The Wendigo (also known as the Windigo, Windago, Witiko, Wee-tee-go, Wihtikow, Waindigo and several other variants) is a cannibalistic spirit resembling a zombie.
In some forms, the Wendigo is the size of a human, while in others, it can be fifteen-feet-tall. The earliest description of the Wendigo was that of similar appearance to a corpse, with a skeleton-like, thin body with grey skin, sunken eyes, bloody lips, yellow fangs and a long, slimy tongue. Later myths say that the Wendigo is a lipless ape, with giant fangs, that devours human flesh. It can turn a person into a Wendigo, which was one of the worst curses to the Algonquian-speaking Native Americans of Canada. Based on other reports, the Wengdigo is similar to an ape, however, some other deviants of it are that of a human with the head of a deer.
The creature or spirit could either possess characteristics of a human or a monster that had physically transformed from a person. It is particularly associated with cannibalism. The Algonquian believed those who indulged in eating human flesh were at particular risk; the legend appears to have reinforced the taboo of the practice of cannibalism. It is often described in Algonquian mythology as a balance of nature.
The legend lends its name to the disputed modern medical term Wendigo Psychosis. This is supposed to be a culture-bound disorder that features symptoms such as an intense craving for human flesh and a fear the sufferer is a cannibal. This condition was alleged to have occurred among Algonquian native cultures, but remains disputed. The Wendigo character now is a common creature found in modern horror fiction.
The Wendigo is part of the traditional belief systems of various Algonquian-speaking tribes in the northern United States and Canada, most notably the Ojibwe and Saulteaux, the Cree, the Naskapi, and the Innu people. Although descriptions varied somewhat, common to all these cultures was the conception of Wendigo’s as malevolent, cannibalistic, supernatural beings of great spiritual power. They were strongly associated with the winter, the north, and coldness, as well as with famine and starvation. Basil Johnston, an Ojibwe teacher and scholar from Ontario, gives one description of how wendigos were viewed:
The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody [….] Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odour of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.
At the same time, Wendigo’s were embodiments of gluttony, greed, and excess: never satisfied after killing and consuming one person, they were constantly searching for new victims. In some traditions, humans who became overpowered by greed could turn into Wendigos; the Wendigo myth thus served as a method of encouraging cooperation and moderation.
Among the Ojibwe, Eastern Cree, Westmain Swampy Cree, Naskapi, and Innu, Wendigos were said to be giants, many times larger than human beings (a characteristic absent from the Wendigo myth in the other Algonquian cultures). Whenever a Wendigo ate another person, it would grow in proportion to the meal it had just eaten, so that it could never be full. Therefore, Wendigos were portrayed as simultaneously gluttonous and emaciated from starvation.
All cultures in which the Wendigo myth appeared shared the belief that human beings could turn into Wendigos if they ever resorted to cannibalism, or, alternatively, become possessed by the demonic spirit of a Wendigo, often in a dream. Once transformed, a person would become violent and obsessed with eating human flesh. The most frequent cause of transformation into a Wendigo was if a person had resorted to cannibalism, consuming the body of another human in order to keep from starving to death during a time of extreme hardship, for example in hard winters, or famine.
Among northern Algonquian cultures, cannibalism, even to save one’s own life, was viewed as a serious taboo; the proper response to famine was suicide or resignation to death. On one level, the Wendigo myth thus worked as a deterrent and a warning against resorting to cannibalism; those who did would become Wendigo monsters themselves.
In accounts of Wendigo psychosis, it was reported that members of the aboriginal communities in which it existed believed that cases literally involved individuals turning into Wendigo’s. Such individuals generally recognized these symptoms as meaning that they were turning into Wendigo’s, and often requested to be executed before they could harm others. Reportedly, the most common response when someone began suffering from Wendigo psychosis was the practice of curing attempts by traditional native healers or Western doctors.
In the unusual cases where these attempts failed, reports indicate that the Wendigo began either to threaten those around them or to act violently or anti-socially, generally they were then executed. Cases of Wendigo psychosis, though evidently real, were relatively rare, and it was even rarer for them to culminate in the execution of the sufferer.
One of the more famous cases of Wendigo psychosis reported involved a Plains Cree trapper from Alberta, named Swift Runner. During the winter of 1878, Swift Runner and his family were starving, and his eldest son died. Twenty-five miles away from emergency food supplies at a Hudson’s Bay Company post, Swift Runner butchered and ate his wife and five remaining children.
Given that he resorted to cannibalism so near to food supplies, and that he killed and consumed the remains of all those present, it was revealed that Swift Runner’s was not a case of pure cannibalism as a last resort to avoid starvation, but rather of a man suffering from Wendigo psychosis. He eventually confessed and was executed by authorities at Fort Saskatchewan.
The following is an adaptation of the original Algonquian myth of the Wendigo.
The storm lasted so long that they thought they would starve. Finally, when the wind and swirling snow had died away to just a memory, the father, who was a brave warrior, ventured outside. The next storm was already on the horizon, but if food was not found soon, the family would starve. Keeping his knife and spear close, he ventured out upon the most-frequently used game trail, watching intently for some sign, in the newly-fallen snow, of animal footprints or movement of any kind. The forest lay deep and oddly silent under its gleaming coating of ice and snow. Every creature of sense lay deep within its burrow and slept. Still, the warrior hunted, knowing how desperate his family had become. As he moved through the eerie stillness, broken only by the soft caress of the wind, he heard a strange hissing noise. It came from everywhere and nowhere at once. The warrior stopped, his heart pounding. That was when he saw the blood-soaked footprints appearing on the path in front of him. He gripped his knife tightly, knowing that somewhere, watching him, was a Wendigo. He had learned about the Wendigo at his father’s knee. It was a large creature, as tall as a tree, with a lipless mouth and jagged teeth.
Its breath was a strange hiss, its footprints full of blood, and it ate any man, woman or child who ventured into its territory. And those were the lucky ones. Sometimes, the Wendigo chose to possess a person instead, and then the luckless individual became a Wendigo himself, hunting down those he had once loved and feasting upon their flesh. The warrior knew he would have just one chance to prevail over the Wendigo. After that, he would die. Or… the thought was too terrible to comprehend. Slowly, he backed away from the bloody footprints, listening to the hissing sound. Was it stronger in one direction? He gripped spear in one hand, knife in the other. Then the snowbank to his left erupted as a creature as tall as a tree leapt out at him. He dove to one side, rolling into the snow so that his clothing was covered and he became hard to see in the gray twilight of the approaching storm. The Wendigo whirled its massive frame and the warrior threw the spear. It struck the creature’s chest, but the Wendigo just shook it off as if it were a toy.
The warrior crouched behind a small tree as the creature searched the torn-up snow for a trace of him. Perhaps one more chance. The Wendigo loomed over his hiding place, its sharp eyes seeing the outline of him against the tree. It bent down, long arms reaching. The warrior leapt forward as if to embrace the creature and thrust his knife into its fathomless black eye. The Wendigo howled in pain as the blade of the knife sliced into its brain cavity. It tried to pull him off of its chest, but the warrior clung to the creature, stabbing it again and again in the eyes, the head. The Wendigo collapsed to the ground, bleeding profusely, almost crushing the warrior beneath its bulk. He pulled himself loose and stared at the creature, which blended in with its white surroundings so well that he would not have seen it save for the blood pouring from its eyes and ears and scalp. Then the outline of the creature grew misty and it vanished, leaving only a pool of blood to indicate where it had fallen.
A modern spin-off of the myth, taking place in modern time:
Shaken, the warrior, heart pounding with fear and fatigue, turned for home. He was weakened by lack of food, but knew that the storm would break soon and he would die if he did not seek shelter.
At the edge of the wood, he found himself face to face with a red fox. It was a fat old creature, its muzzle lined with gray. The creature stood still, as if it had been brought to him as a reward for killing the Wendigo. With a prayer of thanksgiving, the warrior killed the fox and took it home to his starving family. The meat lasted for many days, until the final storm had blown itself out and the warrior could safely hunt once more.
The Wendigo is a great folk tale that has it’s truths in cannibalism, yet I like to think there’s something strnage out there….