Quick as a Fox, Powerful as a Demon: Legendary Foxes and Their Trickster/Temptress Ways
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 its 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. The fox later took on a more sinister role as, due to its blazing red color, it became the symbol for the devil, adding to the fox’ already rather complex characterization.
Red Fox ( CC BY 2.0 )
However, a different role of the fox was already long evident in very early renditions of the Eastern Asian folklore— that of the seducer.
The Divine and Seductive Trickster: Huli Jing in Chinese Mythology
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.
Nine-Tailed Fox ( CC BY-SA 4.0)
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.
The Queen Mother of the West sits upon a throne, flanked by Tiger (east, spring, yang) and Dragon (west, autumn, yin). She is surrounded by a nine-tailed fox, two seated women, a leaping frog, a male attendant, and a three-tailed crow. Eastern Han Dynasty, 25 AD - 220 AD (G41rn8/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )
A Qing Dynasty scholar, Ji Yun (1724–1805 CE) writes that the superior fox spirits absorb essence from nature to refine their spirit through skillful meditation and purification in order 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 become 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.
Actor in Legend of Nine tailed golden fox, Tochigi, Japan (Hetarllen Mumriken/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Homewreckers or Ideal Wives
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.
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Top Image: Detail; Prince Hanzoku terrorized by a nine-tailed fox ( Public Domain )