Wendigo — The Stories of the Cannibalistic Spirit of Native American Folklore

Wendigo - The Stories of the Cannibalistic Spirit of Native American Folklore

What is the Wendigo?

The Wendigo is a cannibalistic spirit of native American folklore that originates in and from the Forest of Canada, and the Great Plains region of the United States. The wendigo is often said to be a malevolent spirit, sometimes depicted as a creature with human-like characteristics, which possesses human beings. With the Wendigo’s unsatisfactory hunger, it is known to cannibalize other humans, as well as the propensity to murder those that fall under its influence

Today we have a very special treat for everybody reading as we also finally cover a topic that I’m sure many people have been waiting to see.

Origin of the Wendigo

Origin of the Wendigo

Today, we travel to the part of North America that the Algonquin people call their home, to discuss a truly terrifying legend—an evil spirit that prowls the northern forests of the Atlantic coast, a monster that can be found up and down the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada.

The creature that I’m referring to is part of the most famous set of stories to originate from Algonquin folklore. These stories indeed refer to the Wendigo.

Some believed that it was a large monster, another saw it as a spirit capable of possession. How the Wendigo manifests itself depends entirely on the beliefs of the individual, and the Algonquin can be broken down into several groups of indigenous people.

If we put aside the Wendigo’s appearance briefly, there was a general agreement as to what the Wendigo was and what it represented. It is almost always associated with cannibalism, famine and greed, that came from the long cold winters, which is why so many saw it as a malevolent supernatural entity.

Depictions of the Wendigo

Modern Interpretation

Modern Interpretation of the Wendigo

So, what does the wendigo look like? There are two very distinct archetypes that I’m sure many of you would recognize—a large looking demonic Beast, normally of the head or skull of a stag, complete or some kind of antlers or horns.

This type of Wendigo has become quite popular today, and it’s an image that I’m sure many of you recognize from a lot of popular media, but this particular image seems to be a more modern interpretation.

I remember seeing this imagery when first watching the TV show Hannibal, which of course has its underlying themes of murder and cannibalism. At the time, I didn’t understand the Wendigo symbolism because I didn’t know much about the Wendigo and its association with cannibalism and acts of evil.

So, why does this version of the Wendigo have antlers and fur reminiscent of a stag? Sadly, I couldn’t find a conclusive answer.

There isn’t much mention of the Wendigos appearance in traditional Algonquin folklore, and what we do see certainly doesn’t describe a stag. So, there could be some confusion between the concept of the Navajo’s Skinwalker, or this very well could be a modern stylistic interpretation.

Either way, the stag is an animal that appears in folklore all around the world including Greek Mythology, though it’s normally associated with woodland deities and fertility. It’s also an animal that the Native Americans highly respected.

So, if we do go with the concept that the Wendigo was seen as a symbol of corruption, the fact that it then manifests as an animal that the natives held in such high regard makes it seem as if nothing is safe from the Wendigo’s curse, which does highlight the seriousness of the warnings and meanings interwoven into these stories.

Classical Interpretation

Classical Interpretation of the Wendigo

The more traditional appearance of the Wendigo is closer to a haggard and decomposing corpse. Its skin is stretched extremely tightly over its bones, creating a thin translucent layer of desiccated flesh from which its bones work ready to burst.

Its complexion varies from a sickly white to an ashy grey. It has long spindly fingers with sharp nails that it uses to tear its victims into pieces. The easiest way to describe this type of Wendigo is as a gaunt skeleton that looks like it has risen from the grave.

Wherever the Wendigo goes, it is followed by the odour of death and decay. It is a vile creature with jagged misshapen teeth that at times resemble yellow fangs.

In this form, the Wendigo may be a creature that resembles a humanoid, but I assure you they are nothing short of anyone’s worst nightmare.

The Curse of the Wendigo

The Curse of the Wendigo

There’s an interesting description that comes from a new law is the belief that Wendigos were giant creatures made of ice that would dwarf over human beings, and this was because every time the Wendigo ate a person, they would grow in proportion to the meal—the bigger the meal, the bigger they grew.

This was one of the ways they used to describe the Wendigos insatiable hunger because it created this vicious cycle, where the more the Wendigo consumed, the bigger and stronger they grew, but it would have to consume more and more to satisfy its ever-growing hunger.

This gives us an interesting contrast: you have these enormous gluttonous creatures and then you have these thin gaunt husks that are wasting away, but both still suffer from starvation, and that is what we consider the curse of the Wendigo. Its hunger can never be sated, its quest for new victims is eternal.

How Does One Become a Wendigo?

Wendigos are always regarded as evil, and this is in no doubt because of their cannibalistic nature. But how does one become such an evil entity?

There is the belief that humans could turn into Wendigos if they were overcome by greed. These stories were told to encourage moderation and essentially scare individuals into behaving in a certain way. Those who committed unspeakable acts of cannibalism were also thought to become Wendigos, and this belief is where many attribute the start of the Wendigo legend.

However, there were extremely dark times where famine was so bad that people had no choice but to resort to cannibalism just to survive and make it through the long cold winter. It’s not common today, but in times of extreme famine, some of the Native American people would perform a ceremonial dance that involved wearing a mask and dancing backwards behind the drum. This ceremony was mostly considered to be a satirical way to reinforce the seriousness of the Wendigo taboo.

Many saw the Wendigo as a metaphor that represented imbalance and disharmony, not only in an individual but in society.

This idea of selfishness does also tile of the fact that Wendigo was seen as solitary creatures, often being referred to as spirits of the lonely places.

The Fear of Wendigo

So, what makes the Wendigo so special and why are we so scared of them? The possession of a Wendigo isn’t like your generic spirit or demon. It chooses its victim very carefully and slowly eats away at its sanity.

It enters the thoughts and plagues their mind of countless nightmares, unable to sleep, they start experiencing a burning sensation throughout their entire body—this has been described as Wendigo Fever—and there have been countless tales of people running stark naked through forests at the dead of the night claiming that they have Wendigo Fever.

Abilities of the Wendigo

As a supernatural entity, you’d expect supernatural abilities and most of these are exactly what you would imagine. The Wendigo is extremely fast and has unnatural strength despite how frail some of them may look.

As expert hunters, they have heightened endurance and senses, making it so they can hunt in all manner of terrain and temperature.

The older the Wendigo gets, the stronger it becomes. As its corruption spreads through the forests, so does its influence on nature. Some can control woodland creatures, and others are so powerful they can control the weather, with the eldest able to summon darkness capable of concealing the Sun making it so no one is safe regardless of time or location.

Stories of the Wendigo Encounter

Despite what we perceive to be just stories, there have been numerous cases over the years of people committing horrid crimes, claiming that they were possessed by a Wendigo.

Swift Runner Wendigo

Swift Runner Wendigo

In 1878, a Native American man named Swift Runner butchered and ate his entire family. That winter was said to have been particularly harsh and Swift Runner’s son had sadly died because of the extreme conditions.

Now, we don’t know if Swift Run and his family ate the boy to survive, but the mutilated remains of his wife and five other children were later found. He eventually confessed to killing and eating his entire family, but he was adamant that his actions were due to a Wendigo’s possession.

So, did the eating of his son turned him into a Wendigo? Did he butcher his family because he felt they wouldn’t survive the winter? Or did he value the self-preservation of his own life over his family? —the answer to those questions is we’ll most likely never know.

Jack and Joseph Fiddler

Jack and Joseph Fiddler - Wendigo story
Pictured above is Joseph Fiddler, shortly before his execution.

Another rather famous case is that of Jack Fiddler and his brother Joseph who were arrested for the murder of over a dozen people.

As the chief of his people, Jack was thought to be capable of removing evil, which is why he got away from killing so many, claiming that they were all possessed by a Wendigo. Jack managed to escape captivity during a routine walk outside, and he eventually hung himself before the trial concluded.

However, his brother Joseph wasn’t so lucky. He was sentenced to death by magistrate Ellsworth Perry. Despite the numerous appeals of his innocence, Joseph ironically enough was eventually given a pardon, but it came three days after his death in 1909.

These types of cases led people to believe that it might be a more serious mental issue, one that would later be dubbed Wendigo Psychosis, the deep craving for flesh.

But whether it was a real mental disorder is something that was heavily debated as the number of reported cases decreased dramatically in the 20th century when the Algonquin people adapted to European ideologies and began to live less rural lifestyles.

In Conclusion to the Wendigo

There’s no doubt that the Wendigo myth has changed and evolved over the years. It’s now become another monster that reflects our issues as humans, greed, selfishness and in some extreme or metaphoric cases cannibalism.

It’s unlikely that many of the Native American tribes still believe in the legends of the Wendigo as adamantly as they once did. To them, the Wendigo was an evil spirit that embodied everything they hated. It can be interpreted as a symbol of corruption, from what they perceived to be outsiders, changing their landscape in the beliefs of their people.

Stories of the Wendigo were used to encourage a balanced lifestyle—respect for one’s peers and the world surrounding them. A creature with insatiable hunger, a spirit capable of possession, or a story meant to encourage cooperation and warned against the dangers of greed.

Artwork Sources: Constantine Sekeris, David Szabo, Rushelle Kucala

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