Sisters Fox and Coyote
A Mischief of Mice

A Skulk of Foxes

Fox Maiden by Susan Seddon Boulet

The vixen who trotted through yesterday's post came to us in a mischievous Trickster guise: both clever and foolish, creative and destructive, perfectly civilized and utterly wild. Trickster foxes appear in old stories gathered from countries and cultures all over the world -- including Aesop's Fables from ancient Greece, the "Reynard" stories of medieval Europe,  the "Giovannuzza" tales of Italy, the "Brer Fox" lore of the American South, and stories from diverse Native American traditions.

Foxgloves by Kelly Louise Judd

Foxes by Erica Il Cane

At the darker end of the fox-lore spectrum, however, we find creatures of a distinctly more dangerous cast: Reynardine, Mr. Fox, kitsune (the Japanese fox wife), kumiho (the Korean nine-tailed fox), and other treacherous shape-shifters.

Yasune Watching His Wife Change into a Fox-spirit by Utagawa KuniyoshiFox women can be found in many story traditions but they're particularly prevalent across the Far East. Fox wives, writes folklorist Heinz Insu Fenkle (in a good article on the subject) are seductive creatures who "entice unwary scholars and travelers with the lure of their sexuality and the illusion of their beauty and riches. They drain the men of their yang -- their masculine force -- and leave them dissipated or dead (much in the same way La Belle Dame Sans Merci in Keats's poem leaves her parade of hapless male victims).

"Korean fox lore, which comes from China (from sources probably originating in India and overlapping with Sumerian lamia lore) is actually quite simple compared to the complex body of fox culture that evolved in Japan. The Japanese fox, or kitsune, probably due to its resonance with the indigenous Shinto religion, is remarkably sophisticated.  Whereas the arcane aspects of fox lore Fox Mother and Child by Utagawa Kuniyoshiare only known to specialists in other East Asian countries, the Japanese kitsune lore is more commonly accessible. Tabloid media in Tokyo recently identified the negative influence of kitsune possession among members of the Aum Shinregyo (the cult responsible for the sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway). Popular media often report stories of young women possessed by demonic kitsune, and once in a while, in the more rural areas, one will run across positive reports of the kitsune associated with the rice god, Inari."

There are tales of fox wives in the West as well, but fewer of them; and they tend, by and large, to be gentler creatures. (To marry them is unlucky nonetheless, for they're skittish, shy, and not easily tamed.) An exception to this general rule can be found in the räven stories of Scandinavia. The fox-women who roam the forests of northern Europe are portrayed as heart-stoppingly beautiful, fiercely independent, and extremely dangerous.

The Fox by Julie MorstadIn a musical composition inspired by these legends, the Swedish/Finnish band Hedningarna sings:

Fire and frost are in your eyes
are you a woman or a fox?

Wild and sly you hunt in time of darkness
long sleeves hide your claws
with your prey you play
your mouth is red with blood.

Fox by Jackie Morris

Fox in the Reeds by Ohara Koson

The "nine-tailed fox" of China and Japan is often (but not always) a demonic spirit, malevolent in intent. It takes possession of human bodies, both male and female, moving for one victim to another over thousands of years, seducing other men and women in order to dine on their hearts and livers. Human organs are also a delicacy for the nine-tailed fox, or kumiho, of Korean lore -- although the earliest texts don't present the kumiho as evil so much as amoral and unpredictable...occasionally even benevolent...much like the faeries of English folklore.

In the West, it's the fox-men we need to beware of -- such as Reynardine in the old folk ballad, a handsome were-fox who lures young maidens to a bloody death. Below, the ballad is performed by Jon Boden and The Remnant Kings at the Cecil Sharp House in London:

Mr. Fox, in the English fairy tale of that name, is cousin to the kumiho and Reynardine, with a bit of Bluebeard mixed in for good measure, promising marriage to a gentlewoman while his lair is littered with her predecessors' bones.  Neil Gaiman drew inspiration from the tale when he wrote his wry, wicked poem "The White Road":

Fox and Girl by Xiaoqing DingThere was something sly about his smile,
his eyes so black and sharp, his rufous hair. Something
that sent her early to their trysting place,
beneath the oak, beside the thornbush,
something that made her climb the tree and wait.
Climb a tree, and in her condition.
Her love arrived at dusk, skulking by owl-light,
carrying a bag,
from which he took a mattock, shovel, knife.
He worked with a will, beside the thornbush, beneath the oaken tree,
he whistled gently, and he sang, as he dug her grave,
that old song...
shall I sing it for you, now, good folk?

Jeannine Hall Gailey, by contrast, casts a sympathetic eye on fox shape-shifters, writing plaintively from a kitsune's point of view in "The Fox-Wife's Invitation":

The Fox-wife of Rushford Wood by Terri WindlingThese ears aren't to be trusted.
The keening in the night, didn't you hear?
Once I believed all the stories didn’t have endings,
but I realized the endings were invented, like zero,
had yet to be imagined.
The months come around again,
and we are in the same place;
full moons, cherries in bloom,
the same deer, the same frogs,
the same helpless scratching at the dirt.
You leave poems I can’t read
behind on the sheets,
I try to teach you songs made of twigs and frost.
you may be imprisoned in an underwater palace;
I'll come riding to the rescue in disguise.
Leave the magic tricks to me and to the teakettle.
I've inhaled the spells of willow trees,
spat them out as blankets of white crane feathers.
Sleep easy, from behind the closet door
I'll invent our fortunes, spin them from my own skin.

Fox Spirit

Although chancy to encounter in myth, and too wild to domesticate easily (in stories and in life), some of us long for foxes nonetheless, for their musky scent, their hot breath, their sharp-toothed magic.  "I needed fox," wrote Adrienne Rich:

Badly I needed
a vixen for the long time none had come near me
I needed recognition from a
triangulated face     burnt-yellow eyes
fronting the long body the fierce and sacrificial tail
I needed history of fox     briars of legend it was said she had run through
I was in want of fox

And the truth of briars she had to have run through
I craved to feel on her pelt     if my hands could even slide
past or her body slide between them     sharp truth distressing surfaces of fur
lacerated skin calling legend to account
The Princess Saves the White Fox by H.J. Forda vixen's courage in vixen terms

Ah, but Fox is right here, right beside us, Jack Roberts answers, a little warily:

Not the five tiny black birds that flew
out from behind the mirror
over the washstand,

nor the raccoon that crept
out of the hamper,

nor even the opossum that hung
from the ceiling fan

troubled me half so much as
the fox in the bathtub.

There's a wildness in our lives.
We need not look for it.

Night Migrations by Julianna Swaney

There are a number of good books that draw upon fox legends -- foremost among them, Kij Johnson's exquisite novel The Fox Woman. I also recommend Neil Gaiman's The Dream Hunters (with the Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano);  Larissa Lai's unusual novel, When Fox Is a Thousand; Helen Oyeyemi's recent novel, Mr. Fox; and Ellen Steiber's gorgeous urban fantasy novel, A Rumor of Gems, as well as her heart-breaking novella "The Fox Wife" (published in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears). For younger readers, try the "Legend of Little Fur" series by Isobelle Carmody.  You can also support a fine mythic writer by subscribing to Sylvia Linsteadt's The Gray Fox Epistles: Wild Tales By Mail (more information here).  Many other good fox tales are listed here.

For the fox in myth, legend, and lore, try: Fox by Martin Wallen; Reynard the Fox, edited by Kenneth Varty; Kitsune: Japan's Fox of Mystery, Romance, and Humour by Kiyoshi Nozaki;Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative by Raina Huntington; The Discourse on Foxes and Ghosts: Ji Yun and Eighteenth-Century Literati Storytelling by Leo Tak-hung Chan; and The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship, by Karen Smythers.

Reading Together by Julianna SwaneyThe foxy art above is: "Fox Maiden" by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997); "Foxgloves" by Kelly Louise Judd; "Foxes" by Erica Il Cane; "Yasune Watching His Wife Change into a Fox-spirit" and "Fox Mother and Child: by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861);  a fox drawing by Julie Morstad; "Fox" by Jackie Morris; "Fox in the Reeds by Ohara Koson (1877-1945); "Girl and Fox" by Xiaoqing Ding; two paintings of mine: "The Fox-wife of Rushford Wood" and "Fox Spirit"; "The Princess Saves the White Fox" by H.J. Ford;  and two charming paintings by Julianna Swaney: "Night Migrations" and "Reading Together."


In one of my own stories, 'Fire Fox' (conceived long before the existence of the open source internet browser and never written down, only told orally) Fox is a trickster, but a beneficent one and plays a role similar to that of the Greek Prometheus.

It is also a bit of a 'just so' story in that it explains how the Fox gained her fiery colour and sooty-black socks.

I wonder if you have ever seen the film 'The Fox & the Child'
directed by Luc Jacquet? It received mixed reviews but I thought it was an exquisite combination of faerytale and natural history (such a combination being close to my heart)- with a twist of honesty about our relationship to the rest of Nature rarely seen in films at all - let alone films 'for children.' In other words, don't expect a saccharine, Disney-like ending.

I highly recommend it. Unfortunately, the English language version is narrated by Kate Winslet. However, the original French version (Le Renard e l'Enfant") is also available, narrated by Isabelle Carré.

The photography is wonderful in either version and the story worth the effort.

This now sounds like an advertisement - but I assure you I have no interests to declare - just wanted to share!



Austin, I've seen The Fox and the Child! I'm glad someone else has heard of it, and loved it as I did. I didn't mind Kate Winslet's narration, but then I like her as an actress generally, and I've never seen the French version to compare.

Terri, such lovely art as always, and I appreciate the book recommendations. Also I noticed that you changed your picture in the corner of the page and I wanted to tell you how lovely it is, particularly when I clicked on the small picture and found the larger version which looks like its out of a fairy tale. May I ask who the photographer is?

I wanted to share my favorite fox poems,the series of poems called 'A Dream of Foxes' by the African-American poet Lucille Clifton. I heard them read on the radio some years ago and never forgot them. I've found them on-line at .

And I also want to say how much I enjoyed the poems yesterday, in the post and in the Comments, and also the tasty poem excerpts hidden in the picture captions. In fact I'm enjoying all of the poetry contributions that everyone is bringing to this blog.

I want to say 'Thank you' to everyone who has been contributing their poetry as well. I haven't been commenting here lately - between the new baby and a heavy teaching load the time just disappears - but my wife and I still start our days with Myth & Moor and we're enjoying the poetry especially, as well the Into the Woods series. I suspect there are many other readers like us, too busy (or too shy) to comment, but loving these posts and comment threads all the same.

Cheers, Jack

PS: My favourite fox poem, Red Fox by Margaret Atwood -

I am almost (but not just yet) fox-satiated. Wow.

Truth of Briars

“. . .the truth of briars she had to have run through. . .”
—Adrienne Rich

Here is what I know about briars:

They are democratic, all are equally scratched
who run through them, even the clothed ones,
even the ones well-suited in fur.

They are sympathetic, for they smile
deep into the skin, finding blood
more moving than tears.

They are necrotic, dealing death
in small doses, like an unfriendly doctor,
or a vampire, so satiated with blood,
he need not gorge.

They are neurotic, dwelling on the red
of life, the black of death, refusing
like a toddler at the table
to eat anything green.

The truth about briars is both simple
and complex, they hold fast
till a tear or tears make them let go,
like me, like you.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

To my fellow long-time readers of The Drawing Board / Myth & Moor, on the subject of foxes:

Remember this?

That last verse slays me. Oh my.

I'm so glad you enjoyed that film!

My apologies for the somewhat piggish (now I'm offending pigs, to boot) statement about Ms. Winslet. I find her acting irritatingly self-conscious but that is such a personal irk, it would have been more gracious not to mention it. I made a New Year resolution to be gracious and this is far from the first time that I have failed to keep it. I am clearly not gracious by nature.

Apologies to the actor and her many fans.

Lovely poems, though.



Has anyone mentioned Ted Hughes' 'The Thought Fox'?

I feel such a connection to the fox, one of my spirit animals for sure - thank you for sharing such a beautiful post with so much on one of my favorite creatures of folklore, the kitsune.

To add to the collection gathering the comments, a while ago I wrote this story - - which I was so honored to have published in Jabberwocky Magazine :).

A beautiful post. Thank you.

I love your story. It is so beautifully written, so vivid and yet so sad.

I think I am only a little disappointed that you all failed to cite Kij Johnshon's lovely novels The Fox Wife and Fudoki which have a fascinating take on the concepts around kitsune and shinto.

Oh Terri, thank you so for the this post-- as you know I do love the little clever shifting foxes. I've been hearing the gray foxes barking outside my cabin these past nights, a frightening sound until you figure out who it is. I think they are seeking out their mates, beautiful. I am deeply grateful to you for all of your recent animal-in-myth & fairytale writings, they feed my little animistic wild-fox soul. (& thanks deeply for your mention of the Gray Fox Epistles). Hope all is well with you and many blessings as the season dips golden and spider-strung into delicious autumn. Love, Sylvia

Fox Woman***

no light without dark...the poles of things held in balance, dipping from one side to the other, and that center...the reader, the dreamer, the writer, the metaphor and meaning. I'm astounded by the breadth of your knowledge. You offer SO MANY sources dear Terri. A constant feast lays on your table. You are a generous host.

I love this. And I'm with Chris, that last verse is a killer.

Ooh, that's a good one. Here's a link for anyone who doesn't already know it:

Hughes lived near here (in the village of Lustleigh), and I spotted him in Chagford a number of times before he died, but never had the nerve to speak to him.

Ah, thanks for the reminder. I've always liked that one.

But I did cite The Fox Woman. It's the first of my book recommendations in the last part of the post -- you seem to have missed it somehow. I said:

"There are a number of good books that draw upon fox legends -- foremost among them, Kij Johnson's exquisite novel The Fox Woman."

I didn't mention Fudoki, since that's more about cats, but I certainly wouldn't post about kitsune lore without mentioning Kij's fox novel, which is one of my all-time favorites.

I hope people follow the link and wind their way to your Gray Fox Epistles. Sending love to you from Dartmoor.

And everyone contributing their thoughts, stories, and poems to these comment threads are so generous too.

How did I not know that one???!!

I don't know the film, Austin, but will definitely seek it out.

Cynthia, thanks so much for the link to the Lucille Clifton poems. They're just wonderful.

As for the photo, it was taken by my husband Howard. I'll pass on your compliments!

For this very nice post to add:

Japanese fox poetry, "A Footprint" by Shinjiro Kurahara:

- Maaike Klaasen, Amsterdam

On the matter of woman-as-fox or fox-as-woman, are you aware of the transformation which comes over the vixen Sharpears in Leos Janacek's opera, The Cunning Little Vixen? After being caught and tied up for the night by a gamekeeper, the vixen falls asleep and is transformed in her dreams into a young girl before changing back in time for the following dawn.

I haven't seen the opera, but now I really want to.

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