A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about kitsune, fox spirits, and their role as tricksters (The Kitsune as a Trickster). I thought it would be interesting to have a companion piece exploring the darker, lesser known side of fox spirits.
Kitsune are very versatile spirits. While they are mostly known as tricksters, the actual mythology connected with these creatures is a lot more varied and complex. Depending on the myth considered, they can take on very different roles. Here, I’ve tried to sum up the ones I’ve identified during my research while writing The Ronin and the Fox, but there might be more I haven’t come across yet!
* The Servant of the Gods
The myobu, or celestial kitsune, serve Inari, shinto god of rice and fertility (and, incidentally foxes). They are Inari’s messengers, they guard his shrines; they are well-behaved spirits, far from earthly temptations. One of their duties is to, occasionally, defend people from the all other kitsune, the ones who don’t serve Inari (called nogitsune, or wild foxes) when they become troublesome. They are also always depicted as white foxes.
* The Kitsune as an Animal
This is the interpretation that puts kitsune closer to actual, everyday foxes (the word ‘kitsune’, after all, doesn’t mean ‘fox spirit’, but simply ‘fox’: because every fox in nature could potentially become a spirit). These foxes live in abandoned houses, often sitting on the roof rafters, and steal food from nearby homes to survive. In fact, foxes are often expert thieves and take particular pleasure in stealing family treasures.
Sometimes, these foxes become almost domesticated. If someone treats them with kindness, they will strive to return the favour: they’ll bring food stolen from the neighbours, for example, and bringing good fortune to the house. In fact, when a Japanese family was especially blessed by fate, someone jealous might spread the rumor that it was because they owned foxes. Such a rumor could completely ruin a family’s reputation; no one would want to marry the daughter of a family carrying this stigma and, on a few occasions, local daimyos ordered the executions of families accused of fox-owning.
* The Kitsune as a Succubus/Vampire
This is the darkest side of fox spirits. Sometimes, they take the form of a hauntingly beautiful woman and appear at night to seduce unsuspecting men. There is a warning, often repeated in the mythology—and that I used in the story, too—that every beautiful woman met after dark could be a fox, and men should be wary. This is not a trick, a prank: kitsune have a very specific reason to do this. They absorb the life energy of humans, and they do this mainly through sex, although a few sources also mention bloodsucking.
Kitsune are so seductive that it’s impossible for men to resist their charms, and the myths say that sex with a kitsune is often too pleasurable for men to bear. Many times, men are consumed by their passion for the kitsune and end up dead, completely drained. Sometimes, though, kitsune don’t kill their victim, but build a relationship instead. One legend evem tells of a kitsune who married her human lover and bore his children. However, when the true nature of a fox is revealed—even in human form they have fox traits, like a fox-shaped shadow or a tail hidden under the kimono—the spirit runs away, never to return. This is expected, after all: kitsune are light, transitory creatures, and it is useless to chase after them once they disappear.
Humans are not the only source that foxes use to feed themselves. They eat normal food and are especially fond of rice, adzuki beans, and fried tofu. They also feed on various forms of energy like knowledge, words, and music. Their vampiric nature also drains the territory where they happen to be. A fox spirit is an alteration of the natural order of things and drought, blight, and crops dying out for no reason are all signs that a kitsune is living nearby.
So, how did I decide to handle all these different aspects in my story? Honestly, the original myth is so rich with variations that it was like standing in front of an overloaded buffet and trying to select a reasonable amount of food. The temptation to just cram in as much as possible was nearly overwhelming, but I knew that it would make me sick and clog the story! So, I decided to keep the trickster aspect, because it’s the most recognizable kitsune attribute and offers interesting comic relief possibilities, but I focused the story on the succubus/vampiric aspect. It fascinates me because it’s much darker and less known, not to mention the very erotic possibilities that a succubus-like character offers.
I did, obviously, tweak quite a few things in order for the various aspects to fit together seamlessly, like puzzle pieces. Succubi-kitsune are always female in the mythology, while male foxes are often friendly drinking buddies for other men. I thought I’d take the succubus attribute and apply it to a man, making him into an incubus of sort (an incubus is the male counterpart of a succubus). Also, I decided to take a slightly different approach on the issue of energy. Kitsune own a white round jewel, similar to a pearl, glowing with kitsune-bi, fox fire (called a star ball). They carry this jewel in their mouth or between their tails, and it represents the fox’s soul: should the kitsune be separated from this jewel for too long, it would die. I decided to make this jewel into the catalyst of the kitsune’s energy and use it as the keystone of the story. There is no ‘official’ correlation between the jewel, the kitsune’s vampirism, and the number of tails the fox possesses: these matters are all addressed separately in the mythology. I decided to connect them together, building a chain of cause-effect domino reactions that would drive the story forward.
I didn’t include the thieving aspect, even though it’s very interesting. While I didn’t have the chance to explore it in this story, I believe that Katsura used to be a skilled thief and was quite infamous for it a couple of centuries before the events of the novella. But something happened that caused him to quit, so he’s a little rusty now, but who’s to say we won’t get the chance to see him in action in a sequel?
Cornelia Grey is the author of Apples and Regret and Wasted Time and The Ronin and the Fox. She can be found on Twitter @corneliagrey.