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 nocturnal hunters, with an eerie, haunting cry, and a reputation for almost supernatural cunning and cleverness. It's not a 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.
- Trickster: 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. It does tend to be more clever than wise, and often ends up the victim of its own pranks.
Examples of trickster foxes appear in Native American, Asian myths about nine-tailed fox spirits, and Aesop's Fables. There is also the extensive tale of Reynard the Fox, who outwits multiple foes with cunning.
- Thieves: Since foxes sometimes 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.
- Shapeshifter: 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 is human but retains some foxlike characteristics.
Asian nine-tailed fox spirits and Inuit fox spirits can transform into humans, usually beautiful girls.
- Feminine: 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 as well as sex appeal, although subversions do exist. A shapeshifting fox will assume the form of an attractive female. Even if a shapeshifting fox takes the form of a human male in eastern culture, odds are high that they are Bishōnen.
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 Western European culture where the archetypical fox tends to be represented as male. However, in Slavic languages, the name of the species is a feminine noun so the archetypical fox is more often female than not in Slavic tales.
- Supernatural: The mysterious and eerie cry of the fox has led to many mythological versions having mystical or supernatural powers beyond shapeshifting.
In Scandinavian 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
- Asian Fox-Spirit: 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. Examples of these should be listed under that trope.
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.
Kumiho/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 kumiho. Kumihos 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 kumiho to become human. In other myths, a kumiho who abstained from killing and eating meat, or lived undetected with a human man for 1000 days, would lose its evil nature and become a human woman. Korean Kumihos' distinctive trait is that Kumihos 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).
Not to be confused with a lesser known fox spirit, Cheonho, which is a divine animal that supposedly protects kings. Cheonho have golden fur and possess clairvoyance, as well as one tail split into nine pieces rather than a Kumiho's nine tails.
The Chinese huli jing can be either a good or evil spirit. Like kitsune and kumiho, 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
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 are also the Brunnmigi, foxlike creatures sometimes referred to as trolls, that are known for tainting water. While the Skuggabaldur of Iceland is a fox-cat hybrid that can kill with a glance and can only be slain with silver blades.
The Celts believed that every individual and clan had an animal ally, similar to Native American Mythology 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 is an anthropomorphic fox that appears 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 Mythology, similar to how Coyote was viewed.
Foxes, like most animals in Native American Mythology, could speak and were believed to be able to remove their fur and become women, often in order to trick a human into believing that they, themselves, were human. Stealing the fur would prevent them from returning to their fox form.
See Cunning Like a Fox and Foul Fox for Animal Stereotypes associated with foxes and Asian Fox-Spirit for East Asian mythological traditions, as well as Those Wily Coyotes for another wild canid often seen as a trickster figure in mythology. See also The Fair Folk, Beast Man, and Fox Folk.
- In Imperial Lady, by Andre Norton, Silver Snow's maid Willow turns out to be a fox spirit in disguise.
- Judge Dee: In Poets and Murder, a girl lives in a temple infested by foxes, and is believed to be possessed by one. Then one infects her with rabies, and she goes berserk and dies.
- The Wheel of Time: Mat 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.
- Rivers of London:
- Reynard Fossman is a fae with red hair, a pointy face and an aura of disreputability that makes PC Grant want to arrest him on general principles. In The Hanging Tree he turns out to be a descendant of the original Reynard. Possibly Cunning Like a Fox, but not nearly as much as he thinks, with a tendency to get in over his head. Also possibly a shapeshifter, since in a fight he almost seems to grow a muzzle before he starts biting people.
- There's also a family of magically uplifted foxes in the later books whom Abigail befriends and occasionally persuades to do surveilance work using Food as Bribe. This is surprisingly easy, because for some reason presumably connected to why they were uplifted in the first place, they believe they're spies.
- Half's Saga: Stopping in a bay in Finnmark on their viking expedition to Bjarmaland, King Hjorleif and his crew encounter a brunnmigi, or "well-pisser", a malicious creature in fox-shape. The brunnmigi prevents them from getting water from a brook (presumably because it is soiling the water). Hjorleif heats a speartip in the fire and hurls it after the creature, which however disappears into a stone cliff. Hjorleif's men get water, but later the brunnmigi returns to chant an ominous verse that vaguely predicts some imminent doom for Hjorleif. After his return from Bjarmaland, a combination of bad luck and Hjorleif's own imprudence leads to a war with King Hreidar of Zealand in which Hjorleif almost loses his kingdom and his life. The strange circumstances that lead to the war suggest that the brunnmigi may not have merely predicted Hjorleif's misfortunes, but may have caused them as well.
- Torchwood: Keen-eared viewers 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.
- Sequinox: Tellie is a magical fox servant of Gaea. It ignores most of the traditional roles that mythological foxes have though, mainly because it forgot almost everything important, is kind of dumb, and gets preoccupied with eating.
- The Cunning Little Vixen: Bystrouka is a anthropomorphic fox along the lines of Reynard.
- MapleStory has this an enemy type, although they appear as multi-tailed foxes rather than girls with multiple tails and ears.
- Shining Force: Alef is a foxling mage.
- Spirit of the North: The player character is a non-anthropomorphic fox that's capable of communing with the souls of the dead and the guardian of the Northern Lights, whose powers the fox becomes imbued with. The guardian of the Northern Lights looks like a translucent fox as well.
- Spirit Tales has the Lunar Fox tribe as one of its three 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 setting's magic specialists.
- Temtem has Reval and Aohi, a line of psychic foxes. Aohi is said to be a sly trickster, and its blue flames bring to mind will-o'-the-wisps. Vulffy is a more mundane (by Mon standards) fennec fox, and its Burglar trait (which can disable the target's held gear) brings to mind the archetype of foxes being theives.
- Kit from Fey Winds was once a normal fox transformed into (mostly) human form after mistaking a magical entity named Sylphe for an egg and eating her (It Makes Sense in Context). As a result, in addition to her new body she possesses strong magical powers via her connection to the Song, though their full extent has not been explored. Her nickname is a double pun, both short for Kitsune and because a kit is a young fox.
- Gemini Journey: The Great Barley & Bay-Lily Cricus arc features a creepy circus with ringmasters who are Fantastic Foxes, their characters draw upon folklore and myth depictions of foxes as sly and supernatural.
- Gunnerkrigg Court: Reynardine is based on the tale of Reynard the Fox. He starts out as a snarky, rather sinister body-snatching spirit but gradually becomes a mentor and guardian of sorts to Antimony.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: Wa Shi Tong's servants resemble as foxes and gather books and scrolls for a mighty library.
- Miraculous Ladybug:
- The Fox Miraculous, inhabited by the foxlike spirit Trixx, gives its holder awesome illusion powers, as shown by Rena Rouge easily summoning an immense amusement park to distract the Sapotis.
- Before the actual Fox Miraculous makes its debut, the imitator Volpina showed up with a similar power, her illusions being easily dispelled (something that foils her first attempt at getting the Ladybug Miraculous) but being easily spammed (the Miraculous' ones can be cast only once per transformation, and once they're used there's a five minutes countdown before a forced detransformation).
- As for Trixx, the Miraculouses and their human holders are actually Power Limiters, needed because the raw version of those powers is immense. Trixx once made everyone see the Eiffel Tower dance, accidentally while trying to rein that power in as a side-effect of making a much smaller illusion elsewhere. Trixx has said that his illusions can even become real and affect the world around them.
- 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. 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 foxlike characteristics - it often indicates the wearer is cunning or tricking the recipient. Also drawing on the fox as trickster concept, to be "outfoxed" means to be outsmarted or conned, and to be "crazy like a fox" is to seem foolish or insane but actually crafty and one step ahead of the competition.