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Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.

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The winters in northern Canada are cruel and impossibly long. Before European contact and the arrival of grocery stores and other modern conveniences, the country’s native peoples had to depend on the land and their wits in order to survive.

Not everyone made it, and if the hunting was poor one year or the winter was longer or more brutal than normal, starvation was common. Among many of Canada’s native cultures, cannibalism was not accepted, even as a means of survival. Those who were starving were expected to commit suicide or let themselves die.

It wasn’t bad enough to be starving in a place where winter can last for six or even eight months, where darkness rules for most of the day, and where temperatures can plummet to -58 degrees Fahrenheit.

Oh, no…these peoples also had to contend with the Wendigo.

The Wendigo is an emaciated half-beast, half-human creature with an insatiable appetite. Many native peoples believed that humans could turn into Wendigos if they resorted to eating human flesh, or if they showed exceptional greed. It is believed that the legend of this fearsome creature, said to have a giant’s size and strength, was created to keep people from eating each other.

Or was it created to explain the people who did?

During the winter of 1878, a Plains Cree trapper named Swift Runner was starving. Although he was “only” twenty-five miles away from emergency food supplies, the man butchered and ate his wife and five remaining children. (His eldest son had already died from starvation.)

The authorities at the time said that Swift Runner suffered from “Wendigo psychosis,” but apparently this wasn’t viewed as a good excuse. The hapless trapper was executed.

Have you heard the legends of the Wendigo? Do you think they are cautionary tales, or something more?

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30 Comments

  1. Stephanie Faris

    I’d never heard of this one. But it’s interesting that people still went nuts back then and slaughtered their entire families. I think it’s proof that the real monsters are in the human form…

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, Stephanie. In cultures all over the world, people created monsters to explain the evil within human beings.

      Reply
  2. Alex J. Cavanaugh

    I think it might have been created to explain the madness of cannibalism.

    Reply
    • JH

      I think you’re right, Alex.

      Reply
  3. Djinnia

    Knew of them before, but haven’t read the original native legends about them.

    Reply
    • JH

      They’re pretty creepy, Djinnia. Among some First Nations people, they’re still taken seriously.

      Reply
  4. Chrys Fey

    When I think of a Wendigo, I recall the Charmed episode where Piper turns into one. 😛

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, Chrys. I haven’t seen it, but that episode did come up during my research.

      Reply
    • JH

      I’ve been striving to choose original and uncommon things for this challenge. This is why I didn’t go for werewolf or witch. 🙂

      Reply
  5. TD Harvey

    I’ve heard of the Wendigo, but didn’t know what it actually was. I love these old myths and legends, a way of explaining a situation, or advising caution. Great post.

    TD Harvey
    A to Z participant
    http://www.tdharveyauthor.com

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Tee. I love old myths and legends too, but the Wendigo still lives. Some people still believe.

      Personally, I wouldn’t want to mess with one.

      Reply
  6. Elle

    This might be one of the monsters with the most potential. It also has one of the best, most realistic (relatively speaking) origin stories. I think I need a wendigo book now.

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh, I’m sure there are several, Elle. There are probably even Wendigo romances and Wendigo porn, knowing the selection on Amazon these days.

      Max Wood will get right on it. 😉

      Reply
  7. C. Lee McKenzie

    I vaguely remember hearing about this guy, but you’ve “fleshed” him out for me. That image is enough to scare me into a coma.

    Can’t wait to see what you come up with for Z.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Lee. I actually found an even creepier picture, but it was too small. Drat!

      I’m looking forward to Z. That will be a triumphant day–survived A to Z again! 🙂

      Reply
  8. Ula

    I’d never heard of Wendigo before. Sounds like a good myth for explaining hard to explain things, like cannibalism. I could imagine going crazy in the Canadian winters. Not that I’d ever resort to eating humans. I’d rather die.
    Another great post.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, even with grocery stores, a lot of us go crazy. The winters here can be insane!

      It doesn’t take a scary monster to keep me inside during the months of December thru March, I can tell you that.

      Reply
  9. Susan Scott

    We can never know I guess. There have been instances of cannibalism where it was a matter of survival to eat the flesh of those who’d died. I’m thinking of that airplane crash in Peru many years ago (in the 70’s or early 80’s) where that’s what they did to survive. Thanks J.H.

    Reply
    • JH

      I discussed that plane crash during my “C is for Cannibalism” post. 🙂 No creepy, macabre stone has been left unturned during this A to Z Challenge!

      Some have theorized that the Wendigo was a cautionary tale, much like we used to tell children about stranger danger to keep them safe.

      Reply
  10. Tarkabarka

    I got a little taste of cabin fever when I moved up north, and I hate it. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like back in the day, cut off from communication and with no reliable food source…

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

    Reply
    • JH

      I can’t either. Cabin fever is definitely a real thing, and so much worse when one is starving to death.

      If you’ve read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, there’s some harrowing tales of long winters and near starvation that are an eerily accurate portrayal of what it was like.

      Reply
  11. Celine Jeanjean

    I’d never heard of Wendigo, but I do think those kinds of stories are often created to help make sense of a world that can seem senseless – such as a world where men kill and eat their wife and children.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome to my blog, Celine! I agree…out of our need to explain everything has come some pretty fantastic fiction. Where would storytellers be without vampires, werewolves, and Wendigos?

      But not Nessie…Nessie is real. 😉

      Reply
  12. Kern Windwraith

    Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road dipped into the Wendigo mythology–I wonder if the story about Swift Runner was an inspiration for that book. I think there was also a massively creepy episode of Supernatural that dealt with a Wendigo.

    I love (in a totally warped way) the concept of “Wendigo psychosis.” How wrong is that?

    Reply
    • JH

      Not wrong at all, Kern. In fact, I’ll be so bold as to say you came to the right place.

      Reply
  13. Misha

    I’ve always been intrigued by Wendigo stories. There’s something worse about them than something like vampirism in my mind. Because vampires at least stop when they’re full.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good point, Misha. And Wendigos don’t sparkle. 😉

      Reply
  14. Heather M. Gardner

    Ah. Yes. I have heard of this one.
    I do think think there are unexplained creatures out there, but I also believe our imaginations are probably worse than anything mother nature creates.

    Great post!
    Heather M. Gardner
    Co-host: Blogging from A to Z April Challenge
    Blog: The Waiting is the Hardest Part [http://hmgardner.blogspot.com/]

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed. Although, what could be worse than your friends and neighbours roaming the village, half-crazed from starvation and murdering people in order to eat them? In comparison, the wendigo kind of seems like a fairy tale.

      Reply

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