Where do our favorite folklore beasts come from?
Sometimes a character becomes so embedded in our cultural cloth, we can’t trace the edges of it anymore.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that- time marches on after all.
But sometimes a concept moves so far from its original intent that it becomes something else entirely which may be a case for simply writing your own character to begin with.
What happens when a new character walks around in people’s minds, wearing an old character’s skin?
Those people forget about the ancient origins of the thing they’re looking at and lose out on having a deeper experience overall.
This is the case with the Wendigo character.
It has now become somewhat ubiquitous in the horror/fantasy world, but what is a Wendigo, what are its origins, and how did we get to the character design we seem to have landed on?
The Contemporary Wendigo Design
Wendigo have become popular in the illustration and tattoo world recently, which may have something to do with our current pop culture landscape.
In modern designs the Wendigo is typically a giant, intimidating creature with a cow-looking skull for a head and large antlers.
The monster is usually depicted as tall and ghoulishly thin, skin pulled taught against its bones.
Sometimes the design is more wolf-like, and often it is bloodied from having fed recently.
A gruesome entity to be sure, and one you won’t soon forget.
It’s easy to see why artists would be intrigued by the Wendigo, and why people with a spooky aesthetic would be interested to have it tattooed on them.
But who is Wendigo, where does it come from and why does it find itself in pop culture?
Let’s go back, all the way back, and find the origin story behind the beast.
Where does Wendigo Come From?
Wendigo (which may be spelled many alternate ways in the original Algonquian dialects including Wiindigoo, Windigo, Weendigo…) comes directly from Native American folklore.
Wendigo is tied specifically to the Algonquian peoples.
The Algonquian peoples are one of the more populous and widespread Native American groups.
Their origins are on the Atlantic Coast, along the Saint Lawrence River and in the Great Lakes area.
In this culture the Wendigo is a human-like spirit that overtakes someone and causes them to perform unspeakable acts.
The Wendigo’s description varies depending on the individual tribe.
Because it is largely an oral history, some details are debatable.
The overall concept is that if a person becomes greedy, they are at risk of being overtaken by a Wendigo spirit.
The Wendigo has deep associations with the Winter months – a time for rationing and supplies.
It makes sense then, that a person would not want to hoard supplies for themselves or be greedy during this time.
Wendigo Tattoo Symbolism
Wendigo’s symbolism is simultaneously greediness and community.
Because the only way to avoid becoming one is to be generous with the people around you.
The Wendigo has also been linked with cannibalism in some stories.
In these mythologies when a person engages in cannibalism the Wendigo overtakes them and they develop an insatiable hunger.
In the original folklore, Wendigo sounds similar to a Gollum type character.
It is ashy grey and looks like death, always hungry and never full- as illustrated by its gaunt figure.
Though the character was not usually described as a giant in the Algonquian stories, some other tribes depict Wendigo as a giant monster, becoming larger with each person it feeds on.
Wendigo in Popular Culture
The reason Wendigo tattoos are having a bit of a moment is due to the pop culture that inspired the modern version of the character.
Two of the more famous pieces to make references to the beast have been remade or re-imagined in recent years, causing something of a revival.
So then we are forced to ask- is it cultural appropriation to get a Wendigo tattoo?
It could be argued that if you see the Wendigo from pop culture as something new entirely with the same name/a similar concept… perhaps not.
Either way, it’s something to ask yourself before you get inked.
In Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, the Wendigo is described as such:
“…its eyes tilted up like the eyes in a classical Chinese painting, were a rich yellowish gray, sunken, gleaming. The mouth was drawn out in a rictus, the lower lip was turned inside out, revealing teeth stained blackish-brown and worn almost to nubs. But what struck Louis were the ears, which were not ears at all, but curving horns…they were not like devil’s horns; they were ram’s horns.”
In this description, the beast described sounds a little like Zuul from Ghostbusters.
In his novel, King goes for the “ancient Indian burial ground” trope (which, to be fair, may not have been a trope when he wrote it.)
He does stay somewhat close to the material, with the theory being that the children’s pet sematary is also where the Micmac would bury victims of cannibalism.
As a result, that particular wooded area is haunted by a Wendigo.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Burning Feet, a short story written by Algernon Blackwood, appears in every kid’s favorite book to read under the covers with a flashlight.
In this story, Blackwood attributes the Wendigo to the Native American people, but changes the myth entirely.
In this version, Wendigo is a wind spirit who tries to trick you by calling your name.
If it gets you in its clutches, it drags you until your feet catch on fire, then eventually you turn into a pile of ash.
Wendingo Tattoo Ideas
The modern idea of a Wendigo is kind of like a game of telephone.
A lot of the ideas are there, but it doesn’t actually retain the original meaning: which was a cautionary tale against greed during tough times.
It’s interesting then, that people would take this character for themselves without honoring the original symbolism… kind of a greedy move.
Hopefully they haven’t been haunted by any Wendigo themselves!
Maybe you are confident that your version of a Wendigo is something you’d like tattooed on you.
Maybe you are of Algonquian descent and want to remind yourself not to forget your roots, or not to get greedy.
The choice is yours, as long as you’ve got the knowledge to stand behind it.
Will you walk with the Wendigo?
Check out our tattoo gallery for some of the most interesting Wendigo tattoos online!