Mythology Monday: Kitsune

Hello again! Today’s mythological delight comes to us straight from Japan, and actually bears some similarities to the tanuki, which I wrote abouta few weeks ago.

So today, we’re going to take a look at the kitsune.

To get started, it should be noted that the word kitsune literally just means “fox” in Japanese, so it can also refer to the literal animal and not just the youkai in question. Of course, I’m going to be using the term to refer to the mythological beast exclusively here.

I did mention earlier that the critter bears certain similarities to the tanuki, though obviously they come from different animals. Kitsune also lack some of the tanuki’s other…attributes. However, the major thing they do have in common is shapeshifting. Kitsune often take the form of young women or girls, but can also take the form of old men or young boys. Also, like tanuki, kitsune usually require some sort of object in order to change shape, such as reeds, leaves, or (and this is a bit of a dark turn) skulls.

They often like to use this to cause trouble, which can vary from being simple mischeif to downright maliciousness. However, they are also frequently depicted as benevolent spirits. In fact, there are a couple different types of kitsune: zenko (or good foxes), which are considered servants and messengers of the god Inari; and yako (or field foxes), which are the less-than-nice types.

As for what they look like, they typically look like, well, foxes. Of course, they are also depicted with up to nine tales. In most stories they gain a new tail for each century that they live, becoming tenko (celestial foxes) and ascending after gaining tail number nine after 1000 years. When disguised as humans, they usually have “fox-like” features, i.e. narrow eyes, high cheekbones, and pointed faces. They may also have other attributes, such as a fine layer of gold fur, or just straight up tales.

Of course, Japan isn’t the only country to have tales of these creatures. In China, they are called huli jing and have a lot of the same attributes as the Japanese version, i.e. the ludicrous number of tails, the shapeshifting, and the trickery.

As for the actual stories of kitsune, they most often take the form of the animal bride story. In these tales (pun not intended), a kitsune will take the form of a young woman in order to marry a dude. They’re often depicted as faithful, dutiful wives, and often bear the man’s children. Said children will often have some kind of supernatural gift in line with their heritage. Usually, at some point in the story, the man will realize that his wife is actually a fox, and she will be forced to leave him.

Since the kitsune is an extremely popular creature, they tend to show up in a lot of different media, from Noh theater to anime. Pop culturally speaking, one of the more well-known depictions of kitsune is in the anime/manga series Naruto, in whcih the main character has one sealed inside his body. A kitsune named Shippo also appears in the anime Inuyasha, and the Pokemon Vulpix and Ninetales are modeled after the creature. Hell, even American shows like The X-Files and Supernatural have had episodes dealing with kitsune.

Seriously, the list is so long that if I were to point out every single reference we’d be here all day.

So that’s the lowdown on the kitsune. Do you have a favorite tale about this or a similar beast? Please drop a note in the comments and I will see you next time.

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