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 disputed modern medical term Wendigo psychosis, which is considered by psychiatrists to be a form of 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.
Among the 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.
Taboo reinforcement ceremony
Among the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Ojibwe, a satirical ceremonial dance is sometimes performed during times of famine to reinforce the seriousness of the wendigo taboo. The last known wendigo ceremony conducted in the United States was at Lake Windigo of Star Island of Cass Lake, located within the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota.
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.
In popular culture
Although distinct from how it appears in the traditional lore, one of the first appearances of a character inspired by, or named after, a Wendigo in literature is Algernon Blackwood's 1910 short story The Wendigo, which was the basis for Ithaqua.
- Wikipedia Article on the Wendigo, as of 2017-March-16th.
- Colombo, J.R. ed. Wendigo. Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon: 1982.
- Joh/Users, Basil (1990 ). Ojibway Heritage. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Joh/Users, Basil (2001 ). The Manitous. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
- Teicher, Morton I. (1961). "Windigo Psychosis: A Study of Relationship between Belief and Behaviour among the Indians of Northeastern Canada." In Proceedings of the 1960 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, ed. Verne P. Ray. Seattle: University of Washington Press.