In previous blogs I have examined various culture bound syndromes (i.e., a combination of psychiatric and/or somatic symptoms viewed as a recognizable disease within specific cultures or societies). Arguably, one of the most interesting culture bound syndromes is (the much disputed) ‘Windigo psychosis’ that was said to have been reported among Algonquian native tribes (which are among the biggest and most widespread of North American natives and who lived around the Great Lakes of Canada and America). The disorder allegedly comprised individuals who intensely craved human flesh and who believed they would turn into cannibals.
The windigo was a cannibalistic spirit forest creature that appeared in Algonquian legends, and was known by lots of other names and variants (including – among 37 others identified by John Columbo in his 1982 book Windigo – wendigo, weendigo, windiga, waindigo, windago, wihtikow, and witiko). For instance, the Ojibwa tribe (a Native American people originally located north of Lake Huron before moving westward in the 17th and 18th centuries into Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, western Ontario, and Manitoba) believed the windigo was a ferocious ogre that took children away if they did not behave themselves. More generally, it was believed that the windigo could possess and infect human beings and transform them into cannibalistic creatures. Such cannibalistic practices were said to have begun in times of extreme winter famine when families were isolated and confined to their cabins because of heavy snowfall. Legend also has it that the infected sufferer would have their heart turned to ice.
However, windigo is a disorder that has been continually challenged across many decades as a myth (for instance, Dr. R.H. Prince in a 1992 issue of Transcultural Psychiatric Research Review; Dr. R.C. Simons and Dr. C. Hughes in a 1993 book chapter on culture bound syndrome; Dr. P.M. Yap in a 1967 issue of the Australia New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry). Whether the condition genuinely existed or not, no-one disputes that the number of cases reported over the last hundred years are minimal.
According to John Columbo, the first derivation of the word ‘windigo’ (i.e., the word ‘onaouientagos’ meaning both ‘cannibal’ and ‘evil spirit’) first appeared in print as long ago as 1722 in an account by Bacqueville de la Potherie, a French traveler. Windigo psychosis was said to occur when an individual became highly anxious that they were transforming into a windigo and believed that other humans that they lived among them were edible. Symptoms of the psychosis were said to include nausea, vomiting, poor appetite and anti-social behaviour. In extreme cases, the psychosis was said to produce suicidal tendencies (as a way of preventing possession by the windigo) and/or homicidal tendencies (to eat the human flesh of others). A book (The Lost Valley and Other Stories) written by Algernon Blackwood in 1910 featured a horror story (called ‘The Wendigo’), and was widely believed to be based on the Algonquian windigo legends.
In the 1982 book Windigo: An Anthology of Facts and Fantastic Fiction edited by John Columbo, he noted that:
“Windigo has been described as the phantom of hunger which stalks the forests of the north in search of lone Indians, halfbreeds, or white men to consume. It may take the form of a cannibalistic Indian who breathes flames. Or it may assume the guise of a supernatural spirit with a heart of ice that flies through the night skies in search of a victim to satisfy its craving for human flesh. Like the vampire, it feasts on flesh and blood. Like the werewolf, it shape-changes at will”.
In an online article about ‘culture specific diseases’, Denis O’Neil claims that modern medical diagnoses might label windigo as a form of paranoia because “of the irrational perceptions of being persecuted”. Here, O’Neil argues that it is the windigo monsters who are the persecutors (i.e., the windigo monsters are trying to turn people into monsters like themselves). O’Neil also argues that in contemporary North American culture “the perceived persecutors of paranoids are more likely to be other people or, perhaps, extra terrestrial visitors”.
Writing in a 2006 issue of the journal Transcultural Psychiatry, Dr. Wen-Shing Tseng said that it’s important to re-examine the sources of knowledge for each culture-related specific syndrome (including windigo which she also examined). She acknowledged that literature relating to windigo dated back to the 17th century, she made a lot of reference to the work of J.E. Saindon and the Reverend J.M. Cooper who both worked among an Algonquian community in the 1930s. She argued that the reports of both Saindon and Cooper “were based on second-hand information provided by non-clinical observers”. She then noted that the pioneering cultural psychiatrists of the 1950s and 1960s dealt with these early accounts “as though they were well-defined clinical entities with the diagnostic term witiko psychosis”.
In a paper by Dr. Lou Marano in a 1982 issue of Current Anthropology, it was noted that aspects of the Windigo belief complex may have had components in some individual’s psychological dysfunction. However, he concluded that after (i) five years’ field experience among Northern Algonquians, (ii) extensive archival research, and (iii) a critical examination of the literature:
“There probably never were any windigo psychotics in an etic/behavioral sense. When the windigo phenomenon is considered from the point of view of group sociodynamics rather than from that of individual psychodynamics, the crucial question is not what causes a person to become a cannibalistic maniac, but under what circumstances a Northern Algonquian is likely to be accused of having become a cannibalistic maniac and thus run the risk of being executed as such”.
In essence, Marano’s conclusion was that windigo psychosis was simply an artifact of research that was conducted without sufficient knowledge of the indigenous experience.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Colombo, J.R. (1982). Windigo: An Anthology of Facts and Fantastic Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Marano, Lou (1982). Windigo psychosis: The anatomy of an emic-etic Confusion. Current Anthropology, 23, 385-412.
O’Neil, D. (2010). Culture specific diseases. October 7. Located at: http://anthro.palomar.edu/medical/med_4.htm
Prince, R. H. (1992). Koro and the Fox Spirit on Hainan Island (China). Transcultural Psychiatric Research Review, 29(2), 119-132.
Simons, R. C., & Hughes, C. (1993). The culture bound syndrome. In A. Gaw (Ed.). Culture, Ethnicity and Mental Illness (pp. 75–99). Washington, DC: APA.
Tseng, W-S. (2006). From peculiar psychiatric disorders through culture-bound syndromes to culture-related specific syndromes. Transcultural Psychiatry, 43; 554-576.
Wikipedia (2012). Wendigo. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendigo
Yap P. M. (1967). Classification of the culture-bound reactive syndromes. Australia New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 1, 172-179.
Yap, P. M. (1969). The culture bound syndromes. In W. Cahil., & T. Y. Lin. (Eds.). Mental Health Research in Asia and the Pacific (pp. 33-53). Honolulu: East West Centre Press.