Wendigo - the mysterious monster of the North American forests

Many people start to get excited when they hear the word "Wendigo", because it sounds familiar to them for some reason. They are right, the Wendigo (the creature has a lot of names, for example Windigo, Weendigo, Windiga or Witiko) has become the part of the horror and fantasy culture of the 21th century. We can find him in many popular films, series, and novels or just in computer games. Nevertheless, only a few curious people know the background of the story of the Wendigo's legend, what type of mysterious creature hides behind of this name which is written in many different ways.


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The Wendigo is a malevolent, cannibal ghost in the mythology of the Algonquin and Ojibwa Indians that is able to possess humans while they are sleeping. Besides this, in every culture where this monster can be found, people think that any human is able to become a Wendigo if he has ever been took part in cannibalism. After turning into a beast, the wretched victim starts to be aggressive and violent, and feels an urge to eat human meat.

According to the beliefs there are at least three different appearance of the Wendigo. One of these is the invisible ghost that posses sleeping people, but there are other forms with physical bodies. The monster is tall as the trees of the wood, has gray and cold rotting skin, and looks like a dead who has buried two weeks ago and died in starvation. His eyes are shining with a strange light from their deep socket, and his yellow tusks are sharp as a razor. The tongue of the creature is long and slim, red as blood and the saliva of the beast drips from it.

For an interesting fact there is a more scary form of the Wendigo, which is also taller than a man, but stronger and heavier than it, and has a human-like body with a head of a death deer. Cause of his horrific appearance this variation is the most popular form of the Wendigo in fantasy drawings. There is also a legend about a form what is reminiscent of a monkey, and this is the cause anyway why many have suggested that there is a connection between the Bigfoot and the Wendigo.

"The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody. Its body was unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, giving off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption."

- said Basil Johnston who is an Ojibwa teacher and scholar, Ontario, Canada

The Algonquian mythology describes the Wendigo as "a giant with a heart of ice; sometimes it is thought to be entirely made of ice. Its body is skeletal and deformed, with missing lips and toes."

The Ojibwa Indian legend describes it like a large creature, as tall as a tree, with a lipless mouth and uneven denture. His smell is like rotting flesh, runs faster than any human and his long soaring hair is flying behind him. His breath is a strange hiss and he eat any man, woman or child who moved into his territory. And those are the lucky ones who are hunted by the beast. Sometimes, the soul of the monster decides to chose a person to possess, and then the unlucky victim become a Wendigo himself, hunting down those people he had once knew and loved and at last feasting on their meat.

According to the tradition of other Indian tribes, such as the Eastern Cree, Westmain Swampy Cree, Innu, Naskapi and Montagnais, the size of the monster increases in proportion to the consumed food and victims. Each time the creature devours a man, he becomes bigger and bigger, and his appetite increases too. In this way the Wendigos are plagued with unending hunger, and in case they cannot eat they start to be emaciated.

One of the legends says that the first Wendigo was originally a heroic warrior who bargained with the devil, gave his own soul to the evil ghost to save his people when his tribe was in danger.

In this way he became a horrible beast and ate the bodies of the enemy warriors. After they won, the tribe did not need this bloodthirsty horror anymore, so they banished him from themselves. The Wendigo went into the deep of the forest to hide, where he is hunting down the people who got lost ever since.

The Wendigo psychosis

There are some mental illnesses which are producing their characteristic symptoms by cultural influences (culture bound syndrome). The Wendigo psychosis is a good example for this. It had been recorded in North-American Indian groups like Ojibwa or Cree tribes whose territories are located next to the Great Lakes. The Wendigo psychosis usually appears in winter time, when the families of this area are isolated from the other people groups by the snow, and they do not have enough food to get through the winter.

The first symptoms are the loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and depression. After these the individual begin to remark the changes in his character, the traditional traits of the illness such as aggression and violence appear. The person who is suffering from the psychosis starts to see the people who surround him as food, but at the same time begins to feel a special paranoid fear of becoming a cannibal.

In other cases, the patient, "realizing" that he is about to become a Wendigo ends his own life to save the people he loves.

In the year of 1661 a group of Jesuit missionaries moved to the territory of the Algonquin Indians next to the Ottawa River. There was another group of missionaries who moved to the region before them, but according to the reports they were suffering from a strange disease at that time. The group coming to their release has heard that something terrible happened with the previous mission, but what they found when they arrived there exceeded all of their imaginations.

"Those poor men (...) 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."

- as the missionaries documented

According to the narration of the local Algonquin Indians, whose accommodation area was near the place where the terrible things happened, many of the missionaries were possessed by the evil ghost of the Wendigo. They started to be aggressive with their friends and families, children and women, and then the murders and violence suddenly started to dominate the mission. The Wendigos hunted down the survivors in the forest one after another to feast on their flesh.

We do not know if there is any basis for these Indian legends about the terrible bloodthirsty monster of the deep forests of Great Lakes area in North America, who are hunting for human flesh with an unending hunger, and his evil ghost possesses people and forcing them to do terrible things. Is it a mysterious secret which only a few could see, or just an ancient moral teaching for youngsters for case of challenging hard times? Maybe the truth will be never known, such us the true story of the originally peaceful missionaries who died on the Northern forests next to the Ottawa River.

Actually we can meet the Wendigo in some computer games, like Final Fantasy, Until Down or Warcraft Universe. For a fact there is also a creature named Wendigomon in the Digimons cartoon, and a fictional featured also uses this name in the Marvel Comics cartoons. Literary works also like to highlights the scary features of this creature, like Stephen King in his novel, in the "Pet Sematary". The name of the monster also be familiar from the movie "The Lone Ranger", where the Indian protagonist, forming by Johnny Depp , called his enemy Windigo.

Donát Novák

February 2020