Our Work is Our Play!
Here this week on Myth Madness, we’re covering Native American myths – and the Wendigo takes the cake for the monsters. Or should I say, takes the carcass?
The Wendigo is a warning tale told in many Algonquin tribes in Canada and the northern United States, primarily Ojibwa and Cree tribes. Its earliest recorded sightings – not necessarily beginning of the legend itself, but actual sightings of the creature (think Bigfoot here) – started in the 1600s from Jesuit missionaries in Canada, and continued on in the 1700s. The story soon spread to white settlers, to the point that many began to regard the creature as an omen of death.
But what about this creature is so ominous, you might say? Surely it can’t be near as frightening as I might be suggesting. Mythology is hardly ever concerned with whether or not it gives nightmares nowadays; in fact, it usually strives to inspire them and warn the people away from horrible practices.
The Wendigo is often described as a 15-foot tall being that can cross massive distances with a single step, and so pale that it blends into the snow when it falls. It only ever hunts in the bitter winter it brings with it, the ice and snow providing it with ample cover. But for all its height the creature is dangerously thin, almost cadaverous. Bones appear to carve out the withered, even tattered flesh that stretches thinly over its form, and its lips are torn away, leaving nothing to cover its terrifying mess of teeth. It can emit a terrifying scream to paralyze its victim before it can think to flee, and then proceeds to rip out and consume the vital organs, staining its teeth and claws with blood it rarely (if ever) washes off. This is the only warning sign a victim has. Should they spot bright red in the snow-covered trees, they need to hide before the creature spots it. Of course, the creature could be playing with its prey, allowing the victim to feel relief before it is pulled away to its terrifying doom. A fearful heart is a jucier delight, or so I’m told.
These creatures become even more horrifying when you realize they used to be human – and now consume their former brethren to survive.
Yes, the Wendigo is offered as a tale of horror to those who might ever consider cannibalism in desperate times. One of the origin stories is that a tribe member, lost with his kinsmen in a deadly blizzard during a time when food had grown scarce, became so hungry that he consumed them all raw and without thought to the consequences. But even after his meal, he was still unsatisfied, and still starving. For this heinous and heartless crime, his heart was turned to ice, so he could only remain in the winter’s grasp to survive. All others who committed the same sin of feasting on human flesh were also cursed to roam the forests with frozen hearts, heralding winter’s bitterest times as they searched for the only food they could consume – but still made them starve. For every victim they swallowed, they grew in proportion to the size of their meal, and so could never be satisfied.
Some of the ways mentioned to become a wendigo, besides eating human flesh, were to be bitten by a wendigo, cursed by a sorcerer, magical rites, and even by dreaming of one. A wendigo can also possess someone should its body be damaged beyond repair, slowly turning its host into a more suitable skin. Should this happen, a shaman is said to be the only one who can banish the spirit back into its original form. Afterwards, the creature can be destroyed by cutting its body into pieces and burning them. If one of these pieces was consumed, however, then the creature WILL come back – and it will not be so easily killed. Recent mythos claims that a silver bullet is considered to be effective, but I do not put stock in this claim. The Wendigo has been likened to a type of ghoul, which is itself a second cousin to the vampire. Such boasts are likely a way to provide comfort to those people who are desperate for an easy solution that does not exist. These claims have never been proven, or recorded, as having been successful in detaining this beast.
There is one way of escaping a Wendigo’s grasp, or so I’ve been led to understand; but be warned, it is a bit unpleasant and, overall, odd. Apparently, if a Wendigo has spotted you and is approaching – should you still be of sound mind after hearing its paralyzing screech – if you throw excrement of any kind at it, the Wendigo will be confused long enough for you to make an escape. I have never seen it specified what type of excrement is thrown, but in this case, I sympathize with the Wendigo. I’d be confused too if someone threw shit at me.
The Wendigo has had a larger impact on culture than you would think. Wendigo Psychosis is an officially termed medical condition, in which a person is driven to consume human flesh, even when there are other food sources readily available. This is usually a result of famine-driven cannibalism and prolonged isolation, often seen in victims who got lost in the wilderness and had no food.
Recently, the Wendigo has become a popular figure to include in horror, supernatural, or drama-based TV shows. It has made an appearance in such shows as Hannibal, Teen Wolf, Supernatural, Grimm, Sleepy Hollow, and The X-Files, however the Native American’s story has become a little lost in each one, as the shows usually dumb down the creature to a vampire-esque ghoul, instead of saving the really fascinating parts of its tale.
One book I would recommend that does its best to preserve the horror behind the Wendigo transformation and manages to succeed is Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist: Curse of the Wendigo. It’s a suspenseful and horrifying read, one that I wholeheartedly recommend for anyone more interested in this monster.