Associated with the North, winter, cold, famine, and starvation, the Wendigo has allegedly haunted the woods of the Great Lakes region, and along the Atlantic coast. Something that once was human, but corrupted by the insatiable desire to consume human flesh, no longer is.
The Wendigo comes from Algonquin folklore, specifically the Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Cree, Naskapi, and Innu peoples. The spirit has been called different names including “wendigo,” “witigo,” “witiko,” and “wee-tee-go,” all of which roughly translate to “the evil spirit that devours mankind.” In 1860, a German explorer translated “wendigo” to mean “cannibal.”
So what is a Wendigo? According to Basil Johnston, an Ojibwe teacher and scholar from Ontario, the Wendigo is “gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones…its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets…what lips they had were tattered and bloody…and gave off an odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.” Different variations of the tale state that one could only see them head on, as they were so thin they practically disappeared when they turned to the side. Most tales appear to agree that the Wendigo has glowing eyes, long yellow fangs, an overly long tongue, and sallow skin often matted with fur. The Wendigo is described as tall (often over fifteen feet) and lanky, growing in proportion to every meal it eats, making it so the creature could never be satisfied. Driven by hunger, the Wendigo is both thin and gluttonous.
The Wendigo’s association with incredible hunger comes from how the spirit comes into being. A Wendigo essentially starts out as a regular person, who, due to famine and starvation, would resort to cannibalism in order to survive. There’s some belief that the stories started as a sort of warning against cannibalism, but no one is sure how old the stories even are.
White settlers took the warnings seriously. They treated the Wendigo as a sort of banshee-esque death omen, believing that it would appear shortly before the death of someone in the community. Allegedly, there was one that made multiple appearances in Roseau, Minnesota from the late 1800’s to the 1920’s. Each time a sighting was reported, a unexpected death followed.
Into the 20th century, many Native Americans have actively believed in, and searched for, the Wendigo. Jack Fiddler, a Cree man, claimed to have killed fourteen in his lifetime, ultimately leading to his imprisonment at the age of 87. In 1907, Fiddler and his son murdered a Cree woman and plead guilty despite their claims that the woman had been possessed by the spirit of the Wendigo, and was close to transforming entirely.
There are still sightings reported around the Cave of the Wendigo, near Kenora, a town in northern Ontario.
From books like Algernon Blackwood’s short story The Wendigo, and Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk #162, to television shows such as “Supernatural” and “Charmed,” and even video games like Until Dawn and Fallout 76, the Wendigo has made its mark across our culture.
So the next time you decide to take a trip into the woods, particularly in the middle of winter, keep an eye out something that looks like a lanky corpse recently unearthed from the grave. You might be its next meal.