In the depths of the forest, deep down into no man’s-land, are tales of terror that would make the boldest of men shiver. Tales of inhuman things, supernatural things, savage things. Strange creatures dwell in the deepest, darkest forests in the world, but stranger still are the ones that live inside of man, inner beasts more fearsome than anything else.
One such creature is the Windigo.
The word used to describe the creature is not a proper noun because it has no name. Windigo is only a kind of “reference”. The word itself is just one of the many ways to spell it. The term derives from the Algonquian root word “witiku”, though throughout the tribes and times the term’s spelling varies: Wendigo, Windego, Wetiko, Windago, Windikouk, and so on.
The legend of the Windigo is well known among the Algonquian speaking tribes in America, from the Maritimes to the Prairies, from central to north-eastern US. No “monster” or “evil spirit” evokes so much fear in these people.
While this creature is considered by many to be the creation of horror writer Algernon Blackwood in his classic terror tale, “The Wendigo”, this woods spirit was, and is, very real to many in the northern woods and prairies of the state. Many legends and stories have circulated over the years about a mysterious creature who was encountered by hunters and campers in the shadowy forests of the upper regions of Minnesota. In one variation of the story, the creature could only be seen if it faced the witness head-on, because it was so thin that it could not be seen from the side. The spirit was said to have a voracious appetite for human flesh and the many forest dwellers who disappeared over the years were said to be victims of the monster.
The American Indians had their own tales of the Wendigo, dating back so many years that most who were interviewed could not remember when the story had not been told. The Inuit Indians of the region called the creature by various names, including Wendigo, Witigo, Witiko and Wee-Tee-Go but each of them was roughly translated to mean “the evil spirit that devours mankind”. Around 1860, a German explorer translated Wendigo to mean “cannibal” among the tribes along the Great Lakes.
Native American versions of the creature spoke of a gigantic spirit, over fifteen feet tall, that had once been human but had been transformed into a creature by the use of magic. Though all of the descriptions of the creature vary slightly, the Wendigo is generally said to have glowing eyes, long yellowed fangs and overly long tongues. Most have a sallow, yellowish skin but others are said to be matted with hair. They are tall and lanky and are driven by a horrible hunger. But how would a person grow to become one of this strange creatures?
According to the lore, the Wendigo is created whenever a human resorts to cannibalism to survive. In years past, such a practice was possible, although still rare, as many of the tribes and settlers in the region were cut off by the bitter snows and ice of the north woods. Unfortunately, eating another person to survive was sometimes resorted to and thus, the legend of the Wendigo was created.
But how real were (or are) these creatures? Could the legend of the Wendigo have been created merely as a “warning” against cannibalism? Or could sightings of Bigfoot-type creatures have created the stories. While this is unknown, it is believed that white settlers to the region took the stories seriously. At times, they even took the sightings and reports quite seriously and made it enough of the local culture that stories like those of Algernon Blackwood were penned. Real-life stories were told as well and according to the settlers’ version of the legend, the Wendigo would often be seen (banshee-like) to signal a death in the community. A Wendigo allegedly made a number of appearances near a town called Rosesu in Northern Minnesota from the late 1800’s through the 1920’s. Each time that it was reported, an unexpected death followed and finally, it was seen no more.
Windigo is usually associated with winter, especially due to the fact that most “cases” of windigoes are heard of during these cold months, probably because the lack of food is felt the most during these times, bringing cannibalism along with them. Most tales say that the Windigo rides with the winter wind, howling inhuman screams, others that the Windigo is made of ice and cold, or at least that its heart is. The same would happen to its host: his heart would turn to ice, incapable of feeling human emotions.
Though most tales recount the Windigo as being cannibalistic, dangerous and violent, the “host” can still try to live far from civilization, deep into the woods, to prevent anybody from being its next victim. Some Windigo-inhabited people would even commit suicide to prevent hurting anyone else.
As with the witch and were-wolf trials in Europe, Canada had its share of “Windigo trials” in the settler days. These accounts were often very well recorded. Explorer David Thompson witnessed such a trial in the Lake of the Woods region in the late 1700’s. A young Indian hunter announced to everyone’s surprise that he had a strong inclination to eat his sister, and that he would do anything he must to have human flesh. Alarmed, the band council came to the decision that the man must die, executed by his father. When informed of the resolution that was chosen, the Indian hunter was willing to die. He was later strangled by rope. A few hours later he was burnt to ashes in a large bond fire, not the least bone remaining, so that the evil spirit could not return to this world.
Most people nowadays would believe that these cases either never existed, or that they no longer do. Actually, “windigo psychosis”, as it is called, is well known by psychologists. This is when patients show signs of cannibalistic tendencies, are violent, and have an extreme antisocial behavior. There was an outbreak of such cases in the 1970’s.
But should the Windigo be classified as a cryptid? It seems so. According to everything we know on the subject, there would happen to be three categories of Windigo; we have seen two up to now: an evil spirit that stalks mostly the subarctic woods in search of a host to help it satisfy its physical craving for human flesh, and a psychosis of which patients show signs of cannibalism and are antisocial. The third type is a kind of tall hominid creature, somewhat like Sasquatch. Unlike it, though, this beast seems to relish itself in violence and preying upon anything it can get its hands on, humans included. It seems to be nocturnal, for it is said that it seeks out its victims during dawn and eating them when darkness falls. Flesh might be its chiefly diet, but it is said that it eats rotten wood, swamp mosses and mushrooms.
Though not as widely heard of as the other two categories of Windigo, it is plausible that this creature does, or at least, did exist. Such savage hominoid-type cryptids are not unheard of. If the epic tale of Beowulf, the oldest known English poem, is true, then part of it recalls that around 550 to 950 A.D., a hairy hominid creature, called Grendel, would attack nightly the great hall of Hrothgar, the king of Danes, to snatch away his men to eat them at its lair. This happened for 12 years; the only survivors where those who fled the area or stayed away from the mead hall, called Heorot, before nighttime. Indeed, for 12 years until Beowulf, the new king of the Geats, came to Hrothgar’s help with 13 or 14 of his best warriors. Beowulf laid a trap for the creature, staying awake that night waiting for it to enter Hrothgar’s domain. When the creature tried taking him, Beowulf stood up and after a long battle, he tore off the creature’s arm, leaving it gravely wounded and dying. The story then continues when Beowulf kills Grendel’s vengeful mother in her underwater lair.
There are a few reports of Sasquatch acting aggressively, like in the incident at Ape Canyon (in fact, this incident gave the canyon its name): a man shot at a Sasquatch he saw, walking out of the woods. The creature fell to the ground, dead still. At that instant, more of the creatures walked out of the woods. Terrified, he ran back to his camp to tell of the incident to his friends. A few minutes later, the cabin was attacked by a small group of Sasquatches. They tried entering the sturdy cabin, but to no avail. They persisted all during the night and until morning to try to get to the frightened men inside. But at dawn they left; after that, the men hastily packed their belongings, to also leave, never to return.
There is also an account by American president Theodore Roosevelt of such savageries. In his book Wilderness Hunter, he tells of a tale that was told to him by an old mountain hunter, named Bauman, about how his friend was killed by a creature half-man half-beast during one of his hunting trips. Four distinct fang marks were found on his companion’s neck. Except for a few stories like this and reports or Sasquatch eating deer and small animals, it is usually considered a rather peaceful creature.
Even into the last century, Native Americans actively believed in, and searched for, the Wendigo. One of the most famous Wendigo hunters was a Cree Indian named Jack Fiddler. He claimed to kill at least 14 of the creatures in his lifetime, although the last murder resulted in his imprisonment at the age of 87. In October 1907, Fiddler and his son, Joseph, were tried for the murder of a Cree Indian woman. They both pleaded guilty to the crime but defended themselves by stating that the woman had been possessed by the spirit of a Wendigo and was on the verge of transforming into one entirely. According to their defense, she had to be killed before she murdered other members of the tribe.
There are still many stories told of Wendigo’s that have been seen in northern Ontario, near the Cave of the Wendigo, and around the town of Kenora, where a creature has been spotted by traders, trackers and trappers for decades. There are many who still believe that the Wendigo roams the woods and the prairies of northern Minnesota and Canada. Whether it seeks human flesh, or acts as a portent of coming doom, is anyone’s guess but before you start to doubt that it exists - remember that the stories and legends of this fearsome creature have been around since before the white man walked on these shores. The legends had to have gotten started somehow, didn’t they?