In the middle of the night the older brother awoke suddenly with a full bladder. He thought his younger brother was still eating – it sounded like someone chewing – so he turned over in annoyance to tell him to stop. In the moonlight he saw the table still in the room, their leftovers strewn about. But instead of white rice, what he saw were maggots. Instead of wine, there were cups of blood. Instead of turnip kimchi there were severed human fingers. He sat up in horror, realizing what he had eaten, and then he saw what was making the noise – it was his sister straddling his dead brother’s body, chewing on his bloody liver.
Originating in ancient Chinese myths dating back centuries, the Korean gumiho (pronounced “goo-me-hoe”) shares many similarities to the Chinese huli jing and the Japanese kitsune. All explain fox spirits as being the result of great longevity or the accumulation of energy, with gumiho said to be foxes who have lived for a thousand years, and give them the power of shape-shifting, usually appearing in the guise of a woman. However, while huli jing and kitsune are often depicted with ambiguous moral compasses, possibly good or bad, the gumiho is almost always treated as a malignant figure who feasts on human flesh. It is unclear at which point in time Koreans began viewing the gumiho as a purely evil creature, since many ancient texts mention benevolent gumiho assisting humans (and even make mentions of wicked humans tricking kind but naïve gumiho). In later literature, kumiho were often depicted as a bloodthirsty half-fox, half-human creatures that wandered cemeteries at night, digging human hearts out from graves. The fairy tale The Fox Sister depicts a fox spirit preying on a family for livers.
Most legends state that while a gumiho was capable of changing its appearance, there is still something persistently fox-like about it (i.e. a fox-like face, a set of ears, or the tell-tale nine tails) or a magical way of forcing; its countenance changes, but its nature does not. In Transformation of the Gumiho (구미호의 변신), a gumiho transforms into an identical likeness of a bride at a wedding and is only discovered when her clothes are removed. Bakh Mun-su and the Gumiho (박문수와 구미호) records an encounter that Pak Munsu has with a girl, living alone in the woods, that has a fox-like appearance. In The Maiden who Discovered a Gumiho through a Chinese Poem (한시로 구미호를 알아낸 처녀), the gumiho is ultimately revealed when a hunting dog catches the scent of a fox and attacks. Although they have the ability to change forms, the true identity of a gumiho was said to be zealously guarded by the gumiho themselves.
Some tales say that if a gumiho abstains from killing and eating humans for a thousand days, it can become human. Others, like the drama Gumiho: Tale of the Fox’s Child, say that a kumiho can become human if the man who sees her true nature keeps it a secret for ten years.
Much like werewolves or vampires in Western lore, there are always variations on the myth depending on the liberties that each story takes with the legend. One version of the mythology, however, holds that with enough will, a gumiho could further ascend from its yokwe (monster) state and become permanently human and lose its evil character. Explanations of how this could be achieved vary, but sometimes include aspects such as refraining from killing or tasting meat for a thousand days, or obtaining a cintamani and making sure that the Yeoiju saw the full moon at least every month during the ordeal. Unlike Yeoiju-wielding dragons, gumiho were not thought to be capable of omnipotence or creation at will, since they were lesser creatures.