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What is a Wendigo?

Niki Acker
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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A wendigo is a monster of Native American legend, specifically the Anishinaabe people living in modern day Canada and the United States in the Great Lakes region. Depictions of the creature in literature and lore vary widely, but in general, it is associated with severe wind and cold and usually claims its victims during the night. The wendigo typically stalks hunters or travelers in the woods. Many of the behaviors and attributes of the monster suggest that it is a personification of harsh conditions in dangerously freezing winters.

In some stories, the wendigo was once human, while in others, it is purely supernatural. It is often said to eat human flesh, and some versions of the tale tell that humans who practice cannibalism, even in desperation, will become wendigos. If human victims are not available, the creature eats non-food items such as moss and lichen, leading some to believe that the monster is a symbol for starvation and the horrors it can wreak on sufferers.

In various tellings, the wendigo has other attributes suggestive of the horrors of extreme winters. It sometimes has a heart of ice or is entirely made of ice, and can only be defeated if melted. The wendigo is often said to be missing extremities, such as lips, nose, and feet, that are commonly lost to frostbite. It is sometimes said to be too thin to see from the side view, again suggestive of starvation. The creature is also associated with insanity, as those who survive its attack go mad, sometimes running naked into the snow.

The wendigo entered the world of horror fiction through Algernon Blackwood's 1910 short story The Wendigo. In this story, the monster is never physically described. It calls to its victim, the narrator's French Canadian guide, at night, and its voice is indistinguishable from the wind. Eventually, the victim loses his senses and answers the call.

The monster then drags its victim away so quickly that his feet are burned off in the process and changed into feet like the wendigo's. His cry of "Oh, my fiery feet!" also has associations with frostbite, which is accompanied by a burning sensation. The monster later makes an appearance in the assumed guise of the abducted guide, and at the end of Blackwood's story, the guide's corpse is found with frozen feet. Since Algernon Blackwood's story, the wendigo has been a recurring character in horror literature and film, although it often little resembles the Native American original.

In the cultures in which the wendigo originated, a psychosis known as Windigo was documented in cases dating from the 19th century and earlier. Sufferers committed violent murders and often engaged in cannibalism. Treatment by traditional faith healers or practitioners of Western medicine was sometimes said to be effective.

Today, little is known about the real reason behind these apparent cases of psychosis. Legend and fact are inextricably connected in the records on the condition. Some cases may simply have been cannibalism as a result of starvation or a more universal type of psychosis culturally interpreted to fit into the wendigo mythos. Other documented cases, however, are less easily explained.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon967448 — On Aug 27, 2014

The movie "Jeepers Creepers" seems to be loosely based upon this mythological creature, and as Hollywood can only do, brings this creature to a much scarier and gruesome fellow!

By anon924546 — On Jan 05, 2014

Slender man is believed to be a Wendigo and a Sasquatch.

By anon327076 — On Mar 26, 2013

Its associated with hypothermia, not insanity. Being from Alaska, I know. When hypothermia sets in, you start to believe you are getting hot and start shedding necessary layers of clothing. Just hoping to help.

By dill1971 — On Mar 15, 2011

@medicchristy- I’ve never had the opportunity to read Blackwood’s short story so I’m not sure how it goes. However, I have seen the movie “Wendigo”. I believe it came out in 2001.

Briefly, it is about a photographer that works for an advertising agency and is feeling much stress at his job. He takes his family on a much-needed vacation to upstate New York. They get to their cabin and find that there seems to be a very dark presence in the cottage. They are told about the legend of the Wendigo. The family suffers a great deal of misfortune and they wonder if it could be due to the Wendigo.

By medicchristy — On Mar 13, 2011

Is the wendigo movie the same as the book?

By CarrotIsland — On Mar 11, 2011

The word “windigo” has also been used in reference to this legendary tale. The words “windigo” and “wendigo” are thought to mean the same thing by some people. Others have said that the difference in the two is that one is a spirit and the other is a living creature.

Another version of the infamous wendigo legend is that it is similar to a Sasquatch and that he/she prefers to feed on human children. In this version, the wendigo starts out as a human being and then is possessed by an evil spirit and turns into the monster.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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