Many cultures feature foxes in their folklore, where they either take the form of deities or are held in generally high regard. In Greek mythology, for example, the Teumessian fox, an enormous “un-catchable” animal plaguing Thebans as punishment by the gods for reasons unkonwn, fed on babies until the renowned hunting dog Laelaps was put on the case. Faced with the impossible paradox of an uncatchable fox pursued by a hunter that never failed, Zeus turned them both to stone and cast them to the heavens where they formed the constellations we know today as Canis major (Laelaps) and Canis minor (Teumessian). Conversely, I have mentioned that foxes often feature in the totems of Native Americans, who apparently considered foxes to possess healing powers, while Apache legends tell how it was the fox that gave Man fire.
The Celtic people considered that, not only did the fox possess the ability to make fools out of those who chased it, but also that it was a guide through the spirit world. Indeed, most shamanic cultures have animal ‘allies’ in their mythology, with many containing a reference to the fox as some form of spiritual guide. Another common spiritual manifestation for the fox was as conduits for evil spirits and witches, which were believed to be able to take the form of foxes and, in his book A Fox’s Tale, Robin Page tells how:
“In bygone days, once a fox had been caught its brush was often hung up above the door of a stable or cow shed to help keep off evil and bring good luck. This probably originated from the old belief that witches could turn themselves into foxes although most witches preferred to appear as hares.”
There are also various other superstitions surrounding foxes, such as dying within seven years if bitten by one and how one passing your home is a forerunner for misfortune (usually illness). Seeing a single fox is regarded by some as good luck, while seeing a family of foxes (the actual number varies, but generally more than six animals) brings bad luck. Dreaming of a fox apparently indicates a ‘misleading charm’ in your life (i.e. someone around you who is cunning or sly and potentially a cheater), while chasing a fox reputedly infers you’re engaging in a risky love affair.
The Orient has perhaps the richest fox mythology. The Japanese name for the fox is kitsune and many stories of Japanese mythology tell of it possessing magical powers. There is an interesting dichotomy within oriental mythology, as there is with foxes in most cultures: some stories portray the fox as a mischievous trickster, while others tell how they made faithful lovers, guardians and friends.
Rebecca Gambo, in her fascinating 1990 book The Nature of Foxes, recounts some of the legends. In China, for example, foxes often appear as malevolent demons who become beautiful young women to lure the opposite sex, whose being they slowly ‘consume’ in order to prolong their own life. Indeed, some legends tell of foxes surviving a succession of victims, living for up to a thousand years. In Japan, by contrast, foxes were often venerated messengers of the benevolent Shinto rice goddess, although many of the Chinese beliefs (such as foxes taking the form of beautiful young women and even the ability of fox demons to possess humans) are also found in Japanese culture.
The ability of foxes to take human form was not always, however, a bad omen. Gambo explains how, in North America as well as Greenland, Labrador and in North-east Siberia, legend tells of a mysterious housekeeper who arrives at a hunter’s cabin each morning to tidy up and cook his supper. The hunter soon discovers that the housekeeper is really a vixen who can shed her skin, becoming a beautiful woman, and duly marries her. Everything progresses well until the hunter starts complaining of a musky odour in the house and the vixen takes offence and leaves.
In many of these cultures, foxes were never worshipped as part of an ‘official’ religion, but rather at a lower (‘folk’ religion) level. Worshipping the fox was variously considered to bring good fortune, official position and wealth. The reader is directed to Issendai’s site on Asian fox spirit folklore for more information.
Despite being considered messengers of the gods by some cultures, in religious writings foxes are commonly associated with evil and, throughout much of Europe they are depicted in Medieval carvings dressed as clerics preaching to a congregation (often of geese). In The Bible the fox appears several times, particularly in regard to its slyness and cunning, in both the Old and New Testaments, although there is some debate as to whether the writer was actually referring to a jackal, and this was subsequently mistranslated into “fox”.
Perhaps the most famous biblical reference to the fox is in the Old Testament (the book of Judges, chapter 15, verses 4 and 5), which sees Samson catching 300 foxes and tying them tail-to-tail, with ‘firebrands’ in-between, before releasing them into the corn field belonging to the Philistines. The foxes fled through the cornfields, vineyards and olive groves, burning them down as they went. What followed was essentially a series of revenge killings. In the New Testament, referring to his cunning and deceit, Jesus called Herod a fox (in Luke 13:22). Readers are directed to the Bible Topics website for a more comprehensive list of references.
Elsewhere, according to Hans-Jörg Uther, Professor of German Literature at the University of Duisburg-Essen, in Mesopotamia (the modern day area covered by the Tigris-Euphrates river system in western Asia), the fox was attributed to the god Enlil; thought of symbolically as being his distinctive emblem. In a 2006 paper to Asian Folklore Studies Uther described how, Enlil’s emblem aside, it was rare for foxes to be given a religious or cultic role in early Mediterranean cultures. Indeed, Uther explained, foxes are more often encountered as evil entities:
“In early Christian and medieval thought the fox was considered to be a demonic animal. The tendency in Greek and Roman tradition to attribute a negative significance to the animal was taken up and further developed. The fox is a symbol of the devil, an image of demons, and because of its slyness and cunning it characterizes both the ruler who does not fear god (Herod, for example) and a cunning person in general…”
Nonetheless, the fox appears to have been significant to some early Middle Eastern cultures and remains have been found in necropolises (burial chambers) in Europe. In a 2005 paper to the International Journal of Morphology, Turkish archaeologists Vedat Onar, Oktay Belli and Pamela Owen report on the finding of the remains of five adult Red foxes buried along with humans in the burial chamber at the Van-Yoncatepe necropolis in eastern Anatolia, Turkey. Unfortunately, the authors don't speculate on why the remains were buried there, although there is evidence to suggest that some civilisations may have kept them as pets (see: Man’s best friend? Fox domestication).