The fox is a fascinating symbol, a cunning predator whose small size makes it both predator and prey in the great pyramid of the hunters and the hunted. Not at the apex as a killer, but never to be taken lightly as a carnivore or omnivore. Shape shifter, cunning trickster, and traveller of the twilight hours, the fox emerges as a symbol of magic and luck, both good and bad. Men have often identified with the fox and its cousin, the coyote. Never as powerful or as omnipotent as apex predators like the wolf, the bear, the lion and the shark, like the fox we humans succeed by our wits and skill, our cunning and our guile. Mental agility trumps brawn. The success of the fox can be judged in part by its widespread distribution all over the world.
Intelligent, agile and charming, the fox became a symbol of wildness and diplomacy. Being a nocturnal creature, adept at maneuvering in the dark, and in the twilight hours of dawn & dusk, the fox entered myth and folklore as a messenger of the gods and as a communicator between souls of the living and the dead. The fox was the great go-between and intermediary. The ability of the Arctic fox to change its colouring with the seasons, brown in Spring & Summer, white in Fall & Winter, made it a familiar of shamans and medicine man and leant greater credence to the foxes’ reputation as a messenger between the conscious & unconscious worlds, the Spirit World and Reality.
Known for its ability to evade angry farmers by blending into its surroundings, the fox earned a reputation as a trickster and a creature with powers of invisibility. Clever and swift, the fox could outwit predators by circling, crossing, and doubling back on his tracks, causing havoc with the hunter and his hounds. As a hunter itself, the fox ‘charms’ its prey by whirling and prancing about until it has a captive audience — then the wily creature will pounce. The prey, literally, “out-foxed”. And in the end, a tasty meal for the wily fox.
Throughout the ancient world, the fox has been associated with supernatural powers, prompting humans to solicit its help in seeking favours from the gods. Many ancient cultures had fox deities that symbolized power and stealth. The Greeks had their Teumessian Fox that could never be caught. It was sent by the gods to prey on the children of Thebes as punishment for some national outrage. Ancient Egyptians had their mythical shape-shifting beast named Thaloc, who possessed the power to steal human souls and converse with both angels and demons.
In pre-Christian Europe, the fox was a symbol of the gods of the forest, mountain and vegetation. Spring and winter solstice celebrations saw sacrifices made to the fox, who stood for fertility. The Scandinavians called him ‘Fire Fox’ and referred to the Northern Lights as ‘fox fires’. When thunder rolled overhead, ‘the fox was brewing’.
Folklore generally depicts the fox as intelligent, but due to its nocturnal adventures it became identified with evil, death, and the night, sometimes replacing the cat as a witch’s ‘familiar’, it’s attendant spirit. During the hysteria of the medieval witch-hunting eras, attempts were made to exterminate it.
According to Chinese legend, the shape-shifter fox could transform into a dangerous seductress. Tales of the ‘were-fox’ appear in Chinese and Asian folk tales along with the superstition that the fox could extend its life by feeding off human souls. But, in Japan, the fox was revered as a messenger of Shinto rice deities, as well as being a symbol of transformation.
The fox appeared in medieval stories as a creature with a disregard for social mores. His habit of raiding the chicken coop, plus his popularity as a hunt animal for the nobility, made him an obvious symbol. He was probably never more notorious than in the ‘Reynard’ stories from France, when he used his guile to ‘outfox’ the nobility. Crimes of rape, robbery and seduction often went unpunished because of his cleverness, making him a symbol of the sly and sophisticated devil.
In children’s stories, the fox often appeared as kind and helpful. Native American stories of the fox depict him as a friend of humans, as when he dipped his tail in the flames, thereby stealing fire from the fire goddess as a gift to the people.
Of all the Aesop’s Fables, one of the best known tells of the fox frustrated in his attempt to reach grapes hanging on the overhead vine. “They’re probably sour, anyway,” grumbled the fox. From then on, ‘sour grapes’ meant scoffing at something you cannot have.
But beautiful women are known as ‘foxy’, lithe, lean and with just an air of danger about them and in general we think of comparisons to a fox as generally positive character attributes, as in ‘smart as a fox’.
See also: Animal Tattoo Gallery