Foxes And People
Mythology, Folklore & Literature

To some extent, foxes have played a role in the mythologies and folklore of every society that has known them. Most of the stories involve some aspect of the fox´s beauty, intelligence, cunning, and individuality. Because of their competition with humans, and their nocturnal nature which could be associated with evil or death, myths about these animals frequently cast the fox in an unappealing light.

It would be difficult to compile a complete list of all the available fox mythology. In the Scandinavian countries, foxes were believed to cause the northern lights. These aurora were called "revontulet" in Finland, meaning "fox fires". Foxes sometimes replaced cats as witch´s familiars in medieval European folklore, and were occasionally persecuted in the resulting hysteria. The Japanese revered foxes as the divine messengers of Uka no Mitama, the Shinto rice goddess, although tales were also told of evil Japanese foxes that could possess people. Many cultures have stories about shape-shifting "werefoxes". In China and other Asian countries, werefoxes were demons that prolonged their lives by seducing humans and feeding off their souls. A variation of this theme is a myth common among the Siberian Koriak people, the Inuit, and various tribes of native North Americans. "The Mysterious House Keeper", tells of a fox that entered a hunter´s house and removed its skin to become a beautiful woman. When the hunter returned, he found that the woman had cleaned his house and he decided to marry her. The bliss was short lived, however, as the hunter began to complain about his wife´s smell. Her feelings hurt, she transformed back into a fox and ran away.

Some of the best known classic fox literature was written over 2,500 years ago by Aesop. His fables told stories about various intelligent animals, and were used to convey a moral point to the reader. Because of their craftiness, beauty, and solitary nature, foxes figured prominently in these fables whenever deceit, pride, or individuality was necessary to the story. One such fable is The Fox and the Grapes. In it, a red fox finds itself in a vineyard and tries to feed on the grapes hanging on the vines. Despite its best efforts, the fox just can´t reach the fruit and gives up in frustration. He saves face and consoles himself by saying the grapes were probably sour any ways. The moral of the story is that people often badmouth things they can´t have. Like many other of Aesop´s fables, the story gave rise to a popular expression (sour grapes) or proverb. With the possible exception of the lion, few other animals are mentioned as often by Aesop as the fox is. Excellent collections of these fables can be found at Vulpes.Org and Lazy Fox's Spot.

Another popular literary work, Reynard the Fox, arose in medieval Europe. Although the story is known in Germany, Holland, and much of the rest of the continent, it was in France that it became most popular; the current french word for fox, "renard", replaced its archaic counterpart as a result of the tale´s popularity. Although I haven´t had a chance to read any of them (with the possible exception of the Ukrainian narrative, "Fox Mykyta"), several different versions of Reynard seem to exist with varying degrees of violence and debauchery. Reynard preyed on nobility and peasant alike, using cunning to overcome the brute strength of the king lion, and his minions such as the wolf (who in one version was a queen, whom Reynard seduced.) In other versions, Reynard committed robbery, theft, murder, and rape, but in a satirical twist, he went unpunished because of the cleverness he´d shown.

One of the more famous foxes in American folklore is Brer Fox, Brer Rabbit's nemesis in Joel Chandler Harris´s stories about Uncle Remus. The best known of these stories is "The Wonderful Tar Baby", in which Brer Fox captures Brer Rabbit by tricking him with a fake rabbit made of tar and turpentine. Brer Rabbit then escapes by tricking the fox into throwing him into a briar patch.

In the past, the fox was often seen in an unfavourable manner. People were just as likely to shoot at one as look at it. This attitude has shown much positive change in recent years. One of my favourite examples is a newspaper clipping I have from the Ottawa Citizen from about ten years ago. A family of foxes at the Metcalfe Golf and Country Club decided that they liked golf balls. I mean, they really liked golf balls. Golfers would make a perfect shot onto the green only to have some red tailed bandit dash out from nowhere and abscond with their $2.50 ball. Except for a few well chewed balls, no one ever found their cache which might have numbered in the hundreds. Despite having several strokes added to their game, few of the golfers complained, and instead enjoyed the spectacle. A few decades earlier, the animals might well have been exterminated.

In the last century, a fair amount of literature and art has been devoted to foxes. A red fox graced the cover of Robert Bateman´s first book, "The Art of Robert Bateman", and it´s been my experience that a great number of furry artists on the ´net enjoy drawing them. A good place to find examples of modern literature is the extensive book list at Adam´s Fox Box. Karsten Auchter´s Foxes Online also has excellent listings of foxy nonfiction, children´s books, and videos.

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