The Mythology of Hannibal Lecter

 

Hannibal the Series embodies so many themes and myths, its difficult to parse them all (and its possible Fuller may never have intended to make a few of them, if he was simply following the general theme of the films), but some of its themes are classics of the Western, and sometimes World, traditions.

 

Hunting:

It’s a motif that’s threaded throughout  the serie’s primary narrative, which is the Gothic Romance, between its  two major characters, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter. That Lecter is a predator is made abundantly clear to the viewers. What is not made equally clear, is that everyone else in the show are a Hunters and this is the general theme of the first season. The difference is subtle but there. Lecter preys. Jack and the others Hunt. From Abigail (note Abigail’s various hunting jackets and other attire) and her father, to Jack Crawford and his team, to the serial killers they hunt throughout the first season. Most of the hunters we see have the full weight and backing of government authority, and that includes Lecter, when he’s consulting for the FBI. One could say that their job is to hunt people who are not sanctioned by the government to do so.

But Hunting is not the only mythology represented. This is a many layered series, and a  pantheon of other stories and  mythologies  can be seen within it.

 

  1. The Wild Hunt:

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The Wild Hunt

There are myths of the Wild Hunt all over Western Europe. One of the things they all have in common is that there is a leader, his riders, and a pack of hounds, like any other hunt. It often takes place in Winter or at night, and if you’re caught out in the open when The Wild hunt finds you, your options are vanishingly small.

Flee or die.

Everyone in this series is a Hunter, to a greater or lesser degree. Even Alana,  through her work as a consultant profiler in the FBI, can also be classified as such, although she might be considered one of the lesser hounds. Jack  and Will Graham would be considered the top tier, while Hannibal is, without question, considered to be the ultimate, the pinnacle (until he is deposed by Will Graham, who captures him.)

Jack Crawford has a team of his own hounds,  Price, Zeller, and Katz, and they are very good at their jobs, bringing their prey to ground, time after time, even when it turns out to be one of their own. Jack’s primary prey is the Chesapeake Ripper, with whom he is obsessed. This is an obsession that nearly causes his downfall in the FBI, when one of his hounds goes astray, but he is willing to hunt without government authority, in season three. That said, Jack still has bosses, who can call him to heel, when they feel he’s going outside the bounds of the law.

This is something that’s also true of Will Graham. He also works within the purview of the FBI, but has even less authority than Jack, as Jack is his superior. He is often coded as a wolf to Lecter’s bear,  and at one point is openly referred to as Jack Crawford’s hound. In the first season, before he becomes fully cognizant of how much power he possesses, Will is one of those  poor souls caught out at night by the Wild Hunt. Rather than kill him however, Lecter would prefer that he join him instead, an option not  found in the original mythology.

If the FBI can be considered a version of the Wild Hunt, chasing down those humans who have wandered out into the dark night of the soul, then having positioned himself within the FBI, Lecter could be considered its leader, as he controls and manipulates the hunt and the hunters. He knows more than the government that controls Jack Crawford. He knows more than everyone, and during the first two seasons of the series, Lecter is clearly situated as an omniscient,  God-like being who  sees everything.

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2.The DireRavenStag/The Wild Hunt

Lecter is represented by the RavenStag a combination of the deer’s head and ravens found with the body of Cassie Boyle. This is Lecter’s first killing within the series, and it is the one that sets Will Graham on his trail, as The Chesapeake Ripper hasn’t killed in a number of years. In Germanic mythology, Odin is the leader of the Wild Hunt and is accompanied by the ravens Munin and Hugnin, which mean memory and thought. (In some missives, their names mean “Desire” and “Thought”, which also works within the narrative of the series.)

Both  Will and Lecter represent Odin’s ravens. Lecter ‘s primary qualification is  “thought”, in his job as a psychiatrist, and he and Will have the highest forms of “thought” and “memory”, in the series. Will, as a profiler who reconstructs crime scenes, represents “memory”. (Note:There’s a statue of a black Hart in Lecter’s office, which is often seen during his sessions with Will.) Working together, like Odin’s ravens, Will and Lecter bring information back  to Jack Crawford,  information used by Jack in his hunt for killers.

The Wild Hunt is often shown chasing  a White Hart, so all the animals of the Hunt are represented in the series. The ravens represent The Hunters, while the Stag/Hart represents The Hunted. In the series, Lecter, as the Chesapeake Ripper and member of the FBI task force charged with finding himself,  is both the pursued and the pursuer. Will is also the pursued and pursuer, as he hunts Lecter, Lecter hunts Will.

The Wild Hunt only occurs at night and in the depths of Winter. (Note how many times we get to see Lecter show his true face during the day.) During the daylight hours, Lecter wears the disguise of a benignly polite person suit, as noted by his own therapist Bedelia DuMaurier. We mostly see Lecter’s real face at night, when he’s in session with Will Graham, or eating and cooking his prey.  As the second season progresses, we see his real face more and more often, day or night. By the third season, he has dropped his person suit entirely,  which  is most evident after his incarceration.

How often do we notice snow outside of Lecter’s dining room windows? During the first two seasons, especially when visiting Lecter’s home, it is almost always snowing. It is also  snowing in the some of the  most dramatic moments of the first season, when Lecter is deeply involved in scheming. (For example, during Abel Gideon’s escape, and Will’s hunt for him.)

In the first season, Lecter allows his crimes as The Chesapeake Ripper to be subsumed by the crimes of others, throwing Jack Crawford and his hounds off his trail, (except for Will Graham.) But his arrogance will not allow for this situation to last for long. He is a vain and egotistical creature, that wishes to be known, and being pursued by Will Graham is restricting for him.  He has to put Jack’s hound off his trail, and so first discredits, then frames Will for his own crimes.

In season two, Lecter is content, in Will’s absence, to consume other serial killers and their works. First subsuming the crimes of the  Eye of God Killer, and eating parts of him. Finally culminating in eating most of Abel Gideon, and by doing so, erasing Gideon’s crimes, as we begin to sympathize with Abel’s misfortune at falling into Lecter’s hands.

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While Lecter is doing this, he is also hunting and being hunted by Will Graham, the two of them pursuing each other in a tighter and tighter orbit, until they have no choice but to join as one. They are the head and tail of the Ouroboros. They are Yin and Yang. As Jack states to Chiyo in season three,  “They are identically different”.

Lecter’s  pursuit of Will’s understanding, then friendship, companionship, and ultimately Will’s love, is the driving force of the second season. And if the coda to the story, at the end of season three, is truthful, then his pursuit is successful, as he and Will are now hunting together, and are starting with Bedelia.

 

3. Herne the Hunter/Cernunnos/Satan

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Cernunnos is a Celtic god associated with sexuality, fertility, the hunt, and the underworld. He was worshiped by the iron age Celts all across Europe as late as the first century CE, and his worship must have begun centuries before that. Cernunnos is a Romanized name meaning “Horned One.”

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In English folklore, Herne the Hunter is a ghost associated with Windsor Forest and Great Park in the English county of Berkshire. He has antlers upon his head.

In the second season, Lecter is coded as a Satanic figure, as this season chronicles his fall,  and loss of trust, with the FBI. During the first season, Lecter is represented by the DireRavenStag, an amalgam of imagery from the first Copycat crime scene. After Will Graham surmises that the Copycat Killer is also The Chesapeake Ripper, that hallucination morphs into the ManStag, into Cernunnos:

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At the beginning of season two, it is shown killing and eating The RavenStag. (This is one of several deaths of the RavenStag we will see in the series.)

In season two, Abel Gideon flatly states that Hannibal is the Devil, and every mention or appearance of Lecter is often preceded by the image, or sound, of either the Stag or  ManStag. In the final episode of Season one (Savoureux), the ManStag replaces  Hannibal Lecter altogether, just after Will’s been shot, looming over Jack Crawford. In episode one of season two, (Kaiseki), after Will tells Chilton he wants to speak to Hannibal, there’s the image of the ManStag, rising from the waters of Will’s dream river, before we go to a scene of Chilton talking to Lecter in his dining room. In the second episode, (Sakizuke), Lecter’s appearance is preceded by the sound of hooves, and shots of a cloven hoof.

Lecter is deeply lonely because he is, as was once  said of Will Graham, often the smartest person in the room (certainly in the series), just as Lucifer was the most intelligent creature God ever created. Like Lucifer, Lecter doesn’t believe God can sit in judgement of him. He believes himself to be God’s equal, and states, if a certain behavior is good enough for God to commit, than why can’t he. He thinks God is without morality. Lecter, as he tells the Eye of God Killer,  believes himself high enough to  look God in the eye.

In season three, when Bedelia  asks what happened to make him what he is, he abjures his “making” by saying, ” Nothing happened to me. I happened”, which is a callback to the Hebrew name for God, “I AM”.

 

4. The Wendigo/The ManStag:

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In keeping with the theme of Lecter as a demonic figure, the ManStag is often referred to as the Wendigo, a demonic, cannibalistic spirit of the Wilderness and a legend of the Algonquin peoples of the Northwestern US. Note the similarity to Cernunnos , Lucifer, and Herne the Hunter. (The Wendigo is just one of the many dozens of Hunting deities and demons throughout the world.)

The term Wendigo is used to describe the demonic spirit, and the being a person becomes, after eating human flesh. Legend has it that once someone has tasted human flesh, they will develop an insatiable craving, or addiction for it. Lecter often seems compulsive in his need to kill. One of the reasons he consults with the FBI, is to be close to the crime scenes of other killers, so he can copy them later, and have his own killings attributed to others.

Lecter never passes up any opportunity to insert himself into another’s crime. Its as if he can’t stop himself. It really does seem compulsive. In season two it seems  he  consumes the crimes themselves. By killing the killers he is supposed to be catching, he makes their crimes that of  The Chesapeake Ripper’s, by extension.

In the first season, we are told that the Chesapeake Ripper remains inactive for long periods of time, after killing in bounders of three or four. Will states that the Chesapeake Ripper has no respect for the people he kills, believing them to be like pigs, and he is correct. As Lecter tells Abel Gideon, its only cannibalism when its among equals, and he does not believe the people he kills are his equals. Chilton tells Jack, in season two,  that cannibalism is a form of dominance.

Jack never becomes a Wendigo, but he and Will regularly eat human meat at Lecter’s table. Only Will comes closest to becoming one, as he voluntarily eats the flesh of Randall Tier, while deceiving Lecter into believing its Freddie Lounds. Will pretends to be a Wendigo, pretends to have developed a love of killing, in order  to deceive Lecter. But the first time Will eats human flesh is when Lecter feeds him Cassie Boyle’s ground up lungs. So one can make the  argument that Will becomes possessed by the spirit of The Wendigo. Will is a false Wendigo, however, having been accused of cannibalism, and  framed, by Lecter.

We are told that The Chesapeake Ripper takes a sabbatical from killing for two or three year, so it is telling that,  three years after Lecter’s incarceration, Will is drawn back into Lecter’s orbit, and Lecter resumes killing. First using The Red Dragon as a proxy, then killing The Dragon in partnership with Will.

One could make the argument that Jack is immune, but we don’t  see Jack become violent in the series, until after he finds out that Lecter’s been feeding him human meat,  after which he tries to kill Lecter during the finale. (So one can make the argument that Jack becomes  more bloodthirsty, as well)

Alana is also affected by her close association with The Wendigo. She too, is possessed by its spirit. Contrast the Alana from first season with the hardened and vengeful woman of the third. Her eyes have a sharper glint and her facial expressions have hardened. Due to Lecter’s influence, she has become less human, willing to aid and abet the torture and cannibalism of another person, something that would have been absolutely  unthinkable to the Alana of the first and second  season.  Like Jack, she too, has been possessed by the Wenndigo’s thirst for blood.

Another victim of association with Lecter, Chilton, also becomes a vengeful bloodthirsty person who is  wholly justified in his sentiments, but once again, Lecter seems to have brought out the worst in another.

In light of Lecter’s practice of encouraging people to be their ultimate and   true selves, his tactics are certainly successful in getting the people in his orbit to be more like him. In that sense Lecter, certainly lives up to the Wendigo’s reputation.

 

5. The Courtship of Will Graham

Above Lecter’s mantle, hangs the 1740 painting by Francois Boucher, of Leda and the Swan. The story, as it is told from Greek mythology, is that  Zeus fell in love with her beauty, came to earth, and in the form of a swan, seduced and raped her.

In season one, Hannibal sees something in Will Graham that fascinates him. He is deeply curious about this odd man and how his empathy disorder squares with taking  life. When Will shoots Garrett Jacob Hobbes that incident seems to galvanize Lecter. He’d already seen Will use his superpowers to deduce the difference between the Minnesota Shrike and the Copycat but hadn’t yet seen the brutal, unhesitating efficiency that Will is capable of when threatened.

Lecter, so far above everyone else in taste, intellect, and bearing, is a profoundly lonely man. I posit that he has never had any actual  friends in his life. He’s always been separate and above. As a god, he has no boundaries, can do as he pleases to the creatures beneath him,  and has to hide what he is, but he finds his equal in Will and becomes smitten with the idea of someone who can not only look on his true face, but accept it. First he has to awaken Will Graham to his true nature. He has  to  get   Will to accept that they wear the same face.

Thus begins the courtship of Will Graham.

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During the Minnesota Shrike case, their first case together,  Lecter feeds Will the first of the copycat victims, Cassie Boyle. He removed her lungs while she was still alive and ground them into sausage that he fed to Will, at their first breakfast. I viewed this as a form of courtship feeding, (although if one couples this with the Wendigo narrative above, it can also be coded as a form of rape, since Lecter doesn’t get Will’s consent before feeding him people). Courtship feeding is  something that occurs at right at the opening of their relationship, and is defined as the presentation of food by one partner to the other during courtship (the behavior of male birds and other animals aimed at attracting a mate.) And Lecter does engage in a form of Courtship with Will. Having had his first overture of friendship rejected, Lecter, not understanding/caring about boundaries,  proceeds to flatter, cajole, and otherwise break down Will’s barriers to therapy, friendship and eventually love.

Lecter determines  what it is that  Will needs to hear about himself and says it. He says  flattering things to Will, and tries to create a bond through shared traits, after all Will is lonely and misunderstood, too. Later in the series, he regrets having abused Will’s trust, misses Will’s presence in his life,  and tries to win him back, springing him from prison and writing love letters to him in the form of dead bodies.

 

6. La Vita Nuova/ Vide Cor Meum

Lecter and Will Graham’s relationship has often been described as a Gothic Romance by Bryan Fuller, and one of the musical themes associated specifically with Hannibal Lecter, in both the  movies and the series, is an adaptation by Patrick Cassidy of Vide Cor Meum from the opera La Vita Nuova.

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La Vita Nuova is an autobiographical opera written by Dante Alighieri in 1295. The title means The New Life, which is an expression of “Courtly Love”, a system of ritualized courtship of that time period. Vide Cor Meum  was specially composed  and  based on the sonnet “A ciascun’alma presa”, in chapter 3 of La Vita Nuova.  Dante  addressed this particular poem to his  great love, Beatrice, from whom he tried to conceal it by dating other women.

Vide Cor Meum/See My Heart

 And thinking of her
Sweet sleep overcame me

I am your master
See your heart
And of this burning heart
Your heart
(Chorus: She trembling)
Obediently eats.
Weeping, I saw him then depart from me.

Joy is converted
To bitterest tears

I am in peace
My heart
I am in peace
See my heart

 

Lecter is Dante, and Will,  his Beatrice, from whom Lecter tries to hide his love, by killing other people, I guess.

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Dante and Beatrice By Henry Holiday (1839 – 1927) (British)

This particular custom also involved the notion of “Sweet Suffering”, featuring the imagery of pierced and bound hearts. In season three, Lecter makes an origami heart from the skinned body of Anthony Dimmond,   presenting  it to Will in the Palatine Chapel. The “body heart” is held up by three inverted swords, which in the Tarot, mean forgiveness and moving on from some great emotional setback, (meaning Lecter’s betrayal by Will, in season two.  By presenting Will  with this token, Lecter is telling Will he forgives him. ) At the same time that Will discovers Dimmond’s body, we see Hannibal making  a paper heart out of the image of Da Vinci’s  Vitruvian Man, (The Perfect Man), while discussing Will with Bedelia.

Will is Lecter’s Perfect Man.

 

Hannibal the Series is so rich with meaning and these are just a few of the Western Myths and beliefs that have, through Bryan Fuller, infiltrated this narrative, (although Fuller may not be entirely aware of all of these himself.) Some of these themes are universal and can be found in the myth and story traditions of many countries, but since Bryan Fuller is American, I’ve stuck to Western comparisons, as these are the stories most likely to have influenced him, if at all.

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6 thoughts on “The Mythology of Hannibal Lecter

  1. I did read the Grace Jones book. It was fascinating. I had no idea about some of her life situations. Some others I expected, like some of the men she dated.

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  2. jennnanigans

    MASTERFUL Summation! This is a hell of a write-up, I love it!
    I love the connection between Will and Hannibal and Odin’s ravens! I think that’s particularly apt in the first season, when they are sent out by Jack and are ‘working’ for him. It makes him an Odin-figure, which is kind of how I’ve always seen Crawford.
    I think the Herne/Cerunnos connection is great too. Everybody knows about the Wendigo connection but I hadn’t thought about the Hunter trope. Great point!
    This write-up is making me SUPER excited for Fuller’s take on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods!

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    1. Yes! I expect lots and lots of layers in American Gods. I am on that as soon as it begins. One of these days I’m also going to finish the book. I want to be informed before that show starts.

      Now if only we could get an American version of Neverwhere, too.

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