Fox Wives and
Other Dangerous Women

by Heinz Insu Fenkl

"The Fox Woman Kuzunoha Leaving Her Child" by Yoshitoshi, 1890
"The Fox Woman Kuzunoha
Leaving Her Child"
by Yoshitoshi, 1890
I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry'd--"La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!"

I saw their starv'd lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.

--John Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (1819, a year before his death of consumption).

     In Korea, the most frightening ghosts are the ghosts of young women who have not fulfilled their feminine potential. In other words, women who died without marrying and having children -- preferably male children. In the old days there was a custom of burying dead maidens in a flat grave on or near a well-traveled road in the hopes that some passing gentleman would expose to the maiden's spirit his "most precious thing." I had always wondered about this custom, since traditional graves are all constructed with a dome-shaped mound of earth on top. (The larger mounds are so huge a whole school class could picnic on one; they represent royalty. The smallest mounds are about the diameter of a hula hoop, and they represent infants.) When I was ten, my storyteller uncle explained this "most precious thing" to me by telling me this story:

The Maiden's Grave

One evening, a young scholar was staggering down a trail in the mountains, drunk from having imbibed too much at a local celebration. He was in such a hurry that he didn't even have time to go into the woods, and he relieved himself right on the road, pissing for a long time right there. Just as he was pulling his pants up and tying the strings, he heard a young woman's voice. "I am eternally grateful to you," she said. "I died a maiden, and so I was buried here in a flat grave. But now that you have shown me your most precious thing, I can go into the next world fulfilled." The young scholar was frightened out of his wits, but they say the maiden's ghost was kind to him, and eventually, when he went to the capital to take the civil examination, he passed with the highest marks in the land.

     This particular scholar was lucky. Consider another story I was told about another young man who relieves himself on the road:

The Bone that was a Fox

One day a man relieved himself on a bone that was lying on the path. "Is it warm?" he said. "It's warm," the bone replied. "Is it cold?" "It's cold," said the bone. The frightened man ran away, hardly able to pull his pants up, and the bone chased him. Finally, he came to an ale house and he escaped out of the back. Years later the same man stopped at an ale house to drink, and he was served by a ravishingly beautiful woman. "My," he said to her, "you look familiar for some reason." "I should," she replied. "Because I'm the bone you made water on all those years ago and I've been waiting for you!" And suddenly she changed into her true form, which was a fox, and she ate him up.

     The moral of these stories is not that men in old Korea had to be careful where they urinated. They are tales that seem to be flip sides of one another and yet ones which reflect similar underlying fears about femininity. When I was a boy, we used to terrify each other with ghost stories late at night, and nearly all of the evil ghosts were female. Two of the most frightening images I recall are the broom ghost (an evil being created when a maiden's first menstrual blood happens to pollute a yard broom) and the classic dead maiden's ghost, a figure dressed all in white with long black hair. The maiden's ghost often appears out of the center of a grave mound that splits in two. By the late 60s, when the Dracula films made it to Korea, the maiden's ghost was often depicted with long, bloody fangs. There was also the egg ghost, one whose face was entirely blank, and the ghosts of women who died after they had wrongly lost their virtue.

     In Korea in the 60's it was still common for someone traveling at night in the country to challenge a stranger with the question "Are you man or ghost?" My mother's oldest brother was said to have been enticed by a ghost when he was a young man -- that was the story of how he had gotten the wound on his foot that would never heal. Over the years he had to sell off most of his land for expensive Chinese herbal remedies and shamanic ceremonies to cure his foot, but to no avail. Western doctors had told him to amputate the foot nearly 30 years earlier, but he had stubbornly maintained his search for a cure. So when he told me my first fox demon story in a room filled with the faint odor of his festering wound, it was all the more convincing.

The Fox Sister

A long time ago there was a man who had three sons but no daughter. It was his dearest wish to have a daughter, so he went up into the mountains and prayed to the spirits. One night, after months of prayer, he was so desperate he said, "Please, Hannanim, give me a daughter even if she is a fox!"

     Soon the man discovered that his wife was pregnant, and in time she had a beautiful girl. The man was happy. But when the daughter was about six years old, strange things began to happen. Every night a cow would die, and in the morning they could never find a trace of what had killed it. So the man told his first son to keep watch one night.

     In the morning, the first son told a terrible story of what had happened. "Father, I could not believe my own eyes," he said. "It is our little sister who is killing the cattle. She came out in the middle of the night and I followed her to the cattle shed. By the moonlight I could see her as she did a little dance. Then she oiled her hand and her arm with sesame oil. She shoved her whole arm into the cow's anus and pulled out its liver. She ate it raw while the cow died without a sound. That is all I saw, father, for it was too horrible to witness any longer."

     The father was outraged. "That is not possible," he said. "Tell me the truth."

     "That is the truth, Father."

     "Then you must have had a nightmare. That means you have betrayed my trust by falling asleep when you were supposed to keep watch. Leave my sight at once! You are no longer my son!" And so he threw out his eldest son.

     Now it was the second son's turn to keep watch. Everything was fine for a month, but then when the full moon came around the same thing happened, and in the morning he made his report to his father.

     "That is not possible," said the father. "Tell me the truth."

     "That is the truth, Father."

     "Then you must have had a nightmare. That means you have betrayed my trust by falling asleep when you were supposed to keep watch. Leave my sight at once! You are no longer my son!" And so he threw out his second son.

     So it was the youngest son's turn to keep watch over his sister, and once again, everything was fine for a month. When the full moon came around, the same thing happened, but having seen the fates of his older brothers, the youngest son lied.

     "Father," he said. "Our little sister came out in the middle of the night and I followed her to the outhouse. She made water and came out again. As I passed by the cattle shed in the moonlight I saw that a cow had died. It must have been frightened by the full moon."

     "Then you have done your duty as a son should," said the father. "You shall inherit my lands when I have gone to join our ancestors."

     Meanwhile, the first two sons were no more than beggars wandering the countryside. Eventually they had both come to the top of a mountain where an old Buddhist master took them in and they studied diligently with him until their hearts grew sore to see their home again. After a year they decided to return to their village for a visit. The old master made the two brothers a gift of three magic bottles, one white, one blue, and one red. "Use these as I have instructed," he told them, "and you shall be able to defeat any foe, even that sister of yours, who is surely a fox demon."

     The brothers thanked the old monk and returned to their village to find it entirely deserted. When they reached their house they found the roof in terrible disrepair and the yard overgrown with weeds. Inside, the paper panels on the doors were all in tatters. They found their sister all alone.

     "Where is everyone? Where is father? Where is our youngest brother? Where is mother?" they asked.

     "They're all dead," said the sister. She didn't explain, but the brothers knew why. "I'm all alone now," she said. "Brothers, won't you stay with me?"

     "No," they said. "We must be on our way. There is nothing for us here."

     "Why, it's nearly dark," said the sister. "Won't you at least stay the night?"

     They reluctantly agreed, and somehow the sister prepared them a fabulous meal with wine that night. They were suspicious, and they planned to take turns keeping watch that night, but they had been so starved during their year of poverty that they ate and drank their fill and soon they were fast asleep. In the middle of the night the older brother awoke suddenly with a full bladder. He thought his younger brother was still eating -- it sounded like someone chewing -- so he turned over in annoyance to tell him to stop. In the moonlight he saw the table still in the room, their leftovers strewn about. But instead of white rice, what he saw were maggots. Instead of wine, there were cups of blood. Instead of turnip kimchi there were severed human fingers. He sat up in horror, realizing what he had eaten, and then he saw what was making the noise -- it was his sister straddling his dead brother's body, chewing on his bloody liver.

     "Did you sleep well, dear oldest brother?" she said. "I need only one more, and then I will be a human being."

      The oldest brother leaped from his sleeping mat and ran out of the house. He was still groggy from the enchanted food, and he stumbled and staggered as he ran down the road in the moonlight. Soon his sister gave chase and she easily caught up to him. Remembering the old Buddhist monk's instructions, the brother took the white bottle and threw it behind him. Suddenly, in a puff of smoke, a vast thicket of thorn bushes blocked the sister's way. She was trapped for a moment, but then she changed into her original form -- that of the fox -- and easily escaped. In a short time she had caught up to him again. This time the brother took the blue bottle and threw it behind him. There was a loud splash, and a vast lake appeared. Once again the sister was trapped. She struggled to swim, but then she changed into the fox again and easily paddled ashore.

     The oldest brother was exhausted and terrified. He could run no more. He took the red bottle and he flung it at the fox, saying, "Ya! Take that!" There was a blinding flash of light, and the fox was engulfed in a ball of fire. She burned to death, screaming, and when there were only ashes left, a small, whining insect flew out. And that is how the first mosquito came into the world. And that is why both the fox and the mosquito are afraid of grass fires.

     Even now it is hard for me to take a dispassionate view of the story -- I still find it rather frightening. In retrospect, as a folklorist, I can see how this particular fox demon story combines several common motifs found throughout Asia and Europe: the three magic bottles, the disowned brothers, the corrupt youngest son, the origin of the mosquito. But as a child, I found the story truly terrifying, particularly because we did not have an indoor toilet, and I dreaded the thought of having to go out into the night to the outhouse.

     The ideology imbedded in the story was not apparent to me then, but now it is quite transparent. Note how the mother is mentioned twice but never really appears in the story (she gave birth to the fox daughter, and her job is done). In many folk tales, the absence of the mother places the daughter at special risk, or highlights her distinct role in the family, often casting her as a representative for women in general. Note also how in advocating for his daughter, the father disowns his two oldest sons, the very ones at the top of the order of inheritance. It is no accident that it is the female -- the daughter/fox -- that ruins the household. These particulars are all in keeping with a cautionary message to the Confucian listener. In a culture in which the old Confucian saying, "Namjon Yobi" ("Man high, woman low") is still invoked today, the message of this tale is quite clear: To irrationally keep a daughter at the expense of one's sons is to bring ruin upon the family.

     In order to make its point, the story invokes one of the most feared feminine figures, the fox demon, and pits it against the most desired male figure, the eldest son, who happens to be the hero of the tale. To remind the listener that the fox has not been entirely vanquished, the story explains the origin of the blood-sucking mosquito by linking it to the fox demon. This seems simply a clever narrative twist at first, but keep in mind that it also serves a rather pointed ideological function. In Korea, summers tend to be mosquito-infested (even today) because of the rice paddies. The ending of the story ensures that every time someone is bitten by a (female!) mosquito, they recall the cautionary tale that idealizes sons and demonized daughters. It serves as a sharply honed ideological tool disguised as entertainment and tradition.

     Of course, foxes in Korean folk tales are not always female, but they are predominantly so, and almost always evil. They are generally seductive creatures that entice unwary scholars and travelers with the lure of their sexuality and the illusion of their beauty and riches. They drain the men of their yang -- their masculine force -- and leave them dissipated or dead (much in the same way La Belle Dame Sans Merci in Keats's poem leaves her parade of hapless male victims). In Korean the term for fox, "yowu," also refers to a conniving and cunning woman, quite similar to the term "vixen" in English, which is not quite as pejorative. Although Americans will use the modifier "foxy" to describe an attractive woman, Koreans would only use that term for its negative connotations.
"Kitsune" by Ann B. Dalton, © 1999
by Ann B. Dalton, © 1999
     Korean fox lore, which comes from China (from sources probably originating in India and overlapping with Sumerian lamia lore) is actually quite simple compared to the complex body of fox culture that evolved in Japan. The Japanese fox, or kitsune, probably due to its resonance with the indigenous Shinto religion, is remarkably sophisticated. Whereas the arcane aspects of fox lore are only known to specialists in other East Asian countries, the Japanese kitsune lore is more commonly accessible. Tabloid media in Tokyo recently identified the negative influence of kitsune possession among members of the Aum Shinregyo (the cult responsible for the sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway). Popular media often report stories of young women possessed by demonic kitsune, and once in a while, in the more rural areas, one will run across positive reports of the kitsune associated with the rice god, Inari.

     We tend not to draw close parallels between such distant Asian lore and the folklore in the American backyard, but it is not difficult to trace the fox lore directly to more universal themes about dangerous women. In Korea, for example, there is a figure parallel to that of the fox demon -- the snake woman, called "sa-nyo" (by coincidence, the word "sa" happens to be a homophone for snake and death). In Eastern Europe, and even in England, the snake woman, or "lamia," is a well-known figure associated with images that are almost precisely parallel to those of the fox demon. In his poem "Lamia," the Romantic poet John Keats wrote: "Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!/She had a woman's mouth with all its pearls complete: /And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there/But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?" The lamia is known for seducing men and then devouring them, also for stealing infants to drink their blood. The original Lamia, according to the Greek tales, was a Libyan queen who had an affair with Zeus. She was transformed into the snake-like monster by Zeus's jealous wife, Hera.

     As one can see, the lamia is associated with vampires, particularly in the Mediterranean, and she is often associated with Lilith, "the mother of all demons," who is often said to be the first vampire. In western lore, Lilith was the original dangerous woman. She is the first wife of Adam who refused to be subservient to him. For refusing to take the bottom position in their lovemaking, God cast her out of the Garden of Eden and transformed her into a demon who, ironically, often shows up in images of the Garden of Eden as a serpent with breasts. Lilith is also known, in Jewish lore, to steal infants at night to devour them. Her spirit is said to abide in mirrors, able to possess girls and women who look too frequently or too long at their reflections. This last feature is probably designed to discourage vanity in Jewish women, but it also suggests a possible origin to the connection between vampires and the lack of a reflection. (In some East Asian fox demon stories, there is a parallel connection to reflections: the mirror will show the fox's true form or the fox, in human form, will cast no reflection.)

     Dangerous women, traced from the earliest written Sumerian sources east to Japan and west to the Americas, are a commonplace of patriarchal cultures regardless of how liberal or oppressive they happen to be. The polarizing of female figures in folklore into the unreachable ideal on the one hand and the demonized vampire/snake/fox seductress on the other hand serves as subtle means of social control. One need not look far in current popular culture to find numerous examples of the latter category: Natasha Henstridge in the "Species" films, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, the B starlet-of-the-week in the "Poison Ivy" series, Theresa Russell in Black Widow; and of course, every daytime and nighttime soap has its version of the fox demon.

     In recent years there has been a conscious move, on the part of women writers, to reclaim and reimagine these negative images. Consider the works of Angela Carter (especially the transformed fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber), the series of new adult fairy tales edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow, the phenomenally popular New Age women's self help book, Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. And finally, the most recent among these phenomena, the Lilith Fair. (Lots of dangerous women on stage and in the audience, according to some male music critics.)

     Unfortunately, in Korea, things aren't quite as optimistic. One of the major domestic box office hits in recent years was the first Korean film in which CGI effects were used in a morphing sequence. It was a woman turning into a fox demon.

*       *       *

Further Reading:


Tales of Times Now Past: Sixty-two Stories from a Medieval Japanese Collection, translated and edited by Marian Ury (Japanese folk tales, including several about kitsune).
Mercury Rising: Women, Evil and the Trickster Gods, by Deldon Anne McNeely
Kitsune: Japan's Fox of Mystery, Romance, and Humour, by Kiyoshi Nozaki (out of print, but well worth tracking down)
Lilith's Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural, edited by Howard Schwartz
The Alphabet of Ben Sira, translated by Norman Bronznick, et al. (The origins of Lilith.)

The Dream Hunters, by Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano
The Fox Woman, by Kij Johnson
When Fox Was a Thousand, by Larissa Lai
"The Fox Wife" by Ellen Steiber in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears, edited by Datlow & Windling
The Shadow of the Fox by Ellen Steiber (for children)

About the Author:

Heinz Insu Fenkl is the author of Memories of My Ghost Brother and other works.

Copyright © 1999 by Heinz Insu Fenkl. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 1999. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.

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