When it comes to nightmare fuel, not many creatures outrank the wendigo. It’s a demonic half-beast from Algonquian legend and, if that’s not enough to ward you off, it has an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Since Algonquian culture covers a range of Native American tribes, the creature goes by many names, including weendigo, windiga, and wihtikow, but supposedly all of them roughly translate to mean “the evil spirit that devours mankind”. The Native Americans believed that these malevolent spirits could possess human characteristics or, in some cases, even transform into human beings. They are creatures that are doomed to starvation, forever hungry and pursuing a relentless desire for human flesh. They were often associated with winter, the cold, the north, famine, and starvation.
According to Algonquian legend, men could either become possessed by the spirit of a wendigo or people who were subsumed by greed or who had cannibalised could transform into wendigo. You were at particular risk of possession if you were dreaming, as if we needed any more reason for sleepless nights. Once you became a wendigo, your heart would become cold as ice and your body would begin to change. Some accounts by settlers’ documented the wendigo as a dark omen whose presence immediately preceded the death of someone in the community. In some, chilling cases, wendigo were even purported to keep live hostages in a sort of makeshift, cannibal pantry to snack on later.
This hideous dark omen, with flesh dangling from its teeth and eyes burning from its sockets, was considered such a legitimate threat by the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Ojibwe Native Americans that they dedicated a ceremonial dance to it, known as wiindigookaanzhimowin in Ojibwe. This dance took place on the last day of the Sun Dance and involved wearing a mask whilst dancing backwards around a drum. The only way to kill a wendigo was supposedly to set it on fire and incinerate all of its remains. If any part of it survived, its essence may very well possess another human being. So keep your flamethrowers at the ready as we delve into the mysterious origins of the wendigo.
The appearance of the wendigo varies from legend to legend, but it’s commonly described as being gigantic, over 15 feet tall, and appears emaciated due to its insatiable hunger. It has ash grey skin that is pulled taught over its bones and its eyes appear deeply sunken in their sockets. Its lips are bloody and tattered, almost non-existent, and give way to a grotesquely long tongue and unnervingly sharp teeth. In some descriptions they have deeply matted hair whilst in others they are hairless. It appears sallow and gaunt, like a skeleton, and is portrayed either with purely human characteristics or, in some instances, with the head of a stag.
As it passes, it disseminates an odour of death and decay, since it is practically decomposing as it walks. Somehow this walking, stinking corpse is not only able to keep standing, but is endowed with supernatural strength. It is able to overcome victims easily and, in some Algonquian communities, it was even believed that it grew larger with each victim it consumed.
The origin of the wendigo mythos is directly connected to how wendigo supposedly came to be. Wendigo were either malicious spirits that had been transformed by magic or, more often, they were once people who had been overcome by greed or who had eaten human flesh. This included, rather specifically, anyone who had resorted to cannibalism as a means to survive.
The Algonquian family consisted of hundreds of diverse tribes that inhabited a stretch of territory in a northern arc from New England right up through to the Great Lakes and the eastern Rockies. This meant that, during the bitterly cold winter, poor hunting seasons and resulting starvation was a very real threat. In fact, whole villages were known to have been wiped out by starvation during a particularly devastating winter. In these times of abject desperation, some members of the community would resort to cannibalism. In Algonquian culture, a hefty taboo was placed on cannibalism and it was considered pertinent to commit suicide or allow yourself to die rather than resort to eating human flesh.
Most people believe that the wendigo legend was created to reinforce this taboo on cannibalism. As wendigo symbolised gluttony, greed, and excess, it is believed they were also used to encourage cooperation between people and moderation of appetites. Some people believe that the cannibalism aspect of the myth may have been inspired by actual diseases, such as Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease or other brain diseases, which may have been transmitted via cannibalism and resulted in violent psychosis. It is thought perhaps the wendigo myth was used to explain the strange behaviour of afflicted individuals that may have ingested human flesh.
A Cree Indian named Jack Fiddler was considered to be one of the most famous Wendigo hunters in history. He claimed to have killed 14 of the beasts in his lifetime but was imprisoned at the age of 87, along with his son, for the murder of a Cree woman in October of 1907. Both him and his son plead guilty to the offense but maintained that the woman had been possessed by the spirit of a wendigo and was on the verge of complete transformation. They attested that they murdered her as a form of self-defence, believing she would kill other members of the tribe if left to transform.
Historians believe that Jack Fiddler may have been one of the only known cases of a culture-bound disorder known as “Wendigo Psychosis”. Though “wendigo psychosis” is not an official medical or psychological term, it’s used to refer to a disorder that occurs only within the Algonquian community, hence the term “culture-bound”. The symptoms include either a craving for human flesh or an unfounded fear that people behaving strangely have indulged in cannibalism. It’s a very specific form of paranoia, where one either believes they are becoming a wendigo or, in the case of Jack Fiddler, that those around them are wendigo.
Modern Day Usage
Though wendigo are perhaps not the most well-known in the monster canon, they have been subtly used in various forms of media, including:
- The 2001 film Wendigo. The film plays upon the idea of “wendigo psychosis” and features a wendigo that may or may not be real. The same author/director used the wendigo in his 2006 movie The Last Winter.
- The 1999 film Ravenous, in which a soldier in the United States Army develops supernatural powers after cannibalising a fellow soldier to survive.
- In the cinematic reboot of The Lone Ranger, Tonto refers to Butch Cavendish as a wendigo because he eats parts of his victims.
- In the Digimon movies, the main antagonist is called Wendigomon.
- The wendigo featured as a monster in the T.V. series Supernatural.
- In the popular T.V. series Charmed, one episode features one of the main characters, Piper Halliwell, turning into a wendigo.
- A wendigo features as an antagonist in an episode of Teen Wolf.
- In the anime One Piece, Chopper’s monster form was heavily influenced by modern interpretations of the wendigo.
- In the T.V. series Hannibal, Will Graham frequently has recurring dreams and hallucinations featuring a deer with ravens’ feathers. At one point in the series, he hears the Word of God, which confirms that this creature is a wendigo. At the end of the series, Will Graham has a final hallucination that reveals Hannibal Lecter is the creature he has been seeing all along and is, in fact, a wendigo.
- In Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, the Indian burial ground and the path leading to it is frequented by a wendigo. At one point, the main protagonist very nearly encounters it.
- The wendigo is a common villain that features across several Marvel comics, including X-Men, Spiderman, and The Incredible Hulk. It’s well known for its catchphrase, its primal shout of “Wen-Di-Goooo”. Anyone who eats human flesh in the Canadian forests will become a wendigo in the Marvel universe. At one point in the comics, it is even revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D once pioneered a WENDIGO project in an attempt to create super soldiers.
- In the Cthulu Mythos, Ithaqua was inspired by the legend of the wendigo.
- In the video game World of Warcraft, wendigo are monsters similar to yetis or Sasquatch.
- Wendigo feature both as playable characters and enemies in the video game series Shin Megami Tensei.
- Wendigo feature as enemies in the video games Final Fantasy V, X and XII.
- Wendigo is an official category of monsters in the video game Diablo II.
- SCP-323 or “The Wendigo Skull” in the SCP series is described as the skull of an unidentified creature that causes anyone within close proximity to develop cannibalistic urges. Eventually, the victim is compelled to force the skull on their heads and transforms into a creature resembling the legendary wendigo.