What is the Wendigo?
Many sources refer to the Wendigo as a being of Algonquian legend. “Algonquian” isn’t a tribe itself, but a grouping of tribes based on the type of language, which makes the claim that it is “an Algonquian legend” misleading (Willoughby, 1908). The word “Wendigo” does indeed come from the Algonquian group of Native American languages, however. Many different spellings of the word exist, so I’ve chosen the one that I’m most familiar with. The spelling which is used most often by Native American scholars is “Windigo,” which translates to either “owl,” or “cannibal,” depending upon the context.
Stories of the Wendigo exist within the folklore of several Algonquian tribes, such as the Ojibwe and the Cree. Because there is not one specific tale or description of this creature, accounts vary widely among different tribal legends, but there are key elements which create a cohesive basis for what the Wendigo is and how it behaves.
While details differ in the stories from separate regions of North America, all of the legends present this creature as a malevolent spirit or monster closely tied to the harsh and unforgiving winter climates (Eflin, 2014). The Wendigo is born of famine, starvation, bitter cold, and fear. Some versions of the Wendigo legend state that humans become a Wendigo after being subjected to a certain series of events while lost in the frozen wasteland or the mountaintops.
The Popular Version
One traditional story is that a hunting party goes out into the mountains to gather food for the winter, but gets lost in a sudden storm. After finding refuge in a small cave, they begin to slowly deteriorate from starvation. The hunger sets in for one of the men, and he is driven by madness and desperation to eat the flesh of his fellow hunters. This allows him to barely survive the duration of the storm and eventually make his way out of the cave. After succumbing to the need to eat human flesh, he becomes a terrible, hunger-driven monster who will then stop at nothing to consume more of what was once his own kind. His skin is pale and clings to his bones, his gums recede and his yellowed teeth jut from his mouth. The flesh around his eyes is dark and sunken in. He makes his way back to the tribe, looking like a starved and fragile man in need of food and care. But he cannot eat what his family provides for him. The Wendigo suffers and starves because the only food that he can consume is human flesh. In his madness and his unbelievable hunger, he is compelled to feast upon all of his fellow tribesmen until he is left alone to wander and search for more food.
This version of the Wendigo is the most commonly discussed in traditional versions of the legends. It is said that after eating human flesh, the creature loses all of its humanity and can only think of how hungry it is. The consumption of human bodies gives the creature supernatural abilities as well, which would grow and compound each time they ate another person. One such ability is that of mimicking any human voice, which is one way that it hunts for future meals. By copying the sound of a person’s voice, it will call through the forest begging for help in order to lure unwary travelers into a trap where it will feed upon them. The Wendigo’s voice can be heard throughout the mountains as it bellows a terrifying howl, like the roar of a gale through the craggy cliffs. The creature becomes so quick that it is said you cannot see it move as it circles you and springs through the terrain unhindered by any obstacle (Eflin, 2014). The Wendigo also becomes incredibly strong — much stronger than any man. If you are hunted by the Wendigo, even if you don’t fall for the tricks it plays by mimicking the voices of your friends, you will not be able to outrun it, and you will not be able to overpower it or escape its grip.
Another description of Wendigos indicates that they were huge creatures which wandered the icy mountaintops, similar to stories of frost giants in European folklore, and Norse mythology. In these stories, the Wendigo would consume almost anything that it found, and would grow larger and larger in proportion to the size of the meal. This is similar to the version previously mentioned because once again, they would gain some physical power each time they ate.
The more modern interpretation of the Wendigo shows it as a monster with the decaying head of a stag. This is a terrifying depiction, which honors its ghastly reputation, but there doesn’t seem to be any indication that this interpretation has existed for very long. This particular imagery for the Wendigo may simply be an artistic one developed for modern times.
Another traditional way of describing the Wendigo is to simply refer to it as a spirit born of anger and desperation. It is sometimes said that the Wendigo is not so much a physical being, but a power that is fueled by the greed, fear, and pain that exists in the hearts of humanity. Situations like being lost and starving can feed into the evil spirit that is Wendigo, and someone can be overcome by their hate and misery and in this way, they transform into a monster. This way of describing the Wendigo may be the most logical, as it uses the metaphor of a horrible monster to explain the philosophical idea that we cannot allow our pain and hatred to control us.
Contemporary scholars are in general agreement that the tales of the Wendigo were woven by the indigenous peoples of North America as a cautionary tale. Within most civilizations, cannibalism is one of the greatest taboos imaginable. Cannibalism or the consumption of human flesh has been recorded throughout history as a means of survival in dire circumstances or for the purpose of ritual, but it has never been acceptable among human civilizations in general, despite the few exceptions. In the mindset of Native American cultures, to eat another person has been considered the most selfish act that one could perform, even when faced with certain death or starvation. The idea is a metaphor for greed and for intentionally placing one’s needs above the needs of the group or tribe (Jusiak, 2015). The moral of the Wendigo story is that if you succumb to your compulsion to save yourself at the expense of your family or group, you are opening a gateway to an evil that will surely consume you and eat away at your humanity. These stories promote a sense of unity because it reminds the people that they must always work together and support one another if they hope to survive and prosper as a society.
Wendigo in the Modern World
There have been many instances of cannibalism throughout history, which is usually performed by serial killers or individuals suffering from psychosis. There is a psychiatric condition which leads to individuals believing that they’re possessed by some entity who demands that they consume human flesh. In some cases, this condition is referred to as “Wendigo Pscyhosis.” Most often, this term is used to describe situations in which Native American people believe that they’ve been possessed by the spirit of the Wendigo, or that they are transforming into a Wendigo (Teicher, 1960). This is likely the same sort of psychosis that is seen in individuals from other ethnic backgrounds, but with the addition of previous knowledge of the Wendigo legends.
The Wendigo has appeared in several forms of media in recent years, and the world is becoming more aware of this terrifying being. Examples of the Wendigo in modern media can be seen in episodes of the television series Supernatural, and the horror anthology Fear Itself. Wendigos have also been portrayed in movies like the 1999 film Ravenous, and the aptly titled horror film from 2001 called Wendigo.
Eflin, J. (2014). Incursion Into Wendigo Territory. Digital Literature Review, 9.
Jusiak, K. (2015). “The Embodiment of the Taboo: the Images of Wendigo in Literature and Their Rendition in Modern Media”.
Teicher, M. I. (1960, April). Windigo psychosis: a study of a relationship between belief and behavior among the Indians of Northeastern Canada. Seattle: WA: American Ethnological Society.
Willoughby, C. (1908). Wooden Bowls of the Algonquian Indians. American Anthropologist, 10(3), new series, 423–434. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/659862