In my previous post, I took some time to talk about ravens, one of the two animals that inspired Will’s nightmare vision:
Colloquially known as the Ravenstag, this creature has been a portentous figure of Will Graham’s psyche throughout the series. In my first post, I looked at how the historical folklore and mythology surrounding ravens resonates with the Raventstag’s presence in Hannibal. Today I want to give deer that same treatment.
In the show, deer and stags are primarily associated with death. In fact, our first sighting of one is a dead stag in Garret Jacob Hobbs hunting cabin in episode two, “Amuse-Bouche.” The camera pans over the corpse, and then moves on to show us the extent to which Hobbs excels at hunting. It’s an overwhelming and somewhat alarming sight. Our first view of a living deer is when Abigail is hunting one with her father in “Potage,” the next episode. We see it through her crosshairs, and anticipate the blow to follow. Unfortunately, it’s not living for very long. There’s also, significantly, a stag statue in Hannibal’s office, one that catches Will’s eye in “Coquilles” and that is also used to kill Tobias in “Fromage.”
Like ravens, deer have held a multitude of meanings throughout history. Some of those associations also have to do with hunting, as in the show itself. If we go back to the ancient Romans, Diana (a goddess I’ve spoken of before) has a particular affinity for deer. A goddess of hunting and later the moon, deer were sacred to Diana (and to Artemis, her Greek counterpart). Sometimes deer were depicted pulling Diana’s carriage rather than horses, possibly because of their association with being quick and agile.
Like the Romans, deer have often held a venerative position in folklore and mythology. Just as deer were significant to Diana and her followers, so were they to the ancient Celts, who associated stags with the horned god, Cernunnos. Cernunnos’ meaning to the Celts is hard to pin down with few written accounts of him (but many images), but he may have been connected with wildness and bounty. Within European folklore more generally, Katharine Briggs tells us that “among wild creatures deer are some of the most magical.” In the lore, they were often enchanted humans, but could be magical in their own right, too. They were seen to even be part of the mystical herds of the fair folk.
Across cultures, deer have also been viewed in a more spiritual light, not just affiliates of important figures, but representatives in their own right. In many faiths, for example, stags were considered symbolic of the Tree of Life, their antlers reminiscent of the winding branches. Stag antlers also came to represent regeneration, renewal, and rebirth due to the way they are shed and regrown with the seasons. It makes me wonder if this is one of the reasons deer are linked with Jesus Christ in Christianity as well. James Williamson notes that in medieval art, stags were sometimes depicted as the enemies of the evil serpent, shown battling or destroying the serpent in art. This depiction, Williamson argues, could be seen as Christ overcoming the temptations of Satan.
In my post about ravens, I talked about how it’s not always easy to tell what the Ravenstag really means. Is it evidence of the Hannibalesque elements of Will’s soul? Or a warning of those parts growing within him? Does the Ravenstag urge Will forward on his journey, or warn him of what’s to come? Looking at ravens specifically, a few themes emerged in the folklore: death, violence, and eerie foretelling. Looking into the folklore of deer, however, some different themes emerge: purity, rebirth, and righteousness.
This makes me think first of the idea of the stag as Jesus. In my debut post, I talked about the connections between Hannibal Lecter and Lucifer. Fuller and Mikkelsen have been blatantly clear about their intentions of relating Hannibal to the devil. The show itself is rather heavy with its biblical references as well, emphasizing Hannibal’s devilish nature. As many of us also know, Lucifer is sometimes considered to be the serpent who tempted Eve, and of course we just learned above that in medieval and renaissance art, stags were sometimes shown as destroying snakes, representing Christ defeating Satan.
The idea of deer as symbols of rebirth also stands out to me. Hannibal is a series obsessed with becoming and transformation. People start one way, and are reborn as something completely other by the end of the show. There’s even a character sewn up into a deceased pregnant horse in the hopes that when she’s released, she will be literally reborn as something different. It’s thus a neat fit, this significance of deer with the themes of the show.
I like this juxtaposition between the dark gore of ravens and the shining faith of deer. I like that they both become entangled in the Ravenstag itself, and I like that it further complicates the role of the Ravenstag altogether–who perhaps functions as various things at different times in the show. I think this speaks to Will Graham too. Will’s journey on the show is one in which he battles selves and identities, and I think this journey is echoed in the feathers and velvet of the Dire Ravenstag, too.
While doing research for this post, I found out one other tidbit about deers that didn’t squarely fit with the rest. According to Hope Werness, in renaissance art a deer pierced with arrows and carrying herbs in its mouth was said to signify lovesickness. It’s reminiscent of a sort of animal Wound Man, rendered tragically elegant and romantic. It feels very Hannibal, this image, and I couldn’t finish this post without mentioning it.
- Hope B. Werness – Animal Symbolism in Art
- Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant – Dictionary of Symbols
- Edith Hamilton – Mythology
- Katherine Briggs – The Fairies in Tradition and Literature
- James Williamson – The Oak King, the Holly King, and the Unicorn