Creature Feature: Wendigo

From North Wood’s Myth to Hannibal Lector

Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.
— Primo Levi - Author of "Survival in Auschwitz"

The Legend of Jack Fiddler

His given name was Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubo - meaning he who stands in the southern sky in Cree. He was known to Canadian settlers, and the government that wanted to place his people under State law as Jack Fiddler. Jack was considered the leader of s devil worshiping tribe of aboriginal people by the Canadian government.  

To his own people he was a leader. 

And a Wendigo hunter. Legend has it, Jack Fiddler killed 14 wendigos in his lifetime, and a wendigo can be a hard thing to kill.  

There’s a Monster in the Boreal Forest

At least according to the Algonquin and the Inuit peoples of Norther Canada.  The Tsaatan or Duhka people of North-Central Asia share similar legends of a flesh-eating, forest-dwelling creatures. In North America, the monster is known as the wendigo. And this particular monster is the stuff of which nightmares are made. 

The primary terrifying, characteristic of the wendigo is its appetite. It consumes human flesh. The word in the Algonquin language essentially means “the evil spirit that devours all of mankind.” Fairly apocalyptic.  These monsters were said grow up to 10-15 tall but looked  completely emaciated. Their starved appearance should deceive no one, however. Wendigo carry super-human strength and speed, especially in the cold of a North Wood winter, when they’re most hungry. They were also said to have glowing, yellow eyes, as if one would not already be frightening enough to meet in a dark, cold wood.  

How to Become a Flesh-eating Monster that is not a Zombie

According to the variety of Algonquin speaking peoples who once populated a large portion of Northern and Eastern North America, there were two ways a wendigo could form. 

  • A person could become possessed by the “spirit of wendigo." If left untreated by shamanist ritual, that person could eventually turn into a full-blow flesh eating monster. 
  • A person could transform into a wendigo at a speedier rate should they become obsessively greedy or participate in cannibalism.  

Just to be clear with our monster-lore: a wendigo is not the same thing as a zombie. A zombie is someone who has died whose body has been re-animated through magical means. A wendigo is a person who who has been transformed into a creature through supernatural means, often because of choices they have made. 

Jack Fiddler believed his purpose was to protect his people by making sure that transformation never happened. 

Possible Origins of Wendigo Lore

The origins of the wendigo lay in the harsh winters of the north woods.  Native peoples of this region often faced severe food shortages - when game for hunting was scarce and the snows were deep.  Wendigo myth and lore may have been used to dissuade people from participating in cannibalism to stay alive. Eating human flesh was not only something the Algonquins didn’t practice, it was taboo. It was better for people to sacrifice themselves and die of starvation, than  to eat another human being.  Folklore stepped in to create a fate worse than death. 

But there were winters when entire Algonquin villages died. Extreme and harsh conditions may have driven some people to make an impossible choice and to step into a taboo realm, in order to stay alive.  The human will to live can be a powerful thing.  

Some researchers say that wendigo myth may also be the Algonquin explanation of a psychosis which accompanies degenerative brain diseases like Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease (“mad-cow disease” is a form of this) - which is known to be transmitted by eating human flesh.  

The Bane of Jack Fiddler

Within the Algonquin community there was a culturally-bound psychosis/paranoia in which some people either obsessively believed they were becoming wendigo or that people around them were becoming wendigo.  This possibly affected Jack Fiddler.  His 14th and final “wendigo kill” was a woman he believed about to turn.  The Canadian government stepped in about a year later and put him and his brother on trial for murder, using the media of the day to leverage government law and control over all First Nations people. Jack Fiddler’s tribe was one of last hold outs from the Canadian government.  

Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubo, AKA Jack Fiddler, the Last Wendigo Hunter, hung himself on September 30th, 1907, days before he was to go to trial.  Jack’s people and descendants live at Sandy Lake, Deer Lake and North Spirit Lake First Nation in Ontario today.  

Today’s Wendigo

Of course, the forest everywhere is a place full of story and legend;  monsters and myth. Ancient places like the northland boreal forests of Scandinavia, North America and Asia are the birthplace of much wonder and terror, as far as stories are concerned. While this was where the wendigo legend was birthed, it is not where it dies. Movies, TV shows and video games continue to use the wendigo as the stuff of nightmares. The first season of the popular television show Supernatural has a wendigo monster, some B-movies have trie to tell the flesh-eaters story (apparently a new one in development) and several fantasy video and roll-playing games have wendigo characters.  Perhaps the most famous fictional bad-guy to channel the spirit of wendigo is Hannibal Lector, the serial killer who always tasted a bit of his victims. While he did class up human liver with fava beans and chianti, it was still a monsterous meal.  

Folklore is often used in most cultures to prevent bad behavior.  Stories do seem to do the trick. “Go to sleep right now or the boogeyman will get you.” However, the result is often the appearance of a boogeyman in dreams, fears and nightmares.

Stay tuned!  Monday’s Podcast will be an audio “Creature Feature” - exploring more about the wendigo.  Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, so you never miss an episode. 

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