The cold creeps through the night into your tent, the moonlight begins to play with your mind as it begins to form images on the walls. Right before you drift into a dream the smell of something dead hits your nose and you hear small whisper of a voice calling out your name. The guide from Algernon Blackwood’s Wendigo experienced this before he was taken into the night and fed on by the Wendigo. Although this wasn’t the first interpretation of the Wendigo, it is a milestone in the shift of the story of the Wendigo from cannibalism in living form to eater of human greed. Developed by Algonquian tribes, the struggle to survive the severe cold weather conditions of Northern Alberta Canada led to the creation of the Wendigo, whose purpose was later strengthened by the influences of European colonizers on the Algonquian culture.
The indigenous people of the Athabasca region of Alberta Canada were subject to many harsh weather conditions. The average temperature during a normal year ranged from around 5 degrees Celsius in the spring to about -13 degrees Celsius in the later parts of winter (Mean Temp). Not only was it relatively cold, but the area was also very low on precipitation according to the yearly average for 1900, which is the earliest recorded amount, Athabasca received an average of 6.5 cm of precipitation a month (Data 1900). With this information, it establishes that the climate of the Athabasca region was extremely dry and considerably cold. Also, the low rainfall amounts would also lead to a lessening of vegetation which in turn would lead to a smaller amount of plant-based food alternatives. These conditions set up an importance of group survival and assisting others amongst the tribes in surviving. As they endured the cold, on source of food which could always be prominent would be each other.
Dr. Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s first thesis on Monster culture, focuses on the appearance of a monster. It states that, “The monster’s body is a cultural body…an embodiment of a certain cultural moment-of a time, a feeling, and a place” (Cohen, 4). The first use of the Wendigo is described as “…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… a skeleton recently disinterred from the grave… 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” (Johnston). The Wendigo was a creature that was believed to be a lost hunter who, during an extremely cold winter, was driven to cannibalism and had developed an insatiable hunger for human flesh. The main detail that translates across the different forms of the Wendigo is its emaciated skin, which gives it the appearance of something that is at the point of starvation. This characteristic is important in passing along the message that if you decide to consume human flesh, you will never be satisfied.
The Wendigo’s beginning appearance in history began as a grotesque being that would either influence a person’s mind or be the final stage of a physical transformation after consuming human flesh. An believed example of the a Wendigo happening was a reported case in Feburary 1896 near Trout Lake. As Nathan Carlson, a researcher of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, discovered Na-pa-nin started out in:
…apparently in good health, with his wife and children on a visit to his father… His wife reports that on the second night out he acted strangely, saying that some strange animals were about to attack him. . . They reached his father’s place at Trout Lake safely, and was there for twenty days, his fits of insanity becoming more frequent and more violent. His body is said to have swelled considerably and his lips were very much puffed out. . .
After twenty days of his violent fits, he was executed with several blows to the head by an axe and buried under logs of wood to because the local people felt he may rise to terrorize them again. At first this just seems like a possibly made up story to fit the narrative, but Carlson also discovered a witness account of the event. A man named Francis Work Beatton met Napanin at, “Trout Lake January 3rd” (Carlson 368) who had arrived at the Trading outpost of HBC and had reported that he had seen the devil himself, that he was told, “…he had to kill and eat them.” (Carlson 369). Bratton kept logs of the continued interactions with Napanin until he was excited by decapitation preemptively so he couldn’t hurt anyone.
1910 was a landmark year for the Wendigo as Algernon Blackwood published his novel, The Wendigo. Blackwood’s Wendigo would not only provide a new look into the Wendigo’s role, but it also changed the purpose behind the Wendigo’s actions. In this story, two Scottish men, Simpson and Dr. Cathcart, are on a moose-hunting trip accompanied by their guides Joseph Defago and Hank Davis. During their expedition, their guide Joseph Defago mysteriously disappears into the forest one night after struggling in his sleep and waking to his, “…feet of fire! My burning feet of fire!” (Blackwood, 10). As Simpson briefly searches the surrounding woods, he notices a set of footprints described as, “… big, round, ample, and with no pointed outline as of sharp hoofs” (Blackwood, 11) accompanying Defago’s tracks. Later the men begin to search for him and after a few days’ worth of searching they are sitting around a campfire discussing what could have happened to the man, when their fellow traveler Hank Davis describes, “the Wendigo is simply the Call of the Wild personified, which some natures hear to their own destruction…[that the Wendigo targets the]… most vulnerable points, moreover, are said to be the feet and the eyes; the feet, you see, for the lust of wandering, and the eyes for the lust of beauty. The poor beggar goes at such a dreadful speed that he bleeds beneath the eyes, and his feet burn.” (Blackwood, 17). Although this is a slightly different representation than the Algonquian Wendigo, this Wendigo is described as feeding off its victims while taking them through the tops of the trees. The party later finds Defago accompanying them around the campfire, devoid of his previous appearance and speaking of how he met, “…that great Wendigo thing.” (Blackwood, 17). After spiriting away Defago, The Wendigo returned what it didn’t find a need for and disappeared into the night without a trace.
Dr. Cogen’s 4th Monster Culture Theory deals with a monster’s purpose. He states that, “Every monster is … a double narrative, two living stories: one that describes how the monster came to be and another, it’s testimony, detailing what cultural use the monster serves” (Cohen 13). Blackwood’s Wendigo is the perfect example of this, in the book it is described as the “Call of the Wild personified” with the intention to lure those who natures would lead them to their own destruction. You may be wondering how exactly does this Wendigo connect to the one of Algonquian origin? During this time, there were increased number of European settlers across Canada. Their main line of work was tripping animals and making furs from their skins. Calvin Martin, a graduate student on UC Santa Barbra, reports on the seasonal hunting patterns of the native Micmac tribes. In his research he notes that each animal hunted by the Micmac’s are kept to a minimum like, “Fixed rations assigned to every moon.” (Martin 8). They would typically hunt seals in January, and from February to mid-March the would hunt Caribou, Moose, Beavers and other in land furbearers. They believed that, “ a feast was as likely as a famine. A heavy rain could ruin the beaver and caribou hunt, and a deep, crustless snow would doom the moose hunt” (Martin 8). And so with this influx of new hunters, the hunting balance that the Micmacs and other Algonquian Tribes practiced were offset. This is only an indirect relationship that ties the Wendigo of old to the one that Blackwood uses in his story, but the intent of the Wendigo is still feeding off the greed of a person through consuming their eyes and feet, in a response possibly to the characters being hunters that are grossly disrupting the balance of nature.
So beware, the Wendigo is a creature fed by greed, either the greed of consuming human flesh, or the greed of hunting all that appears. It either feeds off of you directly leaving you in a horrid condition, or causes you become that which feeds on humans. The next time you hunting or camping even, be sure to keep your tent secured and if you happen to hear the soft whisper that seems to make out your name, roll over and fall asleep because there may be something lurking in the trees. Forever waiting. Forever Hungry.
Blackwood, Algernon. “The Wendigo.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Wendigo, by Algernon Blackwood., 2011, algernonblackwood.org/Z-files/Wendigo.pdf.
Carlson, Nathan D. “Reviving Witiko (Windigo): An Ethnohistory of ‘Cannibal Monsters’ in the Athabasca District of Northern Alberta, 1878-1910.” Ethnohistory, vol. 56, no. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 355–394. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1215/00141801-2009-001.
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Climate Change Canada. “Monthly Mean Temperature for 1900.” Climate Graph, 21 Mar. 2019, climate.weather.gc.ca/climate_data/generate_chart_e.html?hlyRange=|&dlyRange=1900-04-01|1927-07-31&mlyRange=1900-01-01|1927-12-01&StationID=2470&Prov=AB&urlExtension=_e.html&searchType=stnProv&optLimit=yearRange&StartYear=1840&EndYear=1910&selRowPerPage=25&Line=1&Month=5&Day=13&lstProvince=AB&timeframe=3&Year=1900&type=line&MeasTypeID=meanmonthtemp.
Johnston, Basil. The Manitous: the Spiritual World of the Ojibway. Minnesota Historical Soc. Press, 2001.
Martin, Calvin. “The European Impact on the Culture of a Northeastern Algonquian Tribe: An Ecological Interpretation.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 1, 1974, p. 3., doi:10.2307/1918980.