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What Is a Wendigo? All About the Algonquian Legend

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A Wendigo. Terrifying, right?

A Wendigo. Terrifying, right?

What Does a Wendigo Look Like?

The word "Wendigo" roughly means “The Evil Spirit Who Devours Mankind.” In 1960, a German explorer translated the word as "cannibal." The Wendigo has been described as a demon or an evil winter spirit that takes over humans who have committed the sin of cannibalism, selfishness, and gluttony.

The Wendigo has been described in many ways, but they all have common traits. They are said to be giant, up to 15 feet tall, and monstrous in appearance. They are humanoid creatures that look gaunt with pale or ash-gray skin pulled tightly over the bones. Their eyes are often sunken in but glow. They're known to have missing toes and fingers, long jagged and yellowed teeth, and long tongues. They are either bald or have white hair matted with blood. They are also known to give off the foul scent of death and decay and will let out a loud terrifying shriek before lunging at their prey.

Their hands are also long and bony with sharp claws at the ends of their fingers. It’s sometimes said their claws are made of ice, it’s also been said their whole bodies are covered in a sheet of ice or that their hearts are coated in ice making it difficult to kill a Wendigo but not impossible.

You will see many pictures of Wendigo with a stag skull or antlers, but this is actually a very rare description of these creatures in their history. It’s not common to see a Wendigo with stag horns, though it has been reported at least a few times by witnesses.

Another representation of a Wendigo

Another representation of a Wendigo

Where Did It Come From?

The Wendigo is from the legends of Native Americans from the Algonquian tribes. The same, or similar creatures, have been found in other cultures of Native Americans such as the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi tribes. The creatures of legend might have different names in these tribes but they all have disturbingly similar characteristics to the Wendigo.

The Wendigo has been seen in the colder regions of the United States and Canada, such as the forests of Minnesota, the Great Lakes Region of Ontario, and other central regions of Canada. There is even a cave system in Ontario, Canada, near lake Mameigwess called the Cave of the Wendigo where there have been numerous sightings.

The Wendigo are said to be evil winter spirits or demons, but they can also be cursed humans. It’s believed strongly in the Algonquian cultures that the punishment for thoughts or acts of cannibalism, selfishness, and greed can result in someone turning into a Wendigo. Some lore states the human will be encased in ice and will sit where the Wendigo’s heart should be.

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Algonquian Land that is known to have Wendigo sightings

Algonquian Land that is known to have Wendigo sightings

Never-Ending Appetite

An important part of the Wendigo lore is its insatiable appetite for human flesh. Much like a zombie, the Wendigo never stops hunting for food and is never satisfied or full. The Wendigo enjoys the hunt and will sometimes play with its food. With every meal it’s told the Wendigo grows bigger, making it even less likely it will ever be satisfied with the amount eaten.

It’s said the only warning you get is the shriek it lets out before it attacks you, but even with the warning, it’s often too late. It’s rare anybody escapes from this creature, but those who have will go mad.

The Swift Runner Incident

During the 1800s through to the 1920s, there was an influx in Wendigo sightings around Kenorain, Ontario, Canada, and Rosesu, Northern Minnesota. One of these instances included the case of a Native American trapper named Swift Runner in Canada.

In the winter of 1878-79, Swift Runner and his family held up in their cabin for the winter and it’s reported they were close to starvation. The first one to be eaten was Runner’s eldest son; however, it was never stated if he died of natural causes or if he was murdered. After the first consumption of human flesh, it was said Runner turned greedy with the hunger of human flesh. He reportedly killed his wife and 5 other children to consume their bodies for the remainder of the winter.

When winter was over and Runner returned to town for supplies, they found out what he had done. The town and authorities didn’t believe his excuse for starvation as a supply outpost was just 25 miles from his home, and he could have easily made a trip to the outpost when the weather broke and bought supplies. He was said to have suffered from Wendigo Psychosis and was executed by the authorities for his crimes.

Wendigo Psychosis is described as a culture-based disorder of the Algonquian tribes that involves an immense craving for human flesh. This occurs even when other food is available or provided. This psychosis also includes the intense fear of one turning into a cannibal.

In Movies and Pop Culture

Despite being an old legend, the Wendigo is still all over pop culture. Some of the old comics and cartoons even had Wendigos in them. The Hulk and Wolverine both fought the Wendigo in early editions when Wolverine was still new.

More modern TV shows that had episodes with the Wendigo include Charmed, Grimm, and Supernatural. There are over five movies out now that have the title of Wendigo, along with countless other horror and thriller movies that have some variation of this creature. Even the book and movie Pet Cemetery has elements of the Wendigo in it.

Other pop culture references of Wendigos include video games like Until Dawn and Fallout 76. Other games have taken bits and pieces of the Wendigo legend to use for monsters and enemies. One note is that a lot of the Wendigo in pop culture have fur or are more animal than human, and this is not common with the original lore. I’m not sure how it got so misconstrued, but they look more like forest spirits than original Wendigos.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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