The Myth of the Wendigo

We’re heading back West this week, all the way to the Algonquin tribes of North America. Out of these tribes comes some of the oldest folklore around: the myth of the Wendigo. As with most mythology, there are many different versions of the Wendigo. Sometimes they are considered demons, other times monsters of the forest. But the most common lore states that Wendigos are creatures who were once human, and because of greed or hunger, they betrayed the laws of nature to get what they wanted. In most cases, this “betrayal of nature” refers to cannibalism–giving name to the term “Wendigo psychosis;” an intense desire to consume human flesh.

Wendigos are typically associated with winter because of how cold and hunger could often lead a human to do the unthinkable. Instead of facing famine with a resignation and a readiness for death (as was considered the proper response), a tribesman would resort to eating his own kin. Doing so would have caused him to be isolated from the tribe, and once deep into the forest, he would transform into a Wendigo.

It is unclear whether Wendigos are living, undead, or spritual creatures. Generally it is assumed they are some of each. Algonquin legend states that eating human flesh gives the consumer special powers–enhanced hearing, sight, speed and strength. However, once they take the first bite, they begin to crave more and more, until their hunger becomes their entire existence. Each time they eat a human, a Wendigo’s body is said to grow in proportion to their meal, expanding their stomach and never allowing them to be full. Therefore, Wendigos were portrayed as simultaneously gluttonous and emancipated from starvation. As they continued to survive this way, feeding day after day on their own kind and never able to satiate their hunger, their bodies would begin to decay and transform into something less than human. Basil Johnston, and Obiwi teacher from Ontario, provides us with this description:

“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 odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.”

As I mentioned earlier, cannibalism wasn’t the only way a person could become a Wendigo, though it was by far the most common. Alternatively, a person could become possessed by the spirit of a Wendigo, becoming violent and cannibalistic. Some tribes believed all it took was to be excessively selfish and greedy. Either way, the fear of the Wendigo was a strong deterrent against cannibalism and a great proponent of tribal unity. The taboo against such Wendigo-esque actions was so great that a ceremony was created in order to reinforce it. The ceremony, known as wiindigookaanzhimowin, was performed during times of famine, and involved wearing masks and dancing backwards around a drum. The last known Wendigo ceremony in the USA was conducted within the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Northern Minnesota.

Hope everyone found this interesting. Again, please remember to comment your requests!

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1 comment

  1. Dr. Erik T. Goluboff MD

    The Myth of the Wendigo | Brave New World

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