There is no culture in the world without a folklore…
We’ve all heard of evil spirits and flesh eating monsters such as dragons, demon bears, the Loch Ness monster or the Alaskan Tizheruk, leprechauns, trolls, Baba Yaga, Yuki-onna, the Cyclops, the grim ripper, banshee, werewolves, the Russian Gamayun or Alkonost, to the Celtic children eating Bugbear and more…
There are countless spirits and monsters associated with good and evil from every culture and each one carries their own significance and serve a particular purpose within their respective cultures.
Some of these monsters and spirits were totally fictional and only used to deliver messages, warnings and teachings to a particular people while some cultures still insist that their folklore monsters are real.
Which brings us to the main topic of discussion for this piece…and we’re asking…are Wendigos real?
Let’s take a closer look at this Algonquian folklore and try decipher the historicity behind this evil, winter time, man possessing spirit/half-man beast associated with insatiable greed and cannibalism…
Note: alternative forms include Windago, Wiindigoo, Windiga, or Windigo. Also associated with starvation and famine.
The Algonquin speaking people originally occupied the Great American Northern Frontier covering the areas running from the Atlantic Coast all the way to the Great Lakes in the interior (both in Canada and the US).
There were several known language groups forming different native tribes that had populations numbering hundreds of thousands.
They were primarily fishermen and hunters although some of them managed to cultivate a few supplementary crops such as squash and corn or wild rice which was a staple for the Ojibwe.
The Wendigo Origin: A Malevolent Monster is Born
Nobody really knows when, why or how the Wendigo legend came to be but what we know so far is that this was a common belief shared by a few Algonquin language groups that included the Innu, Ojibwe, Cree, Assiniboine, the Naskapi, and the Saulteaux.
According to the above Algonquian people, the Wendigo was a colossal monster usually appearing during the winter or famine and it had a serious appetite for human flesh and also possessed human beings overtaken by their own greed to become cannibals.
These possessed humans developed an unstoppable craving for human flesh and could never seem to have enough of other destructive obscenities regarded as taboo.
The detailed descriptions of this monster/spirit varied from tribe to tribe but the overall view of the Wendigo was somewhat standard.
Until recently, surviving members of the Ojibwe, Assiniboine and Cree language groups still practiced an ancient form of ceremonial dance (especially during famines) to try and bring the community together by fostering moderation and co-operation among the people.
This was a way to keep the Wendigo spirit from possessing people during these hard times when individuals could very easily be tempted to act in selfish greed.
Historical reports collected from the Jesuit Relations talks of a disease of some sort that combined all the symptoms of lunacy, frenzy and hypochondria.
These reports were made by early European explorers and they were part of a larger campaign aimed at raising funds for the conquests.
The explorers talked of ravenous attacks from natives afflicted by this folk illness commonly known in the medicine world as the Wendigo Psychosis, a “culture-specific syndrome”.
The Wendigo Controversy
Here comes the exciting part…
Now, we know the Wendigo myth to be of Algonquin origin, and all the characteristics of the Wendigo as defined by the Algonquin people, point to an evil beast that ate men and possessed natives to start acting like the Wendigo itself… right?
So here is a random thought…
Could the natives have developed this myth when they first met European explorers?
The Wendigo is associated with winter and famine which could very easily be the two times when the waters were favorable for European ships to cross the oceans.
Remember what we said earlier about folk lore and its use in the society? Warning, teaching…
I mean, how else could the tribal chief of a “savage” tribe or their scouts explain a frail looking white man with white ashy skin, emaciated and stinky from months of sea travel without a proper bath, and who just happened to appear on their shores?
One scholar and teacher from Ontario, Basil Johnston, describes the Wendigo close to what we would describe a zombie in the modern context.
Loose skin covering an emaciated body structure, bloody tattered lips, smell of death and decay, ashy-gray complexion… everything a zombie would look like.
And Now to The Interesting Part…
In my opinion, the Wendigo was the white man who came to their shores during winter or during the dry seasons. Why?
We all can imagine how some of the explorers looked like to the natives. This is after months of traveling in the sea and sometimes suffering illnesses that left most of them dead and most of the survivors looking like zombies.
Some of these expeditions were poorly funded and most of the times the crew would have to go with small food rations and have to endure much of the final leg of the journey without any food at all!
Did these white men land on the American Northern Frontier with cannibalistic characteristics?
Probably not…but where did the man eating beast and Wendigo spirit come from?
Here’s my Theory…
According to the Algonquin, the Wendigo is a beast that eats and keeps eating while it gets bigger after every man it feeds on.
The Wendigo can also possess men to become greedy flesh eating half-men beasts and portray other characteristics described as taboo.
Now, we all know what happened with the native American tribes as the white man took over their lands.
They were slaughtered, their land was taken over, sometimes by rich individuals who wanted to own large chunks of land in their own “greed”.
These individuals indulged in other vices like alcohol and sexual promiscuity which were totally viewed as taboo to communities that lived together, hunted together, fished together, and even had community meals and other social formalities to strengthen their unity.
What else do we know about these reports from the Jesuit Relations?
They continued to report that the natives who suffered Wendigo psychosis came at them like werewolves and this is why they had to be killed as the only solution.
The reports also talk of the Wendigo psychosis also affecting their deputies…
Okay, call me stupid but my logic tells me that if you come to my land, start killing people left right and center without care or any good reason that I can see, then hell yeah I will come at you in a rage!
What will a poor explorer looking for funds and trying to justify killing off the resisting natives do?
Invent a disease connected to a people’s folklore, twist it and call the native’s rage and retaliation “a culture-bound syndrome”.
Let’s Break it Down…
The Wendigo has an insatiable hunger for human flesh:
Translation…the white man (who landed at their shores looking like a zombie…) just kept killing and killing more natives without any signs of ever stopping.
Hence, the legend of the Wendigo constantly feeding on human flesh…moving from one man to the next.
The Wendigo only knows greed and destruction:
Translation…the white man took over their farming, hunting and fishing grounds.
The white man also hunted in excess killing sacred animals on sacred grounds, cleared forests day and night which included cutting down sacred trees, it was the ultimate indulgence into greed driven taboos.
Gluttony…always wanting more…!
The Wendigo keeps growing and growing as it feeds on more men:
Translation…the white man kept increasing in numbers as he moved into the interior taking over more land from natives to settle the growing numbers of Europeans families that continued to pour in using larger commercial vessels.
The wendigo possesses men to start acting like it, they get the “wendigo sickness”:
Translation… remember the Jesuit Relation’s reports talking of “deputies” who also could suffer from Wendigo psychosis?
We know that these deputies were recruited native porters and guides. And we also know that some of these “deputies” were used to betray their own people, helping to kill others and displacing even more from their lands.
Some of the “clever” ones went on to own small pieces of land while they indulged in the white man’s vices such as prostitution and alcoholism.
And who were the deputies suffering from Wendigo psychosis?
Natives who defaulted and decided to turn against the white man’s agenda of course!
This is how the Wendigo spirit possessed men and forced the possessed men to act like a Wendigo or how explorers justified killing “native friendlies” who turned on them.
Wendigos of The Modern Times
Although the wendigo psychosis controversy continues to turn and pull the medicine arena in all directions, it has become increasingly difficult for the supporters of this theory to prove it’s actual existence.
Of course we know that folk illnesses or culture-specific syndromes have no solid scientific backing.
Nowadays this term is mostly associated with individuals and corporations considered destructive to the environment – as a result of the perceived excessive greed they exhibit or as portrayed by their actions.
The Wendigo legend has also been kept alive through several works of literature since Algerno Blackwood first wrote The Wendigo horror story in 1910.
There have also been numerous screenplay and game characters based on this legend.
Wendigo characters can be found in movies such Ravenous or in TV series like Hannibal and Charmed among others.
They also appear in video or computer games such as Warcraft, Until Dawn and Tearaway.
So…Are Wendigos Real?
Well, while it’s highly doubtful that there’s a real monster prowling the Alaskan cold forests looking for tasty men to feed on or possess…
The legend behind the Wendigo spirit is plausible…we just explained it!
Any opposing or supporting views about the Wendigo folk lore?
Please leave your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below.