Wendigo - Flesheater of the Forests
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. Its body was unclean and suffering from
suppurations of the flesh, giving off a strange and eerie odor of
decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.
Basil Johnston, Ojibwe teacher and scholar, Ontario, Canada
In the north woods of Minnesota, the forests of the Great Lake Region, and
the central regions of Canada is said to live a malevolent being
called a wendigo (also spelled windigo). This creature may appear as a
monster with some characteristics of a human, or as a spirit who has
possessed a human being and made them become monstrous. It is historically associated with
cannibalism, murder, insatiable greed, and the cultural taboos against such
behaviors. Known by several names -- Windigo, Witigo, Witiko and Wee-Tee-Go
-- each of them roughly translates to "the evil spirit that devours
This creature has long been known among the Algonquian Ojibwe, Eastern Cree,
Saulteaux, Westmain Swampy Cree, Naskapi, and Innu peoples who have
described them as giants, many times larger than human beings. Although
descriptions can vary somewhat, common to all these cultures is the view
that the wendigo is a malevolent, cannibalistic, supernatural being which is
strongly associated with winter, the north, coldness, famine and starvation.
The Algonquian legend describes the creature as "a giant with a heart of
ice; sometimes it is thought to be entirely made of ice. Its body is
skeletal and deformed, with missing lips and toes." The Ojibwa describe: "It
was a large creature, as tall as a tree, with a lipless mouth and jagged
teeth. Its breath was a strange hiss, its footprints full of blood, and it
ate any man, woman or child who ventured into its territory. And those were
the lucky ones. Sometimes, the Wendigo chose to possess a person instead,
and then the luckless individual became a Wendigo himself, hunting down
those he had once loved and feasting upon their flesh."
According to the legends, a Wendigo is created whenever a human resorts to
cannibalism to survive. In the past, this occurred more often when Indians
and settlers found themselves stranded in the bitter snows and ice of the
north woods. Sometimes stranded for days, any survivors might have felt
compelled to cannibalize the dead in order to survive. Other versions of the
legend cite that humans who displayed extreme greed, gluttony, and excess
might also be possessed by a Wendigo, thus the myth served as a method of
encouraging cooperation and moderation.
Native American versions of the creature spoke of a gigantic spirit, over
fifteen feet tall, that had once been human but had been transformed into a
creature by the use of magic. Though all of the descriptions of the creature
vary slightly, the Wendigo is generally said to have glowing eyes, long
yellowed fangs, terrible claws and overly long tongues. Sometimes they are
described as having sallow, yellowish skin and other times, depicted to be
covered with matted hair. The creature is said to have a number of skills
and powers including stealth, is a near-perfect hunter, knows and uses every
inch of its territory, and can control the weather through the use of dark
magic. They are also portrayed as simultaneously gluttonous and emaciated
Wendigos are said to be cursed to wander the land, eternally seeking to
fulfill their voracious appetite for human flesh and if there is nothing
left to eat, it starves to death.
legend lends its name to the disputed modern medical term Wendigo psychosis,
which is considered by some psychiatrists to be a syndrome that creates an
intense craving for human flesh and a fear of becoming a cannibal.
Ironically, this psychosis is said to occur within people living around the
Great Lakes of Canada and the United States. Wendigo psychosis usually
develops in the winter in individuals who are isolated by heavy snow for
long periods. The initial symptoms are poor appetite, nausea, and vomiting.
Subsequently, the individual develops a delusion of being transformed into a
Wendigo monster. People who have Wendigo psychosis increasingly see others
around them a being edible. At the same time they have an exaggerated fear
of becoming cannibals.
The most common response when a person showed signs of Wendigo psychosis was
a curing attempt by traditional native healers. In cases of the past, if
these attempts failed and if the possessed person began either to threaten
those around them or to act violently or anti-socially; they were executed.
There have been reports regarding this psychosis dating back hundreds of
A 1661 Jesuit Relations document stated:
What caused us greater concern was the intelligence that met us upon
entering the Lake, namely, that the men deputed by our Conductor for the
purpose of summoning the Nations to the North Sea, and assigning them a
rendezvous, where they were to await our coming, had met their death the
previous Winter in a very strange manner. Those poor men (according to the
report given us) were seized with an ailment unknown to us, but not very
unusual among the people we were seeking. They are afflicted with neither
lunacy, hypochondria, nor frenzy; but have a combination of all these
species of disease, which affects their imaginations and causes them a more
than canine hunger. This makes them so ravenous for human flesh that they
pounce upon women, children, and even upon men, like veritable werewolves,
and devour them voraciously, without being able to appease or glut their
appetite – ever seeking fresh prey, and the more greedily the more they eat.
This ailment attacked our deputies; and, as death is the sole remedy among
those simple people for checking such acts of murder, they were slain in
order to stay the course of their madness.
Another documented case occurred in 1878 when a
Plains Cree trapper from Alberta, named Swift Runner, suffered one of worst
cases known. Swift Runner was a trader with the Hudson's
Bay Company who was married and the father of six children. In 1875, he
served as a guide for the North West Mounted Police.
During the winter of 1878-79, Swift Runner and
his family were starving, along with numerous other Cree families. His
eldest son was the first to die of starvation and at some point Swift Runner
succumbed to Wendigo psychosis. Though emergency food
supplies were available at Hudson's Bay
Company post some 25 miles away, he did not attempt to travel there. Rather,
he killed the remaining members of his family and consumed them. He
eventually confessed and was executed by authorities at Fort Saskatchewan.
A Wendigo allegedly made a number of appearances near a town called Rosesu
in Northern Minnesota from the late 1800's through the 1920's. Each time
that it was reported, an unexpected death followed and finally, it was seen
Another well-known case involving Wendigo psychosis was that of Jack
Fiddler, an Oji-Cree chief and medicine man known for his powers at
defeating wendigos. Fidder claimed to have defeated 14 wendigos during his
lifetime. Some of these creatures were said to have been sent by enemy
shamans and others were member of his own band who had been taken with the
insatiable, incurable desire to eat human flesh. In the latter case, Fiddler
was usually asked by family members to kill a very sick loved one before
they turned wendigo. Fiddler's own brother, Peter Flett, was killed after
turning wendigo when the food ran out on a trading expedition. Hudson's Bay
Company traders, the Cree, and missionaries were well aware of the wendigo
legend, though they often explained it as mental illness or superstition.
Regardless, several incidents of people turning wendigo and eating human
flesh are documented in the records of the company.
In 1907, Fiddler and his brother Joseph were
arrested by the Canadian authorities for murder. Jack committed suicide, but
Joseph was tried and sentenced to life in prison. He ultimately was granted
a pardon, but died three days later in jail before receiving the news of
Among the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Ojibwe, a satirical ceremonial dance
is sometimes performed during times of famine to reinforce the seriousness
of the wendigo taboo.
The frequency of Wendigo psychosis cases
decreased sharply in the 20th century as the Native Americans came into
greater and greater contact with Western ideologies.
However, Wendigo creature sightings are still reported,
especially in northern Ontario, near the Cave of the Wendigo, and around the
town of Kenora, where it has allegedly been spotted by traders, trackers and
trappers for decades. There are many who still believe that the Wendigo
roams the woods and the prairies of northern Minnesota and Canada. Kenora,
Ontario, Canada, has been given the title of Wendigo Capital of the World by
many. Sightings of the creature in this area have continued well into the
of America, July, 2016.
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