The wendigo is a mythological creature which is said to have devoured the Native Americans who dared to go into the forests of the Great Lakes Region but the wendigo is not a mere legend. It responds to a fascinating anthropological system, which articulated the values of the Angloquian tribes, the first inhabitants of the forests of Canada and the United States.
For millennia, oral tradition has kept the wendigo alive, and popular culture continues to feed it. Who or what is the wendigo? How do you escape from it, if at all?
The origin of the term 'wendigo
The word wendigo (in English, windigo), probably comes from the Proto-Algonquin term wi-nteko-wa, which means "owl". It can also be written as wiindigoo in the Ojibwa language, wìdjigò in the Algonquin language and wīhtikōw in the Cree language.
No one has ever seen a wendigo. They say only its victims know what it looks like. But the myth describes it as a tall, bony, humanoid-looking creature It has long limbs, thin, elongated claw-like fingers, a terrifying face and sharp teeth. The wendigo is as tall as a person but, according to legend, its height grows in proportion to the size of the victims it devours. Its eyes, milky, seem to be out of their sockets. Wendigo's retain some of the hair on their heads. In some versions, they also have elk horns. Their skin is hard as a shield, and only fire can make them retreat.
The wendigo is a creature of the night. It is said that it attracts its victims through its voice; who in turn were lured and never returned. Other versions record how the wendigo would come to its victim and shake his hand, making him run with long strides, which were drawn in the snow; at some point along the way, the human footprints would fade away, unable to follow in his footsteps, at which point the wendigo would lift his hostage into the air to devour him.
As for their abilities, their sharp nails and long fingers allow them to climb trees and walls. They are fast, but they have a strategic disadvantage: their vision is based on movement, so, legend has it, if you stand completely still, the wendigo may ignore you.
The taboo of cannibalism
Legend has it that if you go into the frozen woods and despair takes over, where you go hungry and your companions faint and you consider tasting their flesh to keep you alive. You can call upon the wendigo and his spirit will possess you.
The age of the wendigo is difficult to establish. The wendigo is part of the belief system of Algonquin mythology, specifically, the tribes of the Ojibwa and Saulteaux, the Cree, the Naskapi and the Innu, whose antiquity dates back some four thousand years.
The legend of the Wendigo is, in fact, one of the oldest manifestations of a taboo peculiar to most human societies, and which was already widespread among Anglophone tribes: cannibalism. It was forbidden to resort to this practice, even out of desperation. This dishonourable act, eating human flesh, was a way of invoking the wendigo and having its spirit possess you. Thus, anyone who practised cannibalism, even out of extreme necessity, ran the risk of mutating into one of these terrifying creatures.
During the harsh winters of North America, a season of famine and the extreme need was common. To avoid resorting to cannibalism, the tribes told the story of the wendigo as a warning. Suicide, or even starvation, was much better seen than having to resort to the atrocity of eating the flesh of one of their relatives. The wendigo is, therefore, a resource for establishing a system of values and coexistence among the population of Angloquins.
Other negative values associated with the wendigo were all kinds of excesses, such as gluttony: the wendigo is a creature that never gets satiated, since its size increases in proportion to what it eats. It is therefore emaciated in appearance and is always on the lookout for more victims. The wendigo is the symbol of the desperation of hunger, cruelty and overkill caused by starvation. Over time, the wendigo became a legend and the legend became a tale of terror.
Psycho by wendigo: How can the wendigo possess you?
There are two ways in which wendigo can possess you. One of them we have already mentioned: by resorting to cannibalism. The other is during a dream: it seems that the wendigo could penetrate your mind and make you violent, developing an irresistible need to eat human flesh. This disorder is popularly known as wendigo psychosis, although science has never described this syndrome as such. If any of the tribe members were victims of this event, their companions had to eliminate them.
According to anthropologist Marvin Harris, the legend of the wendigo was used, again, as a means to counteract another taboo: that of killing off a tribal member, what Harris calls a system of priority killing in extreme environmental situations; again, the harsh winters of North America.
The Original Legend
Among the stories that include references to the wendigo, a very famous one survives, which dates back to 1878: it tells the story of a Native American who was expelled from the Cree tribe and had to take refuge in the forest with his family. Sometime later, this man arrived in a nearby city, emaciated and desperate. His family had apparently died of starvation.
But the town's inhabitants did not believe him and called in the authorities to clarify the case. Finally, the man had to lead the police to the cabin where he had been living with his family. There, they found a macabre spectacle: the remains of his wife and children were scattered on the ground, and the bodies had been partially eaten. The father of the family was condemned to death by hanging; before he died, he defended himself by claiming that the wendigo had possessed him, forcing him to kill his family.
The wendigo in popular culture
The wendigo became popular in 1910 following the publication of Algernon Blackwood's novel The Wendigo. It is one of the most iconic horror stories in history, telling the story of a group of hunters who go into the forest to find elk. When the group splits in two, to optimize the search, the guide of one of them begins to behave strangely... He begins to get visions of the wendigo. Even though the story is not very descriptive, it masterfully recreates the atmosphere of suspense.
There are references to wendigo in many examples of 20th and 21st-century popular culture, not only in literature but also in film and television, even in video games. Some examples of novels are The Myths of Cthulhu (1921-1935), by H. P. Lovecraft; Cemetery of Animals (1984) by Stephen King; The Magician: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicolas Flamel (2007), by Michael Scotten; or Christmas Eve or The Wendigo (2017), by the Spaniard Javier Torras de Ugarte. The Wendigo also appears in role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Werewolf: The Apocalypse.
On television, references to the wendigo include the series Supernatural (2005), Hannibal (2013-2015); and in the manga series Mahō Tsukai no Yome (The Bride of the Ancient Wizard) by Kore Yamazaki (2014). As for the movies, the western The Lone Ranger (2013) also includes a mention of the wendigo: "All these years, I thought you were a wendigo. But now... you're just another white man.
As for the world of video games, it is essential to mention the title Until Dawn, from 2015, in which the player drives a group of teenagers who must survive the wendigo in one night on Mount Blackwood (referring to the author of the 1910 novel).