Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Wendigo

Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” is not what I expected. Before going into the story, I knew the Wendigo was a werewolfesque creature of Native American mythology and expected that to be what the story was about. Having read Blackwood before, I should have known better. Instead, this is a deeply psychological journey into the dark recesses of the mind.

The tale begins with a group of four men going on a hunting trip in northern Canada. Simpson, the young protagonist, and his uncle, the wise psychologist, Dr. Cathcart, team up with Hank and Dfago as their guides into the backwoods. The trouble begins when they split up into two groups (the doctor and Hank in one, and Dfago and Simpson in the other) to cover more ground. After behaving strangely, Dfago disappears into the night, leaving Simpson to fend for himself.

No story better encompasses the dread of nature felt by the late Victorians than this novella. The ever rational, modern men of science are confronted with the unimaginable power of nature and, although Dr. Cathcart is able to explain away some of the events, even he is still left baffled by the end. It doesn’t take long for the Canadian wilderness to transform into a primordial realm where man is prey to shadowy undreamt of creatures. Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” comes to mind as a similar example.

When Simpson is alone, paranoia sets in. He begins imagining that he is being stalked by something in the woods, that it is peering from behind boulders as he passes, waiting for the right moment to strike. Perhaps it is just imagination, but who can say? It is easy to write off those feelings while safely surrounded by the city, but alone in the deep woods, the sun setting, those lines that separate the possible from the supernatural can become very blurry.

The Wendigo of Algonquian mythology was basically vampiric in nature. They appeared emaciated and always starving; no matter how much they consumed they wanted more. They were also closely associated with cannibalism; they fed on other people. The Wendigo gave off a distinct odor of decomposition, death, and corruption. Blackwood incorporated the odor as a key element in the story. One turned into a Wendigo by engaging in cannibalism, but you could also become possessed by a Wendigo spirit in a dream. Once turned, the victim would have an insatiable desire to eat human flesh.

It is easy to think that the Wendigo was simply a boogeyman to the Algonquian; however it was much more real to them than you may think. Wendigo Psychosis is a “culture-bound disorder formerly of the Algonquian tribes of North America which involves an intense craving for human flesh—even when other food sources are readily available—and the fear that one will turn into a cannibal. The condition has waned with urbanisation.”1 There have been a number of documented instances where a tribesman contracts this neurosis, usually resulting in the murder of his family.

One example is the case of Swift Runner. In 1879 he was hung at Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Canada, after killing and eating a total of nine people. These included his wife, mother, brother, and six children over the course of  the winter of 1878.

According to accounts, he wandered alone into the Catholic Mission in St. Albert in the spring of 1879, claiming to be the only member of his family who didn't starve to death over a particularly cold, bitter winter.
The priests became suspicious when they realized that Swift Runner, who weighed around 200 pounds, didn't seem malnourished at all and was plagued with screaming fits and nightmares as he slept. He told them he was being tormented by an evil spirit, called Windigo, but said little else about it.
They reported their misgivings to police, who took Swift Runner to his family campground in the woods northeast of Edmonton, where they made a horrific discovery - the site was littered with bones, bits of flesh and hair. Some accounts claim that the larger bones had even been snapped and the marrow sucked out.
He eventually confessed that he shot some of his family, bludgeoned others with an axe and even strangled one girl with a cord. In some accounts, Swift Runner said he fed one boy human flesh before he too was killed.2
Swift Runner, Taken Prior to His Execution

The Wendigo of Blackwood, however, preferred to consume men’s minds over their flesh. After seeing the Wendigo, the victim was left essentially brain dead, his mind completely gone; nothing but a shell of a person remained.

It is imperative to note that when reading literature from another era, it is important to remember not to judge it by modern standards and sensibilities. Blackwood presented the characters as they were, uncouth language and all. The character Hank does use the “N” word and the Native American cook has a derogatory sounding name, “Punk,” which was likely meant to be comic. This would, rightly so, be deemed offensive today, but in 1910 things were quite different. This story would not have raised any eyebrows and Blackwood was no racist for he merely used the language of his time.

The next time you go camping, be sure to bring a copy and read it with everyone gathered around a campfire.


1. Segen's Medical Dictionary. © 2012 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved.


~ The entire novella can be read for free online here: The Wendigo

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Dance Manias of the Dark Ages

The Dancing Mania by Hendrick Hondius (1642)

Dance mania was a craze that hit Europe primarily in the late fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. Gangs of people, usually young, would spontaneously gather in circles and begin a spasmodic, jerking, convulsive dance. They would twist and contort wildly, scream, and even foam at the mouth. While in the throes of the mania, they would be delirious and seemingly unable to see or hear anything around them. Some would have fantastic visions of both heaven and devils and would shriek out the names of whatever spirits they saw. Others would fall to the ground gasping for breath, only to spring back up and continue the bizarre dance. Groveling in the mud like pigs, making animal sounds, making obscene gestures, and ripping off their clothes to dance naked were not uncommon; even outright sexual intercourse has been documented as occurring during these manias. The fit would conclude with the maniacs finally collapsing on the ground in complete exhaustion as they returned to their senses. The dance could last anywhere from a few hours to days, weeks or even months in some cases, and the number of dancers ranged from a dozen to thousands.

This spectacle was commonly known as either St. Vitus’s dance or St. John’s dance depending on the region. However, the earliest dances were thought to be the result of demonic possessions. A dance that erupted in a churchyard in Kölbigk in 1247 was described as a “polluted ring-dance of sin.” A fourteenth century monk recorded that the dancers were tormented by Satan and were driven to drown themselves in the Rhine due to the agony they felt during the dance. The chroniclers of this period are clear that the dancers were in pain and unable to stop to movements.

All of the dancers across the continent enjoyed music and the manias were always in the summertime, primarily in July and August. It is also noteworthy that St. Vitus’s feast day is June 15 and St. John the 
Baptist’s feast day is June 24. The maniacs were almost exclusively from the peasant class, with the only exceptions being a few priests who succumbed to the craze. Another observation from historical records tells us that the outbreaks were always in times of particular hardship, such as famine or severe oppression form the nobility. 

In Liège, Belgium, the dancers were driven mad by the color red and pointed toe shoes, which were very much in fashion at the time. If the dancers saw either of these, they would attack the wearer. It became so bad that a local ordinance was put in place requiring only square toed shoes were to be made.

Different methods were tried to cure the mania, some with limited success. Tight cloths were bound around the victims’ stomachs and limbs; this practice was known as “swathing,” and it did relieve the symptoms temporarily in some cases. On many occasions, the dancers asked to be stomped on, have their stomachs beat, claiming they gained some relief from it. Exorcisms were also employed, with limited success. 

St Vitus chapel in Písek district, Czech Republic
St. Vitus is the patron saint of dancers, which is one reason he is easily associated with these dance epidemics. When he professed himself to be a Christian at age twelve, his father (a Roman senator) had him arrested and scourged. According to legend, during the night, his father looked in on him through a keyhole into the dungeon and saw St. Vitus dancing with seven angels. In 1278, about two hundred people danced on a bridge over the Maas River in Germany, when it collapsed, killing most of them. The survivors were taken to a church dedicated to St. Vitus, where they were all miraculously cured, further connecting St. Vitus to dancers. It came to be believed that St. Vitus inflicted the dancing mania onto those who angered or displeased him.

An Idol of Svetovid in Arkona, Germany
Frequently, sufferers of dance mania would be taken to, or directed towards, the nearest chapel dedicated to St. Vitus. The Cathedral of Prague is the most famed of them (although it is not affiliated with any dance manias), but there are many small countryside churches throughout France and Germany. It has been suggested that St. Vitus had a cult status among the common people of the time. This is not such a stretch, since it is known that in Slavic lands (particularly Serbia and Croatia), St. Vitus, or Sveti Vid as he is known there, replaced the older Pagan god Svantovid. Svantovid was the god of war, abundance, and most importantly fertility. Svantovid’s worship extended from the Black Sea to Poland, and it is not unreasonable to assume that St. Vitus held similar importance in western lands as well. 

Western Germany seems to have first associated the dance craze with St. John the Baptist. Cologne, 1374, was the site of an outbreak where the dancers begged to have their stomachs beaten and cried out to St. John for relief.  In 1463, during an outbreak, the dancers said they saw the “head of St. John the Baptist swimming in a sea of blood,” and in 1374, a small group of afflicted dancers ended at a chapel dedicated to him. That chapel became a pilgrimage site for dancers and the disease was known locally as “St. John’s Disease.” The connection of St. John and the dance mania spread from there.

View of the Strasbourg Canal Today
Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of eastern France, was the site of at least two notable dance manias. In 1418, after days of fasting and prayer a dance mania broke out. Exactly one century later, Strasbourg would be the scene of the largest recorded dance manias, which would come to be known as “The Dance Plague of 1518.” It all began one week before the festival of Mary Magdalene when a woman known only as Frau Troffea began the spastic dance in the streets. Over the next week more people joined in and after a month the numbers swelled to over four hundred. It is reported that a number of these dancers actually danced until they died of exhaustion or heart failure.

The term Dance Mania or "choreomania" was first used by Paracelsus, the renowned physician, alchemist, and astrologer. He was the first to attribute the mania to medical causes as opposed to the supernatural (i.e. demonic possession or curses from displeased saints). He visited Strasbourg seven years after the Dance Plague took place and is actually the only one to have recorded the name of Frau Troffea. From his case study of the incident, we know that at first, the citizens of Strasbourg suspected the frau of faking it, because “nothing annoyed her husband more than just dancing.” However, as the dance continued late into the night, they believed she was genuinely stricken. Paracelsus seemed to have believed that St. Vitus dance was more or less caused by unhappy wives doing it to make fools of their husbands. They then fell victim of what he termed “chorea lasciva” and were then unable to stop. He did not believe that to be the only cause, however. Paracelsus had three different causes:

First, from imagination (chorea astimativa); second, from sensual desires (chorea lasciva); third, from corporeal causes (chorea -naturatis). His method of cure was, with one exception, eminently sensible and modern: low diet, fasting, solitary confinement, being made to sit in uncomfortable places, till misery and pain cured the laughter and jigging desires, immersion in cold water, and even severe corporeal chastisement.
--Chambers's Journal, Volume 28, W. & R. Chambers, 1858

The Bite of a Tarantula was Believed to
Cause Dance Mania in Italy
Italy was also affected by dance mania; however, they knew it as tarantism. It was believed to be caused by the bite of a tarantula, hence the name. The earliest record of tarantism is to be found in the Cornucopiae Latinae Linguae by Nicholas Perotti in the fifteenth century. Perotti states that the malady began in the Apulia region of south east Italy (or the “boot heel” of Italy). The symptoms of tarantism were essentially the same as in St. Vitus’s dance. Tarantati (as sufferers of the mania were called) were incited at the color black. The Italian dancers were strongly drawn to the sea, sometimes even jumping into it to their deaths. The Tarantati enjoyed music as much as their northern counterparts; it was said that they were even cured of their malady by the music dissipating the “venom” from their blood. It has since been proven that tarantism is not caused by tarantula bites; tarantula bites are painful but pose no danger to humans. It is fascinating to note that, while St. Vitus’s dance died out by the end of the Renaissance, taratism in Italy, while rare, lasted into the present day. The last cases of it were investigated in 1959.

I feel like it is not surprising to see a great spectrum of behavior among the different outbreaks. We now know that it was not caused by the supernatural or even a medical disease, but rather a psychological cause. Most moderns attribute the dance crazes to mass hysteria. The behavior of the choreomaniacs is therefore likely to vary quite a bit from place to place, especially when taking into account the fact that the outbreaks spanned a few centuries, as well as different cultures.

It is worth noting, however, the similarities and possibility of a connection to earlier pagan rites. The bacchanalias of ancient Greece come to mind, as well as the rites of Cybele from Roman times. The bacchanalia is noted for its wild drunken revelries, and Maenads were said to become so ecstatic that they would tear apart animals with their bare hands; however this does not quite fit for the dance manias. Bacchanalias were much more joyful occasions than for the choreomaniacs. 

The rites of Cybele seem a very likely candidate to be a precursor to the dance manias. Ecstatic dances, wild music, and self mortification were all staples of the celebration. I think it worthwhile to quote at length from one of my source books: 

These rites came on the twenty-fourth of March, a day that was called, significantly enough, the "Day of Blood." At this time the Great Mother of the Gods inspired her devotees with a frenzy surpassing that which the followers of Dionysus knew. It was a madness induced not by wine, but by the din of crashing music, the dizzy whirling of the dance, and the sight of blood. The music that accompanied these rites was wild and barbaric, made by clashing cymbals and blatant horns, shrilling flutes and rolling drums. It was maddening music, noisy and savage. Lucian vividly described the wild tumult made by the Galli on Mount Ida blowing their horns, pounding their drums, and clashing their cymbals. Music of this kind--the Anatolian prototype of modern jazz--was popularly known as Phrygian music.
To the accompaniment of these barbaric strains a dance was staged. With wagging heads and streaming hair, the devotees of the Great Mother whirled their bodies round and round in a dizzy dance, shouting and singing as they gyrated. Apuleius pictured such a dance performed in a Thessalian village by the mendicant priests of the Syrian goddess.                                              --Pagan Regeneration, by Harold R. Willoughby, ch. 5

Cybele was Commonly Depicted with Two lions
and a Hand-Held Drum Called A "Tympanum"

Some sects of the early Christians also danced in circles, possibly in imitation of the Hellenic Mystery cults. According to the apocryphal record of this ritual dance, the men and women would separate into two groups, hold hands and dance in a circle while singing a hymn, led by Jesus (or presumably a priest standing in his place). It concludes with:

“And having danced these things with us, Beloved, the Lord went forth. And we, as though beside ourselves, or wakened out of [deep] sleep, fled each our several ways.” --The Hymn of Jesus by G.R.S. Mead

Interestingly, while researching this topic, I was surprised to find that there are very few period artistic representations of the dance manias. I find that rather strange; usually, the local artists are quick to document unusual occurrences, especially in a city the size of Strasbourg. Taking into account the possible association of St. Vitus with the older pagan god, perhaps the Catholic church suppressed depictions of these events, viewing them as remnants of the pagan cult.

We may never know the full details of this most bizarre phenomenon. Was it a relic of Europe’s Pagan past, a massive outbreak of some unknown neurological illness, or just a mass delusion? I would suspect a combination thereof, as things as complicated as this are usually not attributable to one easy cause. It is also important to consider cultural differences between the middle ages and today; I’ve no doubt that a fourteenth century observer would find many of our practices equally strange. 

An Engraving Usually Captioned as a Village Dance;
However, It Does Bear a Resemblance to a Dance Mania


Bartholomew, Robert E. 2001. Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics. McFarland & Company, Inc. 

Daboo, Jerry. 2010. Ritual, Rapture and Remorse: A Study of Tarantism and Pizzica in Salento. Peter Lang Publisher. 

Mead, G.R.S. 1963. The Hymn of Jesus. John M. Watkins Publisher.

Waller, John. 2009. The Dancing Plague. Sourcebooks, Inc.

Willoughby, Harold R. 1929. Pagan Regeneration. The University of Chicago Press.

Retrieved October 21, 2012 from Catholic Online: Saints & Angels: St. Vitus:

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Trip To The Historic Voodoo Museum

Between Bourbon and Royal Street, just a few blocks away from the Saint Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square, you will find the historical Voodoo Museum. While the French Quarter has numerous Voodoo shops and other touristy boutiques, the Voodoo Museum really stands out. Even though it's been nearly three years since I visited New Orleans, I still find myself reminiscing over the photos and short video my wife filmed of this little museum.

This museum is authentic. None of the cheap imitations you find in the other shops you’ll find peppered throughout the Vieux Carré. Photos and videos are not only allowed, but encouraged--another aspect that sticks out here because most of the other Voodoo shops do not allow photos.

One of the displays that is particularly interesting is the alligator-headed man known as “L’Acallemon.” He seems to be a scarecrow stuffed with Spanish Moss. The name “L’Acallemon” is difficult to translate; it is not French, most likely from a local Cajun dialect. My attempts to translate it have failed to shed any light on the name's origin. His placard reads:

“L’Acallemon is a powerful symbol that protects against le loup-garou [French for werewolf]. In the springtime when the alligators come out of hibernation, Hoodoo practitioners honor him with a special ritual to ensure his protection throughout the year.”

In Cajun folklore, the werewolf (known both as loup-garou and rougarou depending on the region) is known to target Catholics who do not follow the rules of Lent, disobedient children, and basically anyone out at night unlucky enough to cross his path. In some traditions, being turned into a werewolf is the penalty for breaking Lent seven years consecutively. Rougarou also takes on vampiric qualities--in some legends, the rougarou sucks one or three drops of blood from a victim and passes the curse onto them. On particularly dark and windy nights, all rougarous are said to gather for grand balls deep in the bayou.

Since the rougarou is such a danger, it is no wonder that L’Acallemon would have to be equally frightful to ward him off.

The skeletal man next to L’Acallemon is known as “Baron Samedi.” In Haitian Voodoo, he is the god of death. He is almost always depicted in a black dinner jacket and top hat because that is the traditional Haitian way to dress the dead for burial. However, as master of death, he also has the power to extend life. He can cure mortal illnesses and lift curses. He greets the newly dead and guides them through the spiritual realm. He is very sexual, drawing parallels between the interconnected nature of life, death, and rebirth. Baron Samedi features prominently in Black Magic.

Voodoo alters are quite cluttersome affairs. Offerings to the spirits, candles, and holy statues are all to be found on one. All offerings, be it a bottle of rum, a few small coins, beads or even cigarettes are commonly seen, and all are sacred to the spirits. Gris-gris are also to be found here.

Voodoo Ceremony by C.M. Gandolfo

Li Grand Zombi of Louisiana Voodoo is much more than just a snake deity. Zombi is the creator of humanity and is supreme among the other spirits, or “loas” as they are referred to in Voodoo. Li Grand Zombi is closely associated with Marie Laveau, the legendary Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Some say she had a giant boa constrictor that was kept either next to or under her bed. However, there is much ambiguity around these stories and many doubt that they are even true. The roots of this supreme snake god, however, lay in West Africa, where the supreme creator god is known as Nzombi a Mpungu or just Nzombi. In Voodoo, the snake does not have the same evil connotation as it does in the Christian tradition. The name Nzombi could even be compared to the Tetragrammaton of Jewish mysticism:

“The name for God is NZAMBI and its literal meaning is the personal essence (IMBI) of the fours (ZIA or ZA = fours). What then are the fours? They are the groups each of four powers called BAKICI BACI, which we have just discussed. The prefix BA the plural of N proving that these powers are personalities or attributes of a person, that is they are not ZINKICI like the mere wooden figures. Each group may be said to be composed of (1) a cause, (2 and 3) male and female parts, and (4) an effect. The group NZAMBI itself may be said to have four parts-(4) NZAMBI the abstract idea, the cause, (2 and 3) NZAMBI MPUNGU God Almighty, the father God who dwells in the heavens and is the guardian of the fire, NZAMBICI God the essence, the God on earth, the great princess, the mother of all the animals, the one who promises her daughter to the animal who shall bring her the fire from heaven, (4) KICI, the mysterious inherent quality in things that causes the BAVILI to fear and respect. This word was translated as 'holy' by the first missionaries that came to the Congo, but many people now speak of it as 'fetish,' and in Seven Years Among the Fjort, I write of NKICI as evil. I had then only heard the word used in connection with fetish as NKICI and had hardly heard of the BAKICI BACI." -- R.E. Dennett, At the Back of the Black Man’s Mind, chapter 16

This is of course too broad a topic to cover fully in this short posting. If you ever find yourself in New Orleans, a trip to the worlds only Voodoo Museum is well worth the small price of admission. The staff and owner are very warm welcoming and really love what they do. As can be seen in the above video, a wonderful mix of local music plays throughout the museum. The spirits are definitely present here and I have no doubt that they blessed me while I was here.


Address of the Voodoo Museum: 724 Dumaine Street, New Orleans, LA  70116
Official website:

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Honey Scream

I have tons of writing to do, house chores, and god knows what else I’ve neglected. So naturally I spent an hour and a half inserting Honey Boo Boo into Edvard Munch’s masterwork “The Scream.”