The wendigo is a cryptid brought to us by Algonquian tribes. The legends mostly exist in Canada and Northern America as this horrific creature is found in cold temperatures. As with most cryptids, the background, how the legend arose, and what it represents can be debated. The basic idea of the wendigo that most people know is tied to cannibalism. Wendigos are largely believed to be formed as a result of a human eating the flesh of another, even in extreme survival situations. Cannibalism is considered the ultimate taboo in many cultures and with many people, so that fear helped to create and propagate the wendigo legend.
Most of the stories of individuals who experienced wendigos feature people who are put into intense survival situations and have to make the ultimate choice. You have cases like the infamous case of Swift Runner, who killed and ate his family during a harsh winter in the 1800s. Some say he claimed that a wendigo possessed him, and that is why he did what he did. However, there are also cases where people were only tempted but managed to overcome temptation and survived. Several other legends and claims will have entire parties disappearing, the assumption being that some were eaten and those that did the eating turned into the creatures themselves to keep the cryptid and the temptation going. To date, some tribes will still perform ceremonies during trying winters to keep the wendigo from tempting people and to help provide safety from breaking the taboo.
In modern times this version of the wendigo has continued, with the focus on cannibalism. In Until Dawn (spoilers), two sisters are chased from their cabin and end up in a mine lost and alone. One of the sisters eats the other in her desperation to survive, and both not only turn into wendigos themselves but release the spirits of the wendigo haunting the mountain.
However, the more you study up on the wendigo, the deeper it goes. While on a surface level, we associate it with just cannibalism, deeper reading ties it to gluttony and excess in all of its forms. While the creature itself is directly tied to cannibalistic acts, the idea around it and the fear is much further than that. In many different tellings, the wendigo is more about ultimate temptation and the corruption of man; that our desires for excess is what allows us to be influenced by the wendigo and pushed to such a vile act.
Wendigos are thought to have an insatiable hunger and were to pass it to their victims. No matter how much flesh they eat, they will always remain hungry, always be on the hunt for more humans. When you consider the idea of an insatiable hunger, it is part of what leads to the belief of the wendigo going beyond just cannibalism. Sure it’s a hunger for human flesh, but the insatiable part cannot be ignored. Wendigos always remain ravenous, always want more, just as human desire for excess will always remain. People can have an excess of wealth, food, goods, whatever the case may be, and keep wanting more. This desire, this insatiable hunger, this is what drives us to the worst of what humankind is capable of.
Alpha Polaris is another game that played with this idea. Yes, it had wendigos and was tied to cannibalism, but the game itself also went further with the legend. What drove the people in this game to discover and release the wendigo spirit was not desperation but rather greed.
It is that deeper look at the wendigo that makes it such a compelling cryptid. On the surface, an evil spirit that drives people to cross a taboo and then punishes them for it is scary enough. You break the ultimate law and eat human flesh, and then you are cursed to spend your afterlife as a spirit constantly on the hunt for more. You will forever be driven by the need to commit the same act that cursed you over and over. Terrifying.
But digging deeper and making it a larger lesson about human nature and our desires ads an extra layer. Cannibalism becomes almost a symbol for all the failings of man. All the evil deeds we can be pushed to because of our need for more. We have one specific extreme example. In the end, though, crossing that line leads to the destruction of self, and you become someone (or something) that will keep committing heinous acts to forever attempting to satisfy something that you cannot.
There are those that argue the legend and idea of the wendigo is ultimately about self-destruction. Either way, you look at it this cryptid remains fascinating.
As with many cryptids, there is some debate over how the wendigo looks. It is generally a bipedal creature with some shared features with humans. Many describe it as having grey skin and looks emaciated. Other versions have it looking more demon-like with strength and fur. It almost always has antlers of some kind, generally reflective of the types of deer (and related animals) living in the area. This remains true in a lot of pop culture. The inspiration seems to be slightly more humanoid and spirit-like, or slightly more animal-like and demonic.
The Wendigo is also unique among the cryptids as it has a potential illness named after it. I am no expert, so I will not attempt to state beyond a doubt whether this is a real illness or not. Only what reading has shown me. Wendigo Psychosis is the highly debated mental illness that causes those with it to crave human flesh and/or being afraid of turning into a cannibal. The problem with this illness is that it is often used to explain past behavior, and cannibalism and mental health have largely been unstudied.
In using it to discuss past cases, it might make more sense to say “they had an illness” than “they were driven by an evil spirit.” Still, it does not fundamentally change that we can’t determine if people that are long dead had a mental illness, especially not one that we don’t even know if it exists. The biggest issue, though, is our lack of understanding of cannibalism itself. The studies on cannibalism (when not for survival) are limited, and it is hard to say if it is its own problem or related to other problems such as in cases of serial killers. We may discover that cannibalistic desires may stand on their own; for now, it remains a question.
Were those real people in the past suffering from something that did make them want to eat their fellow man specifically? Or were they suffering from other problems that became heightened by extreme hunger that drove them either for survival or because they did believe in those moments that they were being influenced by an outside force (hunger can cause hallucinations, for instance)? The question of Wendigo Psychosis is not one that I can answer, and it will be interesting to see if it develops in the coming years.
For the wendigo itself, it is a compelling creature. It is a cryptid but also seems to go further than that with the questions of what it represents as opposed to just the creature itself. It is tied to one of the most common and shared taboos, but also speaks to human nature in general and the nature of our “wanting.” It is possibly one of the most terrifying cryptids out there, and one I hope is explored more in popular culture. But I find myself, personally, always reflecting beyond the fear and to the philosophical questions it raises.