If the American Kennel Club awarded a “Best in Show” for monsters, few could rival the impressive, if ghastly, pedigree of the cannibalistic, humanoid Algonquin Wendigo, not only featured prominently in Native American mythology, but also subject of a poem by American poet Ogden Nash, a horror story by Algernon Blackwood, thought of clinically as a culture-bound psychosis by many psychologists (while not an official diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Associations’ Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, it is mentioned, and many psychologists/psychiatrists believe it meets the criteria for a culture bound syndrome – although there is significant debate about whether it ever actually existed), subject of several well documented court cases including the Ontario criminal court’s Regina v. Machekequonabe (1897, 28 O.R. 309), and starring as an antagonist in the television shows Supernatural, X-Files, Grimm, Haven, and Charmed. If nothing else, the Wendigo has an impressive list of acting credits. Nash’s poem offers a quick glimpse of the evil that is the Wendigo, whose dominant characteristic is undoubtedly that he finds you edible.
Its eyes are ice and indigo!
Its blood is rank and yellowish!
Its voice is hoarse and bellowish!
Its tentacles are slithery,
Its lips are hungry blubbery,
I saw it just a friend ago!
Last night it lurked in Canada;
Tonight, on your veranada!
As you are lolling hammockwise
It contemplates you stomachwise.
The rest is merely gulps and gollops.
(“The Wendigo”, poem by Ogden Nash)
The Wendigo (also windigo, weendigo, windago, waindigo, windiga, witiko, wihtikow) appears in the mythology of the Algonquin peoples of North America. Algonquin is a language family group rather than a specific tribal affiliation, but includes tribes such as New England’s Mohegan, Pequot, Narragansett, Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuck, Pennacook, Passamaquoddy, and Quinnipiac, and the Canadian and Upper Midwestern Ojibwe/Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Cree, suggesting a widespread common belief throughout the colder northern reaches of North America. The core monstrosity of the Wendigo is his consumption of human flesh, but various folktales differ on whether he is purely a supernatural horror doomed to wander the earth with an insatiable appetite for homo sapiens, a human possessed by a ravenous evil spirit, or the inevitable result of a human resorting to cannibalism (and some legends suggest that the simply greedy can become a Wendigo, which seems a rather inequitable sort of retribution).
The Wendigo is variously described as a walking corpse, a giant that grows in proportion to each human he eats so that his gluttonous craving for human flesh is never satisfied, and sometimes indistinguishable from other people, except for his unfortunate tendency to regard everyone around him/her (gender and age neutral – the Wendigo is an equal opportunity monster)as a tasty treat.
Given the prevalence of the Wendigo mythology among Northern cultures, in cold climates, where famine and starvation are a distinct possibility, the traditional anthropological interpretation has been that the Wendigo is a reinforcement of cannibalism taboos, where cannibalism might sometimes be considered a viable, if extreme, survival option. The cannibalism taboo, both culinary and ritual, is particularly strong in northern Algonquin cultures, where resignation to death or suicide was considered the preferable alternative to eating one’s neighbors. The Ojibwe story below is typical Wendigo fare, so to speak.
One winter a newly married couple went hunting with the other people. When they moved to the hunting grounds a child was born to them. One day, as they were gazing at him in his cradleboard and talking to him, the child spoke to them. They were very surprised because he was too young to talk. “Where is that manidogisik (Sky Spirit)?” asked the baby. “They say he is very powerful and some day I am going to visit him.” His mother grabbed him and said, “You should not talk about that manido that way.” A few nights later, they fell asleep again with the baby in his cradleboard between them. In the middle of the night the mother awoke and discovered that her baby was gone. She woke her husband and he got up, started a fire and looked all over the wigwam for the baby. They searched the neighbor’s wigwam but could not find it. They lit birchbark torches and searched the community looking for tracks. At last they found some tiny tracks leading down to the lake. Halfway down to the lake, they found the cradleboard and they knew then the baby himself had made the tracks, had crawled out of his cradleboard and was headed for the manido. The tracks leading from the cradle down to the lake were large, far bigger than human feet, and the parents realized that their child had turned into a windigo, the terrible ice monster who could eat people. They could see his tracks where he had walked across the lake. The manidogisik had fifty smaller manidog or little people to protect him. When one of these manidog threw a rock, it was a bolt of lightning. As the windigo approached, the manidog heard him coming and ran out to meet him and began to fight. Finally they knocked him down with a bolt of lightning. The windigo fell dead with a noise like a big tree falling. As he lay there he looked like a big Indian, but when the people started to chop him up, he was a huge block of ice. They melted down the pieces and found, in the middle of the body, a tiny infant about six inches long with a hole in his head where the manidog had hit him. This was the baby who had turned into a windigo. If the manidog had not killed it, the windigo would have eaten up the whole village (Ojibwe Oral tradition).
For an audio stream of a Cree elder relating more stories about cannibalism and the Wendigo, listen at http://www.ourvoices.ca/index/ourvoices-story-action/id.0002. There are also very early records of French fur traders among the Algonquin, noting the prevalence of the Wendigo.
The whole route, with its rapids, whirlpools, and deceptive currents, came to be surrounded, especially in superstitious minds, with an air of dangerous mystery. A traveller tells us that a prominent fur trader pointed out to him the very spot where his father had been swept under the eddy and drowned. The camp-fire stories were largely the accounts of disasters and accidents on the long and dangerous way. As such a story was told on the edge of a shadowy forest the voyageurs were filled with dread. The story of the Wendigo was an alarming one. No crew would push on after the sun was set, lest they should see this apparition. Some said he was a spirit condemned to wander to and fro in the earth on account of crimes committed, others believed the Wendigo was a desperate outcast, who had tasted human flesh, and prowled about at night, seeking in camping-places of the traders a victim. Tales were told of unlucky trappers who had disappeared in the woods and had never been heard of again. The story of the Wendigo made the camping-place to be surrounded with a sombre interest to the traders. Unbelievers in this mysterious ogre freely declared that it was but a partner’s story told to prevent the voyageurs delaying on their journey, and to hinder them from wandering to lonely spots by the rapids to fish or hunt (Bryce, 1910, p.310)
Puzzlingly, the indigenous Iroquois of North America occupied a similar climactic niche in the Northeastern United States and Canada, but practiced ritual cannibalism in the past by the consumption of pieces of human flesh and organs from defeated enemies, on the presumption that their strength could be absorbed (we see this belief is rather common cross-culturally). While this reflects positively on the respect accorded to a foe by the eater, it is not much solace to the eaten. Anthropologists distinguish this sort of ritual cannibalism, for which numerous precedents can be found in Iroquois theology, from more desperate subsistence cannibalism. While both the Iroquois and Algonquin occupied the Northeastern United States, the Iroquois were more horticulturally oriented and thus had a more secure food supply than Algonquin peoples who focused more heavily on hunting and gathering, living in smaller, more mobile groups, and decidedly more susceptible to food shortages, in a particularly bad winter for instance. Thus there would be no need to resort to subsistence cannibalism among the Iroquois, hence no strong anti-cannibal taboos. In point of fact, the Iroquois were ritual exo-cannibals, that is, they only ate outsiders. There is no well-defined tradition of exo-cannibalism among Algonquians, rather given the subsistence precipice they lived upon, there was a definite possibility that a small, isolated group of hunter-gatherers might find themselves on the brink of annihilation, with the only means of survival revolving around a last ditch Donner Party-esque endo-cannibalism (eating members of one’s own group). As cannibalism could emerge as a real strategy, it seems that particularly strong Algonquin taboos surrounding it emerged, many centering around the potential it created to become a Wendigo. The glorification of cannibalism of one’s foes among the Iroqoius is a fascinating contrast with the mythologically important and revered “cannibal exterminators” of Algonquin mythology.
At Big Sand Point there is a sand mound or hillock, fringed with scrubby trees, which has the uncanny reputation of having been once the home of a family of Wendigoes. These Wendigoes, as is usual with this species of manitou, were a source of constant annoyance to the native dwellers on the shores of Lake Deschenes but more particularly to an Algonkin camp on Sand Bay, quite close to the headquarters of these malignant spirits. The old man, who possessed the gigantic proportions of his class, was frequently seen wading about in the waters of the bay, when on foraging expeditions after Indian children of whose flesh, it is said, he and his family were particularly fond. The family consisted of the father, the mother and one son. The bravest Indian warriors had on several occasions, ambushed and shot at the old man and woman without injuring either of them, but, by means of sorcery, they succeeded in kidnapping the boy, when his parents were away from home. Holding the young hopeful as a hostage, they managed to dictate terms to his father and mother and finally got rid of the whole family (Ottawa Field Naturalist’s Club, 1901, p.65)
There are not a lot of diseases that can jump species (we tend to get very nervous about things like Swine or Avian Flu). One thing us humans have in common is the ability to transmit diseases amongst ourselves, and a particularly nasty way of contracting all manner of diseases is to eat human flesh, since they are teeming with the nasty bacteria that we are especially susceptible to, in particular a number of neuro-degenerative prion-infections (see Mad Cow Disease) are closely associated with cannibalism. This is why we likely see only minimal consumption in ritual cannibalism and general avoidance of subsistence cannibalism. Even if your neighbor looks like they might pair well with a nice Chianti and fava beans, odds are making them a part of a nutritious diet is a fairly maladaptive evolutionary strategy. It’s also a little more difficult to form coherent social organizations, like say civilization, when you need to worry about getting a knife in the back as a precursor to dinner service. The general consensus in the Algonquin folk history is that death is far preferable to becoming a Wendigo, unless you get a kick out of eternally wandering the frozen forests of Canada as an emaciated corpse trying to satisfy a never-ending craving for more human flesh while dodging the ever-popular cannibal exterminators. Not a cool lifestyle choice. Consequently, psychologists have suggested that among the Algonquin people that have mythological traditions of the Wendigo, a unique psychological pathology can emerge, which they refer to as Windigo. “Windigo, found in Native American populations, involves a morbid state of anxiety with fears of becoming a cannibal.” (Data, DSM-IV APA, 2000). Now, you may someday find yourself anxious at the thought of becoming a cannibal, even were you not raised with Algonquin traditions and cultural taboos, but this is not typically how Windigo would manifest itself. More likely, you would be arrested for murdering someone suspected of being a Wendigo to avoid either being possessed or eaten.
A case heard by the Ontario Divisional Court on February 8, 1897, to determine whether an Indian prisoner was properly convicted of manslaughter at his trial on December 3, 1896, at Rat Portage. The evidence presented at the previous trial indicated that he had shot and killed another Indian man, believing that he was a windigo, a cannibalistic being who could assume human form. After a windigo had been reported in the area, the community had taken measures to protect itself by posting pairs of guards or sentries, including Machekequonabe, to maintain a watch. While on duty, he and another person saw what they believed to be the windigo in the distance. They chased the figure, and Machekequonabe shot at it after their challenges went unanswered. The individual turned out to be his foster father, who died soon after the incident. Machekequonabe’s counsel argued that the following of a religious belief would be an excuse in common law, that the Indian people concerned believed in the windigo and that there was no intent to harm or to kill another human being. The court upheld the Rat Portage jury’s verdict of manslaughter (Regina v. Machekequonabe, 1897, Facts on File, Encyclopedia of Native American Religion).
We tend to downplay the commonality of ritual cannibalism historically. There are numerous ethnographic accounts of cannibalism and it is even rumored to persist in modern-day tribes including the Gimi of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the Wari tribesmen of western Brazil, and several indigenous groups of the Congo, and Indonesia, but while we may experience revulsion at the notion of ritual/religious cannibalism (although we experience no such cognitive dissonance about the Eucharist, which is pretty much symbolic cannibalism), we reserve true horror for subsistence cannibalism. Obviously, we especially resent being regarded as a potential food source. In marginal environments where humans might easily be reduced to cannibalism in order to survive, the cannibalism taboo appears to need serious reinforcement in the form of a horrific monstrosity condemned to haunt the forest on the edge of civilization hoping to snap up the unwary for its cooking pot. As M.H. Beals said, “When it comes to cannibalism, the best defense is a good offense”.
Bryce, George, 1844-1931. The Remarkable History of the Hudson’s Bay Company: Including That of the French Traders of North-western Canada And of the North-west, XY, And Astor Fur Companies. 3d ed. New York: Scribner’s, 1910.
Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club. The Ottawa Naturalist. Ottawa: Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, 1901.