Fear: Myth, tradition, and the search for meaning

Published: 1998-12-21

The world is angry today. Which is to say that the world is afraid, and anger is fear's preferred method of persuasion. I risk speaking of the world in the most anthromorphic way, but I think our fear is contagious, things usually pay attention to the extreme moods of large predators or they don't get the chance to do so again.

The anger has been obvious and on my mind for the past couple of years, exacerbated for sure by the Internet experience and not just the acrid thing that passes for conversation that you see in the newsgroups, reminiscent as it is of apes throwing rocks and one another across a ditch, screeching mightily. Lately I've been following news and events from around the world, and it's disturbingly ugly. Everyone has a grudge to settle with someone else, or many someone elses. A few seem to have declared a hostile relationship with the rest of the world.

This evening I picked up a periodical which sometimes lies around for months before it's opened (usually a pity) immediately finding myself immersed in stories and discussions about fear, all different and yet all similar, all leading to something deep within us. It reminded me of the intimate relationship of fear and anger, funny how you can lose sight of important route markers like that, and I suddenly had a feeling that here lay the root of much of the world's problems. That every man and woman jack and jackess of us are scared to death. Or of it, to be more precise.

We have created a global society capable now of chaos on a never experienced scale and, to use an example of one of the writers, we sense it like cockroaches poised to scatter. The first nanoscopic unpatterned vibrations have reached long ignored antennae and we tense. But many of us won't bolt because, to borrow again, we're thinking anthrapoid roaches very arguably blessed with a high sense of self-awareness. And if you are consumed with a fear of death, for whatever the reasons, what sort of creatures do you awaken in yourself?

An archetype of one of the most troubling (and sometimes most godlike) is expressed in a spirit of the Northern peoples of America – Ojibwa/Chippewa, Algonkian – called the Windigo. Twenty feet tall with a heart of ice, a terrible face and a laugh more terrible than that face when it senses the presence of human flesh, the eating of which is its sole reason for existence. All other cultures have their Windigos too, and this issue of the journal Parabola examines a good many of them. Bradley Smith's writings elsewhere on this site describe some of his own life, spent alternately in contemplating the Windigo and actively seeking it out, from its home ranges in the frozen hills of Korea, to a dusty corrida in the heat of the blazing Mexican sun.

I feel that a number of these old myths hold vital messages for our situation today, individual and collective, and so will repeat a few here in the hope that their instructions on facing fear and conquering it without resorting to the Windigo's flesh-eating technique will help some avoid that path. Or, God help us all, we may come to need it for the species to exist, and then our fate will be certain, swift and terrible, as Kali whirls in full dance for the first and last time. The human race will perhaps only exist as the archetypal stalking spirit of whatever beings take our place in this infancy of life's quest for knowledge.

Ours, as is always the case, is the Sophisticated Age. Grown too clever for the fairy tales of old, recognizing in them nothing of value with which to increase our value by hoarding ever more of the lives of others. If we can't find the door to eternity, "Then by God we'll buy the joint!" seems to be a common credo. In this world of increasing complexity and detail certain among us will find a place to cling to the swaying mechanism, there to warn all and sundry of the requirement that they help seek stability of the whole by attending to the local details in infinite depth, as directed by their own limited vision. Do not think of looking on the whole! is their command, alternately stentorian, sneering, and not a little desperate, perhaps sensing the primal flaw and their part in assuring its increase.

When it comes to human behavior, the Mortimer Snerd of human thought, pretending to be cortical but all done with hidden strings, there is much merit in looking at the whole, in generalizing and in stereotyping. There's a potential for awareness in this process that, if you give your mind over to it, can clarify your understanding of your own existence and its relation to every other human, to every thing and everything. This is the value of myths, that they build their stories with the elemental components of our souls, and that whatever the differences in brains and cultures, the only difference in the souls of human beings is their relative level of spiritual alertness. This truth is exhibited in the sometimes amusing and often astonishing recognition of the same gilded threads running through the tapestry of human experience at all levels and in all places. Glimpses of the robes of the God residing in us all. Let us then be instructed by some of this wisdom, ancient and contemporary. Despite pretensions to the contrary, we really haven't come that far from huddling in the dark safety of our caves, shivering at both the sounds and our imaginings of the great fanged things that rule the night and, unless we take steps, us.

David Thomas, 8/11/98


A Native American Archetype

Floyd Largent, Parabola, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, August 1998, pp. 22-25

Floyd Largent is a writer, anthropologist and historian, with a particular interest in Native American cultures. He spent nearly ten years as a professional archeologist, and now resides in Richardson, a suburb of Dallas, Texas, with his archaeologist wife, Kellie, and their only child, a Pomeranian named Foxy B.

A starving giant stalks the frozen wastes. He towers twenty feet above the snow, and his visage is horrible beyong imagining. His heart is made of ice; in it, he nurses a desperate craving for human flesh. His name is Windigo, and if he finds you, he is your death.

One of the more abiding myth-figures of Native-American cosmology is Windigo, a perverse monster who eats human flesh. Like the vampires of European lore, his malady is infectious and may be transmitted to a human host by a variety of means. Along with the Thunderbird and Coyote of western North America and the Hero Twins who appear in many Native American belief systems, Windigo is a mythic archetype that even today influences the lives of native peoples of this continent.

Belief in Windigo is most common among the widespread Algonkian tribes of northeastern North America, specifically the Ojibwa/Chippewa, Cree, Micmac, and related groups. Other entities, such as the Kwaikiutl Man-Eater of the Pacific Northwest and the western Canadian Beaver tribe's Wechuge, bear a striking resemblance to Windigo, and his myth diffusion. Windigo himself (known also as Wendigo, Witiko, Kokodjo, and variations thereof) usually manifests as a cannibalistic humanoid standing twenty to thirty feet tall: he lacks lips, and his breath hisses through his jagged teeth in a loud and sinister fashion. His voice may be whisper soft, or loud as a tornado. His eyes, which roll in blood, are huge and owl-like. His clawed feet bear only a single large toe each, and his hands exhibit wicked claws that can disembowel a bear or a man with one stroke. Occasional sources describe his body as consisting of a skeleton of ice or of a sloid mass of flexible ice; however, Windigo is most commonly described as having only a heart of ice. Although he wears no clothes, Windigo has been known to rub himself with tree sap and then roll about in the sand, obtaining a thin coating which resembles stone. When humans are unavailable, Windigo dines on swamp moss, rotting wood, and mushrooms. He is most dangerous in the winter, although some tribes believe that he is particularly active in the spring, when there is no snow to reveal the tracks of his passage.

Windigo is among the most prominent of the many "other-than-human" people who stalk the Algonkian spiritual landscape. They are solitary creatures; should one Windigo encounter another, a fight to the death ensues. The victor generally consumes the loser; however, the loser is sometimes cremated, and his heart pounded to splinters and melted. While Windigos may be male or female, they don't live together as married couples and rarely mate.

Windigo origins are various. Some Windigos were placed on Earth by the Creator, just as humans and beavers were. Some are dreamed into being by evil sorcerers, while some were originally humans who were forced by circumstance to eat their companions; thereafter, they developed an unnatural craving for human flesh, their bodies swelled, and their hearts turned to ice. Some humans become Windigo when they are visited and possessed by Windigo spirits during vision quests.

Windigo is the antagonist of many folk tales, most of which parallel the Western "Jack-and-the-Beanstalk" theme of the little guy defeating the cannibalistic giant and acquiring his treasures. Indeed, the protagonists are often children. Although the protagonist may manage to beguile Windigo into avoiding him or her through trickery or tests of intelligence, usually it's necessary to fight Windigo directly, often by employing magic or sorcery. In some stories, the protagonist reveals heretofore-unmentioned magical powers and kills Windigo by force. For example, in one Ojibwa/Chippewa story, a boy "had been eating his food out of a shell. Now he turned it upside down and it became a mountain. He had the power to do that." Later, when several angry Windigos are attempting to destroy his house, he goes outside and clubs to death all but two. These he transforms into buffalo, so that "instead of you eating people, people will eat you."

In Ojibwa/Chippewa tales, the protagonist often must use sorcery to become a Windigo himself, in order to fight the evil Windigo. A cure can be effected by drinking boiling tallow, which melts the assumed ice-body. Normal people can kill Windigo by firing a silver bullet into his body, as Windigo is stone hard and impervious to other weapons, or by decapitating him (not an easy task). The latter two prescriptions contain direct echoes of European werewolf/vampire legends, indicating that they are of more recent origin than the tales of sorcerous conquest.

Windigo is a very real outgrowth of the subarctic setting in which the Northeastern Algonkians live. He represents the death that stalks them during the long winters, manifested as a giant made of cold and hunger. He also personifies one of their greatest fears: that they may be forced, by impending starvation, to eat human flesh in order to survive.

The Algonkian homeland can be a bleak, forbidding place. Game is often scarce, and the climate is such that it precludes the cultivation of most crops. In premodern times, hunger was an omnipresent danger to those who lived there. As W. Arens points out in The Man-Eating Myth, "The natives of this desolate area were involved in a precarious relationship with their harsh environment to the extent that survival was never a foregone conclusion." This bitter reality drove the Algonkians into a solitary lifestyle, where emotional self-restraint, individualism, and self-sufficiency were highly prized, and where for much of the year, one's only companions were one's immediate family. Children were taught to contribute to the family as soon as possible. Conformity was expected and demanded. Other people were not to be trusted, as they were only out for themselves. It was a harsh lesson, and the environment pounded it into them every day.

In traditional Algonkian mythology, every rock, plant, tree, and lake is occupied by a spirit, who is considered as real as any human or animal; no differentiation is made between the natural and supernatural. Aside from this animistic viewpoint, religion, like most other aspects of daily survival, is up to the individual. For example, among most of the area's cultures, the concept of a supreme being is vague at best.

Though individualistic, religious belief remains an extremenly important matter. Most traditionalists have a spirit guide who is acquired during a vision quest, a period of eight to ten days of fasting and lack of sleep. This spirit assists during the hunt, and steers one toward developing new and useful abilities. One of the spirits who might come to the questor is Windigo. In some cases, he possesses the questor's body and turns him into a Windigo as well. Windigo is the only spirit who can do this.

It must be emphasized that cannibalism, despite its appearance as a dominating theme in traditiona Algonkian culture, has never been considered by them to be an acceptable activity in any situation. On the contrary, it is dreaded and reviled, though understood if it occurs in certain contexts. Perhaps it's because of this institutional horror that all these tribes were once preoccupied with the concept, so much so that it became a major theme in their oral tradition. Given modern American's fascination with the grotesque, this approach is easy to understand. The horror of the cannibal theme, and its repitition in their stories, may have served as a catharsis for their daily problems, much as horror films do for us today.

Considering the mixture of ingredients present in the Algonkian tradition – including an animistic approach to the universe, the belief in spirit helpers acquired during vision quests, the ever-present specter of starvation, a horrified fascination with the theme of cannibalism, a strong sense of individualism and a reciprocal distrust of others, and a reliance on oral folklore – it seems only natural that the elements of starvation, cannibalism, and the severe environment shold be personified in an entity like Windigo, a spirit-being perceived as evil incarnate. He embodies all they hate the most, those things which are made all the more ominous by their distressing reality. Whatever his origin, human, sorcery, or native spirit, Windigo remains the most powerful force in the traditional Algonkian belief system. He must, for one ignores him at one's own peril.

Windigo stalks the forests, hungry as always. Spring approaches; he can feel it in his heart. Soon it will be time to retire to the northern latitudes, where it stays cold all the time. Summer is a partifcularly hungry time for Windigo: no one in the North can see him, and he has no power over them. There he must drag swamps for moss and chew on rotting wood to survive.

Time, then to eat what he can, when he can. Windigo sees a village in the distance. Very soon, he will reap the terror that he enjoys even more than the taste of human flesh.

Windigo laughs, and that is even more horrible than his face.


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Author(s): David Thomas
Title: Fear: Myth, tradition, and the search for meaning
Published: 1998-12-21
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 19, 1998, 6 p.m.
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