Wendigo Psychosis: Monstrous Men
The term “Wendigo psychosis” refers to a condition in which sufferers developed an insatiable desire to eat human flesh even when other food sources were readily available, often as a result of prior famine cannibalism; Wendigo psychosis is identified by Western psychologists as a culture-bound syndrome, though members of the aboriginal communities in which it existed believed cases literally involved individuals turning into Wendigos. Such individuals generally recognized these symptoms as meaning that they were turning into Wendigos, and often requested to be executed before they could harm others. The most common response when someone began suffering from Wendigo psychosis was curing attempts by traditional native healers or Western doctors. In the unusual cases when these attempts failed, and the Wendigo began either to threaten those around them or to act violently or anti-socially, they were then generally executed. Cases of Wendigo psychosis, though real, were relatively rare, and it was even rarer for them to actually culminate in the execution of the sufferer.
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 suffering from 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. In some cases this entailed euthanizing people suffering from Wendigo psychosis; as a result, in 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.
Fascination with Wendigo psychosis among Western ethnographers, psychologists, and anthropologists led to a hotly debated controversy in the 1980s over the historicity of this phenomenon. Some 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. [Source]
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. [Source]
1. Atmospheric telling of a Wendigo tale (mythology)
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