INARI; POWER OF THE FOX
“Foxy Lady!”…Jimi Hendrix
“I am the fox. You may not always see me. But I always see you.”…Z. Demers, at age 9.
The fox materialized out of the pine trees and mist and stared at us. We stared back, mesmerized at its ghostly form. A swath of mist swirled between us and the fox and the fox…evaporated. Our experience in Yosemite with a fox was not an unusual sort of encounter with this elusive, mysterious creature, which is why the fox represents sorcery in many cultures.
In Japan, the fox is messenger, totemic animal and alter ego of Inari, the kami, or deity, of abundance, rice, fertility, sorcery, and the love which transcends death. As befits a shape-shifter, Inari is sometimes shown as male, sometimes female, sometimes androgynous, sometimes as the sacred marriage or divine couple. And sometimes, Inari appears as a wily fox, or ‘kitsune’, usually shown with its white winter coat (a white fox in the snow is particularly invisible.) Inari is most commonly depicted as an old man carrying a container of rice, or as a seductive young woman, long hair flowing, often seated on a fox, carrying a sheaf of rice. She has been known to appear as a snake or dragon, and even, in one folk-tale, as an enormous spider.
Inari’s original shrine, at a sacred mountain in Fushima, just south of Kyoto, dates from 711 A.D., though her worship probably dates back to the dawn of agriculture. The name, Inari, derives from the words’ ine-nari’ (growing rice). By the 16th century, Inari was said to be the patron of warriors and blacksmiths. Smiths are suspected, cross-culturally, of trafficking in the realms of magic for their ability to turn raw metal into swords, plows, and myriads of other useful items. On the coast Inari was invoked to protect fishermen, in crowded Edo, to prevent fires. She also became the favored deity of actors and prostitutes (shape-shifters of a less exalted variety). She began to be worshipped as ‘Desire-fulfilling Inari’, a deity of general good fortune and prosperity. A common proverb was; ‘Byo Kobo, yoku Inari’; ‘For sickness, pray to Kobu, for desires, pray to Inari.’
However, people had been praying to Inari for healing, robust health, and, most especially, children, for centuries. In my historical novel, White as Bone, Red as Blood; The Fox Sorceress, set in 12th century Japan. the main character, Fujiwara Seiko performs magical rites to help her friend the Empress conceive the long-awaited son and heir;
“As I am lying beside her later, I tell her what I have heard, and how I felt her womb opening in response to the call. I do not know if the child will be born within the year, or merely conceived within that span of time.
“Oh how wonderful! Will it be a son?” she asks.
“I don’t know. That’s all I heard, ‘within a year’”
“Wild foxes run in your blood,” she says excitedly. “If anyone can trick this recalcitrant womb of mine into opening, it will be you.”
“Inari’s key can open your gates,” I promise. I press the key I carry around my neck against her belly, over her womb. The key to the granary can unlock the storehouse of our hopes and dreams, to grant us the harvest that we crave most. For all of us, the harvest of children, sons and daughters, is what we most deeply desire. And for all of us, the harvest of this child in particular, the young sun god who can turn back the tide of darkness, is the most crucial of all.
In the Tokugawa period, when coins replaced rice koku as wages and the measure of wealth, Inari shape-shifted into a deity of finance, business and industry of every sort. The Ginja mint struck coins meant for offerings to Inari which featured the images of two foxes, Inari’s wonder-working jewel, and the characters for long life and good luck.
Today, Inari is one of the most popular of the hundreds of Japanese kami still honored today. Approximately thirty-two thousand shrines, more than one third of all Shinto shrines in modern Japan, are dedicated to Inari. While researching my White as Bone, Red as Blood series in Japan, I observed many businessmen being blessed at Inari’s main shrine in Fushima.
Red, widely associated with the life-giving blood of the feminine, is Inari’s color. Her shrines are marked with vermilion Torii, sacred gates representing both the birth passage, and the gate on which a bird perched to sing the Sun Goddess from her cave to save the earth from darkness. The main shrine at Fushima has thousands of Torii winding up the hill like a snake’s vertebrae, planted so close together it is like passing through a scarlet tunnel. A pair of fox statues representing the sacred marriage of male and female flank most Inari shrines. These foxes generally hold a spiral shaped key (the key to Inari’s storeroom) and Inari’s magic jewel either in their mouths or under a front paw. Less commonly they may hold a scroll, a fox kit or a sheaf of rice. While the foxes are usually seen as white, they are often decorated with a red scarf around their necks. White in Japan represents the spirit world, and a deity’s messenger animals are usually depicted as white. Inari’s kitsune are thought to grow in power as they age, and to be nearly immortal. At one hundred years they grow a tail and gain the ability to shape-shift and place humans in a state of spirit-possession. The most powerful foxes reach an age of 1,000 years. By then they have acquired nine tails, their fur has turned silver or gold, and they can know all human thoughts,
Kitsune are tricksters, much like the coyote tricksters of many Native American cutures. (Strangely, Inari is the word for ‘gray fox’ in the Cherokee language.) Inari’s foxes often appear as enchantresses who seduce and deceive men who have selfish and evil intentions, yet they also protect and reward the brave, innocent, and those who seek to purify their hearts. To dream of a fox is to receive a powerful portent. They are often seen as omniscient, able to penetrate everyone’s thoughts and predict the future. At one time, Inari Priestesses would have been consulted to go into trance and share their visions of how to restore harmony and balance and propitiate the appropriate spirits in order to create the desired outcome.
Foxes kill mice and birds which steal the grain, which makes them the protectors of Inari as well as her messengers. At the Inari shrine in Fushima, two food items are offered to succor the weary traveler—Inari zushi (balls of sushi wrapped with sweet tofu wrappers) and barbequed sparrows. A foxes feast indeed! Inari sushi is said to be one of a fox’s favorite foods—the perky corners of the tofu wrapping are supposed to resemble a fox’s ears. It may seem odd for a fox’s favorite food to be fried sweetened tofu, but it is true that foxes favor fruit and other sweets.
Like most earth Goddesses, Inari has many faces; She is not all prosperity and tricks. She is also the Goddess of the love that survives death. Near the opening of my novel, White as Bone, Red as Blood; The Fox Sorceress, Seiko’s mother, Fujiwara Fujuri, an Inari Priestess, sets Seiko on the course which will determine her life:
She is wearing a plain dark outer kimono with white on the inside. She has a charm in the shape of one of Inari’s keys around her neck, a gold stalk ending in a squared-off spiral. It represents the key to Inari’s storeroom, the key to every sort of abundance, and Mother has told me it is very old. She takes it off and puts it around my neck.
“Always remember that you are a daughter of Inari.”
“And a daughter of Fujuri,” I reply proudly.
We hug. All the different incenses and herbs she works with have woven their scents into her hair. In just the right light, the raven black of her hair has rainbows in it. If one could get close enough to a rainbow, it would probably smell just like this.
“It is up to you to preserve the true line of Inari. You must care for Tokushi, and protect her. If the line goes through her womb, Japan will thrive.”
“But—you told Lady Kiyomori it would happen—“
“It will be up to you to make sure that it happens. And to watch over the child so that he understands and flowers into his purpose. That is why I have given you the key to Inari’s storeroom. Inari does not just keep grain in her storeroom, does she?”
I shake my head.
“What else does she keep?”
“Yes, the magic. Without the magic, there is no harvest. And what is the roots of magic?”
“Love,” I say, proud to know the correct answer.
“Yes. Inari is the Kami of the love which transcends death.” She gazes into my eyes with pure, serene love.
“Love doesn’t die, Seiko.”
I nod. “I know.”
“Whenever you feel lost or uncertain, follow the love. Love can be wily and deceptive, like the fox. But you are a Priestess of love. The bigger love.”
She pauses, and the way she looks into my eyes makes me feel like she can see everything in my brain.
“Daughter, Japan hovers on the edge of a time of darkness. Only love can lead us back to Amaterasu, back to the light, understand?”
I nod, feeling as I did once at the seashore with the seafoam licking my toes, looking out at the great heaving, unknowable expanse of ocean beyond its edge of tingling froth.
“You must learn to be strong, daughter. You must learn not to forget who you really are.”
Whether you crave the playful magic of the fox, eternal love, or abundance beyond your wildest dreams, Inari is your Goddess. Thank her the next time you enjoy a sushi dinner, invoke her with a traditional offering of cooked rice and sake (rice wine) before beginning a project, conceiving a child, or bedding your lover. And when it rains while the sun is shining, remember that in Japan they call such a condition ‘a foxes wedding’ and enjoy the mysterious, ever-changing face of Inari.