Cunning is the Fox

This Week’s Prompt: 131. Phosphorescence of decaying wood—called in New England “fox-fire”.

The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING

The term ‘fox-fire’ derives not from the animal ‘fox’, but rather from the word ‘faux’. A ‘fox-fire’ thus is normally a fake fire, a foolish fire. A will-o-wisp. We’ve discussed these at length here—and at the end, there is a specific Lovecraft story it calls to mind. But in the meantime, I want to discuss foxes. Because while the fox-fire is not literally referencing fox fires, the concept of illusions and deception with foxes leads to interesting spirits.

Fox spirits are most famous in East Asia and South East Asia. Early references point to foxes as the mounts of ghosts and the most clever of animals, favored by the Sovereign of Heaven. Foxes beyond this remain clever shapeshifters, taking on human appearances often. In China, stories refer to ordinary foxes who take up classical disciplines and studies, and thus enhance their own powers greatly.  There is a second method, that is found in China and Japan. It is said that foxes that live to 800 years may take the form of men and women—and that if they live to be 1000 years old they will ascend to heaven and trouble men no longer. To achieve this great age, foxes take the form of women to steal the vital force of men (the reason that only men are targeted in this version relates to the nature of a fox as a yin animal). There are stories of foxes that prey on women as shapeshifted lovers—for instance, there is the story of Lord Kumazawa, who was seeking improper relations with a maid. For this purpose, he would bring her outside of the castle to a shed. This arrangement was discovered by an old fox, who took the form of Kumazawa to assault the maid. She cries out for help, but none hear her—and those that do cannot believe her, for the Lord Kumazawa is clearly with his wife. The experience, like most ones with spirit foxes and women, leaves her in agony.

Fox women often lure travelers on the roadside in, offering meals and bed and favors. But upon waking, the traveler finds themselves in a graveyard. They find  the food excrement and dead leaves, and the entire experience dreadful. In a Korean tale, the traveler is warned ahead of time by the sound of a grinding sword. In his flight, he ends up in the tower of a magician—who is the son of the fox. After the son captures him, the man plans to escape again. He tricks the son of a fox into giving him a vase of water—which he uses to weaken the wall and escape again. And then, the poor man falls into the den of a tiger and falls unconscious. The tiger, thinking he is dead, cuts his face to feed the cubs and leaves to hunt. The traveler awakens, kills the cubs, and heads up a tree. The foxes following him, enter the den. The three perish in their fight, and the man returns to plunder their homes for wealth.

Another instance is supposedly the origin of the word kitsune. A man married a woman, who was beautiful and a wonderful wife. One day, she gave birth to a son—and on that same day, the man’s dog gave birth to a pup. The pup snarled and barked at the woman. The man ignored her requests to kill the pup, and the harassment continued until she was driven off. The woman took the form of a fox and fled—and the man called out, ki tsu ne “come and sleep”. The man, you see, loved her even if she was a fox, and because she returned to him then, she was called a kitsune. A fanciful origin of the phrase, and a bit out of step with a kitsune’s normal nature.

Of course, not all such encounters are…profitable. In one instance, a pair of sons where harvesting a farm field when their father assaulted them with words and blows. When they came home and complained to their mother and father of this treatment, the father was alarmed and confused. He determined it was a specter assaulting them, and sent them with an axe to kill the spirit. The specter, however, stayed silent.

The father grew worried that something had happened and went out to see his sons—who mistook him for the specter and killed him.  The specter flies back to the house, and turns into the father. And so the family lives for many years, until a priest mentions the influence the father is having. The Specter turns into a giant fox, and attacks him—but is caught and killed. The sons go on to die of despair.

We of course cannot neglect one of the most infamous fox brides–Lady Tamamo-no-Mae. This fox spirit ran amok in China, India, and Japan–in each country she became the concubine. In each, she won the emperor’s heart and drove him to cruelty and neglect of the land. These invariable resulted in a revolt, and driving her out of the land–sometimes merely by human forces, sometimes by exorcists as well. Eventually, she is caught on the plains of Nasu and killed–and in one version, her spirit enters into a nearby stone, creating a poisonous rock.

Catching these shapeshifters is of course, therefore, a priority—and there are a few methods. Dogs, for instance, recognize their old enemy. Buddhist mirrors and Taoist charms exist for such a purpose. There are also methods using a pillar or tree as old as the fox themselves. These are all found in China, but in Japan we can find additional signs—they give off a faint light no matter the time of day, they are followed by a vaporous fox shape, a fox will have a long face and tail, a fox will drop their form to eat a fried rat, a fox’s true form is revealed in water, and lastly—a fox has great trouble pronouncing certain words like moshi. Supposedly this is why you greet someone on the phone with moshi moshi.

These methods are key to avoiding tragedies—like the common fox prank of appearing as persons, revealing themselves to an observer, and then running to watch as the person they appeared as is assaulted and tested for their vulpine nature! That said, being kind to foxes can also yield riches—assuming such stories are to be believed, and art not in fact writers defending themselves from fox-vengeance.

These can also be key in observing fox possession. We have discussed animal possession before—here when we talked about cat possession.  Fox possession works on a similar matter, driving the person to expend energy, laughing and weeping and more until they were worn out. In some incidents, victims spoke in foreign languages (classical Chinese often). The spirit makes its residence in a small tumor within the person, the removal of which cures them.  Like other fox encounters, these occur often near graveyards—and have on occasion a positive side. The possessed are noted as being healers of all manner of diseases.

Foxes can themselves be possessed, or rather, owned. Fox-owning families are protected by a tribe of seventy-five spirit foxes. These spirits protect their lands and fields, and possess those who try to do them harm. The possessed are forced to speak out their crimes and repay the family. The families that permanently owned foxes intermarry with others, keeping to themselves. Inquiring about one’s status overtly can cause offense, so the exact identities are always unsure. Holding a needle in hand can often keep a fox at bay.

We have not touched upon another source of stories about the Fox in Japan—the Ainu. My resources here are scarcer, but no less interesting. Among the Ainu, we appear to have a division between red fox and black fox. The red fox in many ways resembles the Japanese fox stories, but the Black Fox is…different. It is normally benevolent, has a role as guardian with its superhuman perception, and communicates with a cry.  Their sight and speech is enhanced by their habitat far above most of the landscape. 

That said, there is one fox recorded in an Ainu chant that—despite being of this holy group—possesses power over storms and tries to kill a culture hero with one such storm its cry summons. For its efforts it is shot by the hero, and its body is divided after it is given some reverence—the spirit then turning to warn other foxes to avoid the same cause of mischief. I’ve linked the article in question in the bibliography.

Now, what does this have to do with our prompt, beyond me refusing to recognize ‘fox fire’ as ‘faux fire’? Well, the note about phosphorous glow brings to mind the story A Color Out of Space, a story in which an alien light saps the life around a farm and slowly destroys the family around it. This isn’t directly related to the fox spirits, but the common theme of illumination and illusion—shapeshifting, making graveyard appear as a mansion, and so on—with also vampirism, possession, and death seemed…connectable.

The main difference of course being that the Color does not speak or engage in conversation—while the foxes most certainly do. They aren’t human, but they aren’t…the same sort of strange. Making a Kitsune into a horror creature isn’t difficult however—the story of the specter and the father alone gives me chills. So come back next time, to see what we have in mind!

Bibliography

Johnson, T. W. “Far Eastern Fox Lore.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 1974, pp. 35–68. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177503. Accessed 4 Aug. 2021.

Strong, Sarah M. “The Most Revered of Foxes: Knowledge of Animals and Animal Power in an Ainu Kamui Yukar.” Asian Ethnology, vol. 68, no. 1, 2009, pp. 27–54. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25614520. Accessed 4 Aug. 2021.

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