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Legendary creatures of Canada’s “First Nations”: the “Wendigo”

One of the comments on one of my post on Canada’s “First Nations” (from Alex Ledante if I remember well) stated that I never once mentioned the “wendigo” of the “First Nations”. So here I will present a short explanation of this mythical and legendary creature.

The word “wendigo” (windigo in French) appears in most “First Nations” languages and dialects with several variations. Not only is it called “wendigo” but it can also be called “weendigo”, “windago”, “windiga”, “witiko”, “withtikow”. It is not a proper name as such because it is rather vague and corresponds to several creatures named “wendigo” as a reference point. It is written and spelled differently according to the period of time where it emerged and the different varied “First Nations” tribes. For example: the term “wiindigoo” is an Ojibwe term and is probably at the origin of the term “wendigo”. “Widjigo” is the equivalent in the Algonquian language and “Whitikow” comes from the Cree nation of Quebec.. “Windago” can be heard in the Athabasca “First Nations” of the East, “Wendago” is heard from the “Saulteaux” tribe of Manitoba. The names are all different variations of the same entity. Other names of the “wendigo” are “atchen”, “chenoo” (in Micmac) and “kewok” (in Abenaqui) which are often used to designate the “wendigo”.

The legend of the “wendigo” is well known in “First Nations” Algonquian speaking tribes in North America which includes the “Abenaquis”, the “Siksikas”, the “Micmacs” and of course the “Algonquians”. No other monster or bad spirit evoke such superstitions and fear in the “First Nations”, at the beginning with the “Saulteux”, “Ojibwe”, “Cree” and “Innus” tribes. Although the description of the “wendigo” varies somewhat, all the “First Nations” cultures have in common a description of the “wendigowak” as a malevolent, malicious entity, a cannibal and also as a supernatural (manitou) possessing a great spiritual force that lives preferably in the forests. It is mostly associated with winter, the North and to the cold as well as famine.

The “wendigo” is also described in more precise terms by the “Ojibwe”. According to their legend, it is extremely emaciated, his skin is very dried up, stretched very tightly on its bones. As its bones pushed against its skin, the skin takes on a grey color just as the ashes of death. Its eyes are pushed back in their orbits. It basically looked like a skeleton that has recently been recently unearthed. The lips of the “wendigo” are bare and often soiled with blood. The “wendigo” exudes a foul stench of degradation and decomposition, of death and corruption. This stench is strong enough, according to legends, to drive all wildlife away creating a state of famine among the various “First Nations” communities.

Among the Cree of the East and the Innus, the “wendigowak” is described as a giant several times bigger than human beings which is a characteristic missing from the algonquian myth of other cultures. Every time a “wendigo” eats another human, it grows in proportion of what he just ate and becomes hungry again such as it never is full or satisfied. This makes the “wendigo” at the same time stuffed and in a state of famine.

Other descriptions of the “wendigo” are of a giant of skeletal ice or a skeleton with a heart of ice or as monstrous beasts half-man and half-animal which is eerily similar to a werewolf or a big hominid such as the “Sasquatch” although they are not connected at all. The “wendigo” can also be a malicious spirit that haunts most of the time the subarctic forests searching for a host to help him satisfy his hunger for human flesh. He is characterized by its ultimate cruelty towards its victims and its immoderate taste for human flesh. He can also be seen in the form of a shadow. But all these different forms have in common a very icy heart. The “wendigo” also seems to be a totally nocturnal entity, possesses formidable hunting capabilities making it impossible for one to escape from it. The “wendigo” is immune to harsh climate, is large, fast with enhanced senses and endurance. It can, apparently mimic the human voice, thus luring its victims away from safety and even driving them mad so he can possess and consume them.

The symbolism and meaning of the “wendigo” gives information on the beliefs, way of life, social structures and traditions of those who relate its story. For some, these legends evoke the importance of the community and especially the disastrous consequences that can ensue from the fact that some individual members can be excluded from the community. They believe that in order to create a “wendigo” they have to unite the factors of hunger, extreme cold and isolation. In fact, the “wendigo” is strongly related to the cannibalism taboo existing in the “First Nations” which is strongly forbidden: it was associated with cold and winter, periods where famine often struck communities and when the cannibalism temptation was at its highest point. As such, these conditions are always present among the “First Nations” who live in the boreal northern forests. Most of the “wendigo” stories tell of the misfortune of certain individuals or small groups that, trapped in the woods without food during long periods of time, feel that they are totally alone and often tormented by cold. The stories then go on to say that the “wendigo” kills solitary travelers or specific individual of a group and then takes on their personality temporarily (possess the human) before killing other humans that he finds on his way. On the other hand, the legendary greed of the “wendigo” represents certain attitudes found in the “First Nations” tribes regarding sharing of resources. In the woodlands or any other wilderness, man’s survival often depends on the communal cooperation and sharing of food and other assets. Anybody who refuses to share its local resources, especially in times of famine or drought is considered a “monster”. In later years, according to some “First Nations” the “wendigo” came to represent the symbol of cupidity in modern society who manifests itself through capitalism and excessive consumption.

It is interesting to note that the “wendigo” has been mentioned in novels such as “Pet Sematary” by Stephen King, “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood and several others.

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Written by HistoryGal

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