*A note of warning: the topic I discuss this week, which involves acts of cannibalism and euthanasia, may not be suitable for listeners younger than 13.
Wendigos have been here for longer than most immigrants, so why aren’t they better known? Popular in comic books, video games, and tv shows, the origin of these creatures hit a little closer to reality than you might like. Join me as I delve into the history and psychology of the Wendigo.
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Hello everyone and welcome to Strange Origins.
This is an especially awesome show because it marks my tenth episode. And with this big milestone, I want to explore a monster that many may not be familiar with; the Wendigo. So get cozy, put on your headphones, and maybe don’t look outside if you live near the woods.
I first learned of this creature while watching the second episode of the T.V. show Supernatural. Brothers Dean and Sam Winchester, who in the show hunt monsters like vampires, witches, and werewolves, decide to help out a pair of siblings whose brother has gone missing in the woods. They later find out that he was kidnapped by a Wendigo. When I first watched it about five years ago, it was pretty chilling. I went camping deep in the woods with my family enough for it to strike a chord every time I crawled into a sleeping bag late at night.
The story of the Wendigo comes from the First Nations Algonquin tribes that are located in the forests of Novie Scotia, the East Coast of Canada, the Great Lakes Region of Canada, and even some parts of the United States such as the Northern woods of Minnesota. Reports of the creature describe it as skinny and emaciated. Oftentimes their lips are ripped open from the creature attempting to eat itself out of extreme hunger. In their fully mutated form, they can be up to 15 ft tall, making them more than twice the size of two adult men stacked on top of each other.
While descriptions vary across time and cultures, it’s pretty agreed upon that the Wendigo possesses glowing yellow eyes, a long tongue, and long fangs. Some say that they have yellowish, emaciated skin while others say that their skin is falling to pieces and matted with hair. Modern illustrations of the creature make it out to look like the skeleton of an elk that stands on its back legs and who has Edward Scissorhand like talons. They are reported to have extreme stealth and are master predators. In some stories, they are even reported to be able to control the weather through dark magic. Most eerie of all, in my opinion, are reports that they can mimic human voices, crying out for help in order to lure people deeper into the woods.
What is a Wendigo?
The name Wendigo is reported to mean, “Evil Spirit that Devours Mankind.” This is due to the fact that in mythology Wendigos are cannibalistic humans who are turned into monsters. Some say that an evil spirit will inhabit certain people who are then driven to do unnatural things, such as murder, or acts of cannabilism, while others say that it’s the act of eating human flesh that allows the evil spirit to take over. In some stories, it’s the fact that a person is in contact with a Wendigo long enough that causes them to morph into one, which is how their traits are passed on, allowing there to always be one in existence. The monster is strongly associated with the ideas of winter, hunger, famine, greed, or desperation.
Most of the people the Wendigo decides to stalk in the woods, man, woman, or child, are eaten in order to quench their never-ending hunger. In some stories, an unlucky few are chosen to be the next Wendigo. Seeing as all it takes is being around one for too long for someone to turn into a one, they like to kidnap certain people. Those people are then destined to kill those who they had loved in their previous life.
You may have heard of the creature from certain popular short stories, television shows, and even comic books. One of the more famous appearances of a Wendigo is in the April 1973 edition of the Incredible Hulk which was published by Marvel Comics. In it, the Incredible Hulk, and the famed Wolverine in his first comic book appearance, fight a Wendigo.
References to them have even appeared in the popular children’s television show My Little Pony. In that version, they are translucent ghost-like ponies that are referred to as winter spirits. They feed off the bad energy when other ponies fight or hate each other, allowing them to make cold weather or even blizzards.
Wendigos in Writing
The master of horror Stephen King has even used the Wendigo in his novels. In Pet Cemetary, they are famous for being responsible for the magic that allowed anything buried in the titular cemetery to become reanimated. It’s why the pets and humans who were buried there came back from the grave much more "murderous" and "stabby."
Horror writer Algernon Blackwood brought the Wendigo into fame in the twenty-first century with his classic tale simply titled "The Wendigo." The short story is pretty uneventful, though so masterfully written that even H.P. Lovecraft was a fan of the story. It follows a group of men who explore the great outdoors of North Western Ontario, only to have their guide run out into the woods at night. When one of the men follows his footsteps, he comes across a strange string of events. The story did inspire a few more modern versions of the tale. This included a short story of a Wendigo that appears in the well-recognized book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
The Play Station 4 game titled Until Dawn also featured a Wendigo and was set in Blackwood Mountain, Alberta, which is a reference to the author of the story, Algernon Blackwood.
The Wendigo's Origins
So while modern versions of wendigoes abound, where did these bone-chilling details come from? The answers are a little more complicated than I initially thought when first starting my research into this topic.
One story states that the original Wendigo was a warrior who made a deal with the Devil in order to be able to protect his tribe during wartime. When the war ended, he was considered unnecessary and banished to live alone in the woods.
But according to the native people of the Pacific Northwest, the Wendigo may have roots in another mythological monster. Stories of the Wachuge became mainstream when a man by the name of Robin Ridington visited the Dane-zaa tribe, sometimes referred to as the Beaver tribe, in the Peace River region of Canada. He kept coming across stories of this creature while talking to different members of the tribe and noted that they were humans that became “too strong” after performing a taboo ritual. The taboo rituals listed as examples are a bit different than cannabis, including having a picture taken with a flash, listening to music created by an instrument that used an animal hide or a stretched string, and lastly when someone ate meat with fly eggs in it. These examples all make historic sense seeing as many people born before the technological advances of the early 20th century were afraid that having your photograph taken meant that your soul was taken from you and captured in the photo.
One reason the Wendigo may be so strongly associated with winter and cold is that an early example of the Wechuge is made of ice. In one story where it was captured the Wechugay had to be thrown onto a campfire all night long so that it could melt. There is also another story of a similar creature in tribes near the Novia Scotia area of Canada, that is referred to as the Chenoo. They are described as being man-eating ice giants and there are a few stories told about this creature that have been passed down through generations of indigenous peoples.
One such story of a Chenoo involves a young woman who refused a man’s offer of marriage. While hunting all winter with her family, the man she refused decided to curse the young woman. He was skilled in magic, which was sometimes referred to as medicine at that time, and debilitated her with an herb that paralyzed her body. He then made a ball of snow and placed it on her neck, leaving it there all night when she couldn’t remove it. When she awoke the next morning she was ill and only wished to eat snow.
Because she had heard stories of the Chenoo she knew that she would turn into the ice monster when she began to crave eating her family. She begged her parents to kill her, sparing them the fate of being brutally killed, and they did as she asked and shot her seven times in the chest with arrows. They burned her body and as everything else turned to ash, they noticed that her heart was a block of ice, which they melted over a fire. The family never went back to that spot, afraid that some part of her had survived and would turn one of them into a monster.
Another, happier story is the one titled the Girl and the Chenoo Monster. While I did read a more complicated, adult version of the story, this is the one that is told to children as a sort of allegory or moral lesson. It tells the story of a young girl who goes hunting with her three brothers, and while she stays at camp to gather berries and tend to the fire, she greets a Chenoo who comes out of the forest.
Initially, the Chenoo wants to kill and eat her, as they are known to do, but the girl does something uncommon. She greets the Chenoo warmly, referring to it as her grandfather, and asking it to join her by the fire, eat some berries, and take a nap on their bearskins. The Chenoo spends time with the young girl and her brothers and sees that they are nicer to him than anyone else had ever been, he even helps out with daily chores, gathering wood and using his hunting skills to gather food for the family. Soon the girl invites the Chenoo back to her village. He states that while he wants to go with her that he cannot because the people of the village would scream and cry if they saw him as he was. So he asked her for her help in building a sweat lodge inside of their wigwam.
The young girl took him hot coals and he sat alone inside the wigwam, bearing the intense heat. Though he sounded tired after a while, he kept asking for more and more coals until finally he came out in the form of an old man, bent over, with a white beard that went to his knees. After coughing for a minute he spits out a piece of ice in the shape of a man. He told the young girl to throw the piece of ice into the fire, and they watched as it melted. They went back to the village with fresh meat, berries, and a new grandfather. The story acts with a dual purpose, both as a way to teach children of the dangers of a Chenoo, but also as a way of showing that a little kindness can go a long way.
These stories are just that though; stories. While the Chenoo acts as a great teaching tool for children, for adults the realities of the Chenoo, Wechugay, and Wendigo are a bit different, more real, and gruesome. In other stories, the ice block that creates a Chenoo is located in the monster's stomach, and forcing it to eat a salt block will melt it, allowing the monster to transform back into a human. And in other, less redemptive stories, chopping up the creature into several pieces is the only way to ensure that it will not regenerate, causing more havoc. As a way of warning of the monster in reality, the Cree tribe had a traditional dance that had members portray the legend of the Wendigo satirically, some dances even portraying hunters attempting to kill the beast, though that dance hasn’t been done for quite some time.
Even more than three hundred years ago when the New World was being established and indigenous people were being forced to adopt new cultures, word of the myth didn’t take too long to travel to those who visited with Native tribes. In 1661, a group of Jesuit Relations, or rather missionaries from France who sought to convert Native American Tribes at the time, ran across an occurrence of Wendigo mercy killings.
They stated that a few Native people who they were supposed to meet with 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.”
Native Americans and the indigenous people of Canada even had dedicated members of their tribes who fought Wendigos. Around 1906, an infamous shaman who went by the nickname of Jack Fiddler, (seeing as more English-sounding names made it easier for Indigenous people to communicate with European settlers,) was taken to court over his actions as one such person. Fiddler was known by the actions of his father, who was a famous shaman known for being able to conjure animals for the protection of his tribe. He also was notorious for defeating cannibalistic spirits that overtook people during times of famine or hunger.
During Jack Fiddler’s lifetime, he recounted having defeated fourteen Wendigos. The form of these creatures was much more human and less like the tall, gaunt skeletons told in stories. While I’m sure that many believed that that was the creature they would turn into if they allowed the spirit to fully overtake them, the Wendigo’s killed were simply just incurably sick humans that reported having had a craving for human flesh. To the people of Fiddler’s tribe, these killings were a mercy. While in pain, ill, and already dying, the people who reported having Wendigo-like symptoms wished only to save their loved ones, who they believed they would kill and eat if allowed to turn into the creature.
At one point starvation and illness became so frequent among his people that Fiddler even asked that the families of the loved ones who began to exhibit symptoms be euthanized by them, with a majority of those who were sick agreeing. Even Peter Flett, Fiddlers own brother had to be killed when he began to exhibit signs after running out of supplies on a trading exhibition. The case that Fiddler was taken to court over was of the euthanization of Jack’s brother’s daughter-in-law. It was customary that Jack and his brother Joseph, when they could manage it, were called to euthanize members of their tribe who were in pain and incurably sick, and fearing that they may become a Wendigo.
The tribe that they belonged to were some of the last surviving who were living by their own law in Canada around the turn of the twenty-first century. A majority of the tribe had never even seen a white man, but that didn’t stop two Mounties from arresting Jack and Joseph on grounds of murder, though they didn’t live even live by Canadian laws. The papers were sensationalized, with reports of the incident blaming the murders on Devil worship and other very European rationalisms. Sadly, Jack escaped prison only to hang himself nearby, while his brother was sentenced to death three days after having already died in prison of illness. The tribe that the brothers belonged to were forced to live by Canadian law after that, giving up a lot of customs such as Wendigo killings.
Today psychology’s way of describing someone with a cannibalistic mentality is by referring to them as having Wendigo Psychosis. It’s categorized as a Culture-Bound Syndrome, which is a set of symptoms that only occur within one particular culture or society. While these types of diseases are well known within a specific group of people, it’s usually unheard of and can be highly misunderstood or mistaken as something else entirely by people outside of that group. Wendigo Psychosis has come to be a term applied to people who, not under duress at the time or acting as a last resort, committed cannabilism. It’s been a bit erroneously named, seeing as the mythology of the Wendigo state that the people who turn into one are those who are in predicaments that they can’t escape from.
A notable story that helps to illustrate this disorder is that of a Plains Cree trapper who was referred to as Swift Runner. In the winter of 1878, his family was starving and his oldest son died. In what seemed like a desperate act Swift Runner killed and ate his wife and five remaining children. He did all this despite the fact that he lived 25 miles away from a store selling food and supplies, which was a relatively short distance to travel at the time. Swift Runner even served as a guide for the Northwest Mounted Police, meaning that he must have had experience traveling long distances outside, and knew his way around the terrain. He later confessed to what he had done and was executed by authorities at Fort Saskatchewan.
While this story is a great way of describing the mental illness of Wendigo Psychosis, I don’t believe that it’s the best way of telling the mythology behind the Wendigo and why euthanization was such an accepted ritual before the twenty-first century. With the people who experienced real-life Wendigo symptoms, it was different. They were people under extreme duress with no way out except a desperate act meant to save their loved ones, not greedily consume them. They acted as any unselfish person would, and sacrificed themselves for the greater good, therefore going against the very greedy nature of the Wendigo itself.
Myth or Reality
So that begs the question; are Wendigo real? Or are they simply just a nightmarish bedtime story to warn people against taboo acts? As a story, It makes sense why the Wendigo would exist. With very harsh realities at the time, people needed mythologies that correlated with what they were experiencing. At the same time, I strongly believe that it’s not for me to say whether the story of the Wendigo, the tall, gaunt skeleton like creature that stalked the woods at night, is myth or reality.
While a lot of the stories I cover have clear definitions of what is based in history and what has survived and been revealed to be reality, the lines of the Wendigo are too far blurred for me to make a comment. So in a way, yes, they existed, even if they did just exist in human form in a very small section of the world. But the creature that is so famous in television shows and literature? I’m not so sure about them.
All I know is that while we may think that Wendigo’s are a thing of the past, there have still been a number of sightings to this day. While it’s much rarer to hear stories of the Wendigo, they still exist, spanning from Northern Minnesota to Canada, especially around the Cave of the Wendigo in Ontario and around the town Kenora, the Wendigo Capital of the World, where sightings have primarily been reported by trackers, traders, and trappers.
The only advice I can give is this: if you’re going camping this summer, just remember to keep a fire going, as wendigoes tend to stay away from the warmth. And maybe take along some headphones so you don’t hear any voices out in the woods, begging you for help.
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