The Aarne-Thompson Index, or the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Index, is one of those field-specific things where if you’re not really part of the field you won’t know about it. Unless you’re a folklorist or folklorist-adjacent, or read my primer on myths, legends, and fairytales, you likely wouldn’t have come in contact with it except in passing. A blip on your radar. Until now. Because I am here to answer all the questions you didn’t know you had about the ATU Index.
First things first: what’s the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index?
The ATU Index is a collection and sorting of several folktales into several groups. It’s gone through several iterations over the years. It was first created by a Finnish folklorist named Antti Aarne in 1910, building off the basic classification done by folklorists before him. Then an American folklorist by the name of Stith Thompson revised and expanded it in 1928 and again in 1961 (as well as added a motif index), with the most recent revision and expansion done by German folklorist Hans-Jörg Uther in 2004. What you need to take from all this is that’s where Aarne-Thompson-Uther name comes from.
The index itself is, essentially, a classification system. The Project Gutenberg website calls the index “a multivolume listing designed to help folklorists identify recurring plot patterns in the narrative structures of traditional folktales, so that folklorists can organize, classify, and analyze the folktales they research.” That’s a lot of words, and something you would expect to read in a textbook, not so much an article on a literary news website. Basically, think of it like a card catalogue. When Thompson first created the index, he created a series of tale types for each tale to fit into, and then breaks it down further from there.
For instance there’s tale types 1–69; The Clever Fox or other animal. This includes stories like “How Bear Lost His Tale,” “Mrs. Fox’s Suitors,” and “The Fox as Shepard.” That’s one of the simpler groups, it fits neatly into the larger classification of Wild Animals, tales 1–99. Like most classification systems, however, it does not stay that simple. Later tale types start not being as straight forward as the Wild Animal classification. There’s tale type 545B, The Cat as a Helper, that also includes stories about foxes as helpers. Humans like to classify, our brains like patterns because patterns have kept our species alive this long but…sometimes those patterns and classifications don’t always work out like they way we want.
Ask any evolutionary biologist. Just make sure you have tissues.
So if it ends up being a bit confusing and convoluted, how do you end up finding anything in it?
Let’s go back to the card catalogue metaphor. Let’s say we want to look up one of the more common fairytales in western culture: Cinderella.
We would go to the chapter/card slot for tale types 500–559, consisting of stories that have Supernatural Helpers. With her fairy godmother/tree growing on her mother’s grave (depending on the version you have), there’s definitely a supernatural helper in the story. From there, we would look for subtype 510, Persecuted Heroine. Now, Cinderella is not the only persecuted heroine story, so you would have to scroll through the entries until you found hers, which is luckily the first one: 510A. This is the entry you would find:
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 [K19126.96.36.199], 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.
There’s a lot of extra information in there as well, to help with cross referencing. The names after “Cinderella” in a parentheses are alternate names, like “Ashenputtel,” the original version of “Cinderella” from Germany. The stuff in brackets are to assist in cross referencing with Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature. And below this entry, which I did not include here, would be a long, long list of references to secondary literature on the tale and on any variants. I compared the Index to a card catalogue, but it’s also a lot like a Wikipedia dedicated solely to some folklore.
What stories can you find in the Aarne-Thompson Index?
So you’ll note that the folks that created the ATU Index are pretty white. And that I’ve been saying “some folklore” for much of this article. That’s because the ATU Index only contains Indo-European stories. No African stories below North Africa, no Asian ones beyond West Asia, and certainly no Indigenous American ones, either. Thompson himself said that the Index might as well be called The Types of the Folk-Tales of Europe, West Asia, and the Lands Settled by these Peoples. Thompson also believed that folklore from outside this region would not integrate well into the system they created.
So of course instead of altering the system to better fit these stories, they just ignore them. Sounds about white. But by ignoring these regions, they’re ignoring potential tale types that could be used to expand the Index, making it an ever greater assist than it already is with comparative folklore methods.
The ATU Index isn’t just biased when it comes to geographical regions, but also moral ones. Thompson, being a man born in the 1880s, excluded stories that held homosexual characters in a good light, due to his unfortunately not-that-outdated views on the queer community. He did make sure to include the stories where we were beaten up, imprisoned in some way, sent to hell, or just all around evil.
So needless to say the ATU Index is not comprehensive or by any means unbiased.
So then are folklorists even using the Aarne-Thompson Index now? Why are we talking about it?
Well, like I said, the ATU Index is a lot like Wikipedia, and like Wikipedia it’s a good starting off point. You’re not going to use Wikipedia to write your entire dissertation, but you may use it to help direct your research in the beginning.
Let’s go back to “Cinderella.” If you’re doing comparative research on “Cinderella” with other folktales, you may consult with the ATU Index to look for variants and determine what the base of the tale is so you can compare other stories to this frame. Or, if you’re looking up stories similar to “Snow White,” you can make sure you’re getting variants close to the Snow White story you’re actually looking for, be it “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (ATU 709), or “Snow-white and Rose-red” (ATU 426).
But it’s only helpful if you’re looking at Eurasian stories. I know of one folklorist that works with both the Sámi (a nomadic indigenous in Scandinavia) and Indigenous groups in the American midwest, and when he’s trying to publish his research, the editors often ask for him to include the tale types in his research. Which he can’t do because those stories are not in the Index nor fit nicely into the framework the Index has. But editors ask for those tale types all the same.
So either someone needs to add another name onto the ATU Index and revise it again to include the cultures that were previously excluded, or we need to acknowledge that there’s issues with the Index now, set it aside, and start anew with the new tale types that will inevitably be discovered. As it is now, it really only helps a singular group of folklorists with basic, macro-level comparative methods. Need to compare a story to “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Black Bull of Norroway”? The Index may be helpful. Comparing to Crane Wife stories or maybe “The Girl Who Almost Died”? Not so much.
I’m on the side of getting something better, any way that works best. If we were to do this, and managed to trace some common trends through stories to the original monomyth (no, not like Campbell’s monomyth) the same way we started to do with the Pleiades stories? That would be amazing. Groundbreaking. A glimpse into what early us may have told each other around the campfire at night to pass the time. To have something like that just within our grasp and have another way to connect with early hominids the way we do with their art is difficult to put into words, but as an anthropologist and folklorist: let me tell you it would be something incredibly special. A similar feeling to what you get looking at Neolithic negative handprints.
But if you’re still looking for folklore, or maybe have pulled up Project Gutenberg’s minimized Index (the entire Index is several massive volumes long; you would have to have an entire server just to host it online) and want to test your skills at classifying or even just navigating the ATU Index, you can check out some graphic novel folklore retellings, some queer mythology retellings, or, if you’re looking to help out a budding young folklorist, some folklore from around the world aimed at younger readers.
Although if you do want to read an urban fantasy set around the ATU Index and fairy tales coming to life I highly recommend picking up Seanan McGuire’s Indexing series.