Thursday, October 25, 2012

Creature of the Month - The Wendigo by Dr. Bob Curran

In the northern United States, close to the Canadian Border, the landscape is thickly forested, broken only by the outlines of hidden lakes tucked away where men seldom go. This is the land of the Algonquin-speaking peoples who lived there before the coming of the White Man. It is also the land of the Wendigo, more fearsome and deadly of all Algonquin monsters.

Just what the Wendigo is depends on who you speak to for each of the Indian tribes has a slightly different perspective on it. Even descriptions of it may vary. For some it is a large and hairy giant, living deep in the forest – a bit like Bigfoot – with a heart of ice. It has glowing eyes which cut through the natural darkness of its forest home and extremely sharp and rending claws. In other legends, it appears as a thin, emaciated creature with an almost skeletal, deformed body. Again it has rending claws and when it walks, say the stories, its footprints are always full of blood. Other tales simply depict it as a forest spirit or Manitou which can possess any traveller or hunter at will. However, it is also suggested that the spirit can only inhabit the bodies of those who have committed some terrible act or who have lived evil lives. Once possessed the person goes off to live in the forest and takes on certain physical characteristics such as their body being deformed, or growing long teeth or hair. In the folklore of the Ojibwa and some branches of the Cree, the Wendigo is associated with coldness, famine and death. It is also associated with Winter and the far North.

A description of the Wendigo from the Ontario region suggests that it looks partially like our impression of a zombie – thin, ash-coloured skin pulled over the bones and marked by suppurating sores; its eyes hollow and red tinged, the mouth drawn back into a rictus of evil. It also gives off, says the account, a distinct odour of decay and corruption. Its breath is often thought to be poisonous. This is a human body which has been turned into a Wendigo. This can be done by evil acts such as eating human flesh or by intense gluttony – because despite their emaciated appearance, Wendigos are great gluttons. They are never satisfied with simply consuming one individual but the taste of human flesh makes them crave more and so they go off hunting for other victims. They are never satisfied and will eat any man, woman or child who ventures into their territory. Amongst the Westmain Swampy Cree, the Eastern Cree, the Naskapi and the Ojibwa, Wendigos are thought to be great giants and although emaciated with a disgusting hairy skin, they dwarf any human who encounters them. Curiously, this idea is absent from the mythologies of the Salteaux and the Montagnais who portray the creature as being of human height. The Cree further believe that when a Wendigo eats a person, it gains some of the individual’s height and power and this makes it even more ravenous for human flesh. Although it appears thin and skeletal, the creature is continually gorging itself and may well be growing all the time. Some stories say that there is no limit to the height to which a Wendigo can grow.

copyright Asher Elbein.  
Perhaps the most dangerous form of the creature is that of an invisible forest spirit which can possess passing hunters and turn them into the physical manifestation as described above. Of course, there is a “moral” element to the belief as the Wendigo spirit is only drawn to an individual by evil thoughts, which it can “smell”. In many instances, the creature approaches its victims through dreams and visions.

If the spirit of the Wendigo possesses a person, he or she will become obsessed with terrible thoughts, becoming violent and only interested in eating human flesh. In some of the Northern areas this was not unusual in former times. There were times when the game was poor and famine set in amongst the tribes. In such desperate circumstances it might have been tempting to eat dead bodies – those who had died from starvation. This was a truly serious taboo amongst the Algonquin-speaking peoples. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Wendigo has become the symbol of that taboo and as a warning against cannibalism.

Curiously, there is a recognised form of psychosis in Western psychiatry which is known as “the Wendigo syndrome”. Symptoms of this particular psychosis include the desire to eat human flesh when other food sources may be available and the belief that one’s body has been occupied by a Wendigo. In all documented cases, the patient is young, male and of Northern Indian background. In most cases too, the patient was also being treated for some other problem by a traditional Indian healer who had diagnosed the influence of a Wendigo in the patient’s behavior. One of the most famous instances of the Syndrome was a Plains Cree trapper who was executed by the authorities at Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, at the end of the 19th century. 

He had killed and eaten his family, comprising a wife and five children, during a particularly severe winter and was convinced that he was a Wendigo. However, a more modern study of his case reveals that rather than being a cannibal, he may have been suffering from some form of psychosis. Another more famous figure connected with the Wendigo psychosis was Jack Fiddler, a famous Oji-Cree medicine man who lived much of his life among the Anishinaabee of North-Western Ontario where he was known by his Swampy Cree name of “Stylish Man”. 

A number of Wendigos had allegedly been sent against the Anishinaabee by enemy shamans and Jack Fiddler was able to protect the tribes against these – usually by killing the “possessed” person <although he claimed that having exorcised the being, the victim begged for death in case it would return>. Jack Fiddler was arrested by North-West Canadian Mounted Police, near Deer Lake in 1907 and charged with the murder of his niece. The case against him was never proven because shortly after his arrest, Fiddler escaped during a walk outside the prison and hung himself from the branch of a nearby tree. His brother Joseph, who had been arrested with him, was brought to trial and though he pleaded innocence <he had only been assisting Jack in destroying the last vestiges of the Wendigo in the body of their victims> he was found guilty and sent to jail where he died. It is possible that both men were suffering from what might be termed “a Wendingo delusion” 

It is worth noting that the idea of the Wendigo as a possessing spirit began to decline across the 20th century as the Algonquin-speaking peoples adopted a more settled and less rural lifestyle and as they came more and more into contact with Westernized perceptions.

Where do these legends come from? Are they perhaps no more than a response to the sometimes dark and gloomy forests through which the Indians traveled and in which they hunted?  Under the thick canopies of leaves which often shut out the light, it might be possible to believe some sort of eerie monster lurking there, its skin pale and ulcerated by the absence of the sun, ready to devour anyone who strayed within its domain. Was it simply a supposed manifestation of evil?

Or is there something else there in the deep forests – something that the white people don’t know about but the Indians do? Is the Wendigo legend actually based on something like Bigfoot which the Indians have glimpsed in forest glades and has wound its way into folklore? Some stories talk about a great, grey, furred man-like figure, always seen at a distance, so it there some form of hominid waiting out there amongst the trees in order to be discovered? And if so what is it? A cryptozoid creature? A zombie-thing? Or a disembodied spirit that can possess the unwary?  Who knows what dark entity might be lurking in the snow-bound woods!     


  1. You know, it sure would have been nice if you'd have attributed my image to me.

    The second piece of Wendigo art is copyright Asher Elbein.

  2. Our apologies Ascher Elbein. We've added your link and appropriate credit line.


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