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A Short History Of The Wendigo

March 13, 2019

 

One of my favourite episodes of the TV show Supernatural was season one's second episode about the mythical Wendigo, and I wanted to dive a little bit deeper into the history of this man-eating monster that is native to the northern forests of America and Canada.

 

The legend of the Wendigo comes from native Algonquin-speaking tribes of the Ojibwe, the Saulteaux, the Cree, the Naskapi. and the Innu people - all traditional North American tribes. The Wendigo is describes as a malevolent, cannibalistic supernatural being that is the embodiment of gluttony, greed, and excess. The creature is mentioned in the legend that whenever a Wendigo would eat, it would grow in proportionate size of the animal it had just eaten so that it was never characteristically full and never satisfied, always hunting for its next meal. 

 

Basil Johnston, an Ojubwe teacher and scholar from Ontario described the classic legend as: "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.1"

 

Historically associated with murder, starvation, and the incessant cold, the Wendigo is also sometimes seen as a murderous and cannibalistic human or a spirit who has possessed a human being. In turn, the legend lends it's name to a modern medical malady called "Wendigo Psychosis" which is described by psychiatrists as a "culture-bound syndrome with symptoms such as an intense craving for human flesh and fear of becoming a cannibal" 2 

 

These accounts of Wendigo Psychosis has dropped in frequency in modern years, considering the diagnosis can be often given to other mental health issues or extreme starvation states. As an example, the most famous case of Wendigo Psychosis occured with a Plains Cree trappper from Alberta named Swift Runner, who murdered his wife and six children during the harsh winter of 1878. However, Swift Runner was only twenty five miles from any emergency food supplies, so it was indicated that this was not a case of pure cannibalism and mental health issues, but was a instead reported as case of Wendigo Psychosis when he claimed that he was possessed by the beast. This diagnosis has been debated controversially in the 1980s as a result of naive anthropologists, but others have pointed to a number of credible eyewitness accounts to determine it a factual historical phenomenon.

 

Whether it be the case of supernatural influence, or simply humanity's murderous tendencies, the Native Americans tribe understand the Wendigo conceptually as a person, idea, or movement that is infected by a drive towards greed and excessive consumption. In an attempt to ward off the Wendigo, the tribespeople of Assiniboine, Ojibwe and Cree performed a ceremonial dance during times of famine. The purpose of the dance was to reinforce the threat of the evil creature during the harsh winters and to ensure cooperation and moderation during these hard times.

 

Back in 1907, there was however a Cree Indian named Jack Fiddler who was considered to be one of the most famous Wendigo hunters in history, claiming to have killed 14 of these creatures. He and his son were arrested for the murder of who they claimed to be a possessed woman about to turn into a Wendigo. Jack Fiddler's methods were not well-documented unfortunately, but mythical lore suggests that wounded Wendigo's simply regenerate, so the best way to kill a Wendigo is with silver bullets or a blade through the heart. After wounding the heart, it is suggested to shatter it into pieces, lock it in a silver box and bury it in a church cemetery. Then the body of the Wendigo has to be dismembered, salted, burned, and scatter the ashes to the winds.

 

Or we could simply call Sam and Dean Winchester. 

1. Johnston, Basil (2001) [1995]. The Manitous. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

2. Brightman, Robert A. (1988). "The Windigo in the Material World". Ethnohistory. 35 (4): 337–379. doi:10.2307/482140. JSTOR 482140.

 

 

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