The Kumiho (구미호), or Gumiho*, is a nine-tailed fox spirit. In Korean tradition foxes that have lived for a thousand years, accumulating a great deal of energy, turn into Kumiho. The Kumiho is similar to other fox creatures, such as the Japanese kitsune and Chinese huli jing. Though they have similar magical abilities and longevity, Kumiho are more malevolent than other fox spirits. Of these long-lived legendary creatures, the Kumiho is the only fox that kills and eats humans.
The Kumiho has the supernatural ability of transforming into a human—usually a beautiful woman. Though able to shape-shift, there is still something quintessentially fox-like about a Kumiho, even in human form. A Kumiho in human form might have foxy features, pointed ears hidden beneath flowing locks, or nine tails that only become evident when a wedding dress is removed. Though able to change between human and fox forms, a Kumiho carefully guards its true identity.
Though ancient tales of the Kumiho indicate they could sometimes be helpful to humans, in modern times Kumiho are known to be evil, bloodthirsty creatures that eat human livers or hearts. The Kumiho tricks unsuspecting people in order to consume their hearts by taking the form of a human. They can sometimes be found in graveyards, where they feast on the hearts of the recently dead. In other accounts, Kumiho must consume human livers in order to attain the life force or energy of the human. The fairy tale The Fox Sister depicts a fox spirit preying on a family for livers.
Ascension to humanity
The Kumiho is bound by supernatural forces, living a life connected to humanity yet outside the human realm. Like werewolves and other shape-shifters, the Kumiho’s existence is the envy of some, but a curse to the creature. Humans and foxes alike believe that humanity is a preferable state. In Buddhism, part of the karmic ladder with which souls migrate according to spiritual merit, humans are at the summit. It’s believed that with great will a Kumiho can ascend from its yokwe (monster) state, becoming permanently human and shedding its evil disposition. Ways in which a Kumiho can become human include:
- The Kumiho must refrain from killing and eating humans (or in some tales any meat) for 1,000 days. (Korean folklore)
- A person who has found the Kumiho’s true nature, must tell no one of its secret for 10 years. (Kumiho: Tale of the Fox’s Child)
- Over a period of 100 days, the Kumiho must not show its true form to a human, take no human or animal lives, and help anyone that needs aid. If the Kumiho fails on this quest it will lose any chance of becoming human and will be a demon for 1,000 years. (Gu Family Book)
- The Kumiho must consume the livers of 1,000 men over 1,000 years. If the feat is not accomplished at the end of the 1,000 years, the Kumiho will dissolve into bubbles. (The Thousandth Man)
The Kumiho appears in ancient Korean folktales, but stories of this yokwe fox are abundant in popular culture, particularly in Korean television drama.
The webcomic The Fox Sister is based on the Korean fairy tale of the same name. The comic is set in Seoul in the late 1960s. It is the story of a young Mugyo priestess and her battle with a Kumiho. See webcomic at thefoxsister.com.
- The ongoing Korean webcomic, The God of High School, has a Kumiho character called the Nine Tails Guardian. See it at webtoons.
- In the comic A Thousand Years Ninetails (2011), 15-year-old Lee So-Yoon finds a scroll containing a Nine-tailed Fox, Banya, who seeks a monk who stole his mother’s orb. See it at mangatown.
- Laon (2006) is a 6-series comic about an odd little boy who is actually a Kumiho.
- The series Forbidden Love: The Legend of the Nine-Tailed Fox (2004) featured a kumiho who was a mild-mannered employee at a natural history museum by day, but by night she was a fierce warrior in the Nine-Tailed Fox clan who sought to preserve the delicate balance between humans and Kumiho.
- In 2010 the Korean drama My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, in which a college student accidently unleashes a Kumiho who was sealed inside a painting, was an international hit and sparked a great deal of interest in the Kumiho. Available on Viki and Hulu.
Another Kumiho-focused drama that aired in 2010 was Gumiho: Tale of the Fox’s Child, in which a Kumiho and her daughter try to find their way in the world after her husband’s indiscretion keeps them from becoming human. Available on Hulu and Viki as Grudge: The Revolt of Gumiho.
- In The Thousandth Man (2012), a Kumiho is on the path to becoming human by consuming 1000 livers, but she only has three months to consume one last liver or she will vanish. Available on Hulu.
- Gu Family Book (2013) combines historical drama with martial arts action and features the story of a legendary Kumiho who longs to be fully human. Available on Viki, Hulu, and Netflix.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Kumiho through traditional Korean folktales, check out The Salt Peddler and The White Fox, as well as The Fox Sister. These stories have traditionally been shared with the young, but as with many old fables, they are much spookier and a bit more gruesome than our modern fairy tales.
* Both Kumiho and Gumiho are correct. The spelling depends on which transcription system used. The original Korean hangul ㄱ is transcribed as G in the Revised Romanization of Korean, but in the older McCune–Reischauer system it is transcribed to K. Revised Romanization became the official transcription system in South Korea in 2000, whereas the McCune–Reischauer system is widely used outside of South Korea. North Korea continues to use a variant of the McCune–Reischauer system of Romanization.