In order to fill 320 episodes, Supernatural writers got to explore all sorts of terrifying creatures. So what is a wendigo and when did it get featured on the show?
To understand the monster, we need to take a look at its origin story. The Algonquian tribes saw the Wendigo as more than a mythical monster. It was a cautionary tale of what happens when you let gluttony overcome you.
Let’s take a look at the beginning of the legend and where it shows up in pop culture today.
What Is a Wendigo?
So what is a wendigo? According to Algonquian legend, these creatures weren’t born a monster. They became one.
A wendigo is the result of a person driven to madness by hunger. This hunger leads them to do something unforgivable: resort to cannibalism.
When they eat human flesh, that person becomes a beast driven only by hunger. The very thing that created them will haunt them for the rest of their lives. They will spend the rest of their time on this earth hungry, only getting momentary relief when actively eating another person.
Some people who saw the creature believe it’s a relative of Bigfoot. Others think that the creature is more similar to a werewolf.
A wendigo resides in the cold, so sightings mostly take place in Canada and sometimes northern states like Minnesota or in the Great Lakes region. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Algonquian tribes would commonly blame missing person cases on wendigo attacks.
In some accounts, the wendigo uses his swift speed to entrap victims. But his primary mode of capturing prey doesn’t rely on strength. Instead, he has the power to mimic human voices.
Similar to La Lechuza of Mexican folklore, the wendigo will use these abilities to lure people away into the woods or their lair. By isolating their prey into the wilderness alone, they can easily overpower them. That’s why the word wendigo means “spirit of lonely places.”
Unfortunately, getting eaten by a wendigo is the best outcome you have once ensnared. Some believe wendigos have the power to curse humans with possession, turning them into wendigos as well. They too will be cursed to roam the land in search of human flesh.
So now that you know the answer to “what is a wendigo?” you probably want to know “what do they look like?”
Most predators haunt you with their overpowering muscles, giant horns, or giant frame. A wendigo does not.
While they do stand at about 15 feet tall, the body itself is emaciated.
This skinny, starving frame comes from the hunger it can never satisfy. No matter how much they eat, they will never stay full for long.
Basil H. Johnston, an Ojibwe scholar and teacher in Ontario, describes the monster as “gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones. With its bones pushing out over its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into the 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.”
Nathan Carlson, an ethnohistorian, adds that the wendigo sports huge, slicing claws for tearing open flesh. They also have massive eyes, almost like an owl.
Still further, Algonquian legends say the creature is simply, “a giant with a heart of ice; sometimes, it is thought to be entirely made of ice. Its body is skeletal and deformed, with missing lips and toes.”
Skinwalker vs Wendigo
Now that you have an idea of what a wendigo is like, let’s compare it to another terrifying legend from Native American culture.
While there are key differences to the descriptions and origins of these creatures, they have one similarity. They each represent the antithesis of the values of indigenous people.
The wendigo goes against the principles of the Algonquian people, as they resort to defiling other people to feed their gluttony.
To understand a skinwalker, you need to know about Native American healers. Healers are respected members of the community that care for the people in the tribe. In order to learn about how to treat people properly, they need to know about the evils that magic can bring. Some people veer from the path of being a healer and choose to become a witch instead.
These witches have the power to transform into animals to deceive others, and they also have the power of possession. So while wendigos become cursed by their actions, skinwalkers use powers that should be used for the good of the people for evil instead.
Wendigo in Supernatural
Wendigos appear early on in Supernatural Season 1. As one of the very first monsters we see the brothers fight, they play an important role in setting up the premise of the show.
Supernatural Season 1, Episode 2 is called Wendigo, named for the creature they find in Colorado.
Sam and Dean follow the coordinates left by their father in order to locate him. They show up at a campsite in Colorado and hear from the locals about people going missing after camping there. The two brothers help Haley and Ben Collins find their brother Tom, who went missing in the woods.
The most important part of this episode is not their faceoff with the Wendigo. It’s when Sam tells Dean that they should leave to continue their search for their dad. Dean tells him it’s “the family business” to help other people.
For the rest of the show, no matter what overarching mission or plot their characters are working towards, they will always stop to help people.
This is the only episode that features the Wendigo. The creature gets occasionally mentioned, featured in a flashback, or in one episode a brief cameo up until Season 12.
Want more TV episodes that show you what is a Wendigo? Check out Grimm and Charmed for more sightings of wendigos in popular culture.
Disclaimer: I have no Native American heritage. Individual nations have their own unique culture, traditions, and beliefs, so the specifics on the wendigo vary from tribe to tribe. This general overview describes how a wendigo is portrayed in popular culture, such as in the Supernatural series.