Academic journal article Trames

Spread of Folklore Motifs as a Proxy for Information Exchange: Contact Zones and Borderlines in Eurasia

Academic journal article Trames

Spread of Folklore Motifs as a Proxy for Information Exchange: Contact Zones and Borderlines in Eurasia

Article excerpt

1. The database and its analytical unit

Hundreds of thousands of folklore texts have been published since mid-19th century. To systematize this huge volume of data, two international systems of classification were created, using either tale-types (Aarne 1910, Aarne and Thompson 1961, Uther 2004) or elementary motifs (Thompson 1955-1958) as basic units.

The tale-type was originally understood as narrative plot with a more or less precise origin in space and time. This idea was severely criticized (Jason 1970), so now the ATU (Aarne-Thompson-Uther) tale-types mostly play a role of reference points in search of parallels for particular texts. There are several reasons why ATU index is impossible to use for historical studies, i.e. for assessing a degree of similarity/dissimilarity between folklore traditions. This index is Eurocentric so its use for sub-Saharan Africa, Siberia, Southeast Asia and Oceania is restricted while Australia and America are completely beyond its scope. Ethnic attribution of texts is systematically provided only for Europe. For other areas it is absent or practically absent not only in the reference index itself (Uther 2004) but even in some regional indexes that use ATU system (e.g. El-Shami 2004, Thompson and Roberts 1960, Ting 1978). In many cases sets of episodes found in particular variants of the same tale-type are so different that it makes impossible to assess the degree of similarity between particular texts without consulting the original publications. There are relatively many mistakes, and to correct them we need a database that would contain detailed abstracts of texts and not only a list of publications cited for every tale-type.

Concerning the index of elementary motifs, it was created with a declared aim to hold aloof from any historical problematic (Thompson 1932:2). The aim was to reduce any text to a kind of standard combination of 'characters', i.e. elementary motifs. Descriptions of motifs were intentionally deprived of details, wordings like 'origin of frog' (A2162), 'dwarfs in other world' (F167.2), 'self-mutilation' (S160.1) being typical. It is symptomatic that an expert can easily extract a set of registered motifs from a given text but it is usually impossible to restore a content of any real text on the basis of the set of motifs extracted.

Because my purpose was not to suggest another universal typology but to apply the mass folklore material for study of past migrations and interregional contacts, a classification unit adequate for such a research had to be found. Not to coin a completely new term, I named such units 'motifs' which are defined as any features or combinations of features in folklore texts (images, episodes, sequences of episodes) which are subject to replication and found in different traditions. Those motifs that are known universally or widespread chaotically across the world have no interest for our research and have not been included into the catalogue ( On 15.01.2015 the database contained ca. 50,000 abstracts of texts providing information on the spread of 1963 motifs according to 914 traditions from all over the world, each tradition usually corresponding to particular language or dialect. For Melanesia and partly for the Northeast India, Indonesia, Tropical Africa and Amazonia several ethnic traditions are sometimes merged together either because of the shortage of data or because groups in question are small and share similar culture.

2. Categories of motifs and representativeness of the data

Among units of folklore texts subject to replication are motifs-images and motifs-episodes. Motifs-images can correlate with some elementary motifs of S. Thompson and are mostly related to cosmology and etiology. Motifs-episodes which sometimes find parallels in ATU tale-types are mostly related to narratives about adventures and tricks. All correspondences with existing folklore indexes are, however, approximate. …

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