What is the Supernatural Wendigo?

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Among Native Americans in certain parts of Canada, there is a terrifying legend of an evil spirit that roams the woods and eats people. The spirit can have the form of a demonic figure or it can manifest in people, possessing them and causing them to become murderers and cannibals. What is terrifying about the legend is that it is true.

The wendigo legend does not belong to only one tribe. It is common to several tribes which spoke Algonquin. Most of these tribes were in the forests of Nova Scotia and around the Great Lakes. Some of the tribes were the Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Cree and Innu. All of the tribes describe the spirit as a supernatural being which is malevolent and starving to the point of eating people. It is associated with coldness and famine and the season of winter. One researcher describes the wendigo as follows:

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 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 suppuration of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.

Basil H. Johnston – Ojibwe Heritage

After consuming a person, the wendigo was thought to grow larger but remain starving just the same. These supernatural wendigos were greatly feared by native peoples throughout the region.

Wendigo Psychosis

A big component of the wendigo legend is that it can possess individuals, causing them to have an irrational desire for human flesh and both causes and is caused by greed and avarice. Psychologists have even given it a name, Wendigo Psychosis. The first account was first reported by a Jesuit in 1661:

Those poor men (according to the report given us) were seized with an ailment unknown to us, but not very unusual among the people we were seeking. They 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 —ever seeking fresh prey, and the more greedily the more they eat. 

The Jesuit Relations

Swift Runner

In 1878, a trapper by the name of Swift Runner was living with his family in Alberta. During that particularly harsh winter, Swift Runner did not have enough food for he and his family to survive. In fact, his oldest son died as a result. Although he was not far from an outpost, Swift Runner murdered his wife and five children, butchered their bodies and ate them. He eventually confessed to being possessed by the wendigo and was executed.

Jack Fiddler

Jack Fiddler was an ogimaa which is like a combination of a chief and shaman who specialized in combating wendigos. Jack Fiddler’s father had also performed the same rituals, so Fiddler was following an ancient tradition. During his life, Fiddler defeated 14 wendigos. Bizarrely, Fiddler’s own brother Peter Flett, turned into a wendigo during a trading expedition and had to be killed. Most of Fiddler’s work consisted of defeating the wendigo spirits before they inhabited a body but sometimes, he had to perform mercy killings to prevent someone from becoming possessed. In 1907, Fiddler was arrested for murder for one of these incidences which became a controversial case involving the intersection of native laws and the burgeoning Canadian government.

Is the Wendigo Supernatural or Psychological?

The wendigo is often seen as a sociological or psychological phenomenon on which it was culturally necessary to prohibit certain traits such as greed or selfishness in any form. Anthropologists often cite the many native rituals which re-enforce the taboos of the cultures by using the wendigo legend. It is also important to note that, in nearly every case, including that of Fiddler’s brother, the person becomes a wendigo when on the brink of starvation, when cannibalism might seem like a viable option while in a delirious state.

Whether or not the wendigo is supernatural or a psychological phenomenon, it is by all accounts, true. There are hundreds and hundreds of eye witness testimonies to people becoming wendigos.

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