Join me as I cross the Atlantic in search of the 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 its sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave.”Basil Johnston, Ojibwe teacher and scholar
The north in the depths of winter. Snow is falling, muting the sounds of nature. The daylight is dwindling as a long, cold night draws in. All around, there is dearth, hunger, and desperation.
The wendigo, stalking the northern Atlantic coast and Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, seems to embody the threat of winter. The icy cold is bad enough; the lack of food is even worse. These things would obviously have been still more trying prior to developments such as the importation and easy preservation of food, or modern heating or transportation. The onset of winter, in the past, often meant the coming of death.
It is sometimes said that a society is only three meals away from anarchy. Imagine enduring a harsh winter without any of the modern conveniences we now take for granted. The shelter you put together earlier in the year might have looked impressive in the late summer sunshine, but it doesn’t seem quite so dependable now, when it is being buffeted by icy winds and whirling snow. You feel so cold that you think you’ll never be warm again, and this is not just because of the low temperature. You are afraid: afraid of nature, of your own fragility, and of what might be lurking nearby, just out of sight. On a more practical note, the food you managed to store during the summer and autumn is dwindling at an alarming rate. The moral precepts that usually guide you are beginning to loosen their grip now that hunger and desperation are setting in.
It begins to occur to you that you face a stark choice. Either you can try to work with others for the common good, or you can put yourself first and do whatever is necessary to ensure your own survival.
The mythical figure of the wendigo might be seen as a warning against that second option.
The wendigo is, in the folklore of the Algonquian-speaking Native Americans, a man-eating creature that stalks forests and wild places looking for victims. Its precise nature and appearance varies: it might present itself as an actual physical being, sharing many of the characteristics of an ordinary human, or it might be an evil spirit that has the ability to possess people. In either case, it’s bad news, bringing with it violence, cannibalism and a ravenous, insatiable hunger. When a wendigo eats its body grows in proportion to its meal, and so despite its greed it is never full and remains painfully thin.
Some historical accounts speak of people who, in desperate circumstances, became possessed by the wendigo spirit. In 1661 the Jesuit Relations, chronicles of Jesuit missions in New France, talked of certain men who:
“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…”
Then in the winter of 1878 came the disturbing case of Swift Runner, a Plains Cree trapper from Alberta. Swift and his nearest relatives, having left their kinsmen to set up some winter camps of their own, began to starve as the winter deepened around them. In the spring, Swift returned – alone – to his family. Asked what had become of his companions, he claimed that they had all either starved, killed themselves, or become lost. When he led investigators to his camps, however, they found evidence of cannibalism, and Swift subsequently confessed to having killed and eaten six of his family members. Those of us of European heritage might put this down to murder driven by desperation, or possibly to mental illness. To Swift’s fellow Cree, however, it might have been seen as a case of wendigo possession.
Old legends die hard. According to some, the wendigo continues to haunt North America. Indeed (and perhaps inevitably, in these days of camera phones), some people claim to have caught it on film. Here is a compilation of some of this footage; whether or not you think it genuine is up to you.
“The Wendigo is simply the Call of the Wild personified, which some natures hear to their own destruction.”Algernon Blackwood
Regardless of whether the wendigo actually exists, it serves as a powerful warning against greed and the overconsumption of natural resources. It may characterize individuals, movements or ideologies. It may be seen in the light of colonialism or environmental degradation. It is sometimes viewed as a metaphor for unbridled capitalism, though it is also possible to see it as a symbol of a rapacious and overly powerful state. Like many a good monster (the vampire also springs to mind), the wendigo can mean many things to many men, and its significance varies according to who is searching for that significance.
The wendigo has also guest-starred in several literary works. The earliest was probably Algernon Blackwood’s 1910 short story The Wendigo. The wendigo also features as a character in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and has made several appearances in Marvel Comics. The Round House, by Chippewa author Louise Erdrich, involves a violent criminal who becomes a wendigo.
Metaphor or monster, fact or fable… the wendigo, like many such creatures, will live on for a long time to come. Its actual existence is perhaps less important than the psychological and social insights it offers. And even if it doesn’t dwell in the wintry hush of North America’s forests, we are left with a still more disquieting possibility: that it dwells instead deep inside the human psyche, where it may never be vanquished.