Inari, spirit of abundance, fertility, growth, and rice, may be Japan’s most popular kami. Over one-third of all Shinto shrines are dedicated to Inari, and that’s not counting innumerable roadside and domestic shrines plus those set up in rice fields. One count suggests over forty thousand official shrines.
Inari is a mysterious, adaptable deity, venerated by Shintos, Buddhists, shamans, and independent practitioners. Inari manifests as female, male, neither, or both. Inari is extremely closely identified with foxes, although whether the fox is merely her messenger, mount, or a form of Inari is subject of bitter, passionate debate.
It is unclear which is the original form of Inari. It’s not clear that there is an original form: it’s possible that different spirits have been subsumed under that one name. The earliest documentation of Inari worship dates back to 711 CE, but scholars believe veneration began centuries before on Inari Mountain near Kyoto. The earliest form of Inari seems to have been a shamanic rice goddess. Under the influence of Buddhism, more sober male forms became prevalent; however, Inari, like her totem animal, is a shape-shifter: all forms may belong to Inari equally. Buddhists also associate Inari with the Bodhisattva Dakiniten.
Originally a rural spirit, Inari made an easy transition to urbanization. Geishas, samurai, prostitutes, and merchants were among those who promoted and spread her worship. Inari is petitioned for luck, wealth, abundance, good health, babies, and easy childbirth. There is little that Inari cannot provide or for which s/he is not petitioned. Inari is renowned for granting wishes of devotees and was once counted among the Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Spirits of Good Fortune. They will happily share altar space together.
• Merchants and shopkeepers maintain shrines in their place of business.
• Inari traditionally guards and blesses bordellos and pleasure houses.
• Inari may be petitioned to heal any illness, but her speciality is venereal disease.
• Inari provides fire safety and is invoked for protection especially during earthquakes.
Inari in her feminine aspect is intensely involved with sex, fertility, reproduction, and the magical arts, not just agricultural abundance. She is also identified with ironworking.
Inari has close associations with Japanese fox spirits (Kitsune). Some theorize that she was originally a fox goddess herself. Others are highly offended at the notion and insist that the fox whose image is ubiquitous at Inari shrines is merely her mount. Cases of Fox Spirit possession have traditionally been healed and exorcised at Inari shrines, as have cases of tanuki spirit possession. Inari protects people from foxes but is also the guardian of foxes. Devotees cannot wear fox fur without incurring her wrath.
Inari is incredibly benevolent and generous, but s/he does have a temper and expresses zero-tolerance for disrespect. Any being powerful enough to save lives, grant fertility, and fortune is also capable of causing harm if angered. It’s crucial to always be polite in her presence or at an Inari shrine and never cause harm to foxes. If harm is caused accidentally, apologize profusely and expiate immediately. Any fox may be Inari’s messenger.
Author Karen Smyers analyzes the different facets of Inari worship in her book, The Fox and the Jewel (University of Hawaii Press, 1999).
Inari may or may not be the same spirit as Dakiniten. Dakiniten is the Japanese path of a fox-riding Dakini, worshipped in Buddhist Inari shrines. Dakiniten is envisioned as a beautiful Bodhisattva carrying rice and riding on a flying white fox. Her icons are believed to stimulate personal fertility and provide protection and wealth.
Farmers, merchants, retailers, shopkeepers, courtesans, sex workers, warriors, samurai; artisans, those who treat foxes kindly or work on their behalf; because of the traditional enmity between foxes and dogs, some suggest that those born in the Year of the Dog are not favoured, but this is a controversial point and others disagree.
Inari is depicted in many forms:
• A sexy woman holding sheaves of rice
• An old man carrying bales of rice
• A white fox
• A fox in the garb of a Shinto or Buddhist priest
• A beautiful woman riding a white fox
Key, wish-granting jewel, rice
Fox, and to a lesser degree snakes and dragons
Cryptomeria (Japanese cedar), pine
Offerings to Inari traditionally coincide with the new and full moons; she is celebrated at the Autumnal Equinox in conjunction with the harvest.
A favourite is Inarizushi, fried aburaage (tofu) stuffed with rice, described as “sushi pockets”; lots of sake; rice; rice with red beans; rice cakes stuffed with red bean paste; incense; traditional Inari fox statuettes (always given in pairs: male and female); acts on behalf of foxes; pilgrimage; donation of red Torii gate for an Inari shrine
- Fox Spirits
- Shichi Fukujin
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by: Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.