While cannibalism has occurred ritualistically in temperate climes and cultures, the idea of being driven to eating human flesh because one is stuck in the freezing cold is horrifyingly all too real.
One only has to look at the example of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which was carrying 45 people when it crashed into a glacier in the Andes. 28 people survived the crash, but after 72 days, only 16 people were rescued.
The survivors had made a collective pact; anyone who died from the cold willingly gave their bodies over to be eaten by the others.
But what when the times aren’t desperate?
What about when a person is driven by a spirit to eat human flesh?
The modern mental health community sees this as psychosis, which is exactly what one would expect.
But for a number of Algonquin speaking people who lived in the northern forests of the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of the United States and Canada, there was a spirit that could possess a person, driving them to commit the most terrible act imaginable: killing, and eating, their fellow people.
This spirit was known as the Wendigo (multiple alternative spellings exist)…
Here’s a brief description by Basil Johnston, an Ojibwe teacher and scholar:
The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody [….] Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.
As far back as 1661, Jesuits missionaries officially reported their own take on the Wendigo phenomenon:
What caused us greater concern was the intelligence that met us upon entering the Lake, namely, that the men deputed by our Conductor for the purpose of summoning the Nations to the North Sea, and assigning them a rendezvous, where they were to await our coming, had met their death the previous Winter in a very strange manner. Those poor men (according to the report given us) were seized with an ailment unknown to us, but not very unusual among the people we were seeking. They are afflicted with neither lunacy, hypochondria, nor frenzy; but have a combination of all these species of disease, which affects their imaginations and causes them a more than canine hunger. This makes them so ravenous for human flesh that they pounce upon women, children, and even upon men, like veritable werewolves, and devour them voraciously, without being able to appease or glut their appetite —ever seeking fresh prey, and the more greedily the more they eat. This ailment attacked our deputies; and, as death is the sole remedy among those simple people for checking such acts of murder, they were slain in order to stay the course of their madness.
The stuff of folkloric nightmares, right? Not so fast – now we have to look at another official record. I submit, for your inquiry, the terrifying case of Swift Runner…
Swift Runner (Cree name: Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin) was a a tall, affable hunter and trapper who had a wife and five children. He traded with the local Hudson’s Bay Company, and in 1875, served as a guide for the newly appointed North West Mounted Police in Alberta.
He would also end up being the first person executed by the North West Mounted Police.
The winter of 1878-1879 was brutal, especially for the Cree. However, Swift Runner lived close enough to the traders that starvation shouldn’t have been a problem.
Which raised some questions when he showed up in the spring, looking rather well fed, while not being able to account for his wife, children, mother or brother, all of whom lived together.
His in-laws were suspicious – they contacted the Mounted Police.
This is what the police found when they investigated his dwelling:
Despite access to food, he had killed and eaten his entire family (save one child, who appeared to have died from natural causes).
Swift Runner didn’t make a defense, per se; he calmly noted that a Wendigo had started to haunt his dreams.
And from there, the hunger took over…
The Wendigo is more than a spirit or a monster; it’s a metaphor for human behavior.
Greed, avarice, cruelty: these are all facets of the Wendigo. To quote Ojibwe scholar Brady DeSanti, the Wendigo “can be understood as a marker indicating . . . a person . . . imbalanced both internally and toward the larger community of human and spiritual beings around them.”
Colonialism? Check. See Jack D. Forbes’s 1978 book Columbus and Other Cannibals, which makes that very assertion.
Wall Street, Donald Trump and unregulated free-markets? Check. I guess I’m the one making that assertion.
So yes, at least in that sense, the Wendigo is all too real, and probably here to stay.
So, as we approach this holiday season, remember the Wendigo.
And as we consume, which we all love to do this time of year, remember one thing about the Wendigo:
No matter how much you feed it,
the Wendigo will always