A Search Engine of Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature

More than fifty years after the first edition of Thompson’s seminal Motif-Index of Folk Literature, Karsdorp and colleagues present an online search engine tailored to fully disclose the index digitally. This search engine, called MOMFER, greatly enhances the searchability of the Motif-Index and provides exciting new ways to explore the collection. This is enabled by the use of modern techniques from both natural language processing and information retrieval. The key feature of the search tool is the way in which it allows users to search the Motif-Index for semantic concepts, such as ‘mythical animals’, ‘mortality’, or ‘emotions’. The paper, published in the latest edition of Folklore explains the motivations for creating the search tool, explicates the production process, and shows in a number of case studies how the search tool can be used to explore the index in innovative ways.

One of the case studies presented in the paper attempts to highlight the benefits of the semantic query expansion implemented in MOMFER. Monsters are an important part of folklore which is reflected by the high number of motifs in the Motif-Index. Problematic, however, is that these motifs are not listed in a single category but rather are spread out under different subheadings. Using MOMFER’s query expansion, researchers can search for all instances of monsters using the single query: wn:monster. Most motifs dealing with monsters in the Motif-Index are about dragons and serpents. This is followed by a long-tail distribution of monster motifs discussing the nature and practice of e.g. griffins, werewolves, chimeras, unicorns, and so on and so forth.
For each motif mentioning a monster, Karsdorp and colleagues extract all geographical locations from the Motif-Index where that motif has been attested. The locations are aggregated by country. The following picture visualizes the geographical distribution. The colour gradient represents the frequency with which monsters are found in a particular country. We see a strong preference for sources containing monsters from Ireland, Iceland, India, and, most notably, China.

Folgert Karsdorp, Marten van der Meulen, Theo Meder & Antal van den Bosch (2015) MOMFER: A Search Engine of Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature, Folklore, 126:1, 37-52. doi: 10.1080/0015587X.2015.1006954

Link to the Search Engine: