Animals frequently appear in folklore and mythology, and their traits are often exaggerated or Flanderized
to make a supernatural or intelligent version of themselves.
The fox is no different. Foxes are a nocturnal hunter, with an eerie, haunting cry, and a reputation for almost supernatural cunning and cleverness. It is no surprise that their mythological counterparts draw their inspiration from these traits.
Wisdom and Intelligence
In folklore and myth, the fox is often depicted as a very wise or clever animal.
Since the fox is very clever, it is often depicted as a trickster, using cunning to get what it wants. In this guise it may be benevolent, teaching a lesson to the deceived, but more often it is only out for its own amusement or advancement or even completely malicious.
Examples of trickster foxes appear in Native American and Nordic myths, Asian myths about nine-tailed fox spirits (including Kitsune
), and Aesop's Fables
. There is also the extensive tale of Reynard The Fox
, who outwits multiple foes with cunning.
Since foxes steal from humans, this depiction is not surprising. Using cunning or treachery, a fox will outwit a human or other animal to steal what it wants. This is often closely related to the trickster version of the fox.
In Aesop's Fables, the fox uses flattery to steal cheese from the crow.
In keeping with being able to deceive, some legends paint foxes or fox spirits as shapeshifters, able to assume other forms under certain conditions or even at will. Quite often, the assumed form would be human but would retain some fox-like characteristics.
Asian nine-tailed fox spirits and Inuit fox spirits could transform into humans, usually beautiful girls.
Foxes are nocturnal and associated with the Moon, they are also extremely graceful animals, like cats. For these reasons, they are often associated with the feminine. If it is a shapeshifter, it will assume the form of an attractive female.
As mentioned above, Asian fox spirits were often depicted as female. The Chinese version, the huli jing, was believed to be made up entirely of feminine energy (yin or jing), and had to consume masculine energy (yang) to survive.
The feminine association is much weaker in European culture where the archtypical fox tended to be represented as male.
The mysterious and eerie cry of the fox has led to many mythological versions having mystical or supernatural powers beyond shapeshifting.
In Scandanavian myths, foxes created the Northern Lights, called Fox Fire. In Japan, Marsh-lights are sometimes referred to as Kitsune-bi meaning "fox fire."
These myths and legends have both appeared in altered forms in modern stories and have influenced our own view of fox traits, leading to fox Animal Motifs
Specific Fox Myths
Many Asian mythologies include many-tailed, shapeshifting foxes. These spirits, which fulfill the same role as The Fair Folk
do in European mythology, are clearly based on the same myths. Typically such fox spirits gain a new tail, and increase their power, every 100 years until they reach the full nine. Thus, the number of tails is an easy shorthand for how old and powerful
an Asian fox spirit is.
By far the best known outside of its country of origin, the kitsune is the Japanese version of the myth. Kitsune were neutral tricksters in general, but could also be malicious or benevolent. See the main page for a full description and examples.
Gumiho are the Korean version of the legend. Their traditional depiction is far darker than the Japanese version, being demonically blood-thirsty
and having a taste for human flesh
— though in some tales they seem to just adore humans and wish to become one
. It was believed that a fox that lived 1000 years would become a gumiho. Gumihos can change their form, although they nearly always retain some fox-like aspect such as paws, a tail, ears, eyes, or their voice. They were believed to eat either human hearts or human livers to survive, and some myths state that eating enough of these will allow the gumiho to become human. In other myths, a gumiho who abstains from killing and eating meat, or live undetected with a human man for 1000 days would lose its evil nature and become a human woman. Korean Gumiho's distinctive trait is that Gumihos tend to suck some of a man's life energy (Ki) by inserting a 'fox orb' (Yeowu-gusul) into that person's mouth via kissing (which is shown in South Korean Drama My Girlfriend Is A Nine Tailed Fox
). However, this process can also work in reverse
, as any man swallowing that orb can gain some special skills (such as astrology).
The Chinese huli jing can be either a good or evil spirit. Like kitsune and gumiho, huli jings are shapeshifters, and often assume the forms of beautiful young women. Indeed, the Chinese believed that they were entirely made up of feminine energy (yin or jing) and needed to gather masculine energy (yang) to survive.
Evil huli jing would often seduce or possess important men in order to trick them or consume their life force (yang). They were also known to seduce or mislead the innocent away from Dharma. Good huli jing are often featured in love stories with human men.
European foxes tended to be very intelligent tricksters, often anthropomorphic, which sometimes had supernatural powers.
Scandinavian Fox Spirits
In Scandinavian myth, the fox is a trickster, using guile to catch its prey (or just mess with others for the hell of it
). It is also responsible for foxfire - the old name for the Aurora Borealis and the phosphoric light given off by decaying plant matter. There is also the Brunnmigi, foxlike creatures sometimes referred to as trolls
that are known for tainting water.
The Celts believed that every individual and clan had an animal ally, similar to Native American myths of totem animals. The fox, called Madadh-Ruadh or Sionnach, is cunning, sly, and able to make fools of those who chase it. It also represents the ability to watch the motivations and movements of others while remaining unobserved yourself.
The word shenanigan is thought to be derived from the Irish expression sionnachuighim
, meaning "I play the fox."
Reynard The Fox
Reynard is an anthropomorphic fox that appeared in multiple European fables as a trickster. In basically all non-censored versions he plays the role of a black-hearted robber baron
, whose only saving grace is that his opponents Noble the lion, Bruin the bear
, and (most of all) Ysengrim the wolf
, are equally greedy and vicious, but not as smart. He's well enough known in France that the entire Fox species was renamed after him.
North American Foxes
Foxes were regarded as tricksters in Native American myths, similar to how Coyote was viewed.
Foxes, like most animals in Native American myth, could speak and were believed to be able to remove their fur and become a woman, often in order to trick a human into believing that they, themselves, were human. Stealing the fur would prevent her from returning to her fox form.
See Cunning Like a Fox
for Animal Stereotypes
associated with foxes and Kitsune
for the specific Japanese myth. See also The Fair Folk
and Petting Zoo People
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Live Action TV
- The Korean tv drama My Girlfriend Is A Nine Tailed Fox involves an Idiot Hero freeing a trapped gumiho spirit from a painting. It goes about as well as one would expect.
- Forbidden Love was another Korean tv drama with a race of nine-tailed fox-people, one of whom falls in love with a human.
- Gumiho: Tale of the Fox's Child was a Korean Thriller tv miniseries about a gumiho who has to endure 10 years of marriage to become human. On the eve of her 10th anniversary, her husband breaks his vows, leaving her and the 9-year-old daughter who has inherited her abilities. Oddly, the gumiho in this story is sympathetic, only wishing a normal life as a human. It is only when her daughter is lynched that she becomes vengeful.
- Keen-eared viewers of Torchwood will realize that a fox's bark proceeds mysterious events, such as the carnival vanishing in "From Out of the Rain" and Tosh's abduction in "Countrycide". In the latter case, Ianto even points out that it's a fox and distractedly follows the sound, leaving her alone in the first place.
- The Fuchsbau in Grimm are Fox-like Wesens.
- In Imperial Lady by Andre Norton, Silver Snow's maid Willow turns out to be a fox spirit in disguise.
- Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio contains 86 tails of Chinese fox spirits, most of whom assumed female form to deceive humans.
- The sequels to the Judge Dee series has a Huli Jing show up (sort of): a priest explains that he was always sort of shunned because his father had been tricked into marrying a fox-woman, who turned back into a fox some time after he (the priest) was born. The judge (and everyone else) stare at him in silence for a while, because it's blindingly obvious that the wife ran off with another man, the father passing it off as the fox spirit going back to the wild.
- Fantastic Mr Fox, the original Roald Dahl novel.
- Mat, from the Wheel of Time series, carries a Fox-head medallion which is indicative of his reputation as a trickster.
- Also the Eelfinn, who both gave him the medallion and are tricksy fox people themselves.
- The manwa Shin Gumiho retells the myth of the Gumiho who wanted to become human.
- The eponymous character of Laon.
- The Gumiho from Nowhere Boy, who is actually one of the 13 people who have to save the world. She still has her cravings when her animalistic side gets tempted.
- Pathfinder not only includes the kitsune as a playable race, native to Tien-ma (the Fantasy Counterpart Culture region that covers Japan, China and Korea), but also includes the nogitsune. These are a kind of oni that have taken the form of or possessed (the details are kind of contradictory) female kitsunes. Nogitsunes are Neutral Evil murderous hedonists who typically serve as assassins for the opportunity to slake their bloodlust and to acquire the coin they need for sating their immense appetites for vices — food, drink, narcotics and prostitutes, in particular.
- Kitsune: Of Foxes and Fools obviously has kitsune as the main characters, though they draw some inspiration from other mythologies, for instance the "Bloodthirst" consequence temporarily causes them to acquire the "appetites" of gumiho.
- Bystrouška from the Opera The Cunning Little Vixen is a anthropomorphic fox along the lines of Reynard.
- There are several Palette Swapped fox girls in the Korean MMORPG La Tale. One variety is even called Gumihos. They were so popular the company later added them as a pet.
- Similarly, they are an enemy in MapleStory, although they appear as multi-tailed foxes rather than girls with multiple tails and ears.
- Xiaomu in Namco X Capcom and Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier is a 765 Chinese year old werefox, while her nemesis Saya is a Japanese werefox.
- Pokémon Black and White introduces Zorua and Zoroark, which are based on foxes and can create illusions in addition to the Kitsune-based Vulpix and Ninetales from Pokémon Red and Blue and sixth generation starter Fennekin. The Eeveelutions also resemble foxes, except for Espeon (based on a nekomata).
- Ahri(archaic Korean for 'Beautiful') from League of Legends draws on Korean myth's description of Gumiho. As a spellcaster, her main attacks resemble Yeowoo-bool('fox fire'), and her 'Orb of Deception' skill seems to be based on Gumiho's yeowoo-gusuul. Plus her backstory explains that after she achieved semi-human form, she began seducing and killing humans to complete her transformation, but as she became more and more human she developed a human conscience.
- Spirit Tales, Aka Glory Destiny, has the Lunar Fox tribe as one of it's 3 selectable races. They begin as a human with fox ears and a tail, but eventually gain the ability to transform into a humanoid fox form. Fitting this trope, they are the settings magic specialists.
- Reynardine of Gunnerkrigg Court is based on the tale of Reynard the Fox.
- The fox sister webcomic presents a very dark and viscious gumiho.
- In Real Life, calling a girl foxy (as an adjective) is a compliment, implying she is sexually attractive. On the other hand, it can refer to attractive older men who are referred to as silver foxes. In China, calling a woman huli jing implies that she's a homewrecker, so it is sort of similar to the English word 'bitch'. Calling a woman a vixen is similarly a comment on her attractiveness, with the added connotations that she is free-spirited or, alternatively, mean-spirited. A vulpine grin has fox-like characteristics - it often indicates the wearer is cunning or tricking the recipient.