|Illustration by Matt Fox in "The Wendigo" by Algernon Blackwood in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, June 1944.|
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Does anyone remember that very scary 1961 episode of Great Ghost Stories retelling novelist Algernon Blackwood’s powerful 1910 short story "The Wendigo?" The final scene shows the mythical creature, in the body of a starving human, doomed to roam the cold, snow scattered forests of the north, picking at the bark of a tree for nourishment. Others, including Theodore Roosevelt in his book The Wilderness Hunter and Stephen King in Pet Sematary, have written stories of wendigos.
The mythical wendigo is said to roam the northern regions from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains and as far north as the Arctic Ocean, hungry for human flesh, but also feeding on moss, frogs, and mushrooms. Most northern Native American tribes have stories explaining how a human can turn “wendigo” by an act of cannibalism, through the presence of a demon, through a dream, or by the sorcery of a shaman. In times of starvation, the wendigo myth served as a deterrent to cannibalism, even to save one’s life. Suicide or resignation to death was preferable to turning wendigo. Among the Assiniboine and Cree, a wendigo ceremony was performed in times of famine to reinforce this taboo. Anthropologists have studied a phenomenon called “Wendigo psychosis.” There are historical cases of this condition which apparently resulted when a person resorted to cannibalism and then developed an insatiable taste for human flesh. A famous documented case involved Swift Runner, a Plains Cree trapper in Alberta, who butchered and ate his wife and five children, even though the starving family was within twenty-five miles of food at a Hudson’s Bay post. Swift Runner, suffering from this psychosis, became a homicidal cannibal, later confessed and was executed at Fort Saskatchewan in 1878.