When I offer prayers to Inari Okamisama, I try to visualise the deity in my mind’s eye. And this is not always easy, for a number of reasons.
One reason is that actual depictions of Inari are somewhat uncommon, compared with the icons and statues that exist for deities in other beliefs such as the Classical gods and goddesses, the Egyptian pantheon, the Christian saints and holy figures, and even the various Buddhist deities that one may see alongside Shinto shrines in Japan. It’s therefore hard to get a fixed image of Inari in one’s mind, and what’s more, the legends surrounding Inari depict the deity as appearing in so many different forms – an old man, a young woman similar to the Buddhist deity Dakiniten (indeed they are often conflated), a dragon, a snake, or simply a flaming jewel. In fact, the most popular image identified with Inari is the fox statue that you see in great numbers around Inari shrines in Japan.
But despite this, perceiving Inari as a fox is problematic. Shinto and Buddhist priests discourage the belief that Inari is a fox, even though so many people perceive him/her as so (and with the profusion of fox imagery surrounding Inari it’s hard not to). Perhaps this is because the fox has a somewhat shady reputation in Japan – in Japanese myths, the fox is a trickster, shape-shifter and seducer.
Another “problem” (if it is indeed a problem) is that Inari is so perfectly androgynous. No-one really debates whether Inari is male or female – he/she is simultaneously accepted as both and neither. I think this is in part thanks to the Japanese language, where it is perfectly possible to talk about someone (particularly someone you respect) without using gender-specific pronouns. It’s also a rather progressive view of the deity I think – being a powerful being, Inari transcends gender. And while I do like Inari’s androgyny, my own human failings mean that I cannot help but perceive Inari as a male or female presence sometimes.
So how do I visualise Inari? Sometimes, I see Inari as clearly a male or female force, and that image is accompanied with a particular personality. I see the male Inari as somewhat stern and proud, but with a mischievous streak, and I associate him with thunderstorms, alcohol, protection and money. As a female (which these days is my more common image of Inari), I see her as kindly, gentle, joyous and free, and I associate her with the life-giving powers of rain and crops, as well as healing and love. Somewhat amusingly, I actually see these two personalities in the two fox statues on my shrine – by coincidence, one statue seems to have a rather stern expression, while the other looks more gentle.
But I have to admit, more often than not, I do perceive Inari in my mind’s eye to be a fox (usually a white fox, which is Inari’s usual association). I realise that this isn’t “correct” in the eyes of Shinto purists, but I feel that the fox symbolises the nature of Inari so well – a complex, mysterious, and wise deity, embodying the untamed forces of Nature.