Image of possible Wendigo
In Algonquian folklore, the wendigo or windigo is a cannibal monster or evil spirit native to the northern forests of the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of both the United States and Canada. The wendigo may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human, or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them become monstrous. It is historically associated with cannibalism, murder, insatiable greed, and the cultural taboos against such behaviours.
The legend lends its name to the controversial modern medical term Wendigo psychosis, described by psychiatrists as a culture-bound syndrome with symptoms such as an intense craving for human flesh and a fear of becoming a cannibal. In some Indigenous communities, environmental destruction and insatiable greed are also seen as a manifestation of Wendigo Psychosis.
Alternative spellings: Wiindigoo (the source of the English word, from the Ojibwe language), Wendigo, Weendigo, Windego, Wiindgoo, Windgo, Weendigo, Wiindigoo, Windago, Windiga, Wendego, Windagoo, Widjigo, Wiijigoo, Wijigo, Weejigo, Wìdjigò (in the Algonquin language), Wintigo, Wentigo, Wehndigo, Wentiko, Windgoe, Windgo, Wintsigo and wīhtikōw (in the Cree language); the Proto-Algonquian term was *wi·nteko·wa, which probably meant "owl" in their original language. Windigoag is a plural form (also spelled Windegoag, Wiindigooag, or Windikouk)
The Wechuge is a similar being that appears in the legends of the Athabaskan people of the Northwest Pacific Coast. It too was cannibalistic. However, it was not so much insane as enlightened with ancestral insights.
The wendigo is part of the traditional belief system of a number of Algonquin-speaking peoples, most notably the Ojibwe and Saulteaux, the Cree, the Naskapi, and the Innu people. Although descriptions can vary somewhat, common to all these cultures is the view that the wendigo is a malevolent, cannibalistic, supernatural being. They were strongly associated with the winter, the north, and coldness, as well as with famine and starvation.
Basil Johnston, an Ojibwe teacher and scholar from Ontario, gives a description of a wendigo:
The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly 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 [....] Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.
In Ojibwe, Eastern Cree, Westmain Swampy Cree, Naskapi, and Innu lore, wendigos are often described as giants, many times larger than human beings (a characteristic absent from the myth in the other Algonquian cultures). Whenever a wendigo ate another person, it would grow in proportion to the meal it had just eaten, so that it could never be full. Therefore, wendigos are portrayed as simultaneously gluttonous and emaciated from starvation.
The Wendigo is seen as the embodiment of gluttony, greed, and excess: never satisfied after killing and consuming one person, they are constantly searching for new victims.
Human Wendigos (Cannibals)
In some traditions, humans who became overpowered by greed could turn into wendigos; the myth thus served as a method of encouraging cooperation and moderation. Also humans could turn into wendigos by being in contact with them for too long.
In historical accounts of Wendigo psychosis, it has been reported that humans became possessed by the Wendigo spirit, after being in a situation of needing food and having no other choice besides cannibalism. In 1661, the Jesuit Relations reported:
What caused us greater concern was the intelligence that met us upon entering the Lake, namely, that the men deputed by our Conductor for the purpose of summoning the Nations to the North Sea, and assigning them a rendezvous, where they were to await our coming, had met their death the previous Winter in a very strange manner. Those poor men (according to the report given us) 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.
One of the more famous cases of Wendigo psychosis reported involved a Plains Cree trapper from Alberta, named Swift Runner. During the winter of 1878, Swift Runner and his family were starving, and his eldest son died. Twenty-five miles away from emergency food supplies at a Hudson's Bay Company post, Swift Runner butchered and ate his wife and five remaining children. Given that he resorted to cannibalism so near to food supplies, and that he killed and consumed the remains of all those present, it was revealed that Swift Runner's was not a case of pure cannibalism as a last resort to avoid starvation, but rather of a man with Wendigo psychosis. He eventually confessed and was executed by authorities at Fort Saskatchewan.
Another well-known case involving Wendigo psychosis was that of Jack Fiddler, an Oji-Cree chief and medicine man known for his powers at defeating wendigos. In some cases this entailed killing people with Wendigo psychosis. As a result, in 1907, Fiddler and his brother Joseph were arrested by the Canadian authorities for homicide. Jack committed suicide, but Joseph was tried and sentenced to life in prison. He ultimately was granted a pardon, but died three days later in jail before receiving the news of this pardon.
Fascination with Wendigo psychosis among Western ethnographers, psychologists, and anthropologists led to a hotly debated controversy in the 1980s over the historicity of this phenomenon. Some researchers argued that essentially, wendigo psychosis was a fabrication, the result of naïve anthropologists taking stories related to them at face value without observation. Others have pointed to a number of credible eyewitness accounts, both by Algonquians and others, as evidence that wendigo psychosis was a factual historical phenomenon.
The frequency of Wendigo psychosis cases decreased sharply in the 20th century as Boreal Algonquian people came into greater and greater contact with Western ideologies and more sedentary, less rural, lifestyles.