The Fox within the Woman: Legends of the Nine Tailed Fox

The fox plays a wide range of roles in 42 out of the 358 of Aesop’s fables. It is generally described as a quick, intelligent and adaptable animal which no doubt led to its importance as a symbol of cleverness in most cultures. In mythology, the fox usually has a positive connotation. In early Mesopotamian mythology, the fox is one of the sacred animals and a messenger of the goddess Ninhursag. The Moche people of ancient Peru often depicted the fox in their art, believing it be a warrior that would use his mind to fight instead of relying on physical attacks. In Scottish mythology, Dia Griene, the daughter of the sun is held in the underworld and is permitted to return to the mortal world as a fox – leading to the fox as a symbol of transformation.

Prince Hanzoku terrorised by a nine-tailed fox by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)
Prince Hanzoku terrorised by a nine-tailed fox by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

A later symbolism provides a later addition to the fox’ already rather complex characterization. The fox took on a more sinister role as, due to its blazing red color, it became the symbol for the devil. However, a different role of the fox was, at this time, already long evident in very early renditions of the Eastern Asian folklore – that of the seducer.

Within Chinese mythology, the fox is one of five spiritual animal species. It shares this honor with the weasel, the porcupine, the snake and the mouse. Legend has it that these animals’ nocturnal natures give them plenty of yin energy in the yin-yang dichotomy which lends them special powers which they can increase with time and discipline.

Story of the nine-tailed fox by Katsushika Hokusai (Japan, 1760-1849)
Story of the nine-tailed fox by Katsushika Hokusai (Japan, 1760-1849)

The Spiritual Journey of the Celestial Fox

The first known documentation of the existence of the nine-tailed fox is in the book  Shan Hai Jing (The Classic of Mountains and Seas), a compilation of mythological texts from 4th to 1st centuries BCE. The book states the existence of a mountain with gold and jade covering its summit. It also describes an animal living there which looks like a fox with nine tails. The fox makes a baby-like noise and devours humans.

Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere - Mae West

A Qing Dynasty scholar, Ji Yun (1724–1805 CE) writes that the superior fox spirits absorbs essence from nature to refine their spirit through skillful meditation and purification to attain immortality and divinity. Foxes that lack this skill would instead cultivate their physical appearance in order to bewitch, confuse and possess people. Therefore, the huli jing (fox spirit) has an ambiguous nature – that of a trickster striving for spiritual transcendence.

Guo Pu, a Chinese writer and scholar of the Eastern Jin period (317–420 CE) says that a fox spirit can transform itself into a woman when it is fifty years old and becomes a beautiful female, a spirit medium, or an adult male who has sexual intercourse with women when it reaches the age of a hundred. When a fox is thousand years old it ascends to heaven and becomes a celestial fox.

From the heavens illustrated on the ceilings of Yanju's tomb, a "nine-tailed fox". Painting from Yanju's tomb, also known as Jiuquan Dingjia Gate No. 5 Tomb (的酒泉丁家闸五号墓), located in Jiuquan County, Gansu Province, China. 5th Century AD
From the heavens illustrated on the ceilings of Yanju’s tomb, a “nine-tailed fox”. Painting from Yanju’s tomb, also known as Jiuquan Dingjia Gate No. 5 Tomb (的酒泉丁家闸五号墓), located in Jiuquan County, Gansu Province, China. 5th Century AD

In many stories, the huli jing’s accumulation of yin enabled it to assume the guise of woman to interact with the human world. However, as the fox wishes to have a well-balanced constitution, it naturally looks to gather yang (the male element). This created the powerful and enduring myth that the fox-spirit must prey on the life-force of men in order to achieve longevity. Huli jing have even been known to marry and act as ideal wives to virtuous men.

The beautiful nine tailed fox in ancient Chinese folk tales

Another influential story of the nine-tailed fox comes from the 16th century Chinese novel Fengshen Yanyi (“The Creation of the Gods”) one of the major works on gods and demons written during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE). The story is set in the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). Daji is a nine-tailed fox disguised as a beautiful woman for the purpose of tempting King Zhou. It is because of Daji that King Zhou became a tyrant, which caused the eventual fall of his government. Her malevolent influence supposedly drove him to ruin and ended the Shang dynasty. However, ahough Daji is perhaps the most infamous huli jing in Chinese mythology, the fox spirit figure can be found in even earlier folk stories. Tushan-shi, wife of the hero Yu the Great and who is known to be the mother of China’s first dynastic ruler in the Xia  dynasty (2070-1600 BCE), is sometimes said to have been a huli jing or, at least, to have had the nine-tailed fox as a symbol of her clan.

Woodblock print, oban tate-e. The revived fox-spirit Dakki appears before a court lady.
Woodblock print, oban tate-e. The revived fox-spirit Dakki appears before a court lady.

In modern Chinese vernacular, the term huli jing is often derogatory when applied to a woman as it implies that she is a home wrecker or seductively dangerous to men. However, it should be remembered that, although Chinese folklore predominantly portray the huli jing as female, there are also examples of male fox spirits. In traditional Chinese medical lore, male fox spirits are responsible for koro, a culture-specific syndrome also known as Genital Retraction Syndrome or shrinking penis.

The fox is an animal that is both feared and respected by the ancient Japanese as they are sacred animals and messengers of Inari, the god of prosperity. However, they can also act as vengeful demons.

Although there are reports written from the ninth century and most likely this beliefs date back before even then, the Kamamura period (1185-1333 CE) contains the first popular story of the fox, Tamamo no Mae (“Lady Duckweed”). The story of Tamamo no Mae continued the Chinese story of Daji. After enchanting the king and ending the Shang dynasty, Daji fled to Magadha of Tianzhu (ancient India) and became Lady Kayo, concubine of the king Kalmashapada (known in Japan as Hanzoku) who, also through her influence, proceeded to cut off the heads of 1000 men. She also was said to cause the prince to devour children, murder priests, and commit other horrors. Lady Kayo was then defeated again and fled the country. Around 780 BCE, the same fox returned to China and was said to have possessed Bao Si, concubine of Emperor You of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE).

Woodblock print, oban tate-e. Dosei and his wife find the baby Tamamo-no-mae wrapped in cloth by a riverbank. by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (c. 1849)

Kitsune: the dangerous and devoted fox woman in Japan

After being chased away by the military forces of the Zhou dynasty, the fox hid for a long period before finally appearing in Japan as Tamamo no Mae, the most favoured courtesan of Emperor Toba. Tamamo no Mae was said to be a most beautiful and intelligent woman. However, she caused the Emperor to be extremely ill and was eventually exposed as a fox spirit by the astrologer Abe no Yasuchika, who had been called to diagnose the cause of the Emperor’s poor health. The fox spirit was then  killed by the military. Before its death, the nine-tailed fox was able to imbed its spirit into a stone that was said to emit a poisonous gas that would kill anyone who approached it.

The common word for fox in Japanese is kitsune. The supernatural powers of kitsune includes the power to generate kitsunebi (“fox fire”), the power to create intense illusions and the power to possess people. Often a kitsune is depicted with its hoshi no tama (“star ball”, a white ball glowing with kitsunebi), which are said to hold the kitsune’s soul.

The Warrior Miura-no-suke Confronting the Court Lady Tamamo-no-mae as She Turns into an Evil Fox with Nine Tails, by Yashima Gakutei (1835)

Although for the most part a kitsune lives independently from humans, they abide by a distinct set of rules. When they have accepted the help of a human they vow to repay that debt, even at the cost of physical or emotional anguish. In this case, they mirror the Japanese customs and traditions of loyalty to higher stations and obligation to one’s neighbors. A legend tells of a man who saved a fox-cub from the hands of some boys who were going to kill it. The man released it and the little fox happily scampered away. Shortly afterwards, the man’s only son fell seriously ill – only the liver of a live fox could cure the boy. Late one night, a stranger came to the house bringing a fresh fox-liver. Soon, the boy recovered. However, the man and his wife still did not know who might have sent them the liver. Later, the stranger  appeared again to the kind man and explained that, in gratitude for the earlier delivery of their cub, he and his wife had decided to kill it so that its liver might save the man’s son. The man in turn showed their gratitude by erecting a shrine for the little fox.

This is only one of the many Japanese tales in which a fox spirit develops a close bond with a human. Another famous examples of this is the legend of Kuzuno. A man gets injured while saving a fox that is being hunted. Being grateful, the fox took the form of Kuzuno, a beautiful woman who later saved the injured man and soon married him. After some time, Kuzuno gave birth to a boy. When that boy turned five years old he witnessed Kuzuno’s true identity as a fox. Kuzuno then returned to the forest as her true self, leaving behind a poem for her husband.

Although a kitsune also seduces humans, its depiction is more often those of devoted lovers and faithful wives. Often, a human child is borne of this union and is endowed with supernatural abilities.

Sangoku Yōko-den (三国妖狐伝) by Katsushika Hokusai (Edo Period)

Historically, Japan developed a very different view of sexuality than China, where the Confucian view of marriage dominated. Monogamy in Japan was historically not as obviously emphasized and sexual freedom was considered more acceptable. Therefore, the familiar figure of the fox spirit became more strongly characterized as an individual, an autonomous creature with its own needs, emotional expectations and ability to form a close bond with humans. The fox represented the wild part of nature that human beings could never control. It represent the mystical and the nature unattainable by humans, yet still possessesing human-like qualities.  

“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere” – the story of the Nine Tailed Fox from China to Korea

The Korean kumiho is an entirely different kind of creature in contrast with the huli jing and kitsune. Any trace of goodness in the fox spirit disappeared in Korea, where the nine-tailed fox is called kumiho. A kumiho will eat human in order to attain life force. A kumiho can also suck the blood from her victims, like vampires, and create illusions.

It is not enough to conquer; one must learn to seduce. - voltaire

In Korean folklore the fox spirit is always depicted as female, sexually deviant, a demon, and a cannibal – a genuine man-eater literally consuming men’s flesh. Men will sexually assault her in order to reveal her animalistic nature. Some stories use the symbolic ripping of the fox-woman’s clothing to portray this.

A Korean folktale tells of a man with three sons who wants a daughter. In his prayers, he mentioned that as long as he has a daughter, he will not care if she is a kumiho. After he had a daughter, the family found that a cow died mysteriously every night. When two of his sons reported seeing their sister enter the barn to eat the cows’ livers, their father threw them out of the house. Years later, the two brothers returned armed with three bottles of magical potions from a Buddhist monk. They found their sister living alone. She claimed that their parents and youngest brother have all died and offered them to stay the night. Later, the oldest brother awakened to find his sister eating his dead younger brother. He ran away and dropped the potions to slow his sister down. As a fox, the sister fought her way through the first potion’s thicket of thorns and swims across the second potion’s magical river. However, she was then trapped by the last potion of bottled fire and burned to death.

Adult Fox on Grass

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