Come and Sleep – Kitsune Lore (狐)
In the dark of evening
The fox’s trap
Is easy to make
Kitsune (狐狸精), the Japanese fox-spirit, is also known as the Gumiho (구미호) in Korea and the Huli Jing (狐狸精) in China. They are basically the same creature but with a few differences based on region.
In all three cultures, the fox-spirit is mostly viewed as an evil creature. They were known to enjoy the company of humans for a variety of reasons that almost always end badly for the unfortunate individual who encounters one. The main reason a fox-spirit might search out a human was to suck away their life force or to even eat human flesh and thereby steal any powers that person might have along with all their memories, knowledge, and even their human form. The older a fox-spirit grew to be the more powerful it became and the more people whose life-force it had leeched away the more powerful it grew as well. A fox was said to be able to take on a human form only once it had gained enough life-force and had aged up to 500 years old and that they grew an extra tail for every 100 years of age. The oldest of foxes were said to the nine tailed foxes who were 900 years old and sometimes older.
Please note, that my area of expertise is Japan so I will only briefly touch on Korea and China because I don’t want to give any misinformation and there is so much lore to go through in each country that I couldn’t possibly cover them all in one post. Please look in the resources section for some excellent websites, PDFs, and books where you can read even more about these not-so-elusive creatures. Please note because there is so much lore on the Kitsune there really is no way to cover everything about them. I had to cut some things out otherwise I might as well write a book.
In Korea, the Kumiho uses a marble carried in its mouth to steal wisdom from humans, usually through a kiss. In Korea the fox-spirit could take on a human form at the age of 100 years of age and the human shape will always be female. However, the fox-spirit requires the use of a human skull that it places on top of its head in order to transform. It can devour a human to take on their shape. Does this mean the fox itself was female? Not necessarily, but the human shape will always be that of an attractive young woman. Often times the Kumiho will take on the form of someone their intended victim knows so that they are more trusting and easier to get close enough to. One of the telling features that you are dealing with a Kumiho would be that it acts differently than the person it is portraying, either saying or eating things they usually would not, they might have a different eye color or speak in an old-fashioned way or you could begin to look for its tail as the tail will always be present. The Kumiho will try its best to hide it, refusing to face its back towards you.
In China, the Huli Jing is always a female who works to seduce men of great power. Often times they could be found trying to insinuate themselves into the lives of generals and emperors in the hopes of manipulating political and palatial intrigues purely for their own entertainment as far as we can tell. Who knows what a fox-spirits true intention might really have been?
In the Chinese stories of the fox-spirit, the Huli Jing can appear to be very kind and beneficial to the man whom she is with, however, she is always vicious and full of trickery towards any other women in the household be they relatives or simple servants. She enjoys playing cruel and often fatal ‘tricks’ on women but always seems to manage to give it the appearance of an accident. And woe is to you if you were a female stepchild. The men whom the Huli Jing are with often come to power very quickly, becoming famous with great wealth and swathes of land. However, once the Huli Jing has taken all the energy generated by his hubris and the man begins to become old and senile and no longer able to produce the energy she craves the Huli Jing will leave, taking her immortal beauty and good luck with her while leaving her ex to pine and wither over his lost love and luxury.
And if this wasn’t enough to convince on the hidden evils of the Chinese fox-spirit, then take a look at what this Chinese classic text, Of Mountains and Seas (山海經), has to say about the true form of the Huli Jing:
There is a beast shaped like a fox with nine tales, it sounds like a baby, it eats men.
And that pretty little poem nicely sums up the Huli Jing fox-spirit in China.
The most commonly known, and most popular, name of the fox-spirit comes from Japan; Kitsune. In Japan, Kistune can be both male and female, though the females are still vastly more common. The name kitsune is believed to have come from two words put together. Some sources suggest that the name comes from:
- Kitsu – the onomatopoeia for the sound a fox makes.
- Tsune – meaning ‘always’ but can also be an alternate reading of ‘Ki’ – which can mean both the color ‘gold’ or the word for ‘energy’ depending on which Kanji you use. And ‘Ne’ being the feminine version of expressing or overemphasizing a good mood in Japanese, such as Shiawase-ne! (I’m very happy) or Ii-ne! (Great).
So Kitsune could mean “always golden” or “always energy/energized” depending on how you interpret it. I like to think that foxes are rather energetic creatures so this reading has a certain fondness to it for me. However, one of the most popular tales of how the fox-spirit got its moniker is from a story found in the Nihon Ryouiki (日本霊異記), roughly translated as “Japanese Ghost Stories” it is a collection of strange and unusual lore. The story goes like this though I did elaborate some of the events for the sake of good storytelling:
There once was a very lonely man who was hard at work on his farm. He worked day in and day out and had plenty of food to eat and a nice home which he cared for but he had not a wife. He had searched for many years for a woman to make his own but could never find one suitable enough. One day while he was about in his field he looked up to find a staggeringly beautiful woman, she could be nothing less than a Lady, and he fell in love immediately. He asked that she marry him, explaining to her all he had and how he could take care of her and, to his great joy, she agreed. The couple married and they lived very happily together for many years. To the farmers’ great joy his wife one day told him that finally, she was with child and that they would be a complete family. He was overjoyed and took great care of his wife and their unborn child. When the baby was finally born he found that his pet dog had also begotten a single puppy. He had hopes that the child and puppy would grow up together and be good companions but as the puppy grew it became increasingly hostile towards the farmer’s wife for no apparent reason. Months went by like this until one day the pup-turned-dog tore into the Lady’s arm, terrified for her life the woman vanished in a fit of robes and silks and in her place sat a fox with nine tales. She looked up in surprised bewilderment and, realizing what she had done, bolted out of the house and away from the angry jaws of the dog. Days, weeks, months went by and she did not return. The man was heartbroken, he loved his wife and missed her and did not care that she was really a fox-spirit. He cried for her every night, wondering the fields in despair, calling out in his voice that grew hoarse and broken from tears for her to please, “Kitsu-ne?” (Come?)
Stories such as these are often the origin tales of famous people who had been born with extraordinary abilities such as the Shugendō Priest En No Gyoja and the Onmyōdō Priest Abe no Seimei. They both claimed to have had a Kitsune mother. Even though this fox-spirit in this story was benevolent and kind-hearted, she still brought about sadness in the man she loved when she chose to run away. In some versions of the story the man later dies of loneliness and in others he leaves in search of his lover and so also never returns.
Types of Kitsune
There are three different types of Kitsune in Japan. Each of these has its own special characteristics that make them a little unique on their own:
Youko – these are considered to be Kitsune but I often wonder if they should be their own listing as they are not really fox-spirits, but demons that have taken the shape of a fox. The Huli Jing poem described above mentioned them as sounding like a baby and this crying is often used to lure in unsuspecting victims looking to save the hapless infant only to be devoured.
Myoubu – these are specifically the fox-spirits that have aligned themselves as the messenger of Inari O-kami, they can do no evil and are sworn to assist his/her worshippers. These are the statues that you will see at shrines and cemeteries wearing their distinctive red bibs.
Nogitsune – these are the foxes that interact the most directly with humans and (unlike in China and Korea) they can be good or bad. They are not aligned with Inari O-kami and so are considered to be ‘wild’ but not in the same sense that an actual fox is, it’s more that they can choose to do whatever they want and do not worry about karmic reparations. Of all the stories you will find out the Kitsune, this is the type you will see the most as they go about their lives sometimes choosing to harass and sometimes choosing to befriend humanity.
How to Expose a Spirit-Fox?
In Japan, the Kitsune is often discovered because of some characteristic that cannot be hidden. As with the Kumiho, the Kitsune will almost always have a tail and sometimes fox ears. The Kitsune will often try to stay in the shadows so that it features cannot be seen very well as it is said that their skin will be very clear and almost luminous looking due to having not been exposed to the sun very often (fur, natures sunblock). Often times they might use speech that would be considered out of date or out of fashion since they do not often interact with humans, sometimes only coming forth every hundred years or more, and so might not know the current usage of appropriate language. They might speak at an unusual pace, either very slow or very fast.
There are words in Japanese with which Kitsune are said to have trouble pronouncing, one of these words is “Moshi” because of this people began to answer their doors (and now their modern-day cellphones) with the greeting, “Moshi-moshi?” to confirm that it is not a Kitsune.
Kitsune and dogs do not get along and so the Kistune may be exposed due to their adverse reactions to canine companions such as extreme fearfulness of dogs. Wanting to cause harm or wishing harm on dogs. Dogs will actively growl and attempt to chase away the kitsune.
Kitsune are said to have the ability to become invisible however, they cannot hide their shadow which will appear in the shape of the fox-eared kitsune. You could also see them by passing a room through with incense smoke and the smoke will outline their forms and scare the Kitsune off. They also dislike the scent of incense.
A Kitsune will always be exposed by its reflection and will avoid anything with a mirror-like surface such as water, polished metal plates, metal spoons, or metal pots and of course – mirrors. A Lady who refuses to keep a mirror in her room would be suspected of being either a kitsune or being possessed by a kitsune (Kitsunestuki, more on that below).
Inari-zushi is a type a tofu and rice sushi that is fried and very sweet tasting. Inari-zushi is often left as an offering for the God Inari O-Kami. It is said that the Kitsune cannot resist this type of sushi and will stop to eat it, reverting to its fox-spirit form in order to enjoy the delicious treat. If you leave out the sushi you will expose the kitsune for what he or she truly is because of this.
Hoshi-no-tama – this is a type of ball, similar to the Kumho’s marble, that contains some of the Kitsunes power. It appears as a glowing, floating, ball that is precious to the Kitsune. If you can find and keep this ball the Kitsune will be compelled to serve you in order to earn it back however, the Kitsune will try everything in its power to get it back. It is similar in nature to fox-fire (Will-o-wisp).
Kitsunetsuki (狐憑き) – Fox-spirit Possession
This is a long and complicated topic, especially among the Shugendō who still regularly perform exorcisms. As this post is already getting very long and I’m afraid I’ve already lost many of my dear readers I will wait and create a post dedicated solely to Kitsunetsuki. Just know that this type of Kitsune is not a true Kitsune and that fox-spirits can possess both humans and/or actual fox.
How to Keep the Spirit-Fox out of the Proverbial Chicken Coop?
The best way to keep the fox-spirit away from you is to be proactive in self-preservation. They cannot take what you do not give. They are not Gods and they are not all powerful. Ignoring them is your best defense. Don’t trust the shifty stranger who talks of wind and rain while standing in the shade on a perfectly sunny day. If a pretty girl starts talking to you out of the blue, if she seems too good to be true, if you think you might see a yellow glint to their eyes or the shadow of a tail then don’t trust them as they might be a Kitsune. If you feel like you’re being followed but all you see if shadows and the sudden spark of light then be wary. When it comes to the Kitsune their main strengths are being able to trick you and use subterfuge to make your life complicated. They come in like a whirlwind and then are gone before you know what hit you, leaving you feeling tired and yet wanting more.
If you’re not careful, dear reader, you might find yourself outside, wandering the streets calling, “Kitsu-ne?”
All art is copyrighted by Sarah Graybill. You can see the artists other beautiful works on Instagram and on Tumblr. Go give her some love on Instagram: @teakitsune
Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Kōan — Steven Heine
The Fox and The Jewel – Karen Smyers
Come and Sleep: The Folklore of the Japanese Fox – Christopher Kincaid