In a Western forest, when you see lights drifting over your path and beckoning into darkness, you might call them a will-o’-the-wisp. And you should know better than to follow them.
If you should see them in the Dead Marshes, you really should not follow them.
If you see these lights in an Eastern forest, they might be hitodama (a sort of soul fire from the dead) or kitsune-bi (foxfire). And while neither is malevolent like the little candles of the Dead Marshes, they do merit caution.
Kitsune-bi is a floating ball of fire, burning cool and often blue-green. It is manipulated by foxes and is commonly seen during fox processions, during kitsune gatherings or events.
Stationary foxfire as described in Western folklore is caused by bio-luminescent fungus. The Japanese version was reported to actually travel, more like the Western will-o’-the-wisp. It is much less commonly seen now, perhaps even never. It has been suggested that the extensive logging of the twenty-first century destroyed the native forest phenomenon caused the floating luminescent spheres. We may never know what natural cause provided centuries of supernatural folklore.
One time when kitsune-bi was supposed to occur was during a fox wedding procession. During the Muromachi period (a little after the time of Naka no Yoritomo and his household), a bride was escorted to her husband’s home by a lamplight parade. It was an easy leap to suppose that kitsune did the same, supplying their own light.
Another marker of a fox wedding was a sunshower, or rain falling from a clear, sunny sky. When this occurred, it was said that a fox was marrying.
I have read that Masaoka Shiki, a very influential poet of the late twentieth century, wrote:
“When rain falls from a blue sky, in the Hour of the Horse, the Great Fox King takes his bride.”
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to verify that this poem is indeed from him. Your input is welcome, if anyone can help me out!
The day that Kitsune-Tsuki was released, a sunshower occurred at my house. Cool, huh?