What is a Wendigo? Most Terrifying Legends and Sightings
No other monster on American soil quite fascinates and terrifies like the Wendigo. But what is a wendigo, exactly? A monster that roams the woods of North America? An evil spirit or something else entirely? Come with us on a journey to the frigid north to meet this dangerous creature and decide for yourself.
What is a Wendigo? A Spirit, Monster or Possessed Person?
It’s a cold wind that whistles a death-note through the icy trees. The fear that grips your heart and sends you on a murderous spree. A spirit that possesses the living. A decaying monster as tall as the trees. And it wants two things – to eat and destroy. It’s never satisfied. Never full. It yearns for human flesh and muscle. Beware the wendigo.
Answering the question what is a wendigo isn’t as easy as it might seem. The Wendigo comes from the stories of the indigenous peoples of the Northern United States and Canada: the Objibwe, Cree, Naskapi and Inuit. There are multiple answers and they’ll all be slightly different depending on the region, people, and even the time period.
This flesh-eating, icy creature could be one of four things:
- An evil spirit that feeds on human emotions and flesh
- A physically decaying, corpse-like monster
- Human being that’s been possessed by an evil spirit and/or gluttony or greed
- A human that suffers Wendigo psychosis
There is one characteristic of a Wendigo across the board: an insatiable hunger for human meat. They can feast and feast and never be satisfied. It is in a constant state of torture and hunger. When in monstrous form, the Wendigo takes on the size of its prey. In other stories, the more it eats the larger it gets. Some say the Wendigo is taller than the tallest tree and towers over mountain peaks. It’s a master shapeshifter and is known to resemble a small, injured child in order to lure its prey into its icy grasp. The Wendigo is also known to shift into owl or porcupine form, depending on which indigenous people you ask.
Death Whistles and Decaying Odors
Eyewitnesses claim you can hear and smell a Wendigo coming. It might make a wailing sound that leaves its victims paralyzed. Or you might hear far-off whistles through the tree branches that strikes an immediate fear in your heart. The smell of death precedes the beast. When seen in its full form, the Wendigo looks like a tall, emaciated, decaying corpse. It has red eyes sunk deep in its sockets, large teeth (sometimes fangs), and long claws. Some legends say you can see it’s heart through its bony chest, which is literally made of ice. Others claim you can only see a Wendigo from the front…because it’s so thin, when viewed from the side, it is nearly invisible.
Despite our cover photo with an antlered Wendigo, the truth is the actual legends never describe this being as having horns or antlers. This is a modern illustration and one that may have originated in a recent horror film called Wendigo. Yet modern accounts sometimes claim the antlers are indeed a characteristic. I don’t know if this is true or if the eyewitnesses are seeing what they’ve been programmed to see, but it’s worth noting here. Creatures and spirits can evolve over time…particularly evil ones that know how to get to the core of our darkest fears.
What Makes a Wendigo?
The Cree say the Wendigo is an evil spirit that destroys mankind, a cannibal. But they also say people who have been abused or neglected may become the Wendigo. Other indigenous peoples believe a Wendigo is born out of an individual’s gluttony, selfishness, overindulgence or extreme loneliness.
In centuries past, the Winters of Northern America were harsh. The people had to band together to beat the cold, hunger and disease. It didn’t make it easier the Winters are long, occasionally spanning 5 months. They had to preserve what foods they could for the long Winter season, and so if someone was particularly greedy and ate more than the allotted amount, he was shunned. And if he was exiled from the tribe, he’d suffer starvation and isolation from his people. This was the perfect storm for a new Wendigo to be born.
Ancient Monsters Teach Cultural Lessons
It’s also possible the legend of the Wendigo arose from a need to teach cultural lessons. To deter the tribe members from eating too much food in times of low supply and from overindulging in general. Because, let’s face it, if you eat too much you’re taking it away from someone else in your family or tribe. You’re putting others at risk of death. In addition, someone who wants too much power, as one of the popular legends has it. An Algonquin warrior asked the devil for the power to defeat all his tribe’s enemies. He was granted indomitable strength and prowess, until the battles were over. Then he became the first Wendigo.
Scholars believe the Wendigo legend was also passed down through the generations to deter people from breaking taboos, namely cannibalism. You have to remember, when people are put in extreme conditions and survival hangs in the balance, they do desperate things. So turning into a creature like the Wendigo is a reason not to eat your neighbor…even in the harshest and most dire of situations.
Wendigo Dreams and Visions
Another way in which a Wendigo is made is through dreams and vision quests. It seems that sometimes, the indigenous people believed certain people were destined to become the Wendigo. And they could tell if the person had dreams about the Wendigo, or met the Wendigo during a vision quest in search of their power animal. If you had a dream or vision of your power animal being an owl or porcupine, this was another sign the creature was growing close. Following the dreams or visions, the person plagued must tell the elders of their encounters. They may potentially be saved from metamorphosis in the spiritual realm.
Along the same lines, a dark sorcerer could turn their enemy into a Wendigo. AND if you’re bit by the Wendigo, you become one yourself (side note: there are quite a few similarities between werewolves and Wendigos).
Winter, Ice, and Hunger Personified
When we step back and take a look at the environment from which the Wendigo arises, we start to understand. The Wendigo may be a supernatural personification of some of the extremes the people from the North have survived for centuries: Winter, Ice, Coldness, Famine, Starvation, and Isolation. Because the indigenous were indeed animists, believing that every thing had its own consciousness and spirit, it makes sense the harshest parts of the natural world may be viewed as evil spirits.
In some lore, if a person begins the process of turning into one, he might begin to swell up and then slowly turn into ice. Some say they’ve heard a Wendigo’s heart turning into ice within his chest. A popping or inexplicable crunching sound that emanates from behind the Wendigo’s ribs. In his spirit form, the Wendigo is carried on the Winter wind from place to place throughout the cold north…searching for its next tasty victim.
What is Wendigo Psychosis?
Some scholars believe the legend actually stems from a real human psychological condition appropriately named Wendigo psychosis. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, “the syndrome is characterized by delusions of becoming possessed by a flesh-eating monster (the wendigo) and is manifested in symptoms of depression, violence and a compulsive desire to eat human flesh (cannibalism).” They also say this is a “culture-bound syndrome in the Algonquin Natives living in Canada and the Northern United States.” I’m not quite sure I believe it’s culture-bound only, though. There are similar mental illnesses worldwide, just in various forms.
Let’s take a look at the similarities between wendigo psychosis and clinical lycanthropy. Clinical lycanthropy is a psychological syndrome in which the patient believes he or she is becoming a werewolf (lycanthrope). And according to Frontiers in Psychology, “culture can affect psychotic symptoms and psychotic symptoms can be culturally meaningful.” If we compare the two, we see they both feature the individual having psychotic delusions of turning into a monster of some kind and we notice cultural connections. Wendigo Psychosis in North America and clinical lycanthropy mostly in Europe.
Now, we aren’t saying we’re convinced that all Wendigo encounters or legends can be explained away by a psychotic condition. However, we are saying that these psychotic conditions have definitely been influenced by the cultures from which they’ve arisen.
PLEASE NOTE: we are not psychologists or psychiatrists here at the Otherworldly Oracle. But we have done a lot of research for this article. If you’re struggling with your mental health or having thoughts of harming yourself or others, please seek out a qualified healthcare professional for help immediately.
Legends and Frightening Sightings
Luckily, not all Wendigo legends end badly. Some end on a positive note. In an Ojibwe tale, two men are rowing in the lake and their vessel lands on a distant, otherworldly shore. Before they know it, they encounter a giant and a Wendigo. The giant lifts a basket on the ground and a large wolf-like creature emerges and destroys the Wendigo. Essentially saving the men from harm. Following, the wolf-like creature ferries them back to their own land and becomes a dog. This is a story of how the dog became man’s best friend. And clearly shows a link between a person’s guardian spirit or animal spirit guardian and warding off dangers like the Wendigo.
In another legend, the men of a village go off to hunt leaving the women and children at camp. When they return, they notice the footprints of a large creature heading towards the campsite. Immediately they think the Wendigo has killed their families, but when they make it to camp they see the women in the middle of camp, holding the children. All are safe and sound. The women’s animal guardian spirits have saved them from the Wendigo’s ravenous cravings.
Defago the Guide Disappears
“An Indian guide named Defago was leading a group of English men into the forest. At some point, he grew uneasy and said he smelled a strange odor emanating from the woods. The English men were concerned but didn’t think much of it. That night, after everyone went to sleep in their tents, Defago started to cry in his sleep. Then the men watched as he jumped up, screaming that his feet were on fire and ran off into the trees. In the middle of the night. The men followed Defago and noticed two sets of footprints – Defago’s and the footprints of a large human-like animal. After a while of following the prints, the men were stunned to watch as the footprints merged. Defago’s were gone. Only the beast’s prints remained.
The men gave up the search. But a few days later, Defago returned a completely different man. Disheveled and ranting and raving in a language no one understood. He couldn’t speak in his native tongue or in English. But the men understood one word, “Wendigo”. A few days later, Defago died.” This story was summarized and pulled from the Reader’s Digest: American Folklore and Legend.
Is the Creature Dead? And A Modern Sighting
What we find interesting, people from the North say the last Wendigo was destroyed in the 1960s. However, there have been others who have seen a creature they thought was the Wendigo in recent years. One eyewitness tells of hunting near the Great Lakes with a buddy. They followed the sound of a dying animal and ran into something they thought was out of a nightmare. He said it looked like a deer, but it couldn’t have been. It was longer in length than a deer but was so emaciated you could see it’s actual ribs poking through its skin. He thought maybe it was a diseased deer, but later that night it hit him it couldn’t have been. Had he seen a wendigo? Or was it a diseased deer or something else entirely?
Cindy KurneckJanuary 7, 2023 at 11:36 am
Wonderful article! Particularly liked the Ojibwe tale – had not heard that before!