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.
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 and Nordic myths, Asian myths about nine-tailed fox spirits (most notably the Kitsune), and Aesop's Fables. There is also the extensive tale of Reynard the Fox, who outwits multiple foes with cunning.
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.
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 fox-like characteristics.
Asian nine-tailed fox spirits and Inuit fox spirits can 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, although subversions do exist. A shapeshifting fox will assume the form of an attractive female. Even if a shapeshifting fox take 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 European culture where the archetypical fox tends 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 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 Gumihos' 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).
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 Gumiho's nine tails.
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 are 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 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 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 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.
- In The Bridge, a gumiho referred to as Jeog is featured. She's a centuries old serial killer who chased one of the secondary heroines, Ki Seong, from a fantasy counterpart of Korea, across the ocean to Equestria after murdering Seong's fiance and his family. Her description and appearance treat her more as a vulpine demon than an oversized fox with nine tails, sporting a mouthful of fangs and Creepy Long Fingers.
- Ladislas Starevich's Stop Motion adaptation of the Reynard tales, Le Roman de Renard.
- The eponymous character of Yobi, the Five-Tailed Fox
- Disney's version of Robin Hood, which was originally intended to be an Animated Adaptation of the Reynard myths, until Disney realized just how much "Anti" an Anti-Hero Reynard really was.
- The title character in Fantastic Mr. Fox.
- Nick Wilde in Zootopia, a consummate con man. Interestingly, he is conned right back by Judy Hopps, a rabbit, which is also commonly depicted as a trickster in folklore.
- In Imperial Lady by Andre Norton, Silver Snow's maid Willow turns out to be a fox spirit in disguise.
- Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio contains 86 tales of Chinese fox spirits, most of whom assume female form to deceive humans. Though there's also a few stories with wise elder foxes, and one where a male fox seduces a magistrate.
- One of 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.
- And in the original series in the novel 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.
- 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.
- Reynard Fossman in the Rivers of London books 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.
- The main character of Dragon Pearl is a gumiho IN SPACE!, as are all her family.
- 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.
- Tellie from Sequinox 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.
- 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.
- Bystrouka from the Opera The Cunning Little Vixen is a anthropomorphic fox along the lines of Reynard.
- There are several Palette Swapped fox girls in 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 × 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 the yako or nogitsune version of Kitsune and can create illusions in addition to the zenko Kitsune-based Vulpix and Ninetales from Pokémon Red and Blue and sixth generation starter Fennekin. The Eeveelutions also resemble foxes to a degree, 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.
- Alef from Shining Force is a foxling mage.
- Miles "Tails" Prower from the Sonic the Hedgehog series is a two-tailed fox who is Sonic's sidekick.
- 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.
- In Jade Empire the Forest Shadow and her fox-spirit servants look like six-foot-tall anthropomorphic fox women with two tails. They're said to take human form to test humans with tricks, and Forest Shadow does manipulate you into meeting with her in her realm and into slaying a demon she bound centuries ago, even if you decide to kill her first.
- Reynardo, the main protagonist in Stories: The Path of Destiny, is a fox.
- Gemini Journey 's 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.
- Reynardine of Gunnerkrigg Court 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.
- The Fox Sister webcomic presents a very dark and vicious gumiho.
- The servants of Wa Shi Tong in Avatar: The Last Airbender. They appeared as foxes and gathered books and scrolls for a mighty library.
- Moi Renart: Reynard in The '80s.
- In Miraculous Ladybug, the Fox Miraculous, inhabitated by the fox-like spirit Trixx, gives it 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).
- 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. 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.