The Wendigo (also known as windigo, weendigo, windago, windiga, witiko, wihtikow, and numerous other variants including manaha) is a demonic half-beast creature appearing in the legends of the Algonquian peoples along the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of both the United States and Canada. The creature or spirit could either possess characteristics of a human or a monster that had physically transformed from a person. It is particularly associated with cannibalism. The Algonquian believed those who indulged in eating human flesh were at particular risk; the legend appears to have reinforced the taboo of the practice of cannibalism. It is often described in Algonquian mythology as a balance of nature
The legend lends its name to the disputed modern medical term Wendigo Psychosis. This is supposed to be a culture-bound disorder that features symptoms such as an intense craving for human flesh and a fear the sufferer is a cannibal. This condition was alleged to have occurred among Algonquian native cultures, but remains disputed.
The Wendigo character now is a common creature found in modern horror fiction.
The Wendigo is part of the traditional belief systems of various Algonquian-speaking tribes in the northern United States and Canada, most notably the Ojibwe and Saulteaux, the Cree, the Naskapi, and the Innu people. Although descriptions varied somewhat, common to all these cultures was the conception of Wendigos as malevolent, cannibalistic, supernatural beings (manitous) of great spiritual power. They were strongly associated with the winter, the north, and coldness, as well as with famine and starvation. Basil Johnston, an Ojibwe teacher and scholar from Ontario, gives one description of how wendigos were viewed:
|“||The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody [....] Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.||”|
At the same time, Wendigos were embodiments of gluttony, greed, and excess: never satisfied after killing and consuming one person, they were constantly searching for new victims. In some traditions, humans who became overpowered by greed could turn into Wendigos; the Wendigo myth thus served as a method of encouraging cooperation and moderation.
Among the Ojibwe, Eastern Cree, Westmain Swampy Cree, Naskapi, and Innu, Wendigos were said to be giants, many times larger than human beings (a characteristic absent from the Wendigo myth in the other Algonquian cultures). Whenever a Wendigo ate another person, it would grow in proportion to the meal it had just eaten, so that it could never be full. Therefore, Wendigos were portrayed as simultaneously gluttonous and emaciated from starvation.
All cultures in which the Wendigo myth appeared shared the belief that human beings could turn into Wendigos if they ever resorted to cannibalism, or, alternatively, become possessed by the demonic spirit of a Wendigo, often in a dream. Once transformed, a person would become violent and obsessed with eating human flesh. The most frequent cause of transformation into a Wendigo was if a person had resorted to cannibalism, consuming the body of another human in order to keep from starving to death during a time of extreme hardship, for example in hard winters, or famine.
Among northern Algonquian cultures, cannibalism, even to save one's own life, was viewed as a serious taboo; the proper response to famine was suicide or resignation to death. On one level, the Wendigo myth thus worked as a deterrent and a warning against resorting to cannibalism; those who did would become wendigo monsters themselves.