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FOXES . The fox has enjoyed immense popularity as a character in the fables of many cultures, from those of Aesop to those of "Uncle Remus" to Leoš Janáček's opera The Cunning Little Vixen. It was once believed in Wales and Germany that witches assume the form of foxes. In fact, foxes were sometimes burned in the midsummer fires.

In the mythology of the North American Indians the fox as a male animal character is well known for its craftiness and slyness. Especially among the California Indians the fox plays a prominent role in trickster and other tales. In many instances Fox is a trickster's companion, and at times he deceives Coyote and eats the food that Coyote has procured for himself. The fox also appears as a female animal in a cycle of fox tales widespread among the North American Indians. A poor man, living alone, comes home at night to find his house in order and his dinner on the fire. He discovers that every morning a vixen comes to his hut, sheds her skin, and becomes a woman. Having stolen the skin, he makes her his wife. They live in happiness for many years until she discovers the skin, puts it on, and runs away. This scenario of the "mysterious housekeeper" is also found among the Inuit (Eskimo) in Greenland and Labrador, as well as among the Koriak of northeastern Siberia.

In Inner Asia, among the Buriats, the fox is known as a guide to the land of the dead; when the hero Mumonto lifts up a large black stone and shouts "Come here," a fox appears in the opening under the stone and says, "Hold fast to my tail."

Chinese folklore is rich in the motif of the fox who transforms itself into an attractive woman and seduces young men. Foxes are capable of this transformation through the study of Chinese classics or through erotic tricks. Foxes who study the classics acquire first the power to become humans, then immortals, and finally gods. In many stories, young foxes are depicted as sitting in a circle, listening to an old white fox at the center expounding the classics. Foxes can assume human form, if at first only briefly, through the absorption and accumulation of the semen virile of a male sex partner; by seducing humans, usually young men, foxes steal life essence and add it to their own. For example, an ambitious young man who has retired to a deserted cottage or temple to prepare for the state examinations is visited at dusk by a beautiful young woman who becomes his mistress. Her erotic skill is such that he becomes exhausted and dies. Fox-women sometimes sincerely love their human paramours and help them with their studies, but they seldom return the life essence they have stolen. Occasionally, the parents or friends become aware of the situation in time and call in either a shaman or a Faoist specially trained in fox exorcism and drive her away.

Folk belief in the fox is still alive in Japan; the fox is considered to be most skillful of animals in transforming itself into human form, often female. It is feared as a wicked animal that haunts and possesses people. But, at the same time, the fox is respected as the messenger of inari, the beneficent rice goddess Uka no Mitama, of Shintō religion.


On the fox in the East Asian spiritual world, there is much useful material in Marinus W. de Visser's "The Fox and the Badger in Japanese Folklore," Transactions of Asiatic Society of Japan 36, pt. 3 (1908): 1159. Gudmund Hatt discusses the fox as a mysterious housekeeper in his Asiatic Influences in American Folklore (Copenhagen, 1949), pp. 96ff.

New Sources

Baird, Merrily. "Land and Sea Animals." In Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. New York, 2001.

Berlin, Isaiah. The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History. New York, 1953; reprint, New York, 1993.

Blust, Robert. "The Fox's Wandering." Anthropos 94 (1999): 487499.

Huntington, Rania. "Foxes and Sex in Late Imperial Chinese Narrative." Nan Nü 2 (2000): 78128.

Manabu Waida (1987)

Revised Bibliography