Continuing on with my series of ‘MythLines’ columns from EarthLines Magazine, here is my offering from Issue 14, in March 2016. This brief article on fox women in folklore was accompanied by an original short story of my own, and a beautiful poem from Theodora Goss.
The featured image is ‘Fox fire/ Revontulet’ © Linda Piekäinen
Our old myths, legends and folktales emerge out of the days when there were closer connections between humans and the natural world. When there was no differentiation between the secular and the sacred, because the sacred was present everywhere, in everything. In those days, animals were not just creatures to eat or to hunt: they were teachers, and allies; they carried messages from the Otherworld.
The animals which are most prominent in a culture’s mythology are, not surprisingly, the animals which would have been regularly encountered in daily life. It’s always a surprise to me, then, that in the folklore of the British Isles and Ireland, foxes play a curiously limited role. They only ever appear as Trickster: a wily character, outwitting its enemies, admired for its cleverness and opportunism. Though perhaps it’s not as surprising as I (like many of my women friends, a passionate fox-lover) imagine: in rural communities the fox was viewed above all as a threat to livestock, and therefore was not much loved.
And yet, there are archaeological traces and fragments of folklore which point to a more venerable role for the fox in ancient times. In Ireland, for example, the belief prevails that the fox may be a prophet, foreseeing both events and weather; it also was said to act like a bean sidhe for certain families, foretelling a death. Fox remains at Iron-Age sites around Europe suggest that the fox might have been important in certain rituals: pits both in Winklebury in Hampshire and Digeon in France were found to contain the bones of a red deer and of several foxes. Other European archaeological remains suggest that the fox might have been ritually eaten.
Celtic mythology features a variety of shapeshifting animals, and is replete with human transformations into swans, fish, seals, horses and deer – but never into foxes. For that, and to find cultures with more complex fox mythologies, we have to look farther afield, and head east. To Japan, for example, where foxes (kitsune) are revered: they are closely associated with Inari, a Shinto spirit, and serve as its messengers. The more tails a kitsune has – they may have as many as nine – the older, wiser and more powerful it is.
But they’re not always benign, and are often dangerous: kitsune may take possession of humans and drive them mad, may possess mouths or tails which generate fire or lightning, and may create illusions so elaborate that they are almost indistinguishable from reality. Some stories even suggest that kitsune can bend time and space, and transform themselves into exceptionally high trees – or even into a second moon in the sky.
A kitsune may also assume human form – most often a beautiful woman who falls in love with and marries a human man. Typically, the young man doesn’t know he’s marrying a fox, who nevertheless proves to be a devoted wife. He eventually discovers the fox’s true nature, and the fox-wife is forced to leave him. In some cases, the husband wakes as if from a dream – filthy, disoriented, and far from home; he must then return to confront his abandoned family in shame. (Kij Johnson’s beautiful novel The Fox Woman – Tor Books, 1999 – makes use of many of these threads.)
In China, similarly, the huli jing is a fox spirit which usually appears as a beautiful young woman. Most are dangerous but, like the kitsune, some feature as the heroines of love stories. And in Korea, the kumiho is a fox-woman with magical powers, who is only detected after she marries her human husband and her clothing is removed.
Back here in the West, we have to look to Scandinavian countries for foxes who are more than simply Tricksters. According to Sámi folklore, the Northern Lights are caused by a fox running over the fells of Lapland, whipping up snow with its tail and sending sparks up into the northern sky. The sparks form a colourful arc of fire. The Finnish name for the northern lights, revontulet, meaning ‘fox fire’, derives from this myth.
In Scandinavian folklore we also find the huldra. Seen from the front she is a stunningly beautiful, naked female with long hair; from behind she is hollow like an old tree trunk – and in Sweden she is said also to have the tail of a fox. The huldra will lure men into the forest to have sex with her, rewarding those who satisfy her and often killing those who don’t. ‘Fox Fire’ is a story which was inspired by the huldra.
I saw the fox first; she was mine from the beginning. A flash of red in the white-wintered heart of the wood. My heart almost burst; I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful. So beautiful that I cried out before I could stop myself. The fox stopped, turned, looked directly at me. Our eyes locked, and in that moment I was lost.
I went to the wood each day, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Most days she would come. She knew I was there, and it didn’t seem to worry her. She let me watch her, and sometimes she let me follow, looking back every now and then as if to make sure that I was still there. Sometimes she would lead me out of the wood, all the way through to the low hills and wide plains beyond, and I would watch her run and play and roll in the snow.
I began to bring her food, breaking it into pieces which I would then throw onto the ground, taking a step back, and then another, so that she would learn to come to me. But she always stopped just short and then scuttled away, looking over her shoulder as if to tease, pink tongue dangling out of a wide-mouthed, sharp-toothed grin. One day, I caught her napping on top of a dry fallen trunk in the middle of the woods. I crept up quietly to her, and reached out my hand. Her bright golden eyes opened. Just for a few seconds she let me touch the soft fur on the top of her head, and then she leapt up and ran away. I put my hand to my nose, breathing in the faintest rank, wild smell of her.
I didn’t just love her, I wanted to be her. Longed for it, as I had never longed for anything in my life. To be free, to run wherever I wanted to run, to hunt at midnight in the wildness of a moonlit wood. I wasn’t foolish, though: I knew it was a hard life. The winters were cold, and food was scarce; there was always the threat of a farmer’s gun, the fear of a hunting dog. But some chances must be taken, if you want to live fully. She lived fully, my fox, and I envied her with all my heart. I wanted to run with her across the snow-clad vastness of this land, and together we’d create the Northern Lights. For that is what foxes do – racing over the fells, whipping up the snow with their tails, sending sparks up into the sky. This is what makes the aurora’s glow. Revontulet, we call it: fox fire.
Each day, I stayed a little longer in the woods; my husband began to wonder. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘It’s nothing. I just like to be outside, that’s all. I like the fresh, crisp air.’
But he must have grown suspicious, for one morning he followed me. I didn’t know he was there until the fox came bounding out of the trees to greet me – and then froze, eyes fixed firmly on something behind me. She turned tail and ran. I knew it was him: I lifted my nose and sniffed, caught the faint musky scent of him on the breeze. A twig cracked underfoot as he faded slowly into the trees and made his way back to the house. Did he think I wouldn’t see his tracks? Did he really think so little of me? Or had he simply, by then, ceased to care?
The next morning he slipped out before me, and it was my turn to follow. I was torn between sorrow and fury. She was my fox – mine, and his uncovering of my secret, his usurping of my place, felt like a violation.
Somehow I knew she would come for him. Somehow I knew it, and she came. She was that kind of fox. She came silently through the woods, belly low and nose to the ground, as if tracking the scent of newly found prey. And then she saw him, and he saw her. I heard him catch his breath; I heard a faint, barking laugh. Then it was no longer a fox standing there before him in the woods, but a woman. A beautiful woman with red-gold hair.
I saw him fall. And I fled.
I followed him the next afternoon; of course I followed him. And, peering through the cracked windows of a well-hidden, ramshackle cabin in a secret tree-dark glade, I saw what I should never have had to see. My husband, in a dark, dusty room with a fire burning brightly in the grate. A flash of red hair along the length of a long white back stretched out on a mattress covered with furs. And, hanging over the edge of the bed, a fox-tail.
Huldra. She was a huldra! Couldn’t he see it? Didn’t he care?
I ran away home, and I made my plan.
He came home in the early evening, elated and trying (failing) to hide it. He smelled (did he know it?) of fox. I mixed a strong sleeping draught into his bedtime drink, and after a sleepless night gauging the depth of his snores, I crept out of the house in the morning and retraced the path to the cabin.
She was there, waiting for him, stretched out under the furs, a log fire blazing in the hearth. She didn’t move when I burst through the door; she simply raised a red-gold eyebrow. She didn’t seem especially surprised to see me. The room smelled rank, and wild. I looked into her beautiful golden eyes and tears welled up in my own. I swallowed hard and clenched my fists, mourning the fox I had loved, the fox I had thought was my friend.
I found my voice at last. ‘You’re a huldra!’ I cried. ‘I’ve heard all the stories. A woman with a fox-tail – beautiful, for sure. But from behind, nothing but a hollowed-out husk where your insides should be. Not a woman at all – not even a fox. Only some devilish creature who wishes to do harm. Will you kill my husband when you’re done with him, when he no longer satisfies you? Will you kill me too, for discovering your secret?’ And, sobbing, I pulled out the sharp silver knife I had hidden in the deep pockets of my grey woollen coat.
But she only smiled, revealing the sharp white teeth which protruded from her blood-red gums. ‘You shouldn’t believe all the stories,’ she said. ‘Not all of us are what we seem. Perhaps not even you.’ Then she stood – red of hair, white of skin, and heartbreakingly beautiful. She turned, and began to walk over to a dark, far corner of the room. And as she turned, I gasped, for her naked back was sleek, and entirely whole.
What could I do but let my knife clatter to the floor, and follow? And there, in the corner opposite the fire, stood a tall wooden cupboard with a mirror which stretched the full length of its door. The fox-woman lit a candle and held it up between us. ‘Stand with your back to the mirror,’ she said, and I did. ‘Now turn around, and look, and we will see which one of us is hollow.’
I stretched my neck, and looked over my own shoulder into the mirror. I looked, and I saw, and then I screamed. For in the place where my back should be was a huge gaping hole, hollow as a long-rotted tree-trunk.
I am learning to become full; the land is showing me how. I go to the woods; I roll among the leaves on the mossy floor. I talk to the trees, and I am beginning to understand what they whisper in return.
She never came again to my husband. He mourned her, of course, for a while. But when I opened my arms to him, when I pulled his hair and bit his neck, and tangled and tore the sheets with our pleasure – I was the one he began to seek out in the wild heart of the wood.
We go each day into the woods, and sometimes I catch a glimpse of red-gold fur through the trees. I am glad that she is there, living her own wild life. I am glad that I knew her; I am glad for the hard lesson that she taught me. But I will not follow her again. I have my own wild-pawed path. For I am learning to become full, and when last I crept out to the cabin in the middle of the woods and examined myself again in its mirror of truth, the hole at the centre of me was almost closed.
The Fox Wife
I saw you dancing in a glade alone,
feet bare and dressed in nothing but a rag,
your red hair like a fire around your head.
I had to stand and look and keep on looking.
I saw you standing there among the trees,
smelled you before I saw you. First, I thought
you were a hunter. But no, you smelled of earth,
not death. I danced because I saw you looking.
Day after day, I went back to that glade.
And sometimes you were there, and sometimes not.
That was deliberate. I did not want you
to always get what you were coming for.
One day you stepped into the glade and spoke:
‘I have been watching you. Can you forgive me?’
I wanted to say more: you burn so brightly,
I wonder that the forest is still standing.
You are more graceful than a flock of doves.
You should be dressed in silk instead of rags.
I am only a farmer, but I love you.
And yet somehow you said all of those things.
At least, I heard them and I followed you
out of the forest and into the farmyard.
The dogs barked, but you would not let them near me.
I did not know why all the dogs were barking.
What was it made you come? Now tell me truly.
Was it the possibility of finding
a home, a husband, not some soggy burrow?
That, I suppose. And then you looked so handsome.
And then there were the dresses, silk as promised.
I could have done worse than a prosperous farmer.
Or better: you would make a splendid lady,
upon your horse and riding by his lordship.
You flatter me. But then, you know I like it.
When I was heavy with our oldest son,
you told me I still looked just like the girl
you first saw dancing in the forest glade.
And so you did. Now dear, be reasonable . . .
Were we not always happiest together,
on rainy afternoons when you sat sewing
and I would read to you from some old book?
Or when we would go walking in the spring
to see the glade you dance in filled with bluebells?
Or when we watched our sons and daughter sleeping,
three heads with hair like fire upon the pillows.
Where are they now? Where are our children, dear?
Down in the burrow, safe from you and yours.
I would not hurt a hair upon their heads.
You hung my sister’s pelt upon the door.
You said there had been foxes in the henhouse.
You set those traps and did not think to tell me.
But how was I to know? Be reasonable . . .
Each night, while you lay sleeping, I snuck out.
A thing that was once wild is never tame.
I went to smell the earth, to meet my kind.
I went to see the bright disk of the moon.
You set those traps and caught my sister in one.
And what should I see on the henhouse door
next morning when I went to gather eggs?
Our children are asleep inside this burrow.
Your dogs would tear them up within an instant.
But dear, they’re human too, you can’t deny that.
Your dogs would. They shall learn the forest paths,
learn how to hunt, how to avoid the hunter.
They shall be cold in winter, wet in storms,
they shall eat mice and rabbits, roam the meadow,
drink from the streams and try to catch the birds.
When they are grown, they’ll put on human skins
and go into the town, but I shall warn them
never to fall in love. Not with a human.
Why can’t you see that I meant you no harm?
I did not know . . . My dear, won’t you forgive me?
I am not tame. I can’t be reasoned with,
and there is no forgiveness in the forest.
Either kill me with that gun you carry,
He went. The birches heard him weeping.