Towards a method of analyzing folktales… Dundes’ motifemes and allomotifs…


In 1984, Alan Dundes stated that “Folktales contain fantasy and more often than not, the fantasy is expressed through symbols. Folktale plots are filled with a wide variety of incredible magical transformations, objects and powers…, and since no one has ever offered solid evidence of the actual existence of a self-grinding salt-mill… or a magic object which answers for a fugitive… and the like, it is not unreasonable to assume that such fictional creations might be symbols of some kind. ” (187)

“…if there is a symbolic code in folktales,” Dundes goes on to ask, “how can folklorists decipher this code? / In theory, it ought to be possible to devise a method which could be utilized to unlock the secrets of symbolism in folklore, and moreover unlock them in a way that is replicable.” (p.187)

Most of the conventional approaches to the study of folktales are not concerned with the possible symbolic meanings of the tales. The comparative method, for example, seeks to assemble as many versions of a particular tale type as possible in order to make an educated guess at the tale’s original form, age, and place of origin. The hypothetical construction of an archetype of each individual trait of the tale as well as the entire tale itself can be accomplished without paying any attention whatsoever to the symbolism of the traits.” (p.189)

He continues: “Students of the folktale have become accustomed to distinguishing the various different theoretical approaches to folktale, e.g., the Finnish (comparative) historic-geographic method, structural analysis, psychoanalysis, etc. One could easily get the mistaken notion that these approaches or methods are totally separate and distinct, and that they cannot be used together to attack a common problem.” (p.189)

However, Dundes challenges this; he explains: “I would like to propose a method for the analysis of folktale symbolism which depends upon a combination of the comparative method and structuralist theory with implications for psychoanalytic theory. I believe the methodology, if valid, can be employed anywhere in the world – though my particular examples shall be drawn from the European folktale tradition. And I further suggest that the method can be applied to any genre of folklore, not just folktales.” (p.190)

First of all, what is needed is a large number of versions of a tale type…. Secondly, we need to take (Proppian) structural analysis into account. We understand from Propp that folktales consist of sequential sets of functions (which I have re-labelled motifemes). Although Propp was not concerned to name the various motifs which could fulfill a given function (motifeme) slot, I have suggested (1962) that such motifs be termed allomotifs. Thus for any given motifemic slot in a folktale, there would presumably be two or more alternative motifs, that is, allomotifs, which might occur. If we have a full-fledged comparative study of a tale available, we probably have a good idea of what the range of allomotifs are for any one motifeme. Please note again that the concept of allomotif cannot be applied if one has just a single version of a tale type. One would need at least two versions to demonstrate the variation within a motifeme and probably a great many [-p.191] more than two versions to ascertain the full gamut of allomotific variation.” (pp.190-191)

Now what has this to do with the analysis of folktale symbolism? Propp in his 1928 Morphology was only interested in the functional (or structural) equivalence of what I have termed allomotifs. But I submit that the equivalence may be symbolic as well as functional. So if motif A and motif B both fulfill the same motifeme in a tale type, I think we are justified in assuming that in some sense the folk consider them mutually substitutable. A may be used in place of B and B may be used in place of A. This is so even if any individual storyteller knows only one of the alternatives. In a study of Aarne-Thompson tale type 570, the Rabbit-Herd, I have pointed out that if the hero fails to herd the rabbits, the king may punish him in a number of ways including throwing the hero into a snake pit, cutting off his head, or cutting off the hero’s male organ. These alternatives occur in different versions of the tale. The point is that they are allomotifs. The plot is advanced equally well with any of them. What this suggests, among other things, however, is that cutting off the hero’s head is regarded as the equivalent of cutting off the hero’s phallus. One of Vance Randolph’s Ozark informants actually knew both allomotifs, using decapitation for mixed audiences of males and females while reserving emasculation for audiences of males only.

From a theoretical point of view, if A and B are allomotifs of a given motifeme, it is true that we do not necessarily know whether A is a symbol of B or B is a symbol of A. The combination of comparative materials with structuralism tells us only that A = B or B = A. On the other hand, the folklorist is perfectly free to investigate the allomotifs in his sample in cultural context to determine if one or more are taboo or sensitive in nature.” (p.191)

A symbolic equation having once been established through allomotific comparison in folktales may well be manifested in other folkore genres. For example, if cutting off a head = cutting off a phallus, one might reasonably expect to find other instances of a head-phallus equation. One thinks of the pretended obscene riddle: What sticks out of a man’s pajamas so far that one can hang a hat on it. Answer: his head. The same equation is found in traditional custom.” (p192)

“…it is important to keep in mind that it is not a question of applying some a priori rigid theory to unlock the symbolic code of folklore. It is rather the folklore itself which provides the necessary key. By assembling many versions of an item of folklore (the comparative method) and by examining the variation occurring within the structure of the item (structuralism), one can determine sets of allomotific equivalents. The folklore data [examined here by Dundes] suggests then that in the Euro-American cultures in which the above tales or idioms occur, eyes may be symbols of breasts or testicles and a single eye may be a symbol of the anus.” (p.193)

The method briefly proposed here can be applied within a single culture assuming that variation within a given motifemic slot occurs. In such a context, one has the possibility of delineating a culture-specific or culturally relative set of symbolic equations. On the other hand, to the extent that a particular tale type is found in more than one culture – and few folktales are limited in distribution to one culture, one may employ the method to investigate the difficult [-p.194] question of cross-cultural symbolic equivalents. Please keep in mind that cross-cultural symbolic equivalents are not the same thing as universal symbols.” (pp.193-194)

“It is time,” Dundes concludes, “that folklorists themselves made an attempt to better understand the symbolic nature of the materials they have collected and classified for so long.” (p.195)

Note that Dundes also presents an interesting discussion of the judeo christian myth of Eve being created out of a bone in Adam’s body; “What is the significance of Gd’s removing one of Adam’s bones to create Eve?” he asks; “Is there a symbolic element here?” (p.194). Dundes goes on to assert his belief that “…it is the ‘bonelessness’ of a portion of a man’s anatomy which is critical. For one thing, the human phallus, unlike the phalluses of man’s primate relatives, does not have a bone. Man is missing the os baculum. Early man could easily have [-p.195] noticed the human male lacked a bone in an area of his body in contrast to many of the animals he slaughtered for food.” (pp.194-195)

Ref: Alan Dundes(1982) ‘The symbolic equivalence of allomotifs: towards a method of analyzing folktales’ in Le Conte, purquoi? comment? / Folktales, Why and How?,ed G. Calame-Griaule, V. Görög-Karady, and M. Chiche (Paris, Centre national de la Recherche Scientifique, 1984): pp187-197 [NB is this taken from: Journées d’Études en literature orale: Analyse des contes, problèmes de methods, Paris 23-26 mars 1982? – which is at the head of the page…]


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