklore studies. The ATU Index is the product of a series of revisions and expansions by an international group of scholars: Originally composed in German by Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne (1910); the index was translated into English, revised, and expanded by American folklorist Stith Thompson (1928, 1961); and later further revised and expanded by German folklorist Hans-Jörg Uther (2004). Along with Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1932), with which it is used in tandem, the ATU Index is an essential tool for folklorists.[1]

Definition of tale type

In The Folktale, Thompson defines a tale type as follows:

A type is a traditional tale that has an independent existence. It may be told as a complete narrative and does not depend for its meaning on any other tale. It may indeed happen to be told with another tale, but the fact that it may be told alone attests its independence. It may consist of only one motif or of many.[2]


Antti Aarne was a student of Julius Krohn and his son Kaarle Krohn. Aarne developed the historic-geographic method of comparative folkloristics, and developed the initial version of what became the Aarne–Thompson tale type index for classifying folktales, first published in 1910 as Verzeichnis der Märchentypen.[3] The system was based on identifying motifs and the repeated narrative ideas that can be seen as the building-blocks of traditional narrative; its scope was European.[4]

The American folklorist Stith Thompson revised Aarne's classification system in 1928, enlarging its scope, while also translating it from German into English.[5] In doing so, he created the "AT number system" (also referred to as "AaTh system") which remained in use through the second half of the century. Another edition with further revisions by Thompson followed in 1961. According to D. L. Ashliman, "The Aarne–Thompson system catalogues some 2500 basic plots from which, for countless generations, European and Near Eastern storytellers have built their tales".[6]

The AT-number system was updated and expanded in 2004 with the publication of The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography by Hans-Jörg Uther. Uther noted that many of the earlier descriptions were cursory and often imprecise, that many "irregular types" are in fact old and widespread, and that "emphasis on oral tradition" often obscured "older, written versions of the tale types". To remedy these shortcomings Uther developed the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification (ATU) system and included more tales from eastern and southern Europe as well as "smaller narrative forms" in this expanded listing. He also put the emphasis of the collection more explicitly on international folktales, removing examples whose attestation was limited to one ethnic group.[4][7]


The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index divides tales into sections with an AT number for each entry. The names given are typical, but usage varies; the same tale type number may be referred to by its central motif or by one of the variant folktales of that type, which can also vary, especially when used in different countries and cultures. The tale type does not have to be accurate for every folktale. For example, The Cat as Helper (545B) also includes tales where a fox helps the hero. Closely related folktales are often grouped within a type. For example, tale types 400–424 all feature brides or wives as the primary protagonist, for instance The Quest for a Lost Bride (400) or the Animal Bride (402). Subtypes within a tale type are designated by the addition of a letter to the AT number, for instance: tale 510, Persecuted Heroine (renamed in Uther's revision as Cinderella and Peau d'Âne), has subtypes 510A, Cinderella, and 510B, Catskin (renamed in Uther's revision as Peau d'Asne). (See other examples of tale types in the online resource links at the end of this article.)

As an example, the entry for 510A in the ATU index (with cross-references to motifs in Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature in square brackets, and variants in parentheses) reads:

510A Cinderella. (Cenerentola, Cendrillon, Aschenputtel.) A young woman is mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters [S31, L55] and has to live in the ashes as a servant. When the sisters and the stepmother go to a ball (church), they give Cinderella an impossible task (e.g. sorting peas from ashes), which she accomplishes with the help of birds [B450]. She obtains beautiful clothing from a supernatural being [D1050.1, N815] or a tree that grows on the grave of her deceased mother [D815.1, D842.1, E323.2] and goes unknown to the ball. A prince falls in love with her [N711.6, N711.4], but she has to leave the ball early [C761.3]. The same thing happens on the next evening, but on the third evening, she loses one of her shoes [R221, F823.2].

The prince will marry only the woman whom the shoe fits [H36.1]. The stepsisters cut pieces off their feet in order to make them fit into the shoe [K1911.3.3.1], but a bird calls attention to this deceit. Cinderella, who had first been hidden from the prince, tries on the shoe and it fits her. The prince marries her.

Combinations: This type is usually combined with episodes of one or more other types, esp. 327A, 403, 480, 510B, and also 408, 409, 431, 450, 511, 511A, 707, and 923.

Remarks: Documented by Basile, Pentamerone (I,6) in the 17th century.

The entry concludes, like others in the catalogue, with a long list of references to secondary literature on the tale, and variants of it.[8]

Critical response

In his essay "The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique", Alan Dundes explains that the Aarne–Thompson indexes are some of the "most valuable tools in the professional folklorist's arsenal of aids for analysis".[9]

The tale type index was criticized by Vladimir Propp of the Formalist school of the 1920s for ignoring the functions of the motifs by which they are classified. Furthermore, Propp contended that using a "macro-level" analysis means that the stories that share motifs might not be classified together, while stories with wide divergences may be grouped under one tale type because the index must select some features as salient.[10] He also observed that while the distinction between animal tales and tales of the fantastic was basically correct—no one would classify "Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf" as an animal tale because of the wolf—it did raise questions because animal tales often contained fantastic elements, and tales of the fantastic often contained animals; indeed a tale could shift categories if a peasant deceived a bear rather than a devil.[11]

In describing the motivation for his work,[12] Uther presents several criticisms of the original index. He points out that Thompson's focus on oral tradition sometimes neglects older versions of stories, even when written records exist, that the distribution of stories is uneven (with Eastern and Southern European as well as many other regions' folktale types being under-represented), and that some included folktale types have dubious importance. Similarly, Thompson had noted that the tale type index might well be called The Types of the Folk-Tales of Europe, West Asia, and the Lands Settled by these Peoples.[12] However, Alan Dundes notes that in spite of the flaws of tale type indexes (e. g., typos, redundancies, censorship, etc.; p. 198),[9] "they represent the keystones for the comparative method in folkloristics, a method which despite postmodern naysayers ... continues to be the hallmark of international folkloristics" (p. 200).[9]

Use in folkloristics

A quantitative study, published by folklorist Sara Graça da Silva and anthropologist Jamshid J. Tehrani in 2016, tried to evaluate the time of emergence for the "Tales of Magic" (ATU 300–ATU 749), based on a phylogenetic model.[13] They found four of them to belong to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) stratum of magic tales, namely:

Ten more magic tales were found to be current throughout the Western branch of the Indo-European languages, comprising the main European language families derived from PIE (i. e. Balto-Slavic, Germanic and Italo-Celtic):

  • ATU 311 Rescue by Sister (= Fitcher's Bird, KHM 46),
  • ATU 332 Godfather Death (= KHM 44),
  • ATU 425C Beauty and the Beast,
  • ATU 470 Friends in Life and Death,
  • ATU 500 The Name of the Supernatural Helper (= Rumpelstiltskin, KHM 55),
  • ATU 505 The Grateful Dead,
  • ATU 531 The Clever Horse (= Ferdinand the Faithful and Ferdinand the Unfaithful, KHM 126),
  • ATU 592 The Jew Among Thorns (KHM 110 is an example of this type of tale, and one of many racist and antisemitic folk tales that have been recorded),[14]
    • The original version of the "Dance Among the Thorns" tale-type comes from 15th century Europe, and features a monk who was forced to dance in a thorn bush, by a boy with a magic flute or fiddle. It reflected the anticlerical sentiment of many folk tales at the time, and implies that the monk deserves this punishment. An American version of this tale, told to folklorist Marie Campbell in 1958 in Kentucky, included this apology from the informant: "Seems like all the tales about Jews gives the Jews a bad name—greedy, grabbing for cash money, cheating their work hands out of their wages—I don't know what all. I never did know a Jew, never even met up with one."[15]
  • ATU 650A Strong John (= Strong Hans, KHM 166), and
  • ATU 675 The Lazy Boy.

However, the corpus of folktales[16] and the method used by this study[17] both imply that the results should be taken with caution.

See also


  1. For example, American folklorist Alan Dundes commented in 1997 that, "the identification of folk narratives through motif and/or tale type numbers has become an international sine qua non among bona fide folklorists". Dundes, Alan (1997) "The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique". Journal of Folklore Research Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 195–202.
  2. Thompson (1977: 415).
  3. Antti Aarne, Verzeichnis der Märchentypen, FF Communications, 3 (Helsinki, 1910).
  4. Uther, Hans-Jörg. 2004. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Based on the system of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. FF Communications no. 284–286. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. Three volumes. I: 7.
  5. The Types of the Folk-Tale: A Classification and Bibliography. Antti Aarne's Verzeichnis der Märchentypen, translated and enlarged by Stith Thompson (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1928).
  6. Ashliman, D. L. 1987. A Guide to Folktales in the English Language: Based on the Aarne–Thompson Classification System. New York, Greenwood Press.
  7. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales, Donald Haase, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008, p. xxi.
  8. Uther, Hans-Jörg. 2004. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Based on the system of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. FF Communications no. 284–286. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. Three volumes. I: 293-94.
  9. Dundes, Alan (1997) "The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique". Journal of Folklore Research Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 195–202.
  10. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale. Similarly, Alan Dundes points out that "Aarne’s mistake was not classifying tales on the basis of narrative plot rather than [on characters]" because "the same tale can be told with either animal or human characters" (197). "Introduction". Theory and History of Folklore. Ed. Anatoly Liberman. University of Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. p. ix.
  11. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p. 5 f.
  12. Uther, Hans-Jörg. "Classifying folktales: The Third Revision of the Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index (FFC 184)". folklorefellow.fi.
  13. Graça da Silva, Sara; Tehrani, Jamshid J. (January 2016). "Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales". Royal Society Open Science. The Royal Society. 3 (1): 150645. doi:10.1098/rsos.150645. PMC 4736946. PMID 26909191.
  14. Maarten Janssen. "Multilingual Folk Tale Database". Mftd.org. Retrieved 2018-07-12.
  15. Haase, Donald (2007-12-30). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales [3 Volumes] - Donald Haase - Google Books. ISBN 9780313049477. Retrieved 2018-07-12.
  16. Julien d'Huy, Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, Yuri Berezkin, Patrice Lajoye and Hans-Jörg Uther 2017. Letter: Studying folktale diffusion needs unbiased dataset. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1714884114, or here
  17. Julien d'Huy and Yuri Berezkin 2017How Did the First Humans Perceive the Starry Night? On the Pleiades. The Retrospective Methods Network Newsletter, 12-13, p.113 or here


  • Antti Aarne. 1961. The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography, The Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, Helsinki. ISBN 951-41-0132-4
  • Ashliman, D. L. 1987. A Guide to Folktales in the English Language: Based on the Aarne–Thompson Classification System. New York, Greenwood Press.
  • Azzolina, David S. 1987. Tale type- and motif-indexes: An annotated bibliography. New York, London: Garland.
  • Dundes, Alan. 1997. “The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique.” Journal of Folklore Research 34(3): 195–202.
  • Karsdorp, Folgert, Marten Van Der Meulen, Theo Meder, and Antal Van Den Bosch. "MOMFER: A Search Engine of Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature." Folklore 126, no. 1 (2015): 37-52.
  • Thompson, Stith. 1977. The Folktale. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Uther, Hans-Jörg. 2004. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Based on the system of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. FF Communications no. 284–286. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. Three volumes. ISBN 951-41-0955-4 (vol. 1), ISBN 951-41-0961-9 (vol. 2), ISBN 951-41-0963-5 (vol. 3.)
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