If I said “foxes are having a moment,” I’m sure a lot of people would yell at me. Let’s face it, foxes are always having a moment.
Who doesn’t love foxes? They’re a strange in-between of cats and dogs. They can walk along a fence rail like a cat, but they share a lot of features with dogs. Their bushy tails and bright red coats make them instantly recognizable. They’re not too big, not too small, and they’re utterly ridiculous and playful. All you have to do is look into their eyes. Then you can see exactly how this creature has earned a reputation as being incredibly wily—so much so that we call sly people foxy.
Yet it does seem like foxes are having a bit of a moment. I’m reading a book about a fox shifter right now, and I featured two demon foxes in my novella The Fox Returns.
The Fox Returns isn’t the first time I’ve adopted foxes for my main characters. It likely won’t be the last either.
I’m not the first person to be fascinated by the fox, though. Human cultures around the world tell stories about the fox. So let’s dive in and meet the magical, mythical fox.
The Japanese Kitsune
I’m starting with Japanese lore about foxes because the myths about kitsune have had a lot of influence on my work. I stepped back from using Japanese terms like kitsune or yōkai to describe the demon foxes in The Fox Returns. Despite that, the mythology is still present.
In particular, the myth of the nine-tailed fox is present within the lore of The Fox Returns. Valentin’s mother is mentioned as being a “celestial fox,” she who had lived long enough to achieve nine tails and apparent immortality.
The nine-tailed fox is not unique to Japanese mythology; it is also present in Chinese legends. The myths share a few similarities: a fox who lives 100 years will grow another tail. When it achieves its ninth tail, it becomes immortal.
I’m familiar with this tale from various sources, particularly anime. I saw it in Yu Yu Hakusho. It obviously figures prominently in Naruto. InuYasha features a fox-demon character in Shippou. The lesser-known Hoshin Engi has an immortal fox demon named Dakki as its primary antagonist.
Demon foxes crop up over and over again in Japanese properties. You can find them in first-generation Pokémon, Vulpix and Ninetales, as well as video games like Sonic the Hedgehog. (How did you think Tails got more than one tail?).
The Fox as Friend or Foe
Japanese lore also tells of “fox-wives,” demon foxes who take the shape of humans. Most often, they’re beautiful women who seduce unsuspecting men—the word “vixen” comes to mind. Usually, these stories show the fox-wife being a good and dutiful wife. But the husband or someone else in the village try to catch the fox-wife out; if she’s discovered, she’ll simply run away, never to be seen again.
There are also tales about kitsune no yomeiri — a wedding of foxes, which takes place whenever there are sun showers. If you happen across one, you’ll be cursed, because fox weddings are invite-only events. Finally, there’s the legend of the hoshi no tama, or star ball, which every kitsune is said to have. It houses their spirit. If you save a demon fox, they may reward you by giving you their greatest treasure. But in some tales, the foxes are tricksters; they’ll try to get the ball back. In others, if you steal it, the fox will attempt to steal it back.
Foxes, then, are seen as being magical creatures with mystic powers. They can shapeshift or achieve immortality. For the most part, they’re harmless tricksters, although they can be malicious.
Foxes in European Culture
The fox is also a trickster character in much of European legend. Much like Southeast Asian cultures see the fox as clever, so too do European tales tell us about tricksy foxes. Foxes are usually smarter than wolves, although they rely more on their cunning. Foxes feature in some of Aesop’s fables. The fox and the grapes is probably the most memorable one.
Other legends also feature foxes, sometimes working with a bear or a wolf. Foxes are sometimes portrayed as being cruel in their cunning, although they rarely have the strength to truly hurt anyone. Rather, they end up scheming.
Anthropomorphic Foxes from the Middle Ages to Disney
Perhaps the most famous fox in Europe is Reynard, who is a good example of an anthropomorphic animal. Reynard was so popular, he became synonymous with foxes. The French word for fox is renard.
More modern tales include Beatrix Potter’s Mr. Tod, as well as the fox character Todd in Disney’s The Fox and the Hound. And almost everyone knows Disney’s portrayal of Robin Hood is quite … foxy. Drawing on Reynard and mixing in the fox’s reputation for cunning was a good move in Disney’s choice of protagonists.
Foxes, though, are also associated with witches and witchcraft. Again, we’re told of their shapeshifting ability, as well as their connection to magic and maybe even the devil. Like much of European Christian lore, it’s likely that foxes were originally woodland spirits or deities. In the Middle Ages and early modern period, the church attempted to demonize these spirits by associating them with black magic, the devil, and “witches.”
The Importance of Trickster Characters
Tricksters are common to every culture. In many Indigenous folklores in North America, this role is given to coyote. Like the fox, Coyote is smaller and weaker than his counterpart the wolf. While Wolf and Bear represent physical strength, Coyote must rely on cunning.
Foxes show up less frequently in the lore of North America. Since Europe and Asia lack coyotes, it’s easy to see why this role would go to the fox—the next “smaller canid.”
Trickster characters are important, because they rely less on their strength alone and more on their brains. They can be comical, as they often get themselves into trouble. Sometimes, their pranks have enormous consequences, such as creating the entire human race (by accident).
Trickster characters demonstrate the need for one to think, to not be taken in by everyone and everything. When they act as antagonists, we’re meant to see that we must be careful about who we trust.
In either case, simply being strong or being courageous often aren’t enough. When tricksters are the antagonists, we must be clever enough to match wits with them. When the trickster is the hero, we’re meant to cheer that cleverness often wins the day. Of course, when a trickster’s cleverness gets them into trouble, the lesson is often that we should not be deceitful or “too clever for our own good.”
But Why Foxes?
As noted, the fox and the coyote both fill a role: they’re smaller than the wolf, who is strong. So foxes and coyotes are “little guys,” smaller canids who seem to get by less by their physical strength. Foxes in particular have a reputation as being tricksy, because they’ll do things like run into a river and wade down it (or swim), so as to throw hunting dogs off their trail. Foxes are also notorious for getting into hen houses and other places you don’t particularly want them to be. Their agility and their intelligence, as well as their solitary nature, make them excellent candidates for the role of “clever friend.”
Foxes also beguile us because they’re difficult to place. They’re canids, which means they’re related to dogs, but they are not dogs or wolves or even coyotes. In many ways, foxes act more like cats—if you look at their tracks in the winter or watch one walking across the top of a fence, you’ll agree there’s some sort of feline grace about this creature.
So a fox seems like it’s some sort of almost hybrid between cats and dogs. It is neither and both at the same time. Humans are always beguiled by things that don’t neatly fit into one category or another.
Femininity, Magic, and Felines
Foxes likely achieve some of their “magic” from their more feline side as well. Cats are also associated with magic and, in particular, luck. In Japan, for example, the neko brings good luck. In Europe, black cats are associated with bad luck, as well as witchcraft—much like the fox.
Foxes also seem mysterious, since they tend to be more solitary. They’re highly adaptive and urban foxes can thrive in human habitats. Seeing a fox isn’t always uncommon, even if you live in an urban area; in fact, a fox might be one of the first types of wildlife many people encounter the world over. Yet the fox’s nocturnal nature and solitary habits make it seem, in some ways, almost shy. You might feel lucky to spot a fox, even if they’re relatively common where you live.
On top of that, a fox is a pretty creature to look at! Their bright coats make them easy to spot, but their color can seem quite cheery. Again, their feline attributes may make them seem more “feminine” and even elegant—qualities we also often associate with cats.
Given all that, it’s not terribly surprising that we love foxes!
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