And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
Hannibal is a show of reference, mythology, and symbolism. Many of the posts I write will explore these topics in some way, because that’s what draws me in the most, and there’s a ridiculous amount of out-of-show context to dig in to. This post in particular will be one of many that looks at a specific animal that occurs in the show repeatedly, bearing some bigger significance. By the end of the series, we’ll have quite the bestiary compiled, but I’ve decided to start us out with one of the first animals that appears on the show. No, not dogs (that post comes later), but ravens.
We first see ravens in “Aperitif” as they peck away at the body of Cassie Boyle. Impaled on a stag head by Hannibal to help Will get a better grip on the “Minnesota Shrike,” Cassie’s body is assaulted by a pair of birds flapping and cawing as they make a meal out of what’s left, until Zeller comes in and shoos them away that is.
The entire tableau (classically described by Will as “Field Kabuki”) has a damaging and lasting impact on Will’s psyche, as it’s this scene that plants the seed of one of the show’s eeriest characters: the Ravenstag. Crafted by Will’s subconscious combination of the stag head and the ominous black birds, the Ravenstag is a nightmarish black stag accentuated with feathers at his scruff, legs, and tail. Appearing to Will in dreams and hallucinations both, the Ravenstag acts as a kind liminal marker for Will between consciousness and unconsciousness, and he appears as a harbinger of his growing relationship with Hannibal Lecter. The jury’s still out on whether the Ravenstag warns Will of what’s coming, or in fact helps lead him to it, but we know whatever his true purpose, the Ravenstag is Will’s first psychic connection to Hannibal. According to Fuller,
So he sees the ravens picking at the corpse on the severed stag head and amalgamates them into this black stag of his nightmares that is really his first touch with the evil that Hannibal Lecter is capable of. In his mind, in the recesses of his subconscious, there is a connection being made.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Ravenstag functions as some kind of portentous omen. Historically, ravens have been seen as exactly that across continents and cultures. Ornithomancy, using birds to divine the future, dates back to the ancient Greeks, and in ancient Rome, augurs (ornithomancy priests) tracked ravens and other birds for signs of the future. So what do ravens foretell in the first place?
Corvids of all kinds have long been associated with divination and dreams, but particularly dreams and divinings of death and destruction. Like the image above of Cassie Boyle’s body, it’s the common sight of ravens and crows scavenging on the bodies of 19th century dead soldiers that have partly led to their negative connotations today. And that’s probably why a collective of crows is called a murder, and one of ravens an unkindness.
Corvids have also been linked with the destructive and chaotic nature of divine femininity and the Great Goddess, the blackness of their feathers signifying darkness, death, and fertility. This makes me think of the Morrigan. An Irish goddess of war and death, the Morrigan was associated with crows and was said to foretell the death of soldiers (sound familiar?). Sometimes the Morrigan was known as the goddess Badb, a crow goddess with similar skills. Badb foreshadowed the deaths of soldiers by wailing, which has devolved her mythology into the banshees of Scottish and Irish folklore. And as many of us know, banshees are yet another omen of death. Some have even believed that a crow sitting atop a house is actually a banshee in disguise.
Mythological women aren’t the only folks who’ve been associated with corvids. Odin, father of Thor and God of Way More Things Than I Realized When I Googled “Odin God of?” also famously had two ravens who perpetually perched on his shoulders: Hugin (whose name means “thought”) and Munin (whose name means “mind”). The job of these two birds was to fly across the world each day and report back to Odin what they saw. It is thanks to these ravens that Odin grew his insight and wisdom, as he was informed routinely of the ways of the world from his birds. They are, in a way, an extension of Odin, and function somewhat as messengers from beyond Odin’s own immediate realm.
I started this post with a quote from Poe’s well-known poem “The Raven,” and I want to circle back to it now. I’ve talked about how historically ravens and other corvids have been linked with death and mystery. How they’ve appeared throughout various histories and mythologies as messengers, omens, and unfortunate reminders of human mortality. We see a lot of this in “The Raven” too, a poem about a man faced with an odd raven who appears in the night and dredges up feelings of loss, longing, grief, and painful memories for the narrator. The bird’s vibe is demonic, and his presence proves a sort of torture for the man he visits.
All of these cultural sign posts have influenced the Ravenstag of the show. A creature of mysterious meaning, the Ravenstag consistently appears to Will as a messenger from some liminal space where Hannibal’s essence is starting to take hold. Scenes with the Ravenstag are often linked with violence, and while its presence may ultimately be benign, it symbolizes a much more insidious element of the show.
Though not as ominous as a banshee or as helpful as Hugin or Munin, the Ravenstag falls somewhere in between–both a warning for Will, and a companion of sorts, too. It proves itself as complicated a character on the show as anyone else.
- Bryan Fuller walks us through the first three episodes of Hannibal
- “THE BLACK STAG was tested with FULL RAVEN FEATHERS and HALF RAVEN FEATHERS. We went with partial feathers.”
- An Encyclopedia of Fairies – Katharine Briggs
- Norse Mythology – John Lindow
- Animal Symbolism in Art – Hope B. Werness
- Dictionary of Symbols – Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant
- “The Raven” – Edgar Allan Poe