Kitsune Mythology in Inari Shrines
As a deity, Inari is one of the most confusing kami of the Japanese Shinto/Buddhism tradition. Primarily, Inari is known as the god of rice and agriculture, but also of fertility, tea, sake, industry, general prosperity, and success. At one point, Inari was also the god of swordsmiths and merchants. Inari is also sometimes seen as male, female, both, or neither. But, there is one other thing that Inari is known for and that is foxes.
Inari is known as the god of foxes, called kitsune, in Japanese mythology. No one is really quite sure how Inari became associated with these creatures, but its said because foxes eat rats which eat rice which is Inari’s principal protection. Another reason is said because foxes were popularly seen around rice fields which lent themselves to be the messenger of the rice god. Another reason is a popular folktale that one night, a pair of foxes took shelter in an Inari temple and had kits there. And because of Inari’s protection, the foxes became his messengers.
Kitsunes are said to have a variety of powers and abilities. They range from shapeshifting, possession, illusions, will-o-wisp (kitsune-bi), talking, and other things. They also commonly have a small ball or jewel called a hoshi-no-tama that supposedly stores some of their powers in or their soul or the soul of their victim, etc. Kitsunes are also said to be mischievous, quick to anger, holds grudges for lifetime, and are generally female. Common stories include them sleeping with men in order to steal their life force because they are technically spirits and can’t hold a form for long periods of time without some form of energy or sometimes, they just want to start families with them.
A variety of kitsune mythology can be seen connected to Inari shrines. The shrines commonly depict white fox statues in their shrines because white foxes (also called myobu; a term also meaning “lady” that came from a legend concerning kitsunes, or celestial foxes) are said to be the messengers. Meanwhile, nogitsune, are its counterparts; black foxes (also meaning “field foxes”) that cause mayhem and aren’t connected to Inari. Apparently some Inari shrines actually used to have real foxes at their shrines and a common myth is that a white female fox protects one level of the shrine, and the black, male fox protects the other level (although the black fox is not a nogitsune).
White is seen as a symbol of purity, while black is the opposite, and red is seen as a color of good fortune and happiness. White might also be associated with the foxes because Inari sometimes the same as the Dakiniten, a Buddhist deity, or Benzaiten, one of the Japanese Seven Lucky Gods. Dakiniten is sometimes portrayed as riding on a flying white fox. So this association might be another reason why foxes and the color white goes hand-in-hand with Inari.
Along with their hoshi-no-tama, the fox statues at Inari shrines will also usually come in pairs (one female and one male) and in their mouths or under their paws, they will hold jewels (a symbol that grants wishes), scrolls, keys, or another symbolic object. They also sometimes might have red bibs (called yodarekake) on that are commonly seen on other types of statues in Japanese Shinto Shrines or Buddhist Temples. They apparently have especially become associated with Inari Foxes because the color is similar to that of the vermilion torii gates. And each statue, even if they come in pairs, is uniquely different from each other like the way each fox in real life as a different personality.
Inari foxes are connected with specific foods in Japan as well, and they are not only popular to eat, but they are also offered at shrines for devotees to offer to the foxes. Inari-zushi or sushi rolls of rice-packed fried tofu, are popular to eat and to offer to the foxes. Despite that tofu isn’t a food that foxes would normally eat in the wild, it is said to be a favorite of the foxes. The food might even have become associated with the foxes due to its ear-shaped corners.
In Kitsune folklore, stories often say that if you help a fox, the fox will go out of its way to reward you many times over. They might save your life or help enrich it in some way (although if a fox offers you coins or some kind of material goods, you should avoid it because it is probably a trick and is actually a leaf). But if you hurt a fox or make it mad, the fox will come back and do its best to ruin you. So it's probably for the best that one helps to offer the statues food in case a fox decides to seek revenge for some slight.
And due to their strong association with Inari, kitsune are sometimes worshipped as the god themselves. Priests are said to have to actively discourage people from this practice as the two are separate.
Due to Inari being a popular deity of Shinto religion, kitsune and their mythology has grown to being not just a religious icon, but also a pop culture one as well that as spread to even outside of Japan. For those looking to learn more about kitsunes, visiting an Inari temple is a great way to learn more about the god and it's messengers.
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