Earlier on the blog, I took a moment to talk about Jack Crawford’s connection to the centuries-old occult practice of tarot card reading. I drew lines between the archetype of the Emperor and Jack’s role in the show. More recently, I’ve discussed how Hannibal Lecter embodies—to me—the Tower tarot card. Today I want to continue drawing lines between tarot and Hannibal, but this time I want to look at Will Graham.
I mentioned before that the tarot tells a story that reflects a sort of hero’s journey. It starts with the Fool (a figure of naive faith) and ends with the World (the experience of completion and cyclical return). Because the major arcana tells a story, any person (or character) moves through this narrative and relates to different cards at different times. When I talked about Jack, I compared him to the Emperor, but while sometimes Jack is the Emperor, he is also sometimes the Hanged Man or Justice. Our lives are fluid, and so are the lives of the characters in Hannibal.
Like Jack, Will relates to various cards at various moments in the series. He experiences the full range of the journey, and so when I sat down to write this post, I was torn between multiple cards I felt fit Will Graham best. That’s the joy of a show like Hannibal: characters are rich and multifaceted, and not so easily pinned to a singular theme or message. They grow and change and complicate over time.
Earlier on the blog, I also took some time to talk about Will and the Jungian idea of the anima, the feminine element that resides within all masculine figures. I talked about the repeated visual motif of water in episode four, “Oeuf,” and even mentioned what water often symbolizes in tarot—the subconscious, intuition, emotion. Thinking about Will Graham in this context, choosing a tarot card becomes simple. In my opinion, Will Graham neatly embodies the High Priestess.
A beloved card by many who read tarot, it’s one that most spiritual folks like to think they embody in some form or another. Here’s Beth Maiden on the High Priestess: “In its simplest sense, the High Priestess represents the unconscious. Bearing symbols such as the moon, the sea, columns of light and shadow, this is about inner wisdom, that which we understand on an intuitive level, but don’t (or aren’t able to) access regularly.” I know I’ve certainly liked to think of myself in these terms, hoping that when I read my cards I’m dialing into something deeper, bigger, truer than myself.
For Will Graham, the unconscious is always drifting just below the surface of his awareness, which means he has an easier time accessing it than most. At the behest of Jack Crawford, Will does exactly this on a daily basis for his job with the F.B.I. His empathy disorder (which causes Will to literally feel and imagine too much, the High Priestess’ nightmare) carries with it an intimate insight into those he’d rather have no connection with, namely serial killers and psychopaths. While this helps Will do good by catching bad guys and saving lives, it also affords Will, as Maiden puts it when talking of the High Priestess, “The knowledge of body and soul. The knowledge of what lies beyond.” Though for Will, that knowledge is often terrible and damaging, and evidence of the harm it does to Will is present throughout the show.
Tarot is a very symbol-heavy practice. Cards are read visually through their imagery and iconography, so when you’re doing a reading you have to pay very close attention to what you see in your cards. Let’s consider some of the images present in High Priestess cards across decks.
Tarot is a varied experience, and different decks can appear very differently. That can be seen in the image above: No two cards are exactly the same, though they depict the same figure. Despite these differences, there are some common images present within the many versions. Pomegranates, water, pillars or veils of black and white, moons. These repeated images emphasize particular ideas. The moon for the unconscious, the water for emotions, the pomegranate for fertility and abundance, black and white for light and shadow, feminine and masculine.
These symbols appear in Hannibal, too, often in relation to Will. (Katharine and I have even talked about some of them, too, though not quite in this way.) In “Aperitif” for example, we see Will caught between light and shadow:
In this moment in the episode, he is on the precipice of something bigger than himself. He has just eaten of Hannibal’s food—tasted those six cursed pomegranate seeds—and is on the verge of permeating further the veil which separates his reality and sense of self from the unreality and liminality of his subconscious and the minds of others.
In “Oeuf” and “Roti” there is an abundance of water, Will’s subconscious “spilling” out of him:
This moment in particular, is from “Roti.” Will is dreaming of collapsing ice bergs, sweating until it becomes something more like leaking. He looks at the clock and watches as it melts and spills forward. And then he melts, himself. At this point in the show, his encephalitis is raging. Hannibal is reaching his peak physical and mental manipulation. Will is coming undone and uncontrollably tapping in and out of what’s real.
And in season 3 we have Will again caught between light and shadow, the moon prominent in the background, as he works with Hannibal for the first time in years.
Here, in “…and the Woman Clothed with Sun,” Will and Hannibal fall back into the routine of discussing crime scenes to better understand the killer. Will is back on another precipice. He’s opening a door by consulting with Hannibal, revisiting a life he had left behind. They stand, pillar like, in their shared vision of the crime scene, illuminated by an ominous and unearthly moon. It makes me wonder what unconscious thoughts are starting to rise to the surface for each of them.
Hannibal is a show whose visuals are just as important as its writing and its plot. The same can be said of the practice of tarot. Reading the images in the cards is just as important, and arguably more so, than consulting any book or predetermined narrative. Gathering impressions from what you see helps you form the narrative, a skill the High Priestess Will has mastered himself, I’d say.
- Little Red Tarot
- Melissa Cynova – Kitchen Table Tarot
- Rachel Pollack – 78 Degrees of Wisdom