The Wendigo: Mad Cannibals
and Lost Souls

It contemplates you stomach wise

There is no name more feared in the American Indian tales than the wendigo. Described as a giant monster that can devour entire villages, it's heralded by a howling wind or raging storm of ice and cold. Its name can be pronounced or spelt in many different ways, but it means lonely, monster or even lost. And all of these concepts, as we will come to see, holds true for the monster

What is a Wendigo?

Descriptions for the wendigo, like its name, vary. Often the American Indians will place great emphasis on its size. The monster is apparently so large that merely to lay eyes on the titanic beast is enough to drive men mad. Like some sort of Lovecraftian-horror. It is so tall, in fact, that their bodies, like mountains, converge their own rainstorms, and they drag these storms behind them wherever they go. It can also be smaller, human-sized, and emaciated crazed beasts wandering the forests and fields searching for victims.

 

They can also be malicious spirits, evil and twisted in nature, seeking to bring hate and pain to the people of the plains. Their hands and limbs are often bloodied from a fresh kill, nails torn and stained by the dried blood of their victims. Their teeth are sharp and pointed, their bulk hairy and unseemly, and they have no lips, because, as the people say, his hunger is so great that the wendigo will eat its own face to sate it.

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Through pop-culture the Wendigo's image has drastically changed.

Hunger is the defining factor of the wendigo. It is so intense that it will eat anything from bark to soiled food to poisonous mushrooms. Anything to stop the eternal gnawing in its stomach. More often than not though, they turn their hunger on humans. Its favourite meal. Heralded by the howling winds, the wendigo wanders through the country in search of tasty human flesh to eat. The people, in turn, flee their villages hoping to find shelter before the Wendigo finds them.

Another feature that is often shared among all the incarnations of the wendigo, is the element of cold. As if the wendigo’s mere presence might bring forth storms of ice and snow, which they often do. Their voices howl like winds, their feet thunder like the rumble of storms.

Where the wendigo wanders, the snow is quick to follow, gales, snowstorms, and even the ferocious tornado are a symbol of his fury. 

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They bring freezing temperatures; nothing can grow when a wendigo is up and about, and they sometimes even hide the sun and stars. The mere wail of the wendigo has chased the bravest of warriors into their homes, hoping the monster will rather wander by, even as he screams outside their door.

One might say they are winter personified, the bringer of cold and snowstorms. This specific feature comes from their hearts, which are frozen solid, beating only frigid unquenchable anger through their veins, and the only way to banish a wendigo for good is to melt this heart.

But how are wendigos made? Where do these terrifying beasts even come from?  

 

Origin of the Wendigo

 

Originally they were tales and folklore from the Algonquin North American native tribes. Algonquin is a language that is shared amongst the few tribes from Canada to America and in their language, they have an old term ‘going wendigo’ or today simply known as Wendigo Madness. The creature might be a giant, a spirit or a monster, but the wendigo was most often first a man, falling to the call of cannibalism.

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The Malleus Maleficarum

America consists of wide expanses of land with little in-between. During those tentative early years of settling, towns and roads were far and few between, and sometimes in winter, when food was scarce, one might turn through desperation, hunger, and a touch of madness to cannibalism. The Starving Time in Jamestown, The Donner party and the Utter Party Massacre, are only a few instances of the dark points in America where man hungered for his brother’s flesh.

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The legend of wendigo can be traced back to the Algonquin people who are spread from Canada all the way to America.

As it often happened in winters, when food was scarce and hunger gnawed, the wendigo prowled and so the name has become synonymous with both starvation and cannibalism.

But even before the pilgrims arrived, the native people understood the dangers of their land. Its brutal winters, its harsh deserts, they understood how easily the spirit of a wendigo could whisper in your ear. Making you hunger for a forbidden meal.

Desperate enough for food, a man might look at one of his comrades, shyly, wondering how he might taste. And as hunger drives desperation, madness might raise his axe and crack his comrade’s skull. Desperation finally ebbing away as hunger is sated. But from that action, the evil spirit takes root, sliding into the man’s mind, taking away his reason, turning him into the physical monster he has already chosen to become in soul.

And so, he goes wendigo: lonely, monster and lost.

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Such a lost-man, will become a danger. A fearsome demon to be banished and killed, which is no easy task. The spirit multiplies the man’s strength tenfold, the wendigo keeping itself safe from fire and axes. The only way to destroy it is if many braves and their weapons manage to bring it down, tie it up with ropes and then burn it alive. Once the exterior has been destroyed, all that will remain is the frozen heart. This must then be removed and burned again to melt it completely and so banish the wendigo and its curse.

Another way for a man to ‘go wendigo’, is through the malicious intent of an enemy. An enemy tribe might perhaps curse another tribe with the foul spirit, sending the malicious thing into their midst to wreak havoc. Furthermore, the wendigo is a symbol of greed, the idea of an insatiable hunger could be a symbolic representation of a man who can never have enough. And so he is so desperate to have everything he is willing to tear off his own face and eat it. Greed is a very big part of the wendigo folklore and culture and the symbol holds a very true meaning in the stories of the Algonquian people.

Wendigo's were true threats for tribes and its inhabitans.It could wipe out an entire village in a single night, so they alwys erred on the side of caution.

Studies on the Wendigo

It should be noted that not all wendigo are cannibals, there are cases of creatures called wendigo who were merely men mad enough to kill and maim their fellow tribesman, through pure malicious intent.

But the word wendigo, as many anthropologists note, is almost synonymous with a cannibal. Richard Preston in particular, an anthropologist and expert on the American Indian Cultures, made the observation of the clear different types of wendigo that exist after he studied over 70 cases of Wendigo Madness. Some are murderers, some are boogeymen made up for children, but most are men turned cannibal, turned monster.

However, he further noted another interesting trend of the madness; those who go wendigo often ate their own family.

In 44 of the 70 cases Preston studied, a total of 36 showed a man eating his immediate family. The remaining few were friends or mere suggestions of cannibalism. The last remaining 26 showed no signs of cannibalism, as the potential wendigo was killed before he could act on his urges. A chilling insight of how deep this belief lies in the tribes. Guilty with no chance to be proven innocent.

The creation of the wendigo might very well be a mixture of starvation and winter, a poor interpretation of desperation and fear. The monster is deeply ingrained in winter, embodied in winds and storms, and of course that ghastly act, which inspired it in the first place.

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In European culture, the werewolf, much like the Wendigo, played the role of scapegoat for cannibals and murderers.

The idea of cannibalism is a vulgar one. It is the lowest form of human depravity, and within our minds, it symbolizes a loss of humanity. It is then understandable that humans would create such a monstrous creature to symbolize the act itself. It is a sort of scapegoat, a way to ensure we are not to blame for the monstrosity of humanity, but rather some evil spirit or twisted madness. Something clearly beyond our control.

This is often the case for monsters, they are props to point to and blame, stages to put our depravity upon and claim it was never ours to begin with. Vampires in Europe were the scapegoats for diseases, Witches, in turn, the scapegoats for misery, and the werewolf another fellow scapegoat for cannibalism. It is in our nature to want to defeat a monster, so why not make one that we can defeat?

But the wendigo, whether it is only madness, spirit, symbol, monster, or scapegoat has ingrained itself into the deepest parts of American culture and folklore. Its symbol has been warped into something unrecognizable, and still perfectly recognizable to all who lay eyes upon it. Some even claim to have seen the monster while walking in the forests or wide expanses of deserts. So perhaps, when wandering in the forests, be sure to listen for the wail of the wendigo. And then run.

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Monsters, evil beings, mythical beasts and all manner of imaginary terrors by David D. Gilmore