Several years ago, inspired in part by my own heritage, I started down the path of writing an urban fantasy story based on Korean mythology. When I began researching the different myths and monsters from the region, the kumiho stood out more to me than just about any of the others. The kumiho is a nine-tailed fox spirit that aspires to be human but must subsist on human victims. I thought the lore was similar, in some ways, to that of a vampire, and I immediately wanted to find a way to integrate a character like this into my own story.
Korea’s kumiho is similar to the Huli jing of China or, perhaps the even more well known, Kitsune of Japan. Like the fox spirits of these cultures, the kumiho has nine-tails and the ability to shapeshift into a human. Fox spirits in all cultures have also been known to wield other kinds of magic or have some understanding of different forms of sorcery.
In the folktale “The Salt Peddler and The White Fox,” a kumiho seems to use magic both to transform herself and to make her victim sick. She takes on the appearance of an old woman by wearing a human skull on her head, and then she makes her victim sickly through strange shamanistic magic. Fortunately a salt peddler saw her transform from a fox into a human, and so he intervenes to stop the kumiho before she can hurt her prey.
While fox spirits in Chinese and Japanese mythology are portrayed as both friendly and fearsome, the kumiho is almost always portrayed as malevolent. She is also always female, where fox spirits from other cultures can be portrayed as both sexes. In order to sustain her unnatural life, the kumiho feasts on the livers or hearts of human victims.
The famous Korean tale “The Fox Sister” shows just how destructive a kumiho can be. After a father prays to have a daughter, he ends up with a girl who is a kumiho. The daughter feasts on the family’s live stock and eventually kills off the entire family except for the oldest brother who is able to defeat her.
The ability for animals to transcend their wild state and become human is a popular theme in Korean mythology. Korea’s first mythical king, Dangun Wanggeom, is said to be the offspring of a bear who transformed into a woman with the help of a god. The kumiho generally seeks to do the same thing, though through different means. In some tales, like “The Fox Sister,” she is able to become human if she eats enough human hearts or livers. In other tales she must abstain from her normal diet for a certain period of time before ascending from the yokwe (monster) state.
In my story Nine Tails I created my own twist on the legend by requiring the kumiho to find a magical pendant, related to Dangun, that will transform her into a human. She wishes to do this in part because she is tired of living as a monster and in part because it is the only way to free herself from the gwishin (ghosts) of her victims who haunt her.
In order to obtain the pendant, she must make a deal with the pendant’s owner, doing the woman’s dirty work in order to get the item she needs. However, things get more complicated as she starts to make truly human connections for the first time with the people she’s been sent to hunt.
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