Northern Hunger, Becoming the Wendigo
“She just walked away and was no longer human, and very bad. She could be terrifying, she could kill, and she could exist without food, and she could do almost anything she wanted. And sometimes, for revenge she would punish the people who mistreated her – and that's a certain kind of wihtigo, a very terrible one too” - Louis Bird, Omushkego (Swampy Cree) elder.
There are days here in Montreal where you can still feel the full force of winter. Sure the snow starts around Halloween and outstays its welcome well into April; but between snowploughs, space heaters and reinforced winter clothes the season feels contained and controlled.
Yet in spite of this, every so often there are those days. Wild days when it feels that the cold is angry at your presence. It pushes at you, finding the slightest sliver of exposed skin and branding you as punishment. It forces you to take the shallowest of breaths as anything more is a stab to the lungs. These days remind us that before our cities were established, there stood forests and plains and that before our convenience and complacency arose, there was a great struggle between the people and the relentless danger of winter.
From out of this struggle came the Wendigo.
An icy February, 1741 in Fort Churchill, Manitoba. Starvation and famine are rife amongst the Cree people throughout the province and reports of such reach an outpost of the Hudson Bay Company. Amidst the brutality of this winter, a Cree mother and daughter arrive on foot at the doors of the fort, both ravaged by starvation and the debilitating effects of a 240 kilometre trudge against the elements. They relate to Richard Norton, the factor of the outpost, the horrific reason that they undertook this journey, a story he describes in an understated manner as “tragical”.
Having run out of stored food and with the terrible scarcity of game, an awful change had occurred in the husband of the family. The younger of the two Cree women explained how her husband had killed and eaten the youngest child of the family, then four days later did the same to his twelve year old son. Fearing for the life of her seven year old daughter and for own mother, she snatched the child and the three made their escape into the wilderness.
For three days the husband pursued his family relentlessly, Norton cannot explain this fanaticism. The husband was a hunter, he had access to ammunition and though not plentiful, there were other sources of food to be found, yet he never diverted from his aim of capturing his family. On the third day he caught up to them, throttling his daughter while the two older women attempted to fend him off. Too late to save her daughter's life, the wife struck her husband a fatal blow to the head with an axe. Such accounts have been recorded across the North-East of North America, in stories, archives and legal documents and they depict the figure of the Wendigo.
Exact definition's of the Wendigo are tricky, its origins are based in the oral history of the Algonquian people, a group which covers a huge stretch of North America, from Virginia to Labrador, from Quebec to Alberta. Amongst this nation, the largest culture group in North America, there is a shared pool of linguistic, social and religious traits, however there is also a great diversity in the specifics of their beliefs.
It has many names; 'witigo', 'wee-tee-ko' and 'windigo' amongst the Cree, the Mi'kmaq know it as the 'chenoo' and the Passamaquoddy as the 'kewahqu'. For the more southerly Algonquian people the Wendigo is more of a trickster figure, mischievous more than malevolent. For those further north however it is far more terrible.
Those more southerly nations had more access to food throughout the winter, the bison of the plains meant they did not know the same desperation of the Northern Algonquian, further north along the coast, the Innu or Montagnais had plentiful hunting of seals, however the near endless coniferous forest of the subarctic offered up little aid.
Early tales of the Wendigo, prior to European exposure, have two distinct roots. One origin is that the Wendigo are a race of giant cannibals from inaccessible islands in the far north, who travel south to hunt and create more of their own kind. Another origin is that these are creatures of the spirit world, deeply connected with the world of dreams.
For the Algonquian people, dreams were considered another aspect of their reality and could physically effect their waking life. Tales tell of those who dreamt of a great feast, moments before taking a bite of duck's wing they allowed themselves a closer look, realizing to their horror that it was in fact a child's arm before them. They knew that had they tasted that flesh, their transformation into a Wendigo would have begun. Note how this parallels European traditions surrounding fairy beliefs; if you eat fairy or elf food having crossed into their domain, you will be forever unable to eat once you return home, unable to recreate that sensation, transformed into a being of constant hunger.
Shamans had the power to call forth and manifest these Wendigo spirits, to transform themselves and others into cannibalistic creatures with frozen, icy hearts. They also held the power to destroy and dispel the evil, they did so by traversing that line of the dream and reality:
“Jack Fiddler (A noted killer of Wendigos, arrested for such in 1907 but who committed suicide before sentencing) could kill a windigo. The reason he had such powers is because he slept and dreamed. During these dreams, he was given the power to kill such an evil one.” - Edward Rae, Manitoba Cree elder, from “Killing the Shamen” Chief Thomas Fiddler and James R. Stevens 1985
These early stories would themselves transform as Europeans arrived and colonized North America, becoming closer to the view of Wendigos that permeate popular culture today.
Québecois 'voyageurs', settlers and fur-trappers often worked closely with the First Nation people, trading in goods, information and stories. They infused the tales of the Wendigo with their own folklore of awful transformations, that of the Loup-Garou, the werewolf. The spirit world Wendigos, blended with the 'Hairy-Heart' giants and now once the transformation of a starved and desperate person began they would change physically as well, growing giant, becoming a literal beast made of ice. A common account of a Wendigo being defeated ends with the burning of the body, leaving behind a solid, frozen heart which would take a great many hours to melt, often gruesomely rolling away from the pyre.
The Wendigo raises its frozen head across almost all media now, early examples in literature established it as an atavistic representation of the wild northern winter. Two early accounts in particular stand out: William Hume Blake's fantastic 1915 short horror piece 'A Tale of the Grand Jardin' hews close to the Algonquian stories, the transformation, though wild, is not all that supernatural.
Far more influential however was Algernon Blackwood's 1910 novella 'The Wendigo', a wonderful early work of weird fiction (with the caveat that it contains some problematic and 'of its time' attitudes to the First Nation characters) that would influence HP Lovecraft, August Derleth and anyone who read 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark'. Blackwood's story portrays the Wendigo as a force of nature, it is simultaneously a physical presence, a mental transformation and the wind and ice itself. Here the Wendigo begins to be represented as a tangible thing, a monster.
In 2006 Mike Mignola, John Arcudi and Guy Davis introduced us to their own interpretation of the Wendigo. With “Daryl”, Guy Davis creates a character truly monstrous and yet somehow sympathetic. While Hellboy's description that this Wendigo is 'a cursed ghost' is quite far from traditional depictions of the spirit, interestingly the character itself closely aligns with Algonquian beliefs.
Daryl retains fragments of his existence prior to his transformation, he does so through his family connection. It is the recollection of his family that allows him to retain some kind of humanity. Traditional accounts of the Wendigo across the North-East are concerned above all with threats to families, in the earlier account from Fort Churchill it was a breakdown in the family that brought death to the three children, yet the mother and grandmother were able to work together to defeat the husband who had turned.
Time and again this story is repeated in accounts of people 'turning Wendigo', an evil shaman turns a young woman who has rebuked his romantic interest, she then attacks her family sometimes succeeding before lamenting the destruction as she realizes her crime. Sometimes the family are prepared and work together to restore or vanquish the member who has turned.
Shawn Smallman's book 'Dangerous Spirits' goes in depth into the role of the family in Wendigo beliefs. I strongly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject, Smallman's thorough and academic writing is a refreshing change to the usual hysteric approach and his depth of research is astonishing.
One question remains, the question I ask myself when out in the snowy Laurentides Mountains or walking to work on a particularly wild morning, how can I defeat a Wendigo?
Perhaps you don't have the power from the dream world that was claimed of Jack Fiddler, but fear not there are other alternatives. One of the most common recurring methods is a good old no-nonsense axe to the head. That seems to have a convincing success rate. There's a decent chance though that the person turning is going to be loved one, so maybe keep that as Plan B. If you discover early enough that a transformation is beginning, start making a whole lot of noise, banging pots and pans and singing, if you are persistent enough you should be able to disorientate and distract your relative long enough for the moment to pass.
Finally my preferred option, if the transformation has taken place but you are able to subdue the afflicted, lay them down by a hot fire and keep them topped up with the strongest alcohol you have to hand. It may take a while but this should encourage the ice in their heart to melt, thus restoring them. I feel like had Hellboy known of this he would have had the situation under control much quicker.
In recent years there has been something of a reclamation of the Wendigo by the Algonquian people. Accounts of physical manifestations had all but died out by the 1950’s, though there is still a sense of the danger posed by desperation and how it can cause a change. Instead the use of the Wendigo has become more metaphorical, the greed and hunger of the spirit instead being ascribed to the European colonization and expansion across the continent. It was after all the high demand for beavers, deer and rabbits for the fur trade that inflicted a terrible dearth of food throughout this region. Then the acquisition of land and expansion, the horrendous conditions of the residential schools, this destroyed the family ways of life for so many. Far more efficiently than the spirit Wendigo ever did.