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Continuing our Halloween theme of undead monsters, we visit the great northern forests of Canada and the Great Lakes.  During winter, these frozen woodlands were said to be the haunt of a terrifying undead spirit of malicious appetite–the dreadful wendigo.    Although the wendigo has become a mainstay of modern horror, legends of the spirit predate Europeans.  The wendigo myth originated among the Algonquian people, who believed it was a manitou (powerful spirit being) associated with hunger, cold, and starvation.    For these hunter-gathering people the monster was shaped out of the greatest fear in their hearts and took the form of the ultimate taboo.

Pre-contact distribution of Algonquian languages

The Algonquian culture consisted of hundreds of heterogeneous tribes stretching in a northern arc from New England, up through the Great Lakes to the eastern Rockies.  Some of the southern tribes cultivated wild rice, pumpkins, corn, and beans, but the northern tribes were hunter gatherers.  Bad hunting seasons could cause terrible winters among the northern people, and whole villages would sometimes starve to death.  The wendigo myth seems to originate from such cold lean times of abject hunger when, in the extremity of desperation, starving people would resort to cannibalism.

Although different tribes had different traditions, most stories describe the primal wendigo as a gaunt humanoid giant with decayed skin and long yellow fangs.  The creature’s eyes glowed in the dark and it was always hungry for human flesh.  These huge monsters could be heard howling in the forest on winter nights and were said to have powerful dark magic, but wild wendigo spirits outside in the wind were only half the story.  If a person broke the ultimate Algonquian taboo, and decided to prefer cannibalism to starvation, he or she would begin to turn into a Wendigo.  After eating human flesh, a person’s humanity would disappear and their heart would become cold.  No food could slake a wendigo’s appetite except for human meat (and even that could not be eaten in sufficient quantity to fill up).  Monsters of unnatural appetite, these transformed wendigos would bring death and ruin to all other people unless they fled into the wilderness or were killed by a medicine person.

It is here that the wendigo myth is most fascinating, but most muddled.  In the wilds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and central Canada, the frontier authorities of the nineteenth century sometimes ran across wendigo murders.   Most famously a Cree trapper killed and ate his family although he was not far from provisions.  Another shaman was tried and executed for traveling the countryside killing people suspected of being wendigos.  The anthropology community of the day was fascinated by this sort of thing and proclaimed “wendigo psychosis” to be a real thing–although the fact that the “condition” was localized to a particular time and place (and has never more been seen since) makes it seem more like a made-up mental illness for popularizing horrifying stories.

If wendigo psychosis has mercifully gone away, wendigos themselves have gone mainstream.  A wendigo with the power of resurrection was the (terrifying) villain of one of Steven King’s scariest novels and the hungry winter spirits have proliferated ever since in cartoons, movies, and scary literature.  What could be scarier than the empty woods in winter or an empty larder?

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