Whether it be in the realm of true crime stories, fictional procedurals both supernatural and not, or horror tales in general, the concept of the cannibal is a go-to boogeyman when it comes to the depths of the human psyche. One of the most famous serial killers, Jeffrey Dahmer, and one of the most famous fictional serial killers, Hannibal, share this trait. The catchy rhyme doesn’t help either, in Hannibal’s case. The consumption of human flesh is a taboo that seems to elicit chills regardless of era, time, or detail. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the idea is so bone-chilling, perhaps because it represents the lowest depths humanity could go to in a fight for survival, and one it has, in the case of the Donner Party and others throughout history.

Unsurprisingly, flesh-eating monsters aren’t hard to find in folklore, including that of the original inhabitants of the United States. Today, we take a look at the mythical Wendigo. The Wendigo is a creature coming from the tales of the Algonquin people. According to legend, the Wendigo is not a creature that is born or bred, but the result of a human consuming another human’s flesh. Namely, the first was a lost hunter forced to resort to a bit of in-species snacking. As a result, this man transformed into a beast of insatiable hunger, roaming the woods searching for more delicious people ripe for the picking.

Visual descriptions of the Wendigo vary greatly now, but the passage most often used as a basis for its description comes from Basil Johnston, a Native American ethnographer, and is as follows:

“The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones. With its bones pushing out over its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into the 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.”

This description is perhaps the most grounded of any of them, and it’s the most simple characterization of the fear the wendigo could have been said to represent, the complete loss of humanity. It’s also, interestingly, similar to the modern zombie, though that could be a coincidence. A search for the Wendigo’s appearance today, however, will demonstrate a variety of evolutions and changes, some from a natural evolution of the tale, and others from erroneous identifications of different folklore creatures and authors taking fictional license of the creature. Within the tales of the Native Americans who invented the creature, the wendigo grows in size, and its features become exaggerated. There are references to it being “as tall as a tree” with a “lipless mouth and jagged teeth.” These all seem like natural developments through the retelling of the story, perhaps when a child or a group don’t seem quite terrified enough of the creature, the storyteller in question may embellish.

People sitting around a campfire

Pixabay

And it was like, 7 feet… uh, I mean 15 feet tall! Are you guys listening?

However, one of the most prevalent, and generally accepted as accidental/incorrect appearances of the wendigo is the addition of antlers. Unsurprisingly, the origin of the Wendigo’s horns can be traced to a misuse and misappropriation of the Wendigo by the very European, and very Not Algonquin, Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood published a story entitled “The Wendigo” in 1910. Whether by conscious choice while seeking to create a more fearsome antagonist, or by cause of regular old ignorance, the creature described in the story is not a Wendigo.

The creature in Blackwood’s misnamed Wendigo tale seems to be most closely related to an Inuit legend known as the Ijiraq, which has the features of both a human and a caribou, as well as some other fascinating traits, such as the fact that “when an ijiraq shops in a store, no matter how much merchandise they purchase, the store’s stock does not deplete.” So I guess if you ever see an ijiraq, ask it to buy you a bunch of PS5s.

But the Wendigo-antler connection had been made and published, and was cemented when illustrator Matt Fox created a rendering of the horned wendigo-that-wasn’t for a 1944 publication of “The Wendigo” in Famous Fantastic Mysteries. As per usual, the European understanding of a traditional Native American belief or tradition completely overwrote the true meaning, leaving us with the idea of a horned wendigo. We can see this in everything from video game appearances to cartoons to a truly horrifying representation in the visions of Will Graham in NBC’s Hannibal, a link between fictitious cannibals of past and present. (Side note: props to video game Until Dawn for not falling into the antler trap.)

The addition of antlers may seem like a small detail, especially in the world of creatures which are widely accepted as fantasy, but what I do believe is unfortunate about it is how squarely it puts the wendigo in the realm of almost cartoonish fantasy. An early wendigo, as Basil Johnston describes, is only barely beyond reality. In fact, it’s not difficult to see why the legend developed. As Algonquin tribes lived in the harsh North, going through not infrequent periods of famine during the harsh winters, a figure representing the broken taboo of cannibalism could clearly represent their own worst fate. A monster haunted by a decision that was scarily plausible for hunters and trappers in that time.

Picture of shackled Swift Runner

Glenbow Museum Archives

Swift Runner.

So present and plausible, in fact, that in very real life, something known as “wendigo psychosis” developed. Wendigo psychosis was described as an insatiable hunger for human flesh, and an overwhelming fear of becoming a cannibal. This, unlike the physical wendigo, is sadly something there are records of. Take for example the case of Swift Runner, a Cree trapper who went to the gallows in 1879 after claiming to be possessed by a Wendigo spirit which caused him to murder and consume his wife and children.

Bones and skulls of Swift Runner's family

Glenbow Museum Archives

Swift Runner's wife and children.

Now, of course, we know that “wendigo psychosis” was likely not the possession or relation to any mythical creature, but simply, as monsters often are, a disguise behind which the worst parts of humankind are shrouded. There is no lack of record of people driven to cannibalism through history. For those familiar with the tale of the Wendigo, to blame these horrific occurrences on the influence of a supernatural entity must have been infinitely more palatable. No pun intended.

Top Image: Pixabay/Public Domain

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