Monsters and mayhem exist all over the world, slipping into folklore and creeping into late night stories. Cultures around the world created creatures to help explain what goes bump in the night, things to keep young children from going out into the dark. These horrible creatures were also used to reinforce the culture’s rules and taboos. What better way to keep children from doing something than telling them that they’ll become prey to a horrible monster if they do it? One of these creatures that appears in Algonquian folklore is the Wendigo. A horrid creature that stalks the night, this creature was once all too human. While it was once simply a Native American legend, this cannibalistic creature has started to appear in TV shows and video games as well.
Appearing in the majority of the Algonquian speaking nations, such as the Cree, Naskapi, Innu, and Saulteaux, the wendigo is a supernatural being that arises from cannibalistic actions. Commonly associated with famine and the winter, it is commonly described as an emaciated, gaunt creature with desiccated skin. Among some cultures, the wendigo is seen as a giant, growing after each human it consumes so that it’s hunger is never fully satisfied. In others, the legend is even more terrifying. Any human can become a wendigo, if they devolve into cannibalism. Some believe that the wendigo is a malevolent spirit that possesses the individual, causing them to crave only human flesh.
There have been many historical accounts of people becoming possessed by the wendigo spirit. The Jesuit Relations, a record of the Jesuit explorations of New France between 1632 and 1673, reported of one such case in 1661. According to the writer, the men who had been assigned to gather the Nations had met a strange death over the previous winter. The writer describes the men as being seized by an ailment that was a combination between frenzy, lunacy, and hypochondria,that gave them such a ravenous hunger that they eagerly pounced on women, children, and each other. Seeing no other option, these men were quickly dispatched.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of wendigo psychosis involved Swift Runner, a Plains Cree trapper from Alberta. During 1878, his family was starving and the only outpost was twenty five miles away through the cold snow. Rather than attempt to actually get to the food, Swift Runner murdered and ate his wife and five of his children (his eldest son had passed away earlier in the winter). When this was discovered, he was deemed to be suffering from wendigo psychosis due to the closeness of the emergency food supply and, after confessing, was executed at Fort Saskatchewan.