The Spirit of the North Country: Wendigo

 

 

“Nay, so great was our famine that a Savage we slew and buried, the poorer sort took him up again and eat him; and so did divers one another, boyled and stewed with roots and herbs. And one amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered her, and had eaten part of her, before it was knowne, for which hee was executed, as hee well deserved. Now whether shee was better roasted, boyled, or carbonado’d I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of.” – John Smith.

“….It’s probably wrong to believe there can be any limit to the horror which the human mind can experience. On the contrary, it seems that some exponential effect begins to

obtain as deeper and deeper darkness falls – as little as one may like to admit it, human experience tends, in a good many ways, to support the idea that when the nightmare grows black enough, horror spawns horror; one coincidental evil begets other, often more deliberate evils, until finally blackness seems to cover everything. And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity…”– Stephen King.

“…Sometimes dead is better.” — Jud Crandall, Pet Semetary.

Whoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”— Jesus Christ.

In the deepest darkest woods, in the cold dead winter, when the snow blows hard and the nights are long, you find yourself walking between the giant trees, the fir and the pine, their evergreen branches layered in frozen white. Overhead, the full moon glares balefully and the stars are like flickering points of crystal as your footfalls crunch loudly, far too loudly, in the eerily silent night. Your body is aching with the frigid air that kisses your skin and you feel tired, exhaustion is overcoming you. You see nothing in the interconnected veil of shadow beneath the trees and you fall to your knees in surrender as the world keeps going, uncaring in the freezing night.

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You wait for death to claim you so that you can slip into the abyss and not feel the numbing cold but instead something else comes for you, something out of the dark, moving in the trees as it nears closer, its heavy footfalls strange and echoing. Now you know that you are not alone in the darkened wood as the snow falls heavier adding more the carpet of white beneath you. You smell it first. It smells of rotten flesh and decayed earth as the wind picks up before you, seeming suddenly to take on a life of its own, driving itself down the back of your neck feeling like hands as it grasps you raising gooseflesh as it moves.

The heavy stench laden footsteps come closer, crunching in the snow as a coldness unlike anything you have ever known enters the clearing with you and high above you looms a dark inhuman shape, gaunt with starvation. You can see its cold grey flesh stretched across the bones, can see its massive talon lined hands and there, higher than you can lift your neck are two luminous yellow red eyes, glowing like hot coals. It speaks to you but you hear no sound because its hissing whispering growl of a voice is inside your head. It calls to you and touches your heart without lifting a finger. You feel a quaking terror rip through you as you shake and try to move away from the touch but you cannot. You hear a low rumbling hissing growl as you feel you own chest begin to grow cold…from the inside out. Your heart slows and seems to finally stop but it does not hurt even as it turns to ice. There is no pain as the creature walks back into the forest, leaving you in the icy clearing.

There is instead a realization that begins to consume you, burning with its frigid finger, filling your being with a ravenous craving, a desire so dark it rivals the darkest crypt and you realize also that you cannot fight it…the urge must be satisfied. Your body aches anew but not with cold….you are now forever cold…

A passing hunter finds you, half-frozen and he reaches out and touches your shoulder, shouting at you, but you cannot hear him. All you know as you look at his arm, his fingers, his warmth…all that consumes you…all that you need…all that you feel as you take his hand in yours and bring your mouth to his skin…

…is hunger.

An hour later, you get to your feet leaving a pool of scarlet behind you, nothing but scraps and cloth and tiny shreds of flesh. The hunter is never seen again. You shamble off into the woods, now a part of them and they a part of you. You reach the edge of the woods at last since you became lost and see a camp with a happy couple by a fire. You watch them for hours and at last, they enter their tent and the lights go out as the snow falls again, like angel’s ash. You look at the tent and frown.

The hunger is back again.

You look at the tent…

….and smile.

 

The Spirit of the North Winter:

The Wendigo:

The history, manifestations and legend.

by:  Anthony Justus.

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Witiko. Wihtikow. Windiga. Waindigo. Wendigo.

All of these are names, descriptors of the ancient Algonquian people’s many languages. Despite the distances between some tribes, all have a word similar to those above and they all refer to the same thing.  The Wendigo, the spirit of the North. While the descriptions varied, the Wendigo does share a common trait across the different tribes that it appears in. In the most common myths, it is an evil supernatural Manitou (spirit or energy) that embodies starvation, hunger, famine, and conversely gluttony and cannibalism, the darkest sin a human could ever partake of. While the legend of the spirit or creature is common to all the Algonquian nations, it is most heavily believed in within the Ojibwe, the Saulteaux, Cree, Naskapi and the Innu peoples as well as the Micmacs of the northern United States and Canada.

It is said at times to be a cold wind or the shadow that moves beyond the trees. In some stories, it is a giant human shaped shambling corpse like creature with gray skin stretched taunt over bones and starving with luminous eyes and a heart made out of ice. To be touched by the Wendigo is a horrific curse, making the victim slowly turn into a Wendigo himself, screaming and raving as his heart turns to ice and he begins to crave his own kind before finally lashing out and often killing and consuming those he loves.

These victims, if they ever recover, often feel such guilt about their actions that they beg to die and that wish is often granted by the tribal councils of the day because in the myth, the only way to kill a Wendigo is to burn the body into ash until not a bone remains. Some tribes also exiled the possessed people, now known as wendigos themselves (in this article, Wendigo capitalized will refer to the creature itself while the word in lowercase will refer to its victims).

The Wendigo has been a part of the Algonquian legends and myths since the earliest times and the myth, while not as strong today with the encroachment of civilization into the northern areas, was at one time a very real terror. In the olden days, in the harsh winters, starvation in the deep snows was a very real possibility and happened all too frequently. As often as starvation happened, the line between man and demon would become blurred as the starving man gave into temptation and fed upon his fellow humans. Even if only an act of the most desperate survival, this man was now cursed as the Wendigo was upon him and he was already damned and the only cure was death as the ravenous hunger began to over take him. In the Algonquian tribes, during times of famine and starvation, it was preferable to commit suicide so real was the threat of becoming a wendigo and breaking the taboo against cannibalism.

Eating human flesh was only one way to become a Wendigo. One could also be driven mad by its gaze, consumed and turned by its touch or breath. In some stories, the transformation is more physical as the human physically dies before completing his change, vomiting huge amounts of blood and convulsing as his heart changes into ice as his body grows to fifteen feet high and his lips and some of his toes fall away, leaving him as nothing but a shell of the human he used to be with an eternal snarl, long fangs, glowing eyes and a lashing tongue. In some ways, the most common manifestation of the Wendigo is more insidious, appearing as the human normally looks but inside dead and cold, nothing but a demonic hole, a darkness that can never be expunged as it hungers.

The voice of the Wendigo can be heard in the wind, in the falling snow, enticing those who listen with forbidden feasts.

The legend is terrifying enough but is there any truth to the tales of a monster spirit that can turn men into cannibals?

The truth may be more horrific than any legend can ever be.

There is a very real mental disorder known was Wendigo psychosis in which the sufferer has insatiable desires to consume human flesh despite the fact that there may be more conventional food sources available. Some psychologists speculate that the disorder comes from a prior experience with feminine induced cannibalistic behavior, but the psychosis and its causes are hotly debated with believers and skeptics in the scientific community torn down the middle. The strangest thing that causes the most debate among psychologists is the fact that Wendigo psychosis appears to be a culture bound syndrome, or a an illness or psychosis that exists only within a given culture that has beliefs pertaining to the psychosis in question.

In the tribal villages and communities, individuals who believed they were possessed by the Wendigo began to exhibit symptoms of the possession, such as fever, the victim’s face turning black as if from frostbite, swelling of the body and a hunger that cannot be sated. These people would often go to their leaders and beg to be executed before they began to feed on those around them. The most typical response from the healers in the tribe would be to try to exorcise the demon and failing that, they would try to melt the heart of ice that had “formed” inside the victim often by pouring boiling water down their throat or dunking them into boiling liquid. When these attempts failed, and exile was not an option, the victim was summarily executed for the safety of the tribe and their corpse burned to ash.

In the early 1900s, early psychologists and anthropologists witnessing such rituals and behavior began to classify such occurrences as a psychosis or disorder and may have interpreted the legends of the Wendigo as a manifestation of such behavior. While rare in itself comparatively, at least one case of Wendigo psychosis stands out above the rest as one of the most infamous in history. It is often called one of the most violent crimes to ever happen in the Alberta province of Canada.

In the winter of 1878, a Plains Cree fur trapper named Swift Runner and his family were starving and the nearest outpost—Hudson’s Bay Company– with food and supplies was almost thirty miles away. His oldest son was the first to succumb to hunger and not long after, Swift Runner butchered and ate his wife, brother and six remaining children. Per Edmonton Sun reporter Andrew Hanon:

“…, he wandered alone into the Catholic Mission in St. Albert in the spring of 1879, claiming to be the only member of his family who didn’t starve to death over a particularly cold, bitter winter.

The priests became suspicious when they realized that Swift Runner, who weighed around 200 pounds, didn’t seem malnourished at all and was plagued with screaming fits and nightmares as he slept. He told them he was being tormented by an evil spirit, called Windigo, but said little else about it.

They reported their misgivings to police, who took Swift Runner to his family campground in the woods northeast of Edmonton, where they made a horrific discovery – the site was littered with bones, bits of flesh and hair. Some accounts claim that the larger bones had even been snapped and the marrow sucked out.

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He eventually confessed that he shot some of his family, bludgeoned others with an axe and even strangled one girl with a cord. In some accounts, Swift Runner said he fed one boy human flesh before he too was killed.” (Hanon, 2008).

Up until the day he died and the noose fell around his neck, Swift Runner proclaimed he was possessed by the monstrous demon, the Wendigo and his last words before he was hung at Fort Saskatchewan were haunting chilling: “I am the least of men and do not merit even being called a man.” He was executed in 1879 and died branded a murderer by some and a lunatic by others.

Another case involving Wendigo psychosis was that of Jack Fiddler, a Oji-Cree shaman, who was a self-proclaimed expert at defeating wendigos. In his life, Jack claimed to have euthanized at least fourteen wendigos, (possessed people) before they could turn and kill people. He and his brother Joseph were finally arrested in 1907 when the Canadian Mounted Police heard the stories of their exploits. The brothers were charged summarily with murder, including that of Wahsakapeequay, Joseph’s daughter-in-law and Fiddler’s own brother, Peter Flett, who Jack killed after Peter began turning wendigo when the food ran out on a trading expedition.

Jack and Joseph were put on trial but witnesses proclaimed that they had only been doing what was custom for those who had fallen victim to the Wendigo and that Jack was ending their pain and suffering. Jack himself never saw his sentence as he escaped during a walk and was found later to have taken his own life. Joseph on the other hand was sentenced to death by magistrate Aylesworth Perry only to receive a pardon due to appeals but Joseph died in prison three days before he was to be freed.  Perhaps the Donner party is another classic example of Wendigo psychosis…we may never know.

In terms of Western culture, the spirit of the Wendigo has been presented to us most famously in Algernon Blackwood’s short horror story The Wendigo. The demon was also a key plot point in Stephen King’s Pet Semetary and has been the focus of numerous films and games, notably the horribly bad film Wendigo (horrible as in badly made and inaccurate) and the much more correct Ravenous. Appearing in everything from Charmed to World of War Craft to Marvel comics, the Wendigo has been secured in our culture as a mythical beast or spirit. More recently, cryptozoologists have begun to theorize that Wendigo sightings may in fact be related to Sasquatch or even that the spirit itself may in fact be a sort of sub-species of the Bigfoot and that perhaps its attributed behaviors are only there as a result of fear and misunderstanding.

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Whatever the case may be, spirit, living flesh and blood animal, or perhaps a dark and violent part of our own human psyche and natures that we try to suppress, the Wendigo is certainly one of the darkest supernatural creatures to ever grace the pages of many a book on the subject and its name, much like the yee naaldlooshii (skinwalker) of the Navajo, still induces fear and dread amongst those who know of it.

When you walk in the woods at night, in the depths of winter, when you hear your own feet crunch upon the snow and feel the cold wind caressing the back of your neck, remember, that sound you hear or perhaps that whispering you think is in your mind, may in fact mean that you are not as alone as you thought in the snowy fields and dark winter nights.

In closing, I ask you to recall a verse from the classic children’s story, Jack and the Beanstalk. Many parents read this to their children and think nothing of it. Now that you know of the Wendigo, you will see in the story the theme of violent cannibalism and realize that it is not culture bound at all…but in fact, a part of ourselves that we should always fear, lest we give into the temptation and become monsters ourselves….

             Fee-Fi-fo-fum!

I smell the blood of an Englishman?

Be he ‘live, or be he dead,

I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

Bon Appétit.

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About Anthony Justus

Paranormal investigator, writer, seeker of knowledge and truth in all its forms, dark and light. Nothing is what it seems; there is nothing so strange as truth and truth is elusive as the shadow cast in the deepest night.
This entry was posted in Mythology and Folklore. Bookmark the permalink.

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