Stith Thompson

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Stith Thompson
Born (1885-03-07)March 7, 1885
Bloomfield, Kentucky, United States
Died January 13, 1976(1976-01-13) (aged 90)
Columbus, Indiana, United States
Nationality American
Alma mater
Known for

Stith Thompson (March 7, 1885 – January 13, 1976) was an American scholar of folklore. He is the "Thompson" of the Aarne-Thompson classification system, which indexes certain folktales by their structure and assigns them AT numbers. He also developed an alpha-decimal motif-index system (A~Z followed by numeral) for cataloging individual motifs.


Early life[edit]

Stith Thompson, born in Bloomfield, Nelson County, Kentucky, on March 7, 1885 as the son of John Warden and Eliza (McCluskey) Thompson moved with his family to Indianapolis at the age of twelve. He attended Butler University and obtained his BA degree from University of Wisconsin.

For the next two years he taught at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, during which time he learned Norwegian from lumberjacks. He earned his master's degree in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley in 1912.

Graduate education[edit]

He studied at Harvard University from 1912 to 1914 under George Lyman Kittredge, writing the dissertation "European Borrowings and Parallels in North American Indian Tales," and earning his Ph.D. (The revised thesis was later published in 1919).[1][2] This grew out of Kittredge's assignment, whose theme was investigating a certain tale called "The Blue Band",[a] collected from the Chipewyan tribe in Saskatchewan may derive from contact with an analogous Scandinavian tale.[3][4]

Post-graduate, tenure[edit]

Thompson was English instructor at the University of Texas, Austin from 1914 to 1918, teaching composition. In 1921, he was appointed associate professor at the English Department of the Indiana University (Bloomington), which also had the responsibility of overseeing its composition program.[1]

He collected and archived traditional ballads, tales, proverbs, aphorisms, riddles, etc. The parallels and worldwide distributions of these could be studied using his motif cataloguing apparatus. The first volume of his Motif-Index was printed in 1955.[3]

He organized an informal quadrennial summertime "Institute of Folklore" beginning in 1942 which lasted beyond his retirement from tenure in 1956.[5] In 1962, a permanent Institute of Folklore was established at Bloomington, with Richard Dorson serving as its administrator and chief editor of its journal publication.

In 1976, Thompson died at home of heart failure in Columbus, Indiana.[6]

While Thompson wrote, co-wrote, or translated numerous books and articles on folklore, he became arguably best known for his work on the classification of motifs in folk tales. His six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1955-1958) is considered the international key to traditional material.

Stith Thompson motif index[edit]

Below is a crudely sampled list from the entire index.[7]

  • A. Mythological motifs
    • A0-A99. Creator
      • A21 Creator from above
        • A21.1. Male and female creators
    • A100-A499 Gods
    • A500-A599 Demigods and Culture Heroes
    • A500-A599 Cosmogony and cosmology
    • A900-A999 Topological
    • A1000-A1099 World calamitities
    • A1100-A1199 Establishment of natural order
    • A1100-A1699 Creation and ordering of human life
      • A1411 Theft of light
      • A1415 Theft of fire
    • A1700-A1799 Creation of animal life
    • A2200-A2599 Animal characteristics
    • A2600-A2699 Origins of trees and plants
  • B. Animals
    • B0-B99 Mythical animals
    • B100-B199 Magic animals
      • B100-B119 Treasure animals
      • B120-B169 Animals with magic wisdom
      • B170-B199 Other magic animals
    • B200-B299 Animals with human traits
    • B300-B599 Friendly animals
      • B300-B349 Helpful animals―general
      • B350-B399 Grateful Animals
      • B400-B499 Kinds of hepful animals
      • B500-B599 Services of helpful animals
      • B600-B699 Marriage of person to animal
      • B700-B799 Fanciful traits of animals
  • C. Tabu
    • C0-C99 Tabu connected with supernatural beings
    • C100-C199 Sex tabu
    • C200-C299 Eating and drinking tabu
    • C300-C399 Looking tabu
    • C400-C499 Speaking tabu
    • C900-C999 Punishment for breaking tabu
      • C 961.1 Transformation to pillar of salt for breaking tabu
  • D. Magic
    • D0-D699 Transformation
      • D10-D99 Transformation of man to different man
      • D100-D199 Transformation: man to animal
      • D200-D299 Transformation: man to object
      • D300-D399 Transformation: animals to person
      • D400-D499 Other forms of transformation
      • D450-D499 Transformation: object to object
      • D500-D599 Means of transformation
      • D600-D699 Miscellaneous transformation incidents
    • D700-D799 Repeated transformation
    • D800-D1699 Magic Objects
      • D800-D899 Ownership of magic objects
      • D900-D1299 Kinds of magic objects
        • D990—D1029. Magic bodily members
        • D1080 Magic weapons
        • D1081 Magic swords
          • D1081.1 Sword of magic origin
  • E. The Dead
    • E0-E199 Resuscitation
    • E200-E599 Ghosts and other revenants
    • E600-E699 Reincarnation
    • E700-E799
  • F. Marvels
    • F0-D199 Otherworldly journeys
    • F200-D699 Marvelous creatures
    • F700-D899 Extraordinary places and things
  • G. Ogres (and Satan)
    • G10-G399 Kinds of ogres
    • G100-G199 Giant ogres
    • G200-G299 Witches
    • G300-G399 Other ogres
    • G400-G499 Falling into ogre's power
    • G500-G599 Ogre defeated
  • H. Tests
    • H0-H199 Identity tests: Recognition
    • H300-H499 Marriage tests
    • H500-H899 Tests of cleverness
    • H900-H1199 Tests of prowess: Tasks
    • H1200-H1399 Tests of prowess: Quests
  • J. The Wise and the Foolish
    • J0-J199 Acquisition and possession of wisdom/knowledge
    • J200-J1099 Wise and unwise conduct
    • J1100-J1699 Cleverness
    • J1700-J2799 Fools (and other unwise persons)
  • K. Deceptions
    • K0-K99 Contests Won by Deception
    • K100-K299 Deceptive Bargains
    • K300-K499 Thefts and Cheats
    • K500-K699 Escape by Deception
    • K700-K799 Capture by Deception
    • K800-K999 Fatal Deception
    • K1000-K1199 Deception into Self-Injury
    • K1200-K1299 Deception into Humiliating Position
    • K1300-K1399 Seduction or Deceptive Marriage
    • K1400-K1499 Dupe's Property Destroyed
    • K1400-K1599 Deceptions Connected with Adultery
    • K1600-K1699 Deceiver Falls into own Trap
    • K1700-K1799 Deception through Bluffing
    • K1800-K1899 Deceptions by Disguise or Illusion
    • K1900-K1999 Impostures
    • K2100-K2199 False Accusations
  • L. Reversal of Fortune
  • M. Ordaining the Future
  • N. Chance and Fate
  • P. Society
  • Q. Rewards and Punishment
  • R. Captives and Fugitives
  • S. Unusual Cruelty
  • T. Sex
  • U. The Nature of Life
  • V. Religion
  • W. Traits of Character
  • X. Humor
  • Z. Miscellaneous Groups of Motifs


Thompson's 1954 article for The Filson Club Historical Quarterly entitled "The Beauchamp Family" continues in use by genealogists as of 2011.[8] In this article Thompson states that he is descended from a Costin Beauchamp (b.1738) from Somerset Co., Maryland which extends back to John Beauchamp one of the members of the Plymouth Company.[9]


Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ The tale that Pliny Earle Goddard collected and published in Chipewyan Texts (1912) is "The Boy who became Strong". The tale Kittredge refers to is the parallel, Müllenhoff (1845)'s tale "XI. Der blaue Band" from Marne in Dithmarschen, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, translated by Benjamin Thorpe (1853) as "The Blue Riband".


  1. ^ a b Richmond 1957
  2. ^ Dundes, Alan (1966). "The American concept of folklore" (snippet). Journal of the Folklore Institute 3.3: 240. (pp. 226-249)
  3. ^ a b Thompson 1996, pp. 57–58=Thompson 1994, "Distinguished Service 1953-1955", pp.19-20
  4. ^ Thompson 1946, p. 114 (Repr. 1977, 2006)
  5. ^ Dorson 1977, p. 4
  6. ^ Warren 1976, p. 145
  7. ^ Thompson 1946, The Folktale, p.488-
  8. ^ Genealogies of Kentucky Families, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, pages 9-47, 1981.
  9. ^ Genealogies of Kentucky Families, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, page 10, 1981.



External links[edit]