Windigo Psychosis A Culture-Bound Illness

Windigo Psychosis is a mental disorder isolated to the Northern Algonquin language group of First Nations (O’Neil, 2010). This language group includes the Chippewa, Ojibwa, and Cree who abide near the Great Lakes of Canada and the United States of America (O’Neil, 2010). It is a disease characterized by cannibalistic impulses and fear (Hay, 1971). Furthermore, the disease is most prominent in the middle of winter when starvation rates are the highest (Weiser, 2017)

Windigo Psychosis is more commonly known as Windigo. The psychosis and phenomenon are also known by other names including Wendigo and Witiko. However, for the purpose of this project, the term Windigo will be used, except when referring to the person afflicted by the disease/spirit.

Windigo is a fascinating psychosis and an excellent example of a culture-bound mental disorder. This project will discuss the causes of Windigo, both through the Indigenous and Westernized view; the symptomatology; what causes it to be a culture-bound illness; and the controversy over its legitimacy as a psychosis. Furthermore, case studies and personalized experience with the disorder will be shared.


The Windigo Psychosis as is a culture-bound syndrome that results in, the immense desire to eat human flesh (O’Neil, 2010). A great many of the symptoms associated with Windigo are related to the lore and its general etiology (Endelsmann, 2005). As previously discussed the Windigo psychosis was found to be most prevalent over the winter months as food resources dwindled (Podruchny, 2004). Thus the Windigo Psychosis is heavily tied to winter in both the Aboriginal perspective as well as the Non-Aboriginal perspective for entirely different reasons.

The Windigo Psychosis is heavily steeped in tradition and the cultural values of the tribes afflicted by it (Hay, 1971). As previously discussed the Windigo Psychosis has only been observed in Algonquian peoples more notably the Ojibwa, Cree, and Chippewa peoples (Hay, 1971). With this tribal separation, the Windigo has a couple slightly different renditions based on the specific tribe as will be discussed in the following section. As mentioned above, though the Windigo is heavily discussed in folklore it is as real for the Algonquian people as any other disease, and therefore has a set of symptoms associated with it. The main overriding symptom of Windigo Psychosis is the immense desire to desecrate one of the greatest taboos, cannibalism (Brightman, Meyer, & Marano, 1983). This desire is uncontrollable and the afflicted individual essentially becomes a ravenous beast unable to stop him or herself (Smallman, 2010). The psychosis affects all men, women, and children and is a progressive disease, many Cree stating that once it has begun it continues to gradually get worse (Smallman, 2010). In every rendition of Windigo, the process of becoming a Windigo is marked by individual’s heart turning to ice (Hay, 1971). In some instances, it has been said that in the final stages of the disease the individual would transform into a massive beast, with a voice so terrifying it has the ability to paralyze its victims (Smallman, 2010). Some of the more quantifiable symptoms of an individual beginning their transformation include a state of deep depression, the inability for the individual to ingest their food, states of paranoia and restlessness, extreme anger or violence, as well as general swelling in the face, limbs, and abdomen (Carlson, 2009). The individual would markedly be unable to eat as they would experience nausea and vomiting and would fall into states of extreme anger or complete unawareness (Carlson, 2009). The states of unawareness as well as the sensation of their heart turning to ice are what mark the individual as suffering from Windigo (Carlson, 2009). During the states of unawareness, the individuals are noted to have extremely vivid hallucinations (Podruchny, 2004). In these hallucinations, many stated that they begin to see their kin in the form of edible animals, and their kinsmen go from family members to a form of sustenance (Podruchny, 2004). Once this had occurred the individual sheds their title of kinsmen and becomes a Windigo.


There is a divide in the treatment methods for Windigo, as the two cultural groups of the Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal peoples used two different treatment styles. In this case, it became a competition between Western medicine and traditional Aboriginal medicine.

Western Medicine.

In the western medicine treatment style the patients were quarantined, and therefore, away from their families and taken to hospitals and in some instances psychiatric hospitals or asylums (Carlson, 2009). There was a course of treatment methods used, which included treating nausea and vomiting with medications and psychological conditioning (Carlson, 2009). The individual was made to believe that the Windigo disorder could be fought off and cured through the use of western medicine and following this individual recovered (Brightman, 1988). Admittedly not many of the Windigo afflicted Aboriginal’s were treated through Western means, the greatest amount of treatment is observed through the traditional methods of their cultural group (Brightman, 1998).

Traditional Treatment Methods.

The Algonquian’s had two main treatment methods, the first was extremely arduous and did not always work but would result in a living individual, while the second was quite the opposite. To treat Windigo Psychosis in a living or dead individual the main focus was to remove the Windigo spirit from the victim as well as the ice encasing their heart (Marano et al, 1982).
As discussed above some of the serious ramifications of the Windigo Psychosis included extreme malnutrition and eventual emaciation of its victims (Carlson, 2009). The inability to eat was believed to be a direct result of the ice casing around the afflicted individual’s heart and therefore the ice had to be removed in some way (Marano et al, 1982). To remove the ice encasing the victim’s heart a holistic method was undertaken, the mind, body, and soul had to be treated and, therefore, the treatment involved a myriad of different rituals and actions to cure someone afflicted by Windigo Psychosis (Carlson, 2009). The methods of curing the Windigo Psychosis sat on three basic pillars: community, proper food, and kindness (Rohrl, 1970). Meaning the individual could not be cured while separate from their kin, good food was required to return them to health (Carlson, 2009). Among these rituals was feeding the individual a large amount of fat; this was believed to be able to melt the ice (Brightman, 1988). Along with an increased fat intake, the individuals were also kept in close proximity with their close families (Hay, 1971). Though tribesmen and family were key in the curing of a Witiko they were usually confined to separate areas and restrained to maintain the safety of the community (Smallman, 2010). In these quarantined rooms a large fire was maintained to further help in the melting of the ice (Smallman, 2010). Kindness, compassion, and good food seemed to yield the best results for those inflicted with Windigo (Brightman, 1988). If the treatments had worked the individual would vomit ice, this representing the expulsion of the Windigo spirit from the individual. To attempt to cure an individual was a great risk for a tribe, as one Windigo was said to be able to wipe out entire villages. Along with the immense risk it was understood that to have the best chance of curing an individual the disease must be caught in its early stages, once an individual had fully progressed execution was seen as the only option (Hay, 1971).

The second and more preferred method was to execute the Windigo inflicted individual and the Windigo spirit along with it (Carlson, 2009). This is not to say that killing a Windigo is an easy feat. Generally, the bravest warriors of the tribe would be employed along with shamans to kill the individual as well as the spirit of the Windigo (Podruchny, 2004). Killing the physical Witiko is the easy part; the most difficult aspect is killing the Windigo spirit to ensure it cannot resurrect itself (Podruchny, 2004). To ensure that the Windigo cannot resurrect itself the body of the Witiko must be mangled (Podruchny, 2004). This mutilation of the bodies was done in several ways, which included burning the body as well as dismembering it and destroying the heart (Podruchny, 2004). Only once the body had been fully destroyed was the Wendigo considered killed and the community safe from further attack (Carlson, 2009).


Cannibalism has been researched and documented for many years, and there is evidence of human flesh in fossilized feces from prehistoric times (Lindenbaum, 2004). It is impossible to understand the origin of Windigo psychosis without including different types of cannibalism throughout the world, and addressing the ‘myth’ of the Witiko. According to Carlson (2009), Windigo psychosis is best understood when studied through a cultural lens. Although most people would be disturbed by the thought of cannibalism, it is easy to forget the influence of the culture and traditions. Hay (1971, p. 1), states that “the desire to eat human flesh [is] incomprehensible except as the result of sorcery or possession by the mythical Windigo spirit” within the Chippewa, Ojibwa, and Cree communities. Not all people who have Windigo psychosis do become cannibals, though most do have a strong desire to eat the flesh of humans (Hay, 1971). Usually, the cannibalistic tendencies increase with any kind of stressors, for example, a lack of a food source (Hay, 1971). This type of cannibalism is known as survival cannibalism (Lindenbaum, 2004). Survival cannibalism can either take place in a community that chooses to sacrifice a person or maybe more individualistic where one person chooses to eat another (Linndenbaum, 2004). This often happens when people are stranded somewhere and are living with a small group of people and no food is available (Lindenbaum, 2004). This can be quite common due to the harsh winters in Canada and Northern United States, and therefore makes sense why these communities were greatly impacted by cannibalism. As stated by Hay, “windigo psychosis has long been regarded as a disorder specific to the people of the northern tribes of Northern Algonkian-speaking Indians” (2009, p. 1).

In most cases of cannibalism, there are three reasons in combination with hunger and stress, that people eat human flesh. These reasons include: “(1) “preserving” a relationship with some loved one who has been “lost,” (2) “solving” ambivalent feelings toward someone, or (3) acquiring some property, such as vitality or courage” (Hay, 1971, p. 3). Most of these reasons are usually combined with cultural beliefs and/or rituals. In some situations, the person who eats another humans flesh may be struggling with solving personal problems and therefore believes that, through consuming human flesh, they will be able to “solve … problems of interpersonal relations or … acquire supernatural powers” (Hay, 1971, p. 3). Through multiple examples provided by Hay (1971), family members ate each other, to maintain their family bonds during times of stress, and from eating human flesh once, they would proceed to binge eat (regardless of the need to eat or not).
Some people may eat a placenta which is considered to be human flesh, which can still be thought of as a form of cannibalism (Lindenbaum, 2004). Western society today accepts blood transfusions or organ transplants, which can be considered as medical cannibalism (Himmelman, 1997). In ancient Aztec culture, a woman may eat their dead husband’s penis, or a man may eat his dead wife’s vulva as a way to ‘recycle’ power (Himmelman, 1997). Within the ancient Aztec, community, elders decide what each organ may represent, and they may choose to eat the heart of the deceased as a way to maintain health (Himmelman, 1997). The main point of this is that each culture will have their own ritual or belief which creates different views of certain types of cannibalism. Within the Ojibwa culture, people are more likely to rely on their individual feelings than consult a member of the culture. For example, if one were to experience dreams with a desire for human flesh, they may feel an “obedience to [these] unconscious promptings … [and] the fact that dreams were not to be revealed to others further removed such unconsciously motivated behavior from social control” (Hay, 1971, p. 8). This would differ between other cultures like the Iroquois because dreams were discussed and bad dreams about other community members were not acted upon (Hay, 1971). The Algonkian-speaking culture “belie[ve]s in a cosmos dictated and affected by spirit beings, dreams, “medicine,” and “power,” a cosmos wherein Witikos are a taxon of beings existing in the real world and interacting with real human individuals” (Carlson, 2009, p. 356). The Witiko is feared throughout the Algonkian-speaking communities as a “cannibalistic humanoid monster or spirit entity that preys upon people to satisfy a compulsive hunger for human flesh” (Carlson, 2009, p. 359). Although many people describe the Witiko as a story or myth that people would tell their children, the Algonkian-speaking cultures fear the Witiko creature and fear becoming the Witiko (Carlson, 2009). The stories of people becoming a Witiko were passed down orally through each generation of these cultures. Elders described this cannibalistic creature “as an owl-eyed monster with large clawed hands, matted hair, a naked emaciated body, and a heart made of solid ice” (Carlson, 2009, p. 359). As the Witiko consumes more human flesh, it becomes stronger than any human and is unable to stop eating (Carlson, 2009). Some stories that were passed down orally included events where a person in the community “acted upon the [Witiko] propensity and
engaged in cannibalism” (Carlson, 2009, p. 359). As the prevalence of Windigos increased, in many communities any individual that became a Witiko would be killed (Carlson, 2009). They would kill the Witiko with an ax and bury the body beneath a woodpile in fear that the Witiko would come back to life (Carlson, 2009). Reporters and Europeans who were traders or missionaries also reported incidents where communities would execute people who were cannibals or were thought to have the Witiko sickness (Carlson, 2009). Although Western culture may not believe in the Witiko, many people within the communities were terrified of the monster and thought that “after eating human flesh their heart [would] become a lump of ice and no one alive is safe from them” (Carlson, 2009, p. 360). Even with signs of violent behavior or the thought that someone’s heart may have turned to ice was enough evidence for the community to begin providing treatment for being possessed by the Witiko (Carlson, 2009).

Why it is Culture Bound

One cultural factor that isolates windigo to the Northern Algonquin language group is the importance the culture puts on following dreams (Hay, 1971). More than any other Indigenous group the Northern Algonquin’s believe in following the ideas of the supernatural beings in their dreams (Hay, 1971). Additionally, the Algonquin’s believe in self-interpretation of their dreams and visions (Hay, 1971). Thus, they do not consult with anyone on what the meaning of their cannibalistic windigo dreams mean (Hay, 1971).

Cultural Factors.

Another cultural factor influencing windigo is that cannibalism is not a ritual practice in the Algonquin culture (Hay, 1971). In some cultures, enemies or dead family members are consumed (Hay, 1971). However, in the Algonquin language group the idea of eating human flesh is viewed as disgusting (Hay, 1971). Thus, if the individual has cannibalistic desires they are not satisfied through ritual and the individuals must either suppress their impulses on their own or cave to them (Hay, 1971). If individual cave to their desires then they are displaying windigo behavior (Hay, 1971). Furthermore, there are social factors that make windigo a culture-bound illness (Hay, 1971).

Social Factors.

The amount of control an individual has over their impulses is a large social factor influencing windigo (Hay, 1971). If an individual under the psychosis has someone close to them, either physical or emotional, there to control their impulses, there is a good chance the individual will recover from the windigo (Hay, 1971). Nevertheless, if the person is alone and loses control of their desires cannibalism is the result (Hay, 1971).

Case Study

Cannibalism is observed through a variety of cultures. Rituals and tradition play a large role in deciding if cannibalism is acceptable and also in defining what boundaries there are with regards to cannibalism. In some cultures, cannibalism was more sacrificial, while in others it was similar to anxiety and people were terrified of becoming a Witiko. In some cultures, it was very common to eat weak or elderly parents and people who have passed away 1971). Some cultures

would grind up the deceased’s bones, boil or roast the remains, and eat them (Hay, 1971). In both of these examples, cannibalism was accepted and encouraged for the health of the people. Especially in times of war, women would eat the opposing sides genitals to gain fertility, while men would eat organs to increase their power and health (Hay, 1971).

In two cases of Windigo psychosis, a person ate their deceased (due to starvation) loved one. After that, they were unable to stop eating human flesh, and in both cases, the person ate over 3 people afterward (most involving murder) (Hay, 1971). Most of the people that were eaten were loved ones, and the cannibal did not need to eat each person to be fully nourished. Other instances include elderly people stating that they would like to eat their grandchildren, and some feared themselves because they did not want to eat their own grandchildren (Hay, 1971). In these situations, the outcomes could have been different if the windigo psychosis was caught early because, “in every case where the diagnosis was made before cannibalism occurred, the windigo was either killed or cured” (Hay, 1971, p. 10).

Specific to the Algonkians, cultural beliefs that dreams should not be shared, and that the
people should act upon their dreams have a large impact on younger children. Because the youth within the culture have learned about spirits (including the Witiko), it is normal that they may dream about them. In this case, the dream can be highly influential because dreams have a powerful suggestion (Hay, 1971). The belief that the Witiko is a human who becomes an awful creature that feeds on human flesh, has frightened many people in Algonkian-speaking communities for over one hundred years (Carlson, 2009). In more westernized culture, the Witiko story is regarded as a myth which is told to “frighten children … from venturing off into the boreal forests alone to become lost or die of exposure or starvation” (Carlson, 2009, p. 358). With the combination of his grandmother’s oral stories and newspaper articles, Carlson (2009) discovered the full effect of the Witiko. A man by the name of Na-pa-nin was killed because he was a ‘Witiko’. He went on a trip to his cabin which was somewhat secluded from his community. He went with his family, and his wife stated that he had been acting strange a few days into the trip. He told his wife that his children looked like moose meat and that he wanted to eat them. She also said that he was talking about wild animals attacking them. Within the next twenty days, his wife reported her husband to be having violent attacks and his insanity was getting much worse. After this, his entire body began to get very swollen. A few men tied Na-pa-nin face down in the cabin because his attacks were so violent, and they thought Na-pa-nin would kill them. He was not eating very much of the food that his wife was providing for him. The Witiko was making wild animal sounds and did not seem human anymore according to the men from the community (Carlson, 2009). The men from the community believed that they had to strike Na-pa-nin’s head with an ax until he died because a bullet would not kill the Witiko. They buried Na-pa-nin and fell trees over his grave in fear that the Witiko would come back to life. Within the next few weeks, the entire community was terrified that the Witiko would come back to life and kill them all (Carlson, 2009). In this case, the belief that the Witiko could take over a man’s body, and the influence it holds over a community is evident.
Another story about the Witiko is about a woman who ate one of her children, and nobody knew. She then ate most of her children over 5-month cycles when her cravings would return. She would kill whoever came to her home when she was craving human flesh (Carlson, 2009, p. 363). These two stories which were retrieved from newspapers illustrate how “native people understood famine cannibalism to be related to Witiko, either retrospectively in relation to a starvation crisis, or as a direct cause of it” (Carlson, 2009, p. 363). In many of the cases, people who believe that they have become the Witiko ask to be killed or watched because they are afraid of themselves (Carlson, 2009).

In some cases, the idea of the Witiko could be influenced by ‘sorcerer’ who would provide ‘bad medicine’ this bad medicine would ultimately lead a community into starvation, stress, and fear. This bad medicine would be used to drive away game and destroy any kind of trapping lines set by the community. A sorcerer may do this for reasons such as revenge (Carlson, 2009). Some people took advantage of the fear in the community and told everyone that the Witiko would kill them if they did not switch to their religion (Carlson, 2009).

Medical science would explain that the “cannibalistic fantasies are demonstrable in the delusions of melancholia, and also in less severe types of depression, where they may be observed in dreams” (Hay, 1971, p. 3). It is important to understand that every culture understands illness differently, and approaches solutions differently (regardless of whether or not the solution has been proven to work). Being a Witiko requires a human to eat human flesh, and once they begin to eat it, they often cannot stop.

Controversy Regarding Legitimacy

The legitimacy of the Windigo Psychosis as a disease is a heavily debated topic even to this day. One of the large reasons for the skepticism in regards to the legitimacy of the disease is that it is a culture-bound syndrome (O’Neil, 2010). As it is only seen in the Algonquian peoples, and, therefore, the Psychosis has less of a strong footing in the western medical community (Brightman, Meyer, & Marano, 1983). Not only does it’s classification as a culture-bound syndrome inhibit the Windigo Psychosis in gaining reputability but the fact that it has strong ties to the winter and the subsequent malnutrition associated with winter months (Engelsmann, 2005). As seen above in regards to treatment and symptomology there are two main perspectives on the legitimacy of the Windigo Psychosis. The two main diverging perspectives are the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal or Western medical perspective. From the Aboriginal perspective, the Windigo Psychosis is as real and true as any other disease, while to Western medicine the Windigo Psychosis is mainly a fantastical tale, and the symptoms can actually be explained through other means (Hay, 1971). Not only is there a conflict of opinion between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspectives, there is a great deal of contention within the medical community (Marano et al, 1982). One of the defining factors of the Windigo Psychosis is the emaciation of its victims as well as the hallucination they experience (Carlson, 2009). Though there are many very different ideas on whether or not the Windigo Psychosis is an actual disease, every theory leads back to a lack of food resources.

The first argument against Windigo is that the Windigo Psychosis was simply a case of depression, induced by a multitude of stress factors experienced by the Algonquian peoples during the Windigo Psychoses peak, chiefly malnutrition (Engelsmann, 2005). The two main stress factors include globalization, the encroachment of the European fur traders and the general lack of resources seen during the winter months (Brightman, 1988). Globalization and the subsequent assimilation resulted in the fracturing of the traditional tribal groups (Brightman, 1988). The Algonquian peoples relied heavily on each other and by fracturing their social systems, the likelihood of onset depressive disorders increased (Hay, 1971). Along with a fractured social system came a greater loss of their game to the fur trade, which created an even greater deficit of available food during the winter months (Rohrl, 1970). This loss of food would obviously lead to malnutrition sparking depressive symptoms, which can manifest in hallucinations, as well as mood swings which are several of the symptoms seen in Windigo Psychosis (Podruchny, 2004). Along with explaining the symptoms Rohrl (1970), also argues that the diagnosis of onset or situational depression along with malnutrition explains why specific curative treatment methods worked. The main forms of treatment involved being surrounded by a strong community of loved ones as well as eating a great deal more (Carlson, 2009). The increased time with family would decrease the depressive nature of the individual and the high-fat diet would restore the metabolic deficit of the patient (Brightman, 1988).

The second argument against the Windigo Psychosis is the theory that the Algonquians used Windigo as a scapegoat (Brightman, 1988). The Windigo Psychosis eventually became much like the Salem Witch trials in regards as to how many supposedly Witiko individuals were killed (Brightman, 1988). Marano et al (1982) states that the Algonquian tribesmen took advantage of the Windigo phenomena, which allowed for mass homicide. These homicides and murders may have been for one’s own personal gain or just mass hysteria, but they effectively resulted in lower population levels (Marano et al, 1982). With lower population levels the once diminished food resources were far more able to support the smaller communities (Marano et al, 1982).

Along with pushback from the medical community regarding the Windigo Psychosis’ legitimacy, the Windigo has become extremely popularized in social media and through entertainment companies (Carlson, 2009). The Windigo has steadily become a staple scary movie popular culture figurehead (Carlson, 2009). As a result, the Windigo becomes even more fantastical because it is only a monster in a movie, not a true disease that people suffer from (Carlson, 2009).

Podruchny (2004) also notes the lack of cases of Windigo Psychosis following the original outbreak, which was quite some time ago. This lack of recent cases has not only lead to the discrediting of the Windigo Psychosis but also maintains the minute amounts of data on the cases of Windigo Psychosis (Carlson, 2009). The Windigo Psychosis is an old disorder and as a result, the data collected on it is mainly found in old field notes of fur traders with little concrete details (Brightman, 1988). Also, a great deal of the details have been lost over the years as a result of assimilation of the Algonquian peoples (Rohrl, 1970). As a result, the Windigo Psychosis remains immensely steeped in mystery, and will most likely be continuously contested.


Windigo is a fascinating culture bound mental disorder, that affects men, women, and children (Smallman, 2010). The major symptom of Windigo is the enormous craving to consume human flesh (O’Neil, 2010). Additional, symptoms include the inability to digest food, depression, paranoia, anger, violence, restlessness, and generalized edema (Carlson, 2009). Two treatment methods exist for Windigo: traditional and western. Psychological conditioning is the main course of treatment in the western medical system (Carlson, 2009). Traditional healing methods focused on providing the individual with a sense of community, proper food, and spiritual healers, to try and remove the windigo from the person (Rohrl, 1970). The Indigenous belief about the cause of Windigo is that it is sorcery or possession by the Windigo spirit (Hay, 1971). Windigo psychosis is culture-bound due to cultural and social factors (Hay, 1971).


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