26 April 2010


I'm reading Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, the first novel in her Native American series. In one passage, reference is made to the Wendigo, a mythical creature among Algonquin peoples. Flash back fifty years to a barbershop (remember barbershops?) in a small rural Montana town. A teenager waiting for my turn in the chair, I idly thumbed through the collection of outdoor men's magazines (Argosy, Field & Stream, et al.), and came across a shorty story by Algernon Blackwood called "The Wendigo". I did not realize that Blackwood was a prolific writer of ghost stories, in a similar vein to H.P Lovecraft ... though darker. Thankfully there were several in line for haircuts ahead of me that day, because I could not put it down. The story was written in 1910, and is "a camper tale set in the Canadian wilderness. A hunting party separates to track moose, and one member is abducted by the Wendigo of legend."

Etched into my memory is the final passage in the book, in which the remaining hunters have returned to camp, where one man recounts hearing the missing hunter's screams, and discovering his tracks being pursued by the much larger tracks of a predator .... until both sets of tracks vanish into thin air. At that moment they hear a chilling sound -- high overhead, tracking back and forth across the sky at impossible speeds, they hear their missing comrade's voice -- "My feet afire!! My feet afire!!"

Only later in life did I pursue the story, and discover that it has its foundation in Native American myth -- a Wendigo is a malevolent, cannibalistic spirit into which humans could transform, or which could possess humans. According to Basil Johnston, "The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its dessicated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody .... Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption."

That description doesn't precisely match the image I chose from among many artists' renditions (see below, click to enlarge), but I think they both convey the visual force of threat, evil and death. The mention of the Wendigo was sufficient to encourage Indian children (and adults) to behave, and I can see why. The story certainly sent chills down the spine of a teenager sitting in a barbershop in broad daylight, lo these many years ago.

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