According to Japanese folklore, Kitsune are foxes that possess a unique intelligence and even more unique paranormal abilities and attributes. Some stories say that all Kitsune, that is to say all foxes, have the ability to shapeshift into a more human form. Some myths will explain that they usually do this with some kind of trickery in mind, and others still portray them as faithful guardians or even friends.
Kitsune is simply the Japanese word for fox, however, it seems that it might not be “just” anything. Foxes have held a special place in Japanese folklore for hundreds of years, and as such, have had many different, wide ranging traits attributed to them. In this post, we are going to delve deeper into these myths, what traits Kitsune were believed to possess exactly, and their “lore”.
The earliest known mention of Kitsune as it relates to Japanese folklore can be found in the Konjaku Monogatarishū (which translates to Anthology of Tales from the Past). The Konjaku Monogatarishū is collection of over a thousand tales, stories, legends, and myths written or recorded sometime between the year 794 and 1185, which is known as the Heian Period. Stories from places like India and China are included in the collection. In this collection, each tale begins with Japanese version of “Once upon a time”.
During the particularly superstitious Edo period (1603 – 1867), Kitsune were seen as a sort of trickster spirit to be avoided. They weren’t seen as demons exactly, but rather “witch animals” that could be a nuisance if given the opportunity. As the spirit ages it grows more tails. They’re said to have as many as nine tails, and that the more tails a Kitsune has, the older, wiser, and more powerful it is.
Abilities and Powers
Loosely translated, the word Kitsune means something akin to “fox spirit”, and as such, are believed to have a wide array of senses and abilities that we mere mortals may consider “unnatural”. We’ve already touched lightly on their shapeshifting abilities, but not what they were purported to use these powers for. Kitsune were often said to transform into human form in order to deceive a man or woman into becoming romantically involved with the spirit.
There are many such other abilities ascribed to the fabled Kitsune throughout history though. These include the ability to possess a human in much the same way demon would, producing fire or lightning at will, to control the dreams of others, the ability to fly, turn invisible, et cetera. Depending on the specific myth, some even suggest that Kitsune survive by feeding on the lifeforce of living beings or even other spirits. This is to say, that depending on who you ask, Kitsune are either just mild pranksters or entities with extreme power.
Depending on how deep into the lore you go, there are even many different subtypes of Kitsune. Certain local traditions describe a type of Kitsune, known as ninko, that can only be noticed by humans once it has possessed them. Quite a frightening thought! There is even a specific word for the state of being possessed by fox spirit: Kitsenetsuki. Usually victims were described as attractive young women.
Kitsune in Stories and Myths
In some ways, you could see many similarities to certain vampire myths in the west. Kitsune are said to take the form of attractive women in order to control, deceive, or lure men to otherwise undesirable fates. One of the ways that people would spot or identify Kitsune was by looking for fox shaped shadows or reflections in mirrors. Since the Kitsune was believed to have difficulty hiding their “wisdom tails”, this was seen as an effective way of rooting out spiritual meddling. The Kitsune seems to be a bit of a “catch-all” for all things strange or otherworldly, much in the same way that ghosts or poltergeists are in the west.
The myths surrounding Kitsune vary as wildly as legends of angels, djinn, or demons. In certain folk beliefs, Kitsune were seen to bring mental illness in the form of possession. Other legends suggest that certain families or “Fox Witches” (a sort of Japanese witch doctor or witch craft) were able to significantly benefit from their relationship with the fox spirits. In yet other tales, the deception by the Kitsune wasn’t out of maliciousness, but rather loneliness: they simply wanted a suitable “mate” to share their lives with, or to assimilate into a more human society. In either interpretation though, the story of the Kitsune is a fascinating one, and one that is also seen repeatedly throughout Japanese folklore, myth, and legend.