The Fox's Craft in Japanese Religion and Folklore: Shapeshifters, Transformations, and Duplicities

The Fox's Craft in Japanese Religion and Folklore: Shapeshifters, Transformations, and Duplicities

The Fox's Craft in Japanese Religion and Folklore: Shapeshifters, Transformations, and Duplicities

The Fox's Craft in Japanese Religion and Folklore: Shapeshifters, Transformations, and Duplicities

Synopsis

For more than a millennium, the fox has been a ubiquitous figure at the margins of the Japanese collective imagination. In the writings of the nobility and the motifs of popular literature, the fox is known as a shapeshifter, able to assume various forms in order to deceive others. Focusing on recurring themes of transformation and duplicity in folklore, theology, and court and village practice, The Fox's Craft explores the meanings and uses of shapeshifter fox imagery in Japanese history. Michael Bathgate finds that the shapeshifting powers of the fox make it a surprisingly fundamental symbol in the discourse of elite and folk alike, and a key component in formulations of marriage and human identity, religious knowledge, and the power of money. The symbol of the shapeshifter fox thus provides a vantage point from which to understand the social practice of signification.

Excerpt

"The fox knows many things,
but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Archilochus, 7 century BCE

(Berlin 1993:3)

Any foray into the landscapes of Japanese religion and culture will sooner or later catch a glimpse of the fox (kitsune), darting in and out of virtually every genre of Japanese discourse and playing at the margins of virtually every field of human endeavor. From at least the ninth century to the nineteenth, in literature and in legend, in accounts of popular practice and in the documents of the elite, the figure of the fox is an almost unavoidable presence, as ubiquitous as it is multifarious. As an animal whose cries portend the future and as a magical temptress of men, as a playful spook and as a possessing spirit, as an associate of divinities and of heretic sorcerers alike, the manifold cultural and religious significance of the fox proves every bit as difficult to capture as the animal itself.

In grappling with such a complex and commonplace figure, one is quickly confronted with a troubling question of scope. As Mircea Eliade argued, "It is the scale that makes the phenomenon" (1958:xiii), and the fox-a symbol whose diverse meanings are interwoven with an equally diverse range of historical contexts-admits the study of any number of different phenomena at any number of different levels. The sources in which the fox appears-from the virtual anonymity of collected folk literature to the named-and-dated accounts of scholars and literati-frequently permit both a close reading of the discursive give-and-take

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