In this article:
- The legend of the Wendingo has found its way into many movies, shows, and books but it traces its roots to the First Nations in Canada.
- Though regional variations exist, the Wendingo is always described as a cannibalistic humanoid monster stalking through the forests of the colder regions of North America.
- Although typically believed to have been human once, the Wendingo is now a mutated, horrific looking creature, sometimes with superhuman abilities.
- The legend serves as a morality tale, cautioning listeners against greed and selfishness.
If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary or seen either of the two film adaptions, which came out in 1986 and 2019, you’re probably already familiar with the phenomenon of the wendigo.
In Stephen King’s depiction of this mythical creature, it’s an evil spirit with long horns, sharp fangs, a white worm under its tongue, and the ability to turn humans into cannibals and to reanimate the dead into blood-thirsty cannibals.
While King’s imagination seemingly knows no bounds, the wendigo is actually not an original invention of the author’s but a legend originating with the indigenous people of Canada.
It has appeared many times throughout popular media, but its origins can be traced back to the Algonquin-speaking First Nations and Native Americans of the Great Plains region, Great Lakes region, and the East Coast region of modern Canada and the United States.
While there are several different variations of the legend, most of the stories have one thing in common: The wendigo stalks through the forest with an insatiable hunger for human flesh.
If you find yourself walking through the woods in Michigan, you might want to check over your shoulder every once in a while to make sure you’re not being followed by a half-human, half-deer hunter of humans.
Even if you weren’t aware of the legend of the wendigo, you’ve probably seen this horrifying creature depicted in a movie or described in a novel at some point. However, the legend has evolved somewhat since its inception in Native American folklore. So, let’s trace the myth of the wendigo back to its roots and see how this spine-chilling story has changed over its lifetime.
The Origins of the Wendigo Legend
As was previously mentioned, the original legends about the wendigo come from the First Nations and Native Americans, namely the Algonquian Ojibwe, Eastern Cree, Saulteaux, Westmain Swampy Cree, Naskapi, and Innu peoples.
In all likelihood, the legend originated as a way to teach lessons about insatiable greed, violence, and selfishness. These stories were probably told to children in order to warn them against indulging these negative urges.
In most versions of the story, the wendigo was once a human hunter who got lost in the woods during a particularly harsh winter. Starving and emaciated, the wendigo eventually ran across another human and feasted upon their flesh to survive.
Afterward, the wendigo was transformed into a horrendous beast through magic and was cursed to roam the forest with an insatiable desire for human flesh. The wendigo is typically said to live in cold climates in the north and to appear as a starving, skeletal creature with yellowish skin, sunken eyes, and bones poking out through its skin.
In some versions of the wendigo legend, the creature is actually an evil spirit that has magical abilities. It’s ultra-stealthy, has nearly perfect hunting abilities, knows every single inch of the territory in which it wanders, and can even control the weather using dark magic.
In an Ojibwa account of the legend, the wendigo is described as follows: “It was a large creature, as tall as a tree, with a lipless mouth and jagged teeth. Its breath was a strange hiss, its footprints full of blood, and it ate any man, woman, or child who ventured into its territory. And those were the lucky ones. Sometimes, the Wendigo chose to possess a person instead, and then the luckless individual became a Wendigo himself, hunting down those he had once loved and feasting upon their flesh.”
Clearly, certain First Nations held the belief that coming into contact with a wendigo for a long period of time could cause someone to turn into a wendigo themself. Those who were turned into wendigos would share in the beast’s curse, experiencing a ravenous need for human flesh and being forced to wander the forests for the rest of their lives. A wendigo may also consume its own flesh if it cannot find food.
Another Algonquin legend describes the creature as “a giant with a heart of ice; sometimes, it is thought to be entirely made of ice. Its body is skeletal and deformed, with missing lips and toes.”
The Wendigo as a Moral Concept
In addition to being a legend about a cannibalistic humanoid monster, the wendigo can also be seen as a conceptual warning about excessive greed or destructive behavior. As a concept, the wendigo can represent a person, group, or idea that exhibits damaging behavior that threatens the fibers of the community.
Someone who is believed to have become imbalanced internally and consumed by greed may be estranged by the community in the interest of preserving harmony. As a result, that person may begin to unravel and cause even further destruction to the world around them.
The wendigo has also been used as a metaphor for the cannibalistic tendencies of imperial societies. The myth is a sort of allegory for the conquest of one tribe over another and the rapacious inclinations of humankind that underlie one nation’s desire to conquer another.
For instance, in the 1999 horror film Ravenous, the legend of the wendigo is equated to the American concept of Manifest Destiny, the greedy and self-serving belief that the United States was meant to conquer all of North America.
Modern Depictions of the Wendigo
Since the legend of the wendigo emerged, the way that the creature is described has changed slightly over time. Today, it’s often described as having antlers or horns, which it sometimes uses to skewer its prey.
This variation of the beast can be traced back to Algernon Blackwood’s description in his 1910 short story “The Wendigo” that would influence most modern depictions of the monster.
Blackwood’s wendigo would become the primary influence for the monster depicted in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. King’s wendigo had ram’s horns instead of ears, vapor spouting out of its nostrils, an evil grin, and a yellow, decaying tongue.
Stephen King’s wendigo, which was largely inspired by Blackwood’s, would serve as the blueprint for wendigo-like characters that subsequently appeared all across popular media, including movies like Dark Was the Night and Ravenous.
Television series such as Teen Wolf, Supernatural, Charmed, and Hannibal all feature wendigos or variations of it. The wendigo even appeared in the 2018 video game Fallout 76.
While the wendigo has typically been represented as a fictional monster in myths or in popular culture, it has also been used as the name of a very real psychotic affliction. Known as wendigo psychosis, this mental illness involves intense cravings to consume human flesh or fear that you’re going to become a cannibal.
Most of the recorded cases of wendigo psychosis come from Native American tribes, specifically Algonquin-speaking tribes, implying that the legend of the wendigo may have had a far-reaching psychological effect on their members.
In most of these recorded cases, the afflicted individual was murdered to prevent them from indulging their cannibalistic urges. However, in some cases, it was allegedly cured by feeding the individual fatty animal meals or having them drink animal grease.
The fact that there are many accounts of wendigo psychosis throughout Native American history certainly has interesting implications on the psychosomatic potential of folklore. Thus, wendigo psychosis has become a particularly intriguing topic for anthropologists.
In summary, is there really a 15-foot-tall antlered man roaming the woods and looking for a meal of human flesh? Probably not. However, the legend itself may have served, on occasion, as the impetus for people believing that they’re turning into cannibals.