You have probably heard of the Windigo (sometimes spelled Wendigo), or perhaps you have watched the Supernatural episode on the Wendigo or read Pet Sematary. Whatever the case, you probably think of the Windigo as something terrifying.
What is a windigo?
The windigo is a cannibalistic beast who consumes the flesh of people that it encounters. Despite appropriations in pop culture, the windigo usually appears in human form. However, the windigo can never satisfy its hunger. In some legends, the windigo grows proportionally to the bounty it eats, so that it will always remain voracious no matter how hard it tries to sate its terrible hunger.
Where does the Windigo come from?
You’ll find “Windigo” spelled several different ways, depending on who is using it. The word itself comes from proto-Algonquin, and the legend of the Windigo originates with the Algonquin First Nations, such as the Cree (wihtikow) and the Ojibwe (wiindigoo). Interestingly enough, the original proto-Algonquin word wintekowa also means “owl.” Linguistic anthropologist John Hewson argues that this etymological crossover occurs because many see an owl as a harbinger of death.
When does the Windigo appear?
You may encounter the Windigo in the northern United States and Canada during the winter months. Even though the Windigo concept originated with the First Nations in these areas, the legend has since spread into other populations, such that many living in northern North America will refuse to utter the word “windigo” during winter months, regardless of their heritage. Often, you’ll see the word written as “w*ndigo” because even writing the word could accidentally summon this beast.
Is the Windigo real though?
The Windigo is certainly real. It is a real fear, a real belief, a real parable that permeates multiple peoples and cultures throughout a large swath of the northern hemisphere. It also serves as a metaphor for a very real phenomenon: extreme greed. When greed consumes a person, their hunger is never sated. Because what drives them to consume more and more is not a physical hunger, but a psychological impairment.
The Windigo also serves as a warning on how not to be during the scarce winter months in colder climes. People must conserve their food. Communities must come together and share if each member is to survive. Villages may be called upon to help other villages who have fallen upon hard times. Greed has no place in this environment; if someone in one of these communities begins to hoard their food, the entire community could break down.
We have seen this phenomenon recently, in fact, very recently here in the U.S. Remember the toilet paper crisis?
During colonial times, the Windigo often represented (and still represents) many of the horrors the First Nations people endured at the hands of settlers and colonial governments. Today, the Windigo often serves as a metaphor for the greed associated with capitalism and colonialism. However, unlike Western depictions in pop culture, many modern First Nations Windigo stories end with triumph over greed, and hope for the future.