Up until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of the cannibalistic creature known as the Wendigo. Also spelled Windigo, the creature comes to us from Algonquian folklore and is a collective myth associated with greed, murder and the fear of cannibalism. While it seems that each Native American culture that makes up the Algonquian collective may have had their own version of this creature, the physical traits and descriptions seem to be narrowed down to what we will go over in this post.
The Wendigo is an evil man-eating monster who is native to the Great Lakes Region of the United States and Canada, as well as the northern forests of the Atlantic coast. It has been described as a giant, many times the size of a human, with a skeletal body and a lipless mouth. The depictions look like a two-legged emancipated buck, however, it is said that the true Indigenous descriptions never included antlers. To the natives, the Wendigo was human-like and over time became many sizes larger than a normal man as he consumed them. Letting its skinny features lull you into a false sense of security could be that last thing you do since, even though it looks like it never eats, it is a gifted hunter and its taste for human flesh is limitless. It is said the only way a Wendigo will die is when it runs out of humans to eat and it starves to death. Guessing that means we are stuck with it for a while!
In Algonquian folklore, the Wendigo is the spirit of a lost hunter, who has resorted to eating human flesh to stay alive. Those who are selfish, greedy or succumb to cannibalism, take a risk in turning into one of these creatures as punishment. The Wendigo is believed to be the spirit of winter and is associated with the north, cold, famine and starvation. The Wendigo lends its name to the medical term Wendigo Psychosis which is considered by some to create an intense craving for human flesh but at the same time an exaggerated fear of becoming a cannibal themselves. There have been reports of this psychosis being present over hundreds of years, and ironically, this psychosis developed in winter in individuals that are isolated for long periods of time. It is understandable then, that the largest number of reports come from the very same regions the myths originate from.
One such case was that of a Cree Plains trapper named Swift Runner, who was married with six children before the disease did its thing to him. Without going into the gruesome details (I write romance, not horror after all), I will just say that before winter he had a family and by spring he was all alone. He eventually confessed and was executed for their deaths. The psychosis has been disputed, and I am sure has all but disappeared now that the areas they had been reported in have become populated and folks aren’t as isolated.
The Wendigo is a symbol of the worst thing that can happen to you if you succumb to the practice of unacceptable social taboos, and like many myths and folktales, warns us that the punishment for breaking these expected norms will be unbearable. It seems strange that there would be a need to create a story to warn folks from eating other folks, but who am I to say what went on in very cold, and desolate parts of the country? Terms like cabin fever have been around forever, and warn of what can happen to someone who isolates themselves from others. Not sure about you, but I am ready to get out and see some people! I’ve been holed up in my room for far too long!
Here are some resources that I came across when researching this fascinating myth. As always, I only touch the surface on these creatures, it is up to you to do more digging if you find them interesting enough to use in your fiction! Be sure to report back, would love to know if you used a Wendigo in your piece!
Happy Writing! XO