The term “Wendigo psychosis” is a disorder in which sufferers develops an insatiable desire to eat human flesh even when other food sources are readily available, coupled with the fear of becoming a cannibal. Wendigo psychosis has traditionally been identified by Western psychologists as a culture-bound syndrome, though there is a debate over the existence of phenomenon as a genuine disorder. The theory was popular primarily among psychologists in the early 1900s, and may have resulted from a misinterpretation of northern Algonquian myths and culture
The Wendigo is a mythical monster that is featured in the folklore of some northern Native American and Canadian tribes. They all describe it as a "malevolent, cannibalistic, supernatural being of great spiritual power, associated with winter, coldness, famine and starvation.
Among all creatures in Native American legend, the Wendigo is the most feared and powerful. The Wendigo was once a man that broke a tribal taboo and ate human flesh. A malignant spirit possesses the cannibal, and the Wendigo is born.
How does one become the Wendigo? There are numerous ways among the Native American people, but the most common method is for a man to willingly engage in cannibalism. Hunters, campers, and hikers (not necessarily Native Americans) most often travel with a companion, someone with whom they are good friends and are able to trust. Although a rarity, when these people become hopelessly lost and eventually run out of supplies, they inevitably turn on each other. Morality has no part of nature’s law. In the end, only the strongest live and kills the other. The victor then feasts on the flesh of the corpse. This heinous, blasphemous act is all that is needed to summon a malevolent spirit of the forest.
The spirit forcibly possesses the cannibal’s body, forcing the human soul out. The moment the cannibal is touched by supernatural forces, he is overcome by extreme nausea and pain. He starts vomiting uncontrollably, for hours at a time. Eventually, the cannibal loses enormous quantities of blood, and inevitably dies. However, the body undergoes a terrifying transformation. The body grows in strength and height, growing a thick coat of white fur. The human’s strength and weight increases greatly, gaining supernatural powers in the process. The head takes on the features of a predatory beast, including the growth of prominent fangs and sharp teeth. The fingernails and toenails grow into sharpened talons, completing the transformation. The cannibal is then resurrected by the evil spirit, no longer a man, but a bloodlusting beast known as the Wendigo.
Stories of the wendigo are also believed to be found in the aboriginal communities, where they believed that individuals could turn into wendigos.
Cases of Wendigo
Stories of individuals who recognized the symptoms as meaning that they were turning into Wendigos, often requested to be executed before they could harm others.
Although recorded cases of Wendigo are rare , the most common response when someone began suffering from Wendigo psychosis were curing attempts by traditional native healers or Western doctors. In the unusual cases when no cure could be found , and the Wendigo began either to threaten those around them or to act violently or anti-socially, they were then executed. There are also, those who upon recognising the syptoms of Wendigo and felt that they were turning into Wendigos ,requested to be executed before they could harm others.
One of the more famous cases of Wendigo psychosis involved a Plains Cree trapper from Alberta, named Swift Runner. During the winter of 1878, Swift Runner and his family were starving, and his eldest son died. Within just 25 miles of emergency food supplies at a Hudson’s Bay Company post, Swift Runner butchered and ate his wife and five remaining children. Given that he resorted to cannibalism so near to food supplies, and that he killed and consumed the remains of all those present, it was revealed that Swift Runner’s was not a case of pure cannibalism as a last resort to avoid starvation, but rather of a man sufferingfrom Wendigo psychosis. He eventually confessed and was executed by authorities at Fort Saskatchewan.
Another well-known case involving Wendigo psychosis was that of Jack Fiddler, an Oji-Cree chief and shaman known for his powers at defeating Wendigos. 1907. Fiddler and his brother Joseph were arrested by the Canadian authorities for murder. Jack committed suicide, but Joseph was tried and put to death.
Researchers argued that Wendigo psychosis was essentially a fabrication, the result of naïve anthropologists taking stories related to them at face value. Others, however, pointed to a number of credible eyewitness accounts, both by Algonquians and by Westerners, as proof that Wendigo psychosis was a factual historical phenomenon.
The frequency of Wendigo psychosis cases decreased sharply in the 20th century as boreal Algonquian people came in to greater and greater contact with Western ideologies and more sedentary, less rural lifestyles. While there is substantive evidence to suggest that Wendigo psychosis did exist, a number of questions concerning the condition remain unanswered.
By The ICPT Team