Have you heard of these animal spirits?

Fennec Fox – Oriental Ink Brush Painting

Rice Paper, 40cm x 40cm

By Fiona Sheng

@InkDifferent Studio | Brussels

In the oriental belief, everything in the world can be sentient, animals, flowers, trees, even rocks! You may have heard of the story of the Monkey King, he was born right out of a piece of rock that had been blessed over the thousands of the years by the sunlight, the moonlight, the air, and all the amazing essences of the various elements in the world. The moment he was born, the Monkey King’s eyes shot golden rays all the way into the heavens. The Jade Emperor was astonished, but was greatly relieved when he saw that the golden rays disappeared after monkey ate human food and drank human water.

This of course was the origin story of one of the most popular super heroes in the Eastern world. However, in the civilian world, there are more of such animal spirits that are part of the traditional belief system. Different from the birth of the Monkey King though, the most recognised five animal spirits achieved immortality via practice, during the thousands of years of hard work, they found the way, the Tao, and became immortal. They are the fox spirit, the weasel spirit, the hedgehog spirit, the snake spirit, and the rat spirit. These animal spirits are neither demons nor angels, their attitude towards human depends largely on how they have been treated. All these animal spirits could conjure human shapes, and they are very powerful. Therefore in the ordinary lives, people tend to treat these animals with great respect, so that they could enjoy the protection or at least not be harmed by them. Let us take a look at each individually.

Fox Spirit

The fox spirit is probably the most well known of the five, and the story was more popular in Japan. Since the Tang Dynasty, the fantasy stories of fox spirits have been rather wide spread, and the fox spirits often appeared as beautiful women, who usually were believed to seduce young men. However, many of the fox spirits who took female shape also fell in love, and they remained loyal to their family and devoted completely to their loved ones, and were seen as the most virtuous non-human human.

Among the various stories of the fox spirit that has been in circulation for over 1000 years in China, there was one about a “nine-tailed fox”. This was a special fox, who gained one tail every 100 years of painstaking practice, eventually receiving the most lives represented by nine tails. “9” is the heavenly number, it is also seen as the biggest number. The countries around China also have tales of the fox spirits, such as in Japan, foxes are worshipped, because they are considered the protecters of rice and crops. There are quite a few various fox spirits in Japan, some good and some bad as well. Korea and Vietnam also has similar stories involving the fox spirits.

Weasel Spirit

The weasel spirit is linked with people’s mental world according to the common belief. The people who have offended the weasel spirit would experience a malady similar to epilepsy in the physical form but would cry, mumble or sing insanely too. They would not recognise their family or friends, and there is no real cure.

Hedgehog Spirit

The hedgehog spirit is recognised to have healing powers, but it can also be harmful if offended. There are temples for them too, just like temples for any other animal spirits in this list, but the hedgehog spirit does not require complicated rituals, as long as the house owners remember to always present her with steamed buns or meat, they are satisfied. I say “her” because this spirit is often associated with the image of an older lady, who is quite often seen as a witch.

Snake Spirit

The snake spirit is ancient, and the snakes also became the models that lead to the creation of dragons. People believe that snakes are sensitive animals, they have special shapes, and they are more powerful than the fox spirits. There are many folktales involving snake spirits, and I believe that the oriental culture is rather favourable towards them instead of the neutral attitude towards the other animal spirits. One of the supporting examples would be that the two ancient ancestors who have created the world according to the oriental mythology are half human, half snake.

Rat Spirit

Finally we have the rat spirit. Rats have always been considered smart animals, they have the ability to move in the dark, making them more mysterious, and some even believed that they could predict the future, and increase the wealth.

The Chinese names of each of the animal spirits mostly are based on their colour, such as yellow spirit, white spirit and grey spirit, referring to weasel, hedgehog and rat respectively. The fox spirit uses the word fox, but the snake spirit calls it willow, as in the willow tree, perhaps because of the shape of a snake. The worship towards these spirits are no longer in practice in the general sense, but as a tradition that existed, I think it is worth mentioning.

What do you think of such folk belief though? I find it generally beautiful because the people who created them were genuine and fair – they tried to do the right things so that they could expect the right rewards. Also, there was no prejudice towards any animals, flower or plants, everything in the world had a chance to become something more if they worked hard. It reminds me of what chief Seattle once said “All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the man. The air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

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