The Fox as Familiar: Japanese Witchcraft

In the folklore of witchcraft, it isn’t unusual for a witch to a have an animal assistant, known as a familiar. Depending on the animal – and the culture – a familiar can serve multiple functions, and in certain traditions, the witch’s very powers depend on its well being.

This would be the case in Japan, where the two most common familiars are foxes and snakes, with foxes being more prevalent. The fox, or Kitsune, can attach itself to an individual, or can belong to a family.

The solitary practitioner, or Kitsune-mochi, gains their familiar through offerings of food. The Kitsune-mochi then makes a formal pact, providing care in exchange for magical services.

There are several services a familiar can provide: the Kitsune can become invisible; it can retrieve desired objects; it can shape-shift, and deceive the Kitsune-mochi’s enemies. However, of all of its powers, the most dreadful is the Kitsune’s ability to posses another human.

This possession, called Kitsunetsuki, was described by 19th century folklorist Lafcadio Hearn as follows:

Strange is the madness of those into whom demon foxes enter. Sometimes they run naked shouting through the streets. Sometimes they lie down and froth at the mouth, and yelp as a fox yelps. And on some part of the body of the possessed a moving lump appears under the skin, which seems to have a life of its own. Prick it with a needle, and it glides instantly to another place. By no grasp can it be so tightly compressed by a strong hand that it will not slip from under the fingers. Possessed folk are also said to speak and write languages of which they were totally ignorant prior to possession. They eat only what foxes are believed to like — tofu, aburagé, azukimeshi, etc. — and they eat a great deal, alleging that not they, but the possessing foxes, are hungry.

— Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, vol. 1
Is there a way to end possession by a Kitsune? Hearn describes the process:

Exorcism, often performed at an Inari shrine, may induce a fox to leave its host. In the past, when such gentle measures failed or a priest was not available, victims of kitsunetsuki were beaten or badly burned in hopes of forcing the fox to leave. Entire families were ostracized by their communities after a member of the family was thought to be possessed

However, as powerful as a Kitsune-mochi may be, they are nothing compared to familial
“fox employers”. These hereditary witches, known as Tsukimono-suji, are feared and venerated, though they are also often shunned due to the stigma attached to their Kitsune. Once a family has been identified as Tsukimono-suji, marriage becomes difficult, especially for females in the house, as the Kitsune are passed down maternally, despite the fact that the Kitsune bring the family as a whole good fortune.

There are some interesting parallels between the Tsukimono-suji and certain European witchcraft traditions, from the importance of familiars, to the notion of matri-lineal families of witches. There are likewise similar concepts of spirit possession, a phenomenon that witches on every continent have been accused of over the centuries.

Many other things can be said about the Kitsune, from their devotion to the Rice Goddess Inari, to the magic spheres that hold their powers, to their prowess as lovers when they take on human form.

All of that being said, just remember this the next time you come across a fox: Be Nice; that Kitsune might be someone’s familiar…

Miuranosuke and Kazusanosuke Defeat the Nine-tailed Fox on Nasu Moor ryôsuke Nasuno ni (Miura Kazusakyûbi no kitsune uchitoru) Japanese Edo period, Utagawa Kunihisa II, 1858 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s