Tunes for a Monday Morning
Fox Stories

A Skulk of Foxes

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Zao Fox Village, Japan - photography by Rebecca Daum

The folkloric foxes found trotting through yesterday's post came to us in 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...

Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit by A.B. Frost

Foxes by Erica Il Cane

...but at the darker end of the fox-lore spectrum 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 populate many story traditions but they're particularly prevalent across the Far East. Fox wives, writes Korean-American folklorist Heinz Insu Fenkl, 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 are only known to specialists in other East Asian Fox Mother and Child by Utagawa Kuniyoshicountries, 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."

(To read Heinz's full essay on "Fox Wives & Other Dangerous Women," go here.)

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.

Fox Woman by Susan Seddon Boulet

Gilded Fox by Jackie Morris

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.

Silver Fox with Crows by Ellen Jewett

From Little Elvie in the Wild Wood by Catherine Hyde

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":

Mr. Fox by John D. Batten

There 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?

(To read the full poem, go here.)


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":

Photography by Katerina PlotnikovaThese 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,
The Little Prince by Vladislav Erkospat 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.

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
Crossing an Iced-Over Stream by Gina Litherlandfronting 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
a vixen's courage in vixen terms

(Full poem here.)

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.

(Full poem here.)

Fox Spirit

There are a number of good novels that draw upon fox legends -- foremost among them, Kij Johnson's exquisite The Fox Woman, which no fan of mythic fiction should miss. I also recommend Neil Gaiman's The Dream Hunters (with the Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano);  Larissa Lai's When Fox Is a Thousand; and Ellen Steiber's gorgeous A Rumor of Gems (as well as her heart-breaking novella "The Fox Wife," published in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears). Alice Hoffman's disquieting Here on Earth is a contemporary take on the Reynardine/Mr. Fox theme, as is Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox, a complex work full of stories within stories within stories. For younger readers, try the "Legend of Little Fur" series by Isobelle Carmody. And for mythic poetry, I especially recommend She Returns to the Floating World by Jeannine Hall Gailey and Sister Fox’s Field Guide to the Writing Life by Jane Yolen. 

More fox tales are listed here.

Fox tails and tales

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 SwaneyPicture credits: Identification of the foxy art above can be found in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them. Words: The passage by Heinz Insu Fenkl is from "Fox Wives & Other Dangerous Women," published in The Journal of Mythic Arts (1998); "The White Road" by Neil Gaiman and "The Fox-Wife's Invitation" by Jeannine Hall Gailey are also from JoMA (1998 and 2008); "Fox" by Adrienne Rich  is from Fox: Poems 1998-2000 (Norton, 2003); and "Dream Fox" by Jack Roberts is from Tar River Poetry (2007). All rights to the art & text above are reserved by their respective creators.

Comments

I also wrote a kitsune poem--Kitsune Promises ©2012 Asimov’s Magazine as “Foxwife”


Kitsune Promises

I found him, my gentle scholar,
living in a ruined temple.
If he can stand my cooking--
the meat too rare for most--
and my rank smell,
if he can forgive the sight
of my red tail,
I will make him a good wife.
Beast or girl,
I pledge him a warm fire
and quiet for his studies
long into the night,
and any who disturb him
will know my teeth.

©2012 Asimov’s Magazine as “Foxwife”

Beautiful photographs and artwork... Some years ago I was fortunate enough to have a fox keeping me company for a while every day. I visited friends on their farm in Ireland, and they kind of got adopted by a local fox. She walked in and out of the kitchen and she sometimes even ventured to go to the living room. She was no pet, though. Early in the morning I loved to draw at the kitchen table and she almost always came to sit there for a little while. I suppose she was way more interested in the smell of warm bread then in me working for my degree but I still feel blessed by her presence. Later that year I made a little book about her that is still passed back and forth between the children and grandchildren of my friends' family.

One of my all-time favourite artists, Vali Myers, had a 'pet' fox (using the word 'pet' very loosely), who was muse and familiar and beloved all at once. Foxy appeared in many of Vali's paintings, and Vali considered Foxy and herself to be kindred spirits, both too wild to be tamed by the ordinary world.

This is so rich and lovely, thank you!

Hi Terri

I remember this post with its beautiful pictures and wondrous essay/poems on the lure and mystery of the fox. Sometime after this posting, I wrote this poem about a woman/mistress who wanted to master the craft of being clever, of being sly and seductive enough to wield power of her lover. She wanted to mentally transform into the tricktress nature of the fox. However, when dealing with the Vixen spirit/creature, she went too far. She conjured something she couldn't handle; and the result was entrapment.

Vixen

I was in want of fox
Adrienne Rich


A man watches his mistress
brush her auburn hair in the lamplight.
One stroke then another,
long and deliberate
as if enticing prey.

Outside, the moon casts
its pewter shadow over the trees;
and a fox wails
straining to release more
than her wild cry.

Her voice carries
toward the canal and cobblestones
making the still water
quiver. The air smells damp

and night abides the hour,
( the soft-lit house) waiting to trespass
in a dream, telling the man
what led to this...

a female in his mirror
grooming herself
to appear mortal, safe from the hunt,

an animal clothed in fire
that does not burn, only burnish
the dusk with fur, red hair
that once was human

and styled by slim hands
that conjured, prayed too hard
to become more clever.
__________________________________

Thank you for this wonderful reposting, it's so enjoyable and even more intriguing the second time around. I hope you are feeling better and resting from that nasty fall. I will keep you in my prayers.

Please take care,
My Best
Wendy

Hi Jane

Such a wonderful poem; and I love how you give voice to the nature and intent of "the Kitsune". The ending is powerful and grabs the reader with its intense promise, its feral protection of someone she, the foxwife, wants and needs.

I pledge him a warm fire
and quiet for his studies
long into the night,
and any who disturb him
will know my teeth.

I love this one!
Thank you for sharing,
Wendy

I love this poem, Jane. And it reminds me of your lovely story about the cat bride, which was in...Dream Weaver, I think?

What an utterly magical memory...and charming story.

I don't know anything about Vali Meyers. I'm off to find out more based on your description.

You're welcome, Peg.

As always, Wendy grateful thanks.

Jane

Another wow, Wendy. Do you write fiction, too. This is a short story begging to be released.

Jane

Oh, what an interesting take on fox women. Like so many shape-shifting and shamanic traditions, these powers are indeed dangerous things, not to be messed with, and those who court them often live on the border edge of madness....

In some of the fox tales of Asia, there are two ways for fox spirits (male or female) to become human beings. One is through seducing a human and stealing his or her life force, and another is through many years of vigorous study. The second path intrigues me. (What exactly do they study?) I alw wanted to write a story about a gentle fox spirit scholar....

Thank you for your prayers about my poor old bruised bones. I've been on some medication that effects my balance, which doesn't combine well with a very wet winter in which everything is muddy and slippery. I hope to be on a different medication soon, reputed to have fewer side effects, and that ought to help. The number of tumbles I've had in the last six months or so is getting ridiculous.

Hi Jane

Thank you so much for reading and commenting on this poem! I deeply appreciate your gracious and kind words. I rarely write fiction -- a short story or two occasionally but generally, I am more at home in the realm of poetry. But you make an excellent, this would be a good start for a short story. Something definitely for me to consider. Thanks so much for the suggestion!

Take care
Wendy

Hi Terri

Thank you so much for reading and commenting on my poem. The further info you have provided on fox spirits is so intriguing and interesting. And yes, I wonder what do they study? It does leave a lot of speculation for the imagination and would make for an exciting story.

I know what you mean about the dizzying effects of medication. It is one reason when my sinuses act up -- I am loathe to take any allergy pills or antihistamines because I always get so dizzy which affects my balance. Luckily here in the high desert, my sinuses only act up occasionally. However, with the colder weather and some much needed rain setting in, we have had water freeze on our sidewalks. So when getting the mail, which is a walk down the cul de sac and around the corner, I have to be extra careful-- or I, too, could slip and bruise my maturing bones. I wish you all the best with a change in medication and quick healing.

Take care
My Best
Wendy

Gorgeous poem, Wendy. I've read it a few times. Thank you for sharing.

One of Guy Gavriel Kay's series includes a man who was so in love with a woman that he was able to (barely) reject the advances of a Fox woman...

Back about thirty years ago I was involved in a research project on moose ticks; one of the aspects of the project involved having four yearling moose in observation pens. They were fed twice daily in these small sheds, and we ran into challenges with raccoons - both eating the food and harassing the moose (they weren't overly comfortable going into those sheds to eat, but had grown used to it.

We applied to the local office for some cage traps for the raccoons, and the only thing they had available was a bear trap on a trailer, which they brought out. There was a trail of fish bait on the floor, leading to a door trigger at the front.

One morning I went out to feed the moose and there was a red fox sitting on the ground watching the trailer. Keep in mind that this was in the middle of a park, so this fox had never been hunted or trapped. He sat there for a while, watching the trap, then s/he leapt up, smelled the fish and looked back at the door. Smelled the fish and looked back at the door... then s/he went back out and sat on the ground and watched it. S.he did this, back and forth, for about ten minutes, and then s/he left. Never touched the fish.

Wily indeed. :-)

Hi Carina

What a kind and lovely thing to say about this poem. I am so glad you enjoyed it and deeply appreciate your thoughtfulness!

Thank you so much!!
Wendy

They are such clever creatures. And I find myself envious of a life in which you can write a sentence that begins "One morning I went out to feed the moose..."

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