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.


Little gloves for the foxes and the fey

Summer pathway

Foxgloves on the path

This has been a good year for the foxgloves, which started their bloom early in June and are still brightening the woods and hills....

Foxglove spires

Folklorists are divided on where the common name for Digitalis purpurea comes from. In some areas of the British Isles the name seems be a corruption of "folksglove," associating the flowers with the fairy folk, while in others the plant is also known as "fox fingers," its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, a "gleow" being a ring of bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden

Foxgloves give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease, and this powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times. Botanist Bobby J. Ward gives us this account of early foxglove use in his excellent book A Contemplation Upon Flowers:

"An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to the Foxglove Fairy by Cicely Mary Barkermeddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.

"After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon's wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejeweled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians."

Foxgloves in summer

Girl With Foxglove by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904)

Among the fairies

Foxglove by Christie Newman

Foxgloves shedding blossoms

Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence. Likewise, fairies can be attracted to a dometic garden by planting foxgloves. Dew collected from the blossoms is used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic. In the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies' cradles for protection from  Foxglovebewitchement, while in Shropshire they were put in children's shoes for the same reason (and also as a cure for Scarlet Fever). Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky. Here in Devon and Cornwall, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and piskies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance.

In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars. The plant has been associated with midwifery and women's magic ever since -- as well as with "white witches" (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks.  In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets, but by the Victorian era they had devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.

A lovely old legend told here in the West Country explains why foxgloves bob and sway even when there is no wind: this is the plant bowing to the fairy folk as they pass by. The spires of foxgloves growing on our hill mark it out a place beloved by fairies, a land filled with riddles, secrets, and stories. I walk its paths, listen to the tales, and then do my best to bring them back to you.

P1210991

Foxgloves by Kelly Louise Judd

Rosie the Fox by Richard Bowler

(For the folklore of foxes, go here.)

Tilly and the foxglovesArt above: Pages from The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (1871-1920), "Foxglove Fairy" by Cicely Mary Barker (1875-1973), "Girl With Foxgloves" by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904), "Foxglove" by botanical artist Christie Newman,  a page from Flora Londinensis by English apothocary & botanist William Curtis (1746-1799), "Foxgloves" by Kelly Louise Judd, and "Rosie" by wildlife photographer Richard Bowler; all rights to the contemporary pieces are reserved by the artists.


Sisters Fox and Coyote

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Well, it's certainly no secret on this blog that my Sacred Trinity of favorite living poets consists of Lisel Mueller, Mary Oliver, and our own Jane Yolen. When any of them have a new book on the shelves, it's cause for celebration -- and doubly so in the case of Jane's luminous new collection, Sister Fox’s Field Guide to the Writing Life, for a number of the poems made their first appearance here, in response to posts on Myth & Moor.

Drawing on myth, folklore, fairy tales, and the everyday enchantments of the natural world, Sister Fox (a most Sister Fox illustration by Laura Andersonbeguiling little Trickster) presents poems dedicated to the daily vocation of writing: the rigours and the pleasures, the sweat and the magic, the practical craft and the numinous art.

A storyteller, Jane says,

unpacks his bag of tales
with fingers quick
as a weaver’s
picking the weft threads
threading the warp.
Watch his fingers.
Watch his lips
speaking the old familiar words:

                                “Once there was
                                  and there was not..."

Storytellers, poets, and Tricksters alike are liars whose lies speak truths. "We reveal in stories, " she writes, "even as we revel in them, stripping off skin, muscle, tendons, flensing down to the bone."

Hare and Fox by Jackie Morris

From Little Elvie in the Wildhood by Catherine Hyde

All arts have their mystical elements, their Muses and moments of inspiration flashing like thunderbolts thrown by the gods, but these poems do not shy away from the mundane, earth-bound aspects of the writing life, or the labor that it entails.

At the start of her poem "Switching on the Light," Jane quotes scientist and inventor Thomas Alva Eddison: "Opportunity is missed by most people," he said, "because it arrives in overalls and looks like work.”

Jane responds:

Just so my Muse arrives, sleeves rolled up,
apron tied in front, garden gloves hiding
broken, dirt-encrusted nails.
She hands me a hammer, a spirit level, a saw,
says: Get to work, slug-a-bed, don’t be a sloven!
her language as archaic as her ethic.

Although this is a book that will speak most of all to fellow writers (especially here in the Mythic Arts field), it also has much to offer to creative artists in general....and isn't that all of us? We all create in one way or another: not only in forms traditionally labelled as art, but also in crafting our homes, our gardens, our meals, our families, our work, our communities, and in sculpting the very shape of our lives. In this book, Sister Fox gathers poems that address the daily-yet-timeless process of making, and how that effects our lives, our world. Her bright bushy tail wrapped snugly around her, she sits and she quietly ponders these poems:

She thinks about their habitats, their markings,
the chunnering and chatter of their songs.
They are the birdlife of the writer’s world.
She likes the feel of them, the scent.
She licks her lips.

Fox Confessor by Julie Morstad

Sister Fox's Field Guide to the Writing Life by Jane Yolen (with decorations by Laura Anderson) will be published this autumn by Unsettling Wonders (John Patrick Pazdziora, editor) in conjunction with Papaveria Press (Erzebet Carr, editor). The publication date is October 31, and the book can pre-ordered here.

Pouncing coyote

In the world of Tricksters, Coyote is the big, bad, bold-as-brass cousin of Sister Fox. The following poem from Jane's new book is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and her publisher.

  Trickster

   I didn’t see you trotting sideways,
   Coyote, thicket-born shape-shifter,
   ears pointing toward the wind.
   Where were you when the story turned, 
   faltered, placed a stake in its own heart? 
   An illustration from Medicine Road by Charle VessWhen need was so great, I wept 
   over the keyboard, mistaking 
   your bold footprints, that wild track,
   for something much tamer.
   Help me find the trail again, 
   out here in the wold where stories start, 
   where crag and sinkhole 
   speak a language we all knew once; 
   and stories poured forth, 
   gushing like a freshet in the spring.

                                                    - Jane Yolen

Coyote Woman

Coyote

The art above is: "Woman and Fox" by the surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova (Russia); one of Laura Anderson's Sister Fox decorations; "Hare and Fox" by Jackie Morris (Wales); a Little Elvie illustration by Catherine Hyde (Cornwall); "Fox Confessor" by Julie Morstad (Vancouver, B.C.); an unattributed coyote photograph; a Medicine Road illustration by Charles Vess (Virginia); a detail from my "Coyote Woman" (painted in the Arizona desert); and another unattributed coyote photograph.


Recommended Reading

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Grace Nuth alerted me to this beautiful post: "Dirt-Sense, Animal-Speak and Origin" by Aleah Sato. If you can get through the entire text with dry eyes, you're a better man than I.

"I grew up surrounded by magic," writes Sato. "As a little girl...I’d spend hours conversing with trees, an old mare, feral cats, birds, spiders and the moon that took me in like a lullaby, like a poem I could believe. It never occurred to me that there was something strange about wishing over weeds, speaking to the setting sun. As a child of field and wildflower, I loved the freedom of communicating in ways that stretched the impulse and ideal of communication, of the human alphabet. I believed in possibility and transcendence. I still do."

Sato had me from the very beginning (with quotes from two of my favorite writers), and the piece just gets better from there....

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Other recommendations:

* "Mythically Speaking" by John Patrick Pazdziora, on his blog The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond; and a follow-up post, "Mythically Thinking," by Jane Yolen and John on the Unsettling Wonders blog.

* "Joy" by Zadie Smith, published in The New York Review of Books, back in January. It's somehow taken me all this time to read it, and it's a delight. A follow-up: "Happiness" by Jane Kenyon, in Poetry Magazine.

* "Virtues of Madness and Vices," a beautiful interview with poet Mary Ruefle by David Andrew King, in The Kenyon Review.

* "What I Learned from Thomas Edison and Steven Soderbergh and How it Applies to Novelists" by Julianna Baggott, on the Writer Unboxed blog.

The magical images above are by Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, based in Moscow.