How to bewitch foxes and curse people

As you certainly know, foxes (kitsune) are magical creatures. They can create illusions and take the form of humans; they can become invisible and ethereal, and in this form possess humans, causing illness and madness. But did you know that you, too, can get your very own fox-familiar to obey your every depraved wish?

The essential features of such a contract were described like this by a fox herself, after a Buddhist priest exorcised her from a sickly woman and found out she had been sent by a sorcerer:

“How did you fall under the power of this man?”, the priest asked.

“I used to live under a rock on the mountainside”, the fox answered. “One day the ascetic found me and offered some delicious fried tofu if I would go on errands for him. I refused. I wanted nothing to do with the man. But alas, one of my cubs ate the tofu. From that day I found myself in his power, forced to obey his commands in return for my daily food.”

This exchange was recorded in 1922 in the Suwa district. The trick, as you see, is to “grab’em by the stomach”, as they say in Brazil: In magical thinking there’s no such thing as free lunch, and everything has a price—including aburaage tofu, foxes’ favourite foodstuff (which is why dishes featuring fried tofu have such names as kitsune-udon or Inari-zushi). Furthermore, young cubs are especially vulnerable to culinary tricks and amiable to taming. This rationale is the basis of the Izuna rite (izuna-hô), as recorded in the Tokugawa-era treatise Honchô Shokkan: First, find a pregnant vixen hiding in her lair. You must feed her and take care of her, being especially careful around the time of birth. When the cubs are grown up, the fox will bring one for you to name. Names, it is known, have power; the cub’s now yours. Just call the name out loud whenever you want and it’ll come, in invisible form; you can ask them questions and they’ll grant you supernatural knowledge, just like a Goetian demon. If you’re a degraded monk—a yamabushi or kitôshi who has fallen to greed—you can even use your fox to curse people for a fee, or con them and make a living as an exorcist (banishing the evils that you yourself caused). You’re now a kitsune-dzukai “fox-user”, also known as a kitsune-mochi “fox-holder”.

Just be careful not to get your whole family ostracized forever as a tsukimono-suji, a despicable fox-witch clan, from which the entire mura community will take care to avoid contact forever.

—I’m being dramatic, but apparently belief in fox-users was disjoint with the one in fox-clans; the first was dominant in northern Honshû, the other especially along the coast of the Japan Sea. In some regions fox-users might not consider their familiars to be foxes at all, but dogs; the notorious folklorist Yanagita Kunio proposed they’re at the core a single animal-spirit, for they’re invariably described as a four-legged beast, long and lean, with reddish-brown fur, short legs, and long sharp claws. The description might be closer to a weasel than a fox proper. Such a witch-animal might be called, as a dog: inugami 犬神 in Shikoku and Chûgoku; izuna 飯綱 in Tôhoku, Aomori, Iwate; 外道 gedô in Hiroshima; and, as a fox: ninko 人狐 “human-fox” in Izumo; yako 野狐 “wildfox” in Kyûshû; 尾先 osaki in the Kantô area; and 管狐 kuda-gitsune (fox in a pipe; an early kind of Pokémon) in Shizuoka, Nagano, and Yamanashi.

References:

  • Carmen Blacker, The Catalpa Bow, ch. 3, and apuds:
  • Yanagita Kunio, Hebigami inugami no tagui, in: Teihon Yanagita Kunio-shû, v. 9.
  • Yazu Shûsei, Kitsunegami oyobi kitsunetsuki jikkendan, in: Minzoku to Rekishi, v. 8, 1922.

6 thoughts on “How to bewitch foxes and curse people

  1. Watanabe Takashi 渡辺 尚志 discusses kuda-gitsune possession in the Suwa District in his ‘Mura kara mita kinsei’ (2010, chapter 3). It’s just an illustrative mention, not an exhaustive analysis, but he makes the point that villages plagued by collective outbreaks of fox-possession throughout the Edo Period often solicited the services of ritual specialists from aristocratic families in Kyoto (such as the Yoshida and Shirakawa Houses). It’s a bit of a speculative argument, but he suggests that fox possession thus helped to create a sense of connection between rural villages (at least in Suwa) and the Imperial Court which paved the way for the sudden shift to Emperor worship and imperial ideology in the Meiji Period.

  2. That’s very interesting! In fact the fox quoted above was tamed when the monk showed her a photograph of the Meiji emperor, which “reduced it to an abject state of shame and terror”.

    Blacker also mentions (citing Hayami Yasutaka) that the ostracized fox-clans were often Edo noveau-riche who moved into the mura from outside. Presumably the witchery rumors were born out of social grudges.

  3. Hallo from another 南蛮! I’m a South African who lives in Tokyo. I discovered your blog via your comments at Mutantfrog Travelogue, and I’ve really enjoyed reading through your posts.

    Have you ever been to Fushima Inari Taisha in Kyoto? If not, I hope you get a chance one day. I’ve been there several times, but it’s had such an impact on me that I’ve never been able to write about it.

    Anyway, I look forward to many more posts!

  4. Thanks! Don’t be too hard on yourself, your posts are always enlightening. Hey I love animal coat-color names; now I’m curious about Mongolian :) I bet they have 50 words for “sorrel”…

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