In the depths of the forest, deep down into no man's-land, are tales of
terror that would make the boldest of men shiver. Tales of inhuman things, supernatural things, savage things.
Strange creatures dwell in the deepest, darkest forests in the world, but stranger still are the ones that live inside of man, inner beasts more fearsome than anything else.
One such creature is the Windigo.
The word used to describe the creature is not a proper noun because it has no name. Windigo is only a kind of "reference". The word itself is just one of the many ways to spell it. The term derives from the Algonquian root word "witiku", though throughout the tribes and times the term's spelling varies: Wendigo, Windego, Wetiko, Windago, Windikouk, and so on.
The legend of the Windigo is well known among the Algonquian speaking tribes in America, from the Maritimes to the Prairies, from central to north-eastern US. No "monster" or "evil spirit" evokes so much fear in these people.
Going mad with hunger
The legend varies in the details, but the outline of it is basically always stays the same: lost hunters or people that have stayed too long in the state of famine (especially during the wintertime), turning to cannibalism as a last resource, will become windigoes or be inhabited by its spirit and then be drawn towards eating people. When this happens, asides the cannibalism, they become violent and antisocial. Even after returning to civilization and eating normally, the want for human flesh will return to the "windigoes". This craving will endanger the rest of the community. It is believed that the only way to kill the windigo and the malevolent spirit is to burn the body of its host into ashes.
As previously said, the legend varies in details, one of which is there are different ways to turn into the windigo: either the above, a curse from a medicine man, dreaming of the Windigo, being bitten by the Windigo or a windigo, encountering it or even the fact of hearing it pass by.
It has been suggested that when speaking of a supernatural being, the word "Windigo" should be capitalized but when speaking of a canibalistic human, windigo should be lower cased.
Most tales mention that the Windigo's host becomes a kind of ogre, or ugly giant that grows with every victim that he eats. But the Windigo, however, is not immortal. Some say that like a were-wolf, you can kill the creature with a silver bullet. As one ojibway story goes, a medecine man named Big Goose fought and killed Windigo. Though the creature was as "tall as the clouds", Big Goose (with the help of the Great Manitou) turned into Missahba the giant. It is Missahba that delivered his people from this menace.
The Windigo is usually associated with winter
Windigo is usually associated with winter, especially due to the fact that most "cases" of windigoes are heard of during these cold months, probably because the lack of food is felt the most during these times, bringing cannibalism along with them. Most tales say that the Windigo rides with the winter wind, howling inhuman screams, others that the Windigo is made of ice and cold, or at least that its heart is. The same would happen to its host: his heart would turn to ice, incapable of feeling human emotions.
Though most tales recount the Windigo as being cannibalistic, dangerous and violent, the "host" can still try to live far from civilization, deep into the woods, to prevent anybody from being its next victim. Some Windigo-inhabited people would even commit suicide to prevent hurting anyone else.
As with the witch and were-wolf trials in Europe, Canada had its share of "Windigo trials" in the settler days. These accounts were often very well recorded. Explorer David Thompson witnessed such a trial in the Lake of the Woods region in the late 1700's. A young Indian hunter announced to everyone's surprise that he had a strong inclination to eat his sister, and that he would do anything he must to have human flesh. Alarmed, the band council came to the decision that the man must die, executed by his father. When informed of the resolution that was chosen, the Indian hunter was willing to die. He was later strangled by rope. A few hours later he was burnt to ashes in a large bond fire, not the least bone remaining, so that the evil spirit could not return to this world.
Most people nowadays would believe that these cases either never existed, or that they no longer do. Actually, "windigo psychosis", as it is called, is well known by psychologists. This is when patients show signs of cannibalistic tendencies, are violent, and have an extreme antisocial behavior. There was an outbreak of such cases in the 1970's.
But should the Windigo be classified as a cryptid? It seems so. According to everything we know on the subject, there would happen to be three categories of Windigo; we have seen two up to now: an evil spirit that stalks mostly the subarctic woods in search of a host to help it satisfy its physical craving for human flesh, and a psychosis of which patients show signs of cannibalism and are antisocial. The third type is a kind of tall hominid creature, somewhat like Sasquatch. Unlike it, though, this beast seems to relish itself in violence and preying upon anything it can get its hands on, humans included. It seems to be nocturnal, for it is said that it seeks out its victims during dawn and eating them when darkness falls. Flesh might be its chiefly diet, but it is said that it eats rotten wood, swamp mosses and mushrooms.
Though not as widely heard of as the other two categories of Windigo, it is plausible that this creature does, or at least, did exist. Such savage hominoid-type cryptids are not unheard of. If the epic tale of Beowulf, the oldest known English poem, is true, then part of it recalls that around 550 to 950 A.D., a hairy hominid creature, called Grendel, would attack nightly the great hall of Hrothgar, the king of Danes, to snatch away his men to eat them at its lair. This happened for 12 years; the only survivors where those who fled the area or stayed away from the mead hall, called Heorot, before nighttime. Indeed, for 12 years until Beowulf, the new king of the Geats, came to Hrothgar's help with 13 or 14 of his best warriors. Beowulf laid a trap for the creature, staying awake that night waiting for it to enter Hrothgar's domain. When the creature tried taking him, Beowulf stood up and after a long battle, he tore off the creature's arm, leaving it gravely wounded and dying. The story then continues when Beowulf kills Grendel's vengeful mother in her underwater lair.
There are a few reports of Sasquatch acting aggressively, like in the incident at Ape Canyon (in fact, this incident gave the canyon its name): a man shot at a Sasquatch he saw, walking out of the woods. The creature fell to the ground, dead still. At that instant, more of the creatures walked out of the woods. Terrified, he ran back to his camp to tell of the incident to his friends. A few minutes later, the cabin was attacked by a small group of Sasquatches. They tried entering the sturdy cabin, but to no avail. They persisted all during the night and until morning to try to get to the frightened men inside. But at dawn they left; after that, the men hastily packed their belongings, to also leave, never to return.
There is also an account by American president Theodore Roosevelt of such savageries. In his book Wilderness Hunter, he tells of a tale that was told to him by an old mountain hunter, named Bauman, about how his friend was killed by a creature half-man half-beast during one of his hunting trips. Four distinct fang marks were found on his companion's neck. Except for a few stories like this and reports or Sasquatch eating deer and small animals, it is usually considered a rather peaceful creature.
And what about the chupacabras and its fellow kin around the globe? If it is a primate, as cryptozoologist Loren Coleman suggests in his book, The Field Guide To Bigfoot, Yeti, And Other Mystery Primates Worldwide (co-authored by Patick Huyghe), it is indeed a pretty troublesome primate, killing and mutilating livestock. Almas in Mongolia are also thought to be at some times very dangerous. There are even reports that these creatures are cannibalistic (which also helps support the theory that these "cousins" of Sasquatch are in fact remnant neanderthals).
Almost all regions in North America are hosts to ape-like creatures: in the Florida Everglades, this type of creature is called Skunk Ape, in western Canada, it is called Sasquatch, and so the list goes on and on. What is peculiar is that these regions seem to each have a different type of creature from the others: some are more slender, others are taller, others are short and stubby, some are more commonly seen than others, etc. So the question to ask happens to be: can the Windigo simply be another variation of "The American Apes", or is it the same species as the Sasquatch, only extended up to the east? Only direct comparison between these creatures will tell.
But is it really dangerous? Some "legendary" creatures were also thought to be savage, until their discovery proved otherwise, like the case is with the gorilla. Maybe the terrible reputation that the Windigo has is simply due to the fact that it is seldom seen and so it evokes fear in the natives, who aren't used to encountering these animals? Or maybe a few bad run-ins with these animals have given them a bad reputation in this region of North America, unlike the West Coast where most tribes regard Sasquatch as a neighbour to respect and usually to look up to? Or does the Windigo really deserve its bad reputation after all? Without firsthand sources, we might never find out for sure.
But do sightings still persist today? It seems so. In Ontario, though not a province regarded to shelter "Bigfoot" as much as Alberta and British Columbia are, there are still occasional reports of hominoid-like creatures stomping around in the woods. One can relate to the outbreak of sightings of Old Yellow Top, the affectionate name given to this bipedal creature, which was often seen around the community of Cobalt for nearly 50 years.
The latest sighting in Ontario (that I know of) of such a creature was back in 1997 by an American trucker near St-Catherines. So maybe all the Windigo is, is an eastern relative to Sasquatch? Again, we might never know.
Asides the classic bigfoot appearance, the only noteworthy description from the Ontario sightings is that these creatures can be black, reddish-brown, even having a light colored "mane" (hence Old Yellow Top's namesake). But what I find peculiar is that in all the Ontario sightings I've read, none of these animals seemed nearly as dangerous as the Windigo is said to be.
But no matter what the Windigo is or what its habits are, and even if most people would scoff at the idea of such an animal, placing it in the rank of folklore along with the loup-garou (the french word for were-wolf), the creature still leaves its mark on the modern world: many lakes, places, and regions are named after it, such as Windigo National Park in the United States.
To conclude, whether it be a supernatural demon of the woods, the spirit of cannibalism, a subarctic zombi, the phantom of hunger, a personality disorder, a vile, savage creature or simply the loneliness in the woods felt by lost hunters, no one is the same after encountering the Windigo.
The land of the Windigo