Myth Monday: The Wendigo (Native American Mythology)
By Kara Newcastle
Okay, it’s finally time to write about it, after avoiding it for a few years … recently, I saw an ad for the movie Antlers, and I was pretty sure I knew what it would be about before I saw the actual trailer.
Yup. It’s about the Wendigo, one of the evilest creatures in all of mythology, and one on a list of things that creeps me out big time. I knew I was going to have to do a deep dive sooner or later because it’s gotten to be a popular monster in media, and whenever I watch a show about the paranormal there’s always one guy that brings up the Wendigo. You know the one. The guy that watches a blurry CCTV capture of a something-or-other poking around a bunch of trash cans and proclaims, “Even though this video comes from Australia and the creature we’re watching is about the size and shape of a wombat, I can say without a doubt that it is in fact a Wendigo.”
The Wendigo (among other spellings: Windigo, Windlgo, Witiko, Witiku, Weetigo and many more) is a cannibal monster from the mythology of the Native American tribes of the northern United States and Canada. Most of the legends we know about it come from the Algonquin-speaking tribes (i.e., Ojibway, Cree and Chippewa), and while their descriptions of it vary somewhat, they all agree that it is a giant creature with a heart of ice, that emerges in the wintertime to hunt humans, and, given the chance, possess human beings to turn them into cannibals. The Wendigo is believed by researchers to be more of a boogeyman to scare children from wandering off into the wilds, an ancestral memory of a time of starvation when people turned to cannibalism, a metaphor for greed and insatiability or even psychosis, but to many people, it’s a real entity.
The Wendigo is a manitou, which is best described as being an elemental spirit that is not as strong as a god (as with all of mythology, there are variations on this belief), and while a manitou can be either benevolent or evil, the Wendigo always falls into the later category. (The root word for “Wendigo” in Algonquin actually means “evil spirit” and “cannibal.”) The Algonquins believed that the Wendigo was created when a hunter became lost in the forest and, rather than die of starvation, he would attack and eat other humans to survive. The second he tasted human flesh, he was forever doomed to become a monster.
While the Ojibway tribe around Berens Lake, Ontario, believed that their version of the Wendigo was an amphibious, crocodile-like monster with bear or deer feet, nearly all other tribes describe the Wendigo as being anywhere from fifteen to twenty or more feet tall. It was so big it would use trees for snowshoes as it traveled through the forests, prairies, and swamps. Sometimes it was hairy, but most times it had bright white skin stretched tightly over a severely emaciated body. It had bulging eyes, and often wore deer antlers on top of its head. Because of the Wendigo’s insatiable hunger, it eats the flesh of its fingers down to the bone, and chews off its own lips. Some tales state that it had a white star emblazoned on its forehead. Its heart was made entirely of ice.
The Wendigo would hibernate in the summer and awake to hunt in the winter, often traveling in a whirlwind or blizzard. They would lurk silently in the forest until they came upon a wandering human, then release a shriek that would paralyze their victim. Most people who are stalked by the Wendigo die of fright once they see it, though others aren’t so lucky; they’re eaten alive in their paralyzed state. If you’re ever by yourself in the woods and you feel a sudden, unusual chill go up your spine, turn around and run—a Wendigo’s nearby! (When do you go? When there’s a Wendigo!)
Wendigos tend to be solitary, but it’s not unheard of them to roam in packs, and then use the skulls of their victims to play catch or soccer (really.) However, Wendigos don’t often band together, because they’re just as likely to attack and eat each other as they are to eat a human.
Wendigos are particularly evil for their ability to turn ordinary humans into other Wendigos; they love to possess people and turn them into cannibalistic murder machines. A human can be turned into a Wendigo if they resorted to cannibalism to survive, as mentioned before, but they could also become a Wendigo if they were cursed by a shaman, if they survived a physical attack by a Wendigo (especially if they were bitten but escaped, which is rare), if they dreamed about the Wendigo, or if they invoked it in a ritual and willingly offered themselves up as an avatar.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the ritual thing; why in the hell would somebody want to become a soulless, ice-hearted cannibal beast? For power, that’s one reason. Another would be to destroy their enemies, although they’re more likely to eat their own family first before going after anybody else. Also, Wendigos were thought to be very wise and knowledgeable, so some dumbasses might want to obtain that knowledge, but thinking that they could overcome the urge to eat people. These psychos would go deep into an area where the Wendigo had been sighted, fast for several days, then offer themselves up to the Wendigo. If the Wendigo liked them, the monster would adopt the devotee as their own child. More often than not, the Wendigo would just eat them.
If a person is possessed by a Wendigo, they won’t change in size or appearance, but their skin will become cold, and they might become hairy. The biggest change comes in their personality, as they become aggressive and deranged, and develop a craving for human meat. Canadian fur trapper George Nelson wrote back in 1812 or 1813 of a case of an older man living with his daughter and son-in-law who suddenly began acting strangely. The man would stare at his daughter for long periods and say that he loved her so much he could eat her. The old man began to sleep naked outside on the woodpile, and he would only eat his meat raw. In time his condition improved, though no one could explain what had happened.
Another case Nelson recorded was of a young man who began to dream of the Wendigo. He was so worried about the dreams that he told his friends that if he ever started to act strangely, then they must kill him. His friends initially shrugged it off, but when the man began to alarm them with his behavior, they and his own brother ambushed him and shot him through the heart. To their horror, even though the bullet had gone straight through the body, the young man sat up, not spilling a drop of blood, and began to laugh maniacally. They were too late; his heart had already turned to ice. They eventually managed to overpower the man, kill him, cut his body up and burn the pieces. Every time they threw the ice-lump of his heart into the fire, it would jump back out. They eventually had to smash it with their icepicks to finally kill it.
In 1878, possibly the most famous human Wendigo case occurred. After a harsh winter, Swift Runner, a Plains Cree member, emerged out of the forest and into civilization, grieving the loss of his wife and children (some stories include his mother and brother.) He told all who would listen that they all died from starvation, and he had to bury each one himself. This was not an unusual story for the place and time, but people were instantly suspicious; Swift Runner said that his family starved to death, but he himself looked healthy. Too healthy. Investigators went to his cabin and were horrified to find the butchered bodies of his family members. When confronted with the evidence, Swift Runner admitted that he had killed them, but said that he was starving and needed to eat. The authorities pointed out that he was only twenty-five miles away from the nearest town and could have easily gotten help. Swift Runner responded that he was under the control of a Wendigo at the time. The authorities didn’t believe him and had him executed for murder at Fort Saskatchewan.
Not every story ended like the one above. It was possible for a shaman to cure a person of the Wendigo possession if they were treated quickly (interesting side note: the Delaware tribes had their own version of the Wendigo called a Mhuwe. One legend stated that a Mhuwe was captured by the tribe and fed cooked meat, vegetables and fruits until he turned back into a human.) The best way to cure a person of possession was to find the original Wendigo, kill it, cut up the body and burn the pieces (as mentioned above.) Once the original Wendigo was dead, anyone it had afflicted would return to normal. However, it didn’t always work out that way, and it was common for possessed people to beg to be killed before they hurt anyone. Algonquins would frequently decapitate the bodies of supposed human Wendigos to keep them from returning from the grave, much like vampires. In addition, some say that a silver bullet was sufficient to kill a Wendigo (this could be a mix-up between legends, as some people tend to think of the Wendigo as a kind of werewolf, but I need more research into it.) Some legends advise feeding the afflicted pure animal fat. If the possessed person vomited ice, then the treatment was working.
One famous slayer of Wendigos was a Cree shaman named Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow, better known as Jack Fiddler to the white man. He and his father were renowned for their ability to track down, identify and slay human Wendigos—including Jack’s brother Peter Flett, who resorted to cannibalism on an ill-fated trapping trip, and his brother Joseph’s daughter-in-law, who was very sick. In total, Jack Fiddler claimed he killed fourteen Wendigos, a boast which soon got him and his brother Joseph, another Wendigo hunter, arrested by the Mounties in 1907. Charged with murder, Jack Fiddler managed to escape, but he hung himself shortly afterwards. Many people, including missionaries and Hudson Bay Company fur trappers pleaded for Joseph’s release, but by the time the appeals came through, he had already been executed.
Which now brings us to the horrific events of July 30, 2008—and I’ll spare you the worst of the details because it really is stomach churning. On a full Greyhound bus from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Edmonton, Alberta, 40 year old Vincent Weiguang Li inexplicably drew a knife and attacked 22-year-old Tim McLean as he slept in the seat next to him. The bus driver stopped the bus and terrified passengers fled as Li began to cannibalize McLean. Why he chose to attack McLean on the bus isn’t certain, but Li told police that he did it because McLean was an “alien,” and that God told him to do it.
Many paranormal researchers like to jump on this case as proof of Wendigo possession, but they frequently neglect to mention that Li was a schizophrenic who worked as a newspaper carrier. A week and a half prior to the attack, the paper Toronto Sun, which Li delivered, had an article in it discussing the Wendigo. Li likely read the article and was influenced by it. Furthermore, the historian who was quoted in the original article about the Wendigo, Nathan Carlson, later stated that Li’s attack on McLean was very similar to other attacks made by people believed to be possessed by the Wendigo, which only added fuel to the cannibal monster fire. (In case you’re wondering, Li was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He changed his name and is a free man.)
So it sounds more and more like the Wendigo is really just an explanation for insane behavior, and there’s even an unofficial clinical term for people who are under the delusion that they are these cannibal monsters: Wendigo psychosis. But that doesn’t explain why that to this day people still claim to see a Wendigo, or something they assume is a Wendigo. Sightings of alleged Wendigos were made by Jesuit missionaries back in the 1600s. Early Minnesotan settlers claimed that a spate of Wendigo encounters occurred from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, and the creature came to be treated as a harbinger of death. In fact, in the town of Roseau, just 11 miles south of the Canadian border, reported that after every Wendigo sighting, someone in town would die.
Modern day cryptozoologists have speculated that the Wendigo is actually a type of particularly aggressive Bigfoot, and that legends of the Wendigo are really rooted in partly-remembered encounters between humans and Bigfoot that ended badly—for the humans. That would hold up to the descriptions of the Wendigo being tall and hairy, but most of the indigenous Canadians were pretty adamant that Wendigo and Sasquatch were two separate beings.
As for modern day depictions, the Wendigo has appeared most famous in Algernon Blackwood’s novella The Wendigo, in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, comic book hero Wolverine frequently crosses paths with the monster, appeared in the TV shows Charmed, Sleepy Hollow, Supernatural, and Teen Wolf, pop up in tabletop games such as Dungeons and Dragons, menace characters in cartoons like My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic and DuckTales (2017 version), and is no stranger to video games such as Fallout. Outside of the media, there’s Lake Windigo, a lake inside Star Island in Cass Lake, Minnesota named after the monster, where the local tribes would perform ceremonies to keep the spirit at bay. There’s also a Wendigo Lake north of Toronto, Ontario, famed for its residential programs for troubled boys. And there’s the resort Le Village Windigo on the shores of Baskatong Lake … no, I don’t know why they chose that name just yet. Looks like a nice place though.
Oh, and God forbid you ever come face to face with a Wendigo, but if you do, there’s a surefire way to escape it: throw feces in its face. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know, but if you lob a handful of crap at a Wendigo, it becomes confused, giving you a chance to run away. Seeing as how you likely have messed your pants upon seeing one, you’ll have enough ammo to channel your inner chimpanzee and stun the Wendigo long enough to save your life.