Tamamo-no-Mae (玉藻前, 玉藻の前, also 玉藻御前) is a legendary figure in Japanese mythology. In the Otogizōshi, a collection of Japanese prose written in the Muromachi period, Tamamo-no-Mae was a courtesan under the Japanese Emperor Konoe (who reigned from 1142 through 1155). She was said to be the most beautiful and intelligent woman in Japan. Tamamo-no-Mae’s body mysteriously always smelled wonderful, and her clothes never became wrinkled or dirty. Tamamo-no-Mae was not only beautiful, but she was infinitely knowledgeable in all subjects. Although she appeared to be only twenty years old, there was no question that she could not answer. She answered every question posed to her, whether about music, religion or astronomy. Because of her beauty and intelligence, everyone in the Imperial Court adored her, and Emperor Konoe fell deeply in love with her.
After some time had passed, with Konoe all the while lavishing all his affection on the beautiful Tamamo-no-Mae, the Emperor suddenly and mysteriously fell ill. He went to many priests and fortune-tellers for answers, but they had none to offer. Finally, an astrologer, Abe no Yasuchika, told the Emperor that Tamamo-no-Mae was the cause of his illness. The astrologer explained that the beautiful young woman was in fact a kind or evil (depending on the story variant being told) nine-tailed fox (kitsune Good fox spirit. nogitsune malicious fox spirit) working for an evil daimyo, who was making the Emperor ill in a devious plot to take the throne. Following this, Tamamo-no-Mae disappeared from the court.
The Emperor ordered Kazusa-no-suke and Miura-no-suke, the most powerful warriors of the day, to hunt and kill the fox. After eluding the hunters for some time, the fox appeared to Miura-no-suke in a dream. Once again in the form of the beautiful Tamamo-no-Mae, the fox prophesied that Miura-no-suke would kill it the next day, and begged for its life. Miura-no-suke refused.
Early the next day, the hunters found the fox on the Plain of Nasu, and Miura-no-suke shot and killed the magical creature with an arrow. The body of the fox became the Sessho-seki, (殺生石) or Killing Stone, which kills anyone that comes in contact with it. Tamamo-no-Mae’s spirit became Hoji and haunted the stone.
Hoji is said to have haunted this stone in Nasu until a Buddhist priest called Genno stopped for a rest near the stone and was threatened by Hoji. Genno performed certain spiritual rituals, and begged the spirit to consider her spiritual salvation, until finally Hoji relented and swore to never haunt the stone again.
In Matsuo Bashō‘s famous book The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Bashō tells of visiting the stone in Nasu.
Tamamo-no-Mae’s legend forms the basis of both the noh drama Sessho-seki (“The Killing Stone“) and the kabuki play Tamamo-no-Mae (or The Beautiful Fox Witch).
Source: Excerpted from Wikipedia entry “Tamamo-no-Mae“