Foxes - Animals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


Foxes are intensely identified with witchcraft in East Asia, and most profoundly in Japan where they are the witchcraft animal supreme. Foxowning is a specific form of witchcraft, unique to Japan.

The fox’s role in witchcraft may derive from its ancient importance in Japanese spirituality. Inari is the ancient but still immensely popular Shinto spirit of rice, food, and nourishment. Inari brings prosperity, fertility, and abundance and has shrines in every Japanese farming village. The fox is Inari’s sacred animal, messenger and, sometimes, alter ego. Stone or wooden foxes are always found in front of Inari’s shrines. The fox and Inari merge to form one being: the question of which came first, the fox or the human shape, is irrelevant. They are parallel forms of the sacred being.

You’ll notice I haven’t used either “he” or “she” to refer to Inari; that’s because Inari’s gender(s) remains subject of debate. Today Inari is most commonly depicted as a bearded man carrying bundles of rice, however Inari also manifests as a beautiful woman or as a female fox. Inari’s female manifestation is believed to be older, predating the introduction of Buddhism into Japan. There is much debate in spiritual and academic communities as to whether Inari has always possessed both male and female manifestations or whether the original, primal spirit was female but over time, for socio-political and religious reasons, the male form became preferable and more common.

Inari in her feminine aspect is also intensely involved with sex, fertility, reproduction, and the magical arts, not only agricultural abundance. Similar but exclusively female fox spirits possessing strong ties to magic and witchcraft exist in China, India, and Tibet.

Once upon a time, Japanese fox spirits were protectors, teachers, and sponsors of witchcraft. Even now some fox spirits are saintly and helpful. (And the foxes that serve as Inari’s messengers are miracle workers, understood as sacred and godly.) However, as centuries passed, attitudes towards witchcraft became more ambivalent, and fox spirits became feared. Why?

Fox spirits are held responsible for illness and misfortune. They possess victims, similar to possession by demons, dybbuks or zar spirits. (This isn’t ritual possession or channeling; it’s involuntary and unpleasant—see MAGICAL ARTS: Ritual Possession.) Sometimes full possession (spiritual takeover) results; sometimes only individual symptoms of possession. Symptoms of fox possession include hearing voices, insatiable and indiscriminate appetite, nocturnal feelings of suffocation plus increasing facial resemblance to a fox: The person begins to develop a visible “snout.”

Eventually the fox may push the true individual out, taking over body, soul, and personality, either full-time or just intermittently. The fox spirit speaks through the person’s mouth, often indulging in obscenities, frequently sexual, which the person would normally never use. (See CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Tarantella.)

Specific individuals and families are believed to control fox spirits. The solitary fox-owner is most frequently believed to be a corrupt and degenerate sorcerer or exorcist, the proverbial shaman-gone-bad. Although fox familiars are disproportionately female, those humans who put them to evil use are usually male.

Although most fox spirits are perceived as greedy or power-hungry, spiritual motivation may exist as well; what the fox spirit may really desire is a shrine and daily offerings. The only way for them to make their desire known is through a human mouth, similar to African zar spirits.

Solitary sorcerers dispatch foxes to carry out nefarious deeds. The old extortion racket may be at play: what seems like a perfectly respectable exorcist who specializes in ridding people of fox-spirit possession may actually be the source of that possession, the one who sent the fox. No wonder he can exorcise the spirit: the fox is his familiar who always does his bidding. Fox spirits may also be rented out to others for a fee, to perform their secret, dirty work as well. (Fox spirits tend to run in packs. As opposed to the concept of one familiar per person, the fox-owner may have a large number of fox spirits to work with. Seventy-five is a typical number, although there may be less. Foxes in the wild do not run in packs incidentally, being relatively solitary creatures.)

Fox spirits are fed daily; in return the familiar performs various magical services on the person’s behalf. It is a mutually beneficial relationship although neighbors may see the fox-owner as threatening and possessing unfair advantages.

Fox spirits run in families. Families who are hereditary owners of foxes typically transmit this hereditary power through the female line. For centuries tremendous fear and social stigma have been attached to families rumored to be fox-owners. Not only is it hereditary, fox-owning may be contagious too. One becomes contaminated (at least by the social stigma) by living in a house formerly occupied by a fox-owner or by possessing his or her property. Contamination may be avoided by avoiding the fox family: don’t visit them, don’t socialize with them, don’t engage in any financial transactions with them, don’t be friends with them (but don’t offend them either; you don’t want them coming after you), and don’t marry into their family—most especially don’t marry their women.

Japan has never had European-style witch-hunts; few witches have been killed. Instead their punishment is intense social ostracism. Occasionally ostracism has evolved into violence: houses burned down as retribution and/or entire families banished.

This isn’t ancient history: in 1952 a young couple committed suicide together because the woman came from a family with a reputation for fox-owning and the man’s family forbade their marriage. Because fox power is transmitted through the female line, they feared its impact (perhaps magically but certainly socially) on their family.

Just like real foxes are believed to surreptitiously raid chicken coops, fox spirits are believed to rob the neighbors. (Fox-owners are believed to gain wealth at the expense of others. To become suddenly, mysteriously wealthy is to leave oneself open to accusations of malevolent witchcraft—particularly if anyone else in the area is simultaneously suffering misfortune.)

In China, fox spirits retain their positive identity. Among their primary roles is the protection of archivists and librarians. Should a document be lost, missing or otherwise unable to be located, offerings are made to the fox spirit. After the offering is made, the archivist leaves the room for a little while to give the spirit space and opportunity to work its magic. Upon his return, the document, book or scroll should stick out or somehow draw attention to itself.

Despite the ostracism, you’d like a fox familiar. If you’re not from a family associated with them, where do you begin?

How does one obtain a fox familiar? A late seventeenth-century work contains an account of the Izuna Rite, the magical ritual by which people gain power over fox familiars:

1. Find a pregnant fox.

2. Feed her, care for her, form an alliance with her during her pregnancy but especially afterwards when she’s needy and vulnerable.

3. YOU CANNOT TAKE A CUB, NO MATTER WHAT. This isn’t “fluffybunny” magic; I’m not making this up. This is what the seventeenth-century text instructs. If you are meant to have a fox familiar, when the cubs are sufficiently grown, the mother will bring you one and tell you to name it.

4. Name the fox but keep the name secret. Henceforth, if you call the name, the fox will come to you in invisible form. No one else will be able to see the fox spirit, only you. Nothing is ever entirely hidden, however, so be prepared for others to attribute supernatural powers to you.