Welcome dear reader to the first installment of Cryptid of The Week. Today marks the first of what will become a weekly article featuring creatures from various mythos. Whether they be abominations of the human mind, monsters from local folktales, or creatures of religious origin I will choose one cryptid once a week and write about it as well as its origins. I will choose either by personal interest in the region of origin, the monster itself, or other variables meaning each monster may have the possibility of not being related to one another in the slightest. One other manner of choosing is up to you the reader, should you feel that you have a cryptid that you want me to write about feel free to email me your suggestion and I will respond with my decision of whether or not to write about it.
The first Cryptid of The Week is the Wendigo which can also be referred to as the Windigo, Witigo, Witiko, and Wee-Tee-Go each of its various names can be roughly translated to “the evil spirit that devours mankind”. The Wendigo is a creature of Native American folklore originating between the mid-17th century and early 18th century in the Algonquin tribes. The most common origin of the Wendigo is said to be a Native hunter who during a terrible winter resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to survive and killed and ate his tribe members. He is said to be a terrible creature who hunts and consumes humans in an attempt to satisfy his eternal hunger. It is also said that those who consume the flesh of humans can become possessed by the Wendigo spirit and become a Wendigo themselves. The Creature is described as a gaunt grey-skinned human whose figure twisted and distorted by their endless hunger with a tall lanky body standing between 10 to 15 feet tall. The flesh around their bodies is deteriorated and sickly, and their lips are gone from having been chewed off due to their hunger. However compared to popular modern renditions of the Wendigo one would assume otherwise, “A quick Google Image search for “windigo” produces pages of antlered snow demons and giant reindeer-like beasts. This image is a far cry from how Indigenous people understood the Windigo. As Shawn Smallman notes, traditional Indigenous narratives never imagined the Windigo with antlers” (McCauley). The Wendigo after having been appropriated by more modern American renditions has become a far cry from the gaunt twisted figure that physically portrayed its starvation for human flesh.
Photo Credit: Until Dawn video game
One of the more famous cases of this occurrence is the case of Swift Runner. Swift Runner was a fur trapper as well as a hunter and a part of the Cree tribe. After developing a taste for whiskey, due to his dismay after being restricted from his trapping routes and new reservation restrictions, he began to spiral into alcoholism. He was eventually fired from the police force and banished from the tribe village for the coming winter as punishment. He moved into a cabin in the woods with his wife, six children, brother, and mother in law to wait out the winter together. When spring came a few months later Swift Runner walked back into the tribe and when questioned about what happened to his family Swift runner claimed they had all starved to death due to a lack of game during the winter. The village priests were confused by this claim, it had been a bountiful winter and they found it hard to believe that Swift Runner, who’s cabin had been only a few miles away, could not catch any game in the forest when the village hunters had reported the most deer sightings in recent memory. What they found even more confusing was how healthy Swift Runner himself seemed. He looked the same as he had the day he left so how had he alone fought off starvation. The priest’s suspicions continued as Swift Runner spent more and more time in the village, “The priests were also disturbed by Swift Runner’s constant nightmares. The man would wake up in the night screaming at the top of his lungs. The last straw was when Swift Runner tried to lead a group of children out into the woods” (Admin). The priests then decided they would alert the police and after detaining him they began to interrogate him. They told Swift Runner to lead them to his cabin, and this is where the story begins to have different accounts. Some say he took the police directly to his house while others say he lead them in circles and the police resorted to giving him some whiskey to get him drunk and then he led them to the cabin. The accounts however all tell the same grisly scene of what the police found when they finally reached the cabin, “There were bones everywhere, some broken in half and hollowed out. That could only mean one thing. Someone had snapped them open and sucked out the marrow. Their suspicions were confirmed when they found a pot full of human fat” (Admin). The police disgusted by the sight turned towards Swift Runner who immediately began to plead that it was a Wendigo who had killed them. He was brought back to the camp and imprisoned and within a few days his trial began. He continued to plead that it was not him who committed those crimes, but the spirit of the Wendigo which had possessed him. The Jury did not believe his pleas, and it was not due to a lack of belief in the Wendigo since some of them did believe in the beast, but the fact that they knew that you can only be possessed after you eat human flesh. The Swift Runner case as well as other cases like his lead to the discovery of a modern psychological phenomenon based around the legend of the Wendigo, “Wendigo Psychosis,” a mental disorder particular to the Northern Algonquin peoples. In the psychosis, diagnosed by the early 1900s but hotly disputed in psychological literature, people are said to have experienced themselves possessed by the wendigo and wracked by violent dreams and a compulsion to cannibalism. It’s importantly distinguished from famine cannibalism: though it was the wilderness during winter, Swift Runner had access to other food when he turned wendigo. The author of a 1916 report on the phenomenon said he had “known a few instances of this deplorable turn of mind, and not one instance could plead hunger, much less famine as an excuse of it” (Headsman). The phenomenon led to the native’s beliefs in the Wendigo to be strengthened and fear of the creature be multiplied.
Photo of Swift Runner Credit:www.executedtoday.com/2014/12/20/1879-swift-runner-wendigo/.
The earliest documented recording of the creature taking place in Bacqueville de la Potherie’s 1722 travel narrative as he passed through the area around the great lakes on his journey. While the exact time that the mythos of the Wendigo was created is unknown some believe that it was created around the same time that the European colonizers first began to settle in the Algonquian people’s territory. That it is a response against the horrors that occurred due to the Europeans colonization of the area. How their push into native land caused famine and sickness through the diseases that were spread like smallpox, and the wars fought against the natives that pushed them from their lands. It was believed that the widespread famine lead to the creation of the Wendigo as a way of discouraging acts of cannibalism even in the direst of circumstances.
That finishes the first edition of Cryptid of The Week, if you have any questions or interest in learning more about the Wendigo feel free to check out one of the sources I used for this article. Also if you have any suggestions for what you want next week’s cryptid to be feel free to email me at ZColon@dhs.dominicanhighschool.com
Admin, M. “The Terrifying Tale Of Swift Runner And The Wendigo.” KnowledgeNuts, 19 Dec. 2015, knowledgenuts.com/2015/12/19/the-terrifying-tale-of-swift-runner-and-the-wendigo/.
Heads, man. “ExecutedToday.com.” ExecutedToday.com ” 1879: Swift Runner, Wendigo, 20 Dec. 2014, www.executedtoday.com/2014/12/20/1879-swift-runner-wendigo/.
McCauley, Elizabeth. “The Mythology and Misrepresentation of the Windigo.” BackStory, 26 Nov. 2016, www.backstoryradio.org/blog/the-mythology-and-misrepresentation-of-the-windigo/.