Dec 22, 2022 I Nick Redfern

The Most Terrifying Creatures in the Domain of Cryptozoology: Shapeshifting, Skinwalkers and the Wendigo

All around the world there are stories of certain shapeshifters that should be avoided at all costs. They are supernatural, cold-hearted entities that provoke overwhelming fear and dread - for reasons that will soon become very apparent. The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was someone who had a near-lifelong interest in shapeshifters, and particularly so the traditional werewolf – or wolf-man - of France, Germany, and Austria of the Middle Ages. As Baring-Gould dug further into the controversy of man becoming animal and man again, however, he developed a deep passion for the folklore and mythology of Iceland and Scandinavia – and as well as for the many and varied mysterious creatures that dwelled in such countries. Baring-Gould’s publication, The Book of Werewolves, reveals that of particular fascination to him were the Eigi Einhamir, which, basically, means “of more than one skin,” a phrase which Baring-Gould specifically used in his book. There may not be a better way of describing a supernatural shapeshifter. The saga of the Eigi Einhamir dates far back into history; in fact, to the very earliest years of Pagan times when Christianity had still yet to leave its mark on much of Europe. 

(Nick Redfern) The late Rosemary Ellen Guiley was an expert on shapeshifters.

Chiefly, the story of these enigmatic and dangerous people originates in Norway and Iceland. The Eigi Einhamir were a unique and mysterious band of mighty warriors who dwelled in the frozen wastelands and who could take on the form of just about any living entity that crossed their minds. The animals whose forms they assumed were referred to as the Hamr, while the actual process of bodily transformation was known as Skipta Homum. It wasn’t just a case of physically mutating, however. The Eigi Einhamir not only took on the muscle-power of the creature at issue, whether a bear, a wolf, or a wild cat. Their minds were majorly altered, too, and to the point where the innate savagery and beastly natures of the animals overwhelmed both their human minds and thought processes.The mutation did not occur as it did with the likes of the werewolf, however. On some occasions, the person’s soul would leave their body and invade the mind of the animal, effectively taking it over. For the onlookers, it was a traumatic time, as – with the soul now in a new body – the original body lay rigidly and unmoving and seemingly in a state of death. At least, that is, until the soul returned to its original body. At that point, the person would then suddenly wake up, almost as if they were rising from the grave. The Walking Dead? Not quite, but not too far away either. Perhaps even more intriguing, the Eigi Einhamir had the near-unique ability to take over the thought-processes of people – and plunge them into hypnotic-like, altered states – and make it appear as if they had shapeshifted, when, on some occasions, it was all in the mind, so to speak.

There was one way, however, in which the Eigi Einhamir could be identified, regardless of the particular type of animal into which they morphed. It was by looking carefully at their eyes. That was the Eigi Einhamir’s one and only weak spot: their eyes never changed from their original, human form. Even when the witness to their activities was in a hypnotized condition, or when the soul of the Eigi Einhamir entered, and took control of, the animal’s mind, the eyes of the beast were always the eyes of shapeshifter. In that sense, identifying an animal that was not an animal – but one of the Eigi Einhamir, instead – was relatively easy. It would, after all, be very strange to see a wolf or a bear with eyes that were definitively human in appearance. When the eyes of a human were seen staring out of the face of a beast, those that feared the Eigi Einhamir took quick and decisive steps to end its malevolent and strange existence.  

In the same way that silver bullets and fire are said to be the weak spot of werewolves everywhere, so were the eyes to the Eigi Einhamir. The Wendigo is a very much misunderstood monster, one which is a staple part of the folklore and legend of the Native American tribe known as the Algonquin. The monster is typically described as a tall, crazed and violent thing that roams the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the northernmost states of the U.S., and Canada. It is a large, humanoid beast that dines on human flesh. There is, however, another aspect to the lore surrounding the Wendigo. Namely, that if a person eats human flesh, he or she can shapeshift into a Wendigo. Adding to the legend, the Wendigo has the ability to take control of our minds – always for terrible and horrific reasons. In that sense, as well as a shapeshifting angle, there is what we might term a mind-shifting process, too.

(Nick Redfern) The Wendigo: a deadly beast.

One of the more intriguing theories for what may have provoked the legends of the Wendigo is that they were based upon early, centuries-old reports of Bigfoot encounters. Certainly, there are more than a few reports in which Bigfoot-type beasts have acted violently in the presence of people. There are even reports of people vanishing in the woods and forests of the United States – amid theories that the Bigfoot, when food is scarce, will feed on just about anything. And that includes us. In that sense, it may not so far out, after all, to suggest the shapeshifting Wendigo and the North American Bigfoot are one and the same.

Of the various stories that surround the Wendigo, certainly the most horrific revolves around a Cree Native American name Swift Runner, who lived with his family in an area of forest close to Edmonton, Canada. It is a macabre tale told in Andrew Hanon’s 2008 article “Evil spirit made man eat family,” and in Joey Storm Walker’s “Swift Runner.” As 1878 rolled over into 1879, Swift Runner turned up in the city of St. Albert, Canada. He told a bleak and harrowing story of how all of his family – his wife, his six children, and his mother and brother - had fallen victim to the recent, hostile winter, in which food was beyond scarce and temperatures plunged. As plausible as the story told by Swift Runner to a group of Catholic priests sounded, there was a significant red flag. Swift Runner hardly looked emaciated. In fact, he looked very well fed. That’s because he was: Swift Runner spent the winter devouring his entire family, eating their flesh and gnawing on their bones – as the St. Albert police found to their horror when they traveled to the site of his home in the woods. Suspicions soon began to surface that Swift Runner was possessed by a Wendigo: he began to exhibit bizarre, animalistic activity, such as howling, growling, and screaming in savage fashion. Tales circulated that, on one occasion, Swift Runner was seen to transform into a savage-looking humanoid, a definitive Wendigo – something caused by his taste for human flesh. And, there is the Skinwalker. 

In the Middle Ages, the most feared of all the many and varied shapeshifters was the werewolf, and particularly so throughout much of Europe. Today, however, a very good, solid case can be made that the Skinwalker is one of the most dangerous transformer of all. It is a creature that dominates the culture and the folklore of certain Native Americans – and to the extent that some will not even utter its name, for fear of it creating a backlash against the person who dared to speak the deadly S–word. But what, exactly, are these things that instill such fear in countless numbers of people? Let us take a look. The answers are many, but you might not be happy with what you are about to learn. For certain Native American people, the Skinwalker – tales of which date back centuries - is a definitive witch, a crone-like thing that has the ability to change its form, and radically so, too. And it is not just one specific type of beast into which the witch can change, but multiple ones. While a shapeshifting Native American witch can take on, quite literally, hundreds of forms, the most often reported guises are bears, coyotes, various types of birds, and – at the top of the list – wolves or wolf-like animals. This latter issue, of course, emphasizes that the Skinwalker is not that dissimilar at all to the traditional European werewolf, despite being separated by distances of thousands of miles.   

There can be no doubt that, in recent times, at least, interest in the Skinwalker mystery soared in 2005. That was when Colm A. Kelleher and George Knapp penned their best-selling book, Hunt for the Skinwalker. It was a book which detailed strange and terrifying activity on a remote ranch in Utah – activity which suggested manipulative Skinwalkers had descended on the ranch and who quickly began wreaking havoc – maybe, simply, because they could. As well as experiencing countless UFO encounters, and sightings of large and hairy Bigfoot-type beasts, the family also had confrontations with a huge, malevolent wolf; a monster-size animal upon which bullets had absolutely no effect at all. As George Knapp noted in Hunt for the Skinwalker, with regard to the many and varied phenomena that caused chaos and mayhem on the ranch:  “…reality isn’t what it used to be.” There's no doubt about that!

For the Native Americans, however, reality hasn’t been what it appears to be for a very long time. The process by which a witch can become a Skinwalker is a highly complex one, and one which involves several different processes. For example, witches who are both learned and skilled in magical arts can transform themselves into a wide variety of creatures, and all by focusing on its image in their minds – very often in the confines of their teepee. In most cases, however, a witch will secure the hide of the animal they wish to become and wrap it around their shoulders and back. By effectively wearing the hide, the witch - slowly and step by step – becomes the very beast it specifically seeks to emulate. And, so Native American teachings maintain, that includes adopting its keen senses of smell and sight, its agility and speed, and even its complete, physical form.

(Federal Bureau of Investigation) The FBI has declassified its files on cattle mutilations and they are in the public domain.. Some believe the 1970s mutilations were caused by Skinwalkers.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of the Skinwalker is that it has the ability to supernaturally infect people with deadly diseases and life-threatening illnesses. Strangely, on more than a few occasions, those who have found themselves in the direct, close presence of a Skinwalker have –in mere days - succumbed to very rare medical conditions. Precisely how the Skinwalker can perform such a hostile thing remains unknown. It is, however, worth noting that the Skinwalker is said to have an expert knowledge of medicine, both ancient and modern. No wonder Native Americans avoid them at all costs. And it is not just people who can fall victim to this dangerous beast. Animals – very often, farm animals – have also become the targets of these multi-formed creatures. For example, so-called cattle-mutilations, which reached their peak in the 1970s – but which are still occasionally reported to this very day – are believed by some, certain Native Americans to be the work of crazed Skinwalkers. The approach of the creatures is to remove organs and blood from cattle, specifically to use it in yet further rites and rituals designed to enhance its paranormal powers to even greater degrees. This may not be quite as strange, or as unlikely, as it might seem: Between 1975 and 1978, police officers investigating dozens of cattle mutilation events in New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona found that many such attacks had specifically occurred on Native American reservations – something which is most assuredly food for thought. Beware!

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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