The Devil in Hannibal Lecter, Part I: The Hands of A Dark Godhead

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Here’s an interesting notion: Hannibal Lecter wants to save your soul. No? No takers? Well, bear with me here, because we’re about to delve into what’s likely to be a multi-part journey into one of the most plastic, evil, and enduring fictional characters existing in the American literary canon. So plastic, evil, and enduring, in fact, that Robert Anton Wilson was compelled to add his name to the end of archetypal characters listed in a thought experiment in Prometheus Rising well before Bryan Fuller’s genius television series brought him into new relief. It gave him a stage on which he was truly the star of the show, for although Will Graham is our sympathetic protagonist, it is Hannibal whose name it bears, and Hannibal who is ultimately the center. But before there was NBC’s Hannibal, there was immortal Anthony Hopkins hissing at Jodi Foster; before that, Brian Cox in Manhunter: and before all of those, the initial germ, mere words on the page delivered us by Thomas Harris.

In 2013, Thomas Harris discussed that the root of the character was a ‘Dr. Salazar’, a real life Mexican surgeon. Not his real name, Salazar was allegedly in prison for murder when Harris went to interview another inmate for an article. Dr. Salazar made morbid inquires of Harris regarding the interviewed inmate, and Harris afterward discovered from a guard the nature of Salazar’s crimes—and the interesting fact that he was allegedly ‘not insane with the poor’, and was indeed renown for his service to his community, much as the fictional Hannibal Lecter places particular emphasis on the murder and consumption of the rude. This seed of Dr. Salazar germinated in Harris’ imagination, and, “Harris said when he wrote his novel he needed a detective to ‘talk to somebody with a peculiar understanding of the criminal mind…who do you suppose was waiting in the cell? It was not Dr Salazar. But because of Dr Salazar, I could recognise his colleague and fellow practitioner, Hannibal Lecter.’”

And so begins the creative process, well-described by Mr. Harris. An author in need of a plot device—in this case, a reflective sounding board for the main character of Red Dragon, Will Graham—delves into his own experience to fulfill a fictional need. One who is not a writer would think that to be the end of it; so would writers with an emphasis on plot-driven stories, rather than character-driven. However, there are times when certain characters, as writers, plague us. We slip them into the story to solve a problem, and then surprise us with their wit, their charm, their vivid emergence from the mind’s miasma. They seem as though to make their own decisions, often to the surprise of the author: and, in some cases, they may run away with the plot, or remain so instantly vivid that only a second work will excise them. Hannibal’s character in Red Dragon makes few appearances in his supporting role. A few key qualities are established: that he is a cannibal surgeon, in prison after his capture at the hands of profile Will Graham, but not before he was able to gut and almost kill Graham with a linoleum knife. He is also gregarious, and willing to help so long as he has the opportunity to relieve his intense boredom. Interestingly, he is a mere 41 years old in Red Dragon–(“Chilton looked at the actuarial table. Lecter had written his age at the top: forty-one.”)–though in the films and television show he appears to be about ten years older. Further, the Lecter of the show, at a different time in his life, is a very different character from the character we see for all of three chapters in Red Dragon and a great deal more in Silence of the Lambs: free and hidden, he is far more cunning and less crass than the imprisoned counterpart envisioned by Harris. This is a natural result of a character’s development: certain traits are, over time, brought into greater relief as writers better get to know a character, and Hannibal’s proclivities for eating the rude grow to be more apparent with each appearance, as does his own personal sense of aesthetic-based ‘ethics’. Indeed, when describing his hatred of the rude, Hannibal is quoted as saying, “Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me”. His ethics are removed from a moral, human level and are more concerned instead with beauty, and elegance: a subject which we will discuss more in-depth further along.

While not the most preferable of sources, a Guardian writer named Jason Crowley described in a 2006 article concerning the release of Hannibal Rising that “Harris often speaks as if he has no control over Lecter, as if the doctor exists in his own realm, beyond good and evil. Lecter, he once said, ‘is probably the wickedest man I’ve heard of; at the same time, he tells the truth and he says some things that I suppose we would all like to say’.” The same article posited that both Harris and his agent perhaps like the character ‘too much’, but such a thing is not possible when one is plagued by a figment so charming and beguiling as only can be the Devil, himself. In the original books, Lecter warns Clarice Starling that he cannot be reduced to a set of influences; a warning echoed to Bedelia in season three of the show when describing of his childhood that “Nothing happened to me. I happened.” Harris’ efforts to investigate those influences in an MGM-enforced piece of fiction seem on the surface quite fruitless, although there are interesting strings of symbolism to be had in both the character’s Eastern aunt, Lady Murasaki, and the death of his sister, Mischa. Lecter’s balanced integration of east and west is as symbolically important to his character as the integration of violence and courtesy. Much as any Spirit Mercurius, whether wholesome or chthonic, Hannibal is a container of tension, and that which combines opposites: his murders become, in the show in particular, exquisite pieces of modern art, as in the death of Sheldon Isley, who is crucified into a tree.

Now, before you go running off to buy the original series, let me caution you that it hasn’t aged well in all ways. What it is, however, is the womb of an interesting character who has, through time and many hands, developed to become a cultural boogeyman—a Devil, who, like all Devils, teaches men to pray. It is important to remember, always, that the Devil is not an inherently evil figure: rather, he is a figure who tempts men to do evil. His name, Satan, means ‘accuser’ or ‘adversary’, and thus reveals him as little more than a tool of God. We have discussed all this before in the Alchemical Devilry series, and new readers are encouraged to catch up with those before engaging in this essay. The Devil does inspire evil, yes, it is true: yes, the Devil could be considered by some to be evil, himself. However, those who are able to observe the Devil without getting whipped into his maelstrom will find that the Devil is naught but holding open the doorway to God, whom he loves with all his wicked heart.

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What does the Devil have to do with Hannibal Lecter? Quite a bit. The actor behind his latest incarnation, Mads Mikkelsen, is quoted as saying, “He is as close as you can come to the Devil, in the sense that the Devil has no reasons. When he rips out the tongue of a nurse, his pulse does not rise above 60 beats per minute. That is not a person; that is the Devil.” Likewise, Mikkelsen described that, in playing Lecter, he did not imagine what it was like to be Hannibal: rather, he imagined what it was like to be the Devil. This is particularly important in analyzing the differences between book Hannibal, Hopkins Hannibal and Mikkelsen Hannibal: Hopkins was playing Hannibal, but Mikkelsen is playing Hannibal playing Satan, as well he’d ought to be. Indeed, the point is echoed thematically time and again in the show, even to the point that when giving a lecture on betrayal and hanging in Dante’s Inferno during season 3, he takes care to step in front of the projected illustration of Lucifer so as to align his face with its trio of them—for our benefit, as much as Bedelia’s.

To begin with our analysis of Lecter as the Devil, we must consider the plight of the Devil: trapped in matter by whatever demiurge is available, the Devil must therefore be forced to make the best of his situation, and engage in all the debaucheries and pleasures of life and earth. It is safe to say then that the Devil would be something of an aesthete forever attempting to replicate the heaven he lost on an inferior earth: a frustrating notion, no doubt, but certainly a task not without its pleasures. Likewise, the Devil, separated from God, longs to be close to him again. Much as Jewish scholars tend to eschew the concept of a ‘rebellious angel’, indeed, a wholly impossible idea, so too would we expect to find any descent incarnation of the Devil sullying as many religious icons with his presence as possible—he would have a taste for the spiritual without being it, himself, and be drawn to the aesthetics and environment of churches if only to prove a point. He is often associated, also, with music—playing the fiddle with Johnny, buying the souls of great bluesmen for a few good records—and Hannibal has a notable obsession with the harpsichord, the theremin and Bach’s Goldberg Variations, specifically Glenn Gould’s 1981 piano recording. He is obsessed with his own good taste, and, as is put by various characters in the television series and the novel, is ultimately a victim of his own whimsy, much as the Devil is a gambling man typically best overcome by his own means of soul procurement, if he is indeed to be overcome at all. And, yet, he is also helpful: how many times have we seen those fairy tale bets pan out for the right person at the right time, like the classic story of the tailor who tricks the Devil into losing his temper and gets to make boots out of his hide, or, for more modern audiences, the Robot Devil in Futurama coming out on the bottom.

Of course, the Devil, being the Devil, must know how events will turn out—in Faust, whether Marlowe, Goethe, Bulgakov or Gounod, Mephistopheles generally possesses a kind of subtle hyper-awareness of the medium he inhabits and the way in which things will end, and whether for better or for ill, is engaged in the service of the main character often of his own volition. On the occasions and variations wherein the Devil will lose, he must know that he will lose; and yet, he does it anyway, like a soul living life even with full awareness of inevitable death. Why would he do that? Why does Goethe’s Mephistopheles proceed in the bet even though he must know that Faust will be saved by the grace of the Eternal Feminine and the soul of Gretchen? Why does Hannibal persist in his murders full well knowing, as he says, that “entropy cannot be preserved”, and that he will, eventually, lose his freedom or his life? The answer to both problems is the same, as Will Graham will tell us: “It’s theater.”

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Theater is designed, inherently, to engage a pathos in its viewers. What makes theater so intense is we are present for it in a way untrue of any other medium: it is a living thing, breathing, ever-changing, existent to engage Man’s attention on an emotional and psychic level which causes, in the best works, a profound change in our thinking. Mephistopheles of Goethe’s Faust is working, strictly speaking, as a servant of God from the start, and indeed makes the bet with God’s grace: without having put his soul into peril, Faust’s full-hearted redemption and coming home to God never would have been possible, nor indeed would he have Gretchen to petition for the salvation of his soul. The Hannibal of Fuller, Harris and Mikkelsen likewise works with the literal grace of his creators, for the series and books would not be possible without Hannibal being a little shit at every possible turn; and his actions are likewise divinely acceptable because they are actions which point the critically-minded, eventually, to God.

The signposts towards God begin at a superficial level. Hannibal frequently surrounds himself with religious art and calls upon Biblical themes in order to associate himself with, varyingly, Christ or the Devil, much as any self-respecting and truly neutral Spirit Mercurius dabbles in both. When describing his ‘memory palace’ (a subject which we will touch on in the second essay in this series, on Hannibal and Chaos Magic), Harris and, in the show, Hannibal explains its foyer is the Norman Chapel in Palermo, “…with a single reminder of mortality: a skull, graven in the floor.” Frequently, Hannibal turns the subject towards God, or rides the subject when it turns naturally to Him. His hobby is church collapses, which he collects and at times recites, crowing with pleasure about roofs falling on parish-fulls of grandmothers: “If [God] is up there,” he insists, “He just loves it.”

Hannibal’s point is a simple, self-evident fact with which most humans struggle when confronted by the notion: that God is morally neutral, or, at the very least, possessing of a morality so far beyond human comprehension that He’d might as well be. The problem of evil is a puzzling one for Christians and philosophers alike, but Hannibal’s answer to it is very simple. “Evil’s just destructive? Then storms are evil, if it’s that simple. And we have fire, and there there’s hail. Underwriters lump it all under ‘Acts of God.” When Clarice Starling goes on to argue that deliberate evil is different from acts of nature, the church roof-collapses are brought up, but of course one does not even need to use that argument. If we are all facets of God, that means even the most evil among us are also God, albeit God at His worst.

In The Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz, a student of Jung, describes a particular fairy tale concerning the bodies of two hanged murderers which is of particular relevance to us now. In her description, she explains:

We have to ask what lies behind the idea of killing an enemy not as social revenge or in judgment, but in the more archaic form of a sacrifice to the gods. I think that there is a much deeper and more meaningful idea than that of just punishment. If one has to fight against demonic evil in a human being, what strikes one most is that if people are oustandingly destructive, not just through the small mistakes of laziness and cheating, etc., which take place with every human being, but if they are seriously destructive, one’s immediate reaction is that it is inhuman, especially in psychosis or psychotic states where one sometimes meets destructiveness so cold and inhuman and demonic, and concomitantly so “divine,” that one is overwhelmed. It sends a grim cold shiver down one’s spine that one cannot deal with—it is too horrible, too shocking; and this shocking, horrible thing in people enables them to commit cold-blooded murder.

I have never dealt with anybody who committed an actual murder, but I have met people who could have, and that makes one shudder, and one thinks, “Hands off,” yet, at the same time, one has the feeling that it is something godlike, no longer human. We use the word “inhuman,” but one could equally well say “demonic” or “divine.” The primitive idea that somebody who commits a murder or an outstanding crime is really not himself but performs something which only a god could do expresses the situation very well. In the moment when someone commits a murder he is identical with the Godhead and is not human. People become the instruments of God’s darkness. At such a time, they are possessed. The very fact that somebody imagines that he can kill a fellow human being, someone of the same substance as himself, which is not normal, transcends human nature, and in that way the deed has a demonic or divine quality. That is why, for instance, in the ritual executions in primitive tribes, you see that though they kill the criminals, there is no element of moral judgment about it; the criminal simply bears the consequences of his deeds. The primitive says that if a human being acts as though divine, then he suffers the fate of a god, is treated as a god and hanged, killed, or dismembered, and so on. One cannot kill in human society and behave like a divine being who can kill ad libitum.

…The symbolism of the suspended god on the tree, the gallows, and the cross is very profound, Such a fate normally overtakes that part of the Divinity most interested in man; the philanthropic part of the Godhead falls into the tragedy of suspension and has to do with the bringing of civilization—as in the Wotan myth, where after suspension on the tree Wotan discovers the runes, an implication of a progress in human consciousness.

-pgs. 41-43, The Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales

She mentions, also, the traditions of a primitive tribe who condemned a criminal to death, and the criminal who accepted his sentence without moral judgement upon it–for him, it was a simple cause-and-effect as a result of his cultural belief that evildoers had fallen into “the hands of a dark godhead” and needed to bear appropriate punishment. This is particularly true of Hannibal, who takes particular relish in the notion of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and clearly is as delighted by the prospect of being murdered and eaten as he is by the prospect of being the one to do the murdering and eating. So although Hannibal is undoubtedly acting as an implement of God—in the television series, in particular—he is not immune to punishment, indeed, logically must be punished, as Mephistopheles, though acting ever as God’s implement, still suffers and laments his suffering in his separation from the Lord. We will even see that, in the middle of season two of the show, Hannibal is crucified and almost bleeds out, further emphasizing Marie’s point; in the third season, he is finally captured, condemned more truly to matter than he ever has been before, and yet his prison serves as a visual reminder that the pleasures of life are a self-contained prison without bars or glass to hold us, for, being Dr. Chilton’s old office, it is still aesthetically pleasing and, until he proves in need of punishment, full of books and drawings.

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It is also interesting to note that a bit of original symbolism which emerged out of the show is the symbol of the stag, which is identified by Jung as being directly related to the Spirit Mercurius. The stag—and later the Wendigo, a very decidedly Devil-like all black figure with stag’s antlers upon its head—pursue investigator Will Graham in his dreams and imagination, half-conscious figures emerging to him from the unconscious as he attempts to maintain his sanity and find a way to regain control of his life. It is Marie-Louise, however, who goes into greater and more relevant detail on the meaning of the stag:

There are several, especially German, fairy tales which represent the evil spirit nailed to a tree or wall. Or the two people might in the same way allude to Christ suspended on the cross and Wotan on the tree, the good god suspended on the cross and the other god on the tree. This is not too far-fetched, because the motif of the two divine beings nailed to the tree or the cross occurs in many Christian legends and in the legends of the Arthurian circles and the circle of the Holy Grail, where Perceval has to find not only the Grail containing Christ’s blood but also the stag, or stag’s head, nailed to an oak tree, from which he has to take it down. In the main legend he does not forget and he finds the Grail before finding the stag’s head and brings it to a divine female figure; or the stag is represented as an evildoer, a destroyer of the woods and Christ’s shadow. The stag with its beautiful antlers, an unnecessary decoration which hampers its movements and whose object is to impress the female deer, suggests the idea of an arrogant creature and therefore represents the shadow of the Christian principle, an incredible arrogance and superciliousness which we have acquired and which seems one of the worst shadow attitudes spread with the Christian teaching.

-pg 46-47

It is also worth mentioning that Will Graham at one point has a dream where Hannibal is tied to a tree while the stag pulls ever-tighter his ropes. Notably, the stag is adorned with raven’s feathers, tying it not only to death, but to the spirit realm, and to wisdom: recall Odin/Wotan’s two ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory). The coloring of the Wendigo, meanwhile, places it—and Hannibal—as Will Graham’s shadow, echoed frequently throughout the series. Indeed, Will Graham, the fragile ego of the show’s psyche, is the one initially trapped in matter, and his release from it—the alchemical spiritualization of matter, if you will—heralds Hannibal’s entrapment within it. Bored and motivated by his own ends, Hannibal then becomes the ultimate Mercurial Spirit trapped by the alchemist, caught in a bottle or trapped in a tree to be freed by a Magician. But what are the ends of the Devil, and, truly, God? Dare we speculate on the designs of the divine? We do, and have, and find it represented time and time again in the Bible, in art, and in life: transformation.

Transformation is the arch theme throughout all Hannibal media: from Harris’ original Red Dragon stretching all the way to NBC’s prematurely-dead (yet elegantly-ended) series, all variations of Hannibal emphasize transformation and becoming. The eponymous serial killer of the first novel and antagonist of the second half of the third season is enraptured by the William Blake paintings of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed In/With The Sun, and feels it within himself, on the verge of transformation into it; Jame Gumb of Silence of the Lambs suffers from a kind of pathological transvestism wherein he is not transgendered, merely in all likelihood plagued by some overbearing and cruel mother who prioritized and mythologized women to the point that Gumb felt his only route to self-acceptance was to become one; and then, there’s the novel Hannibal, which, rather unfortunately, ends with Agent Clarice Starling’s faltering agency as she succumbs to Hannibal’s attempts to revive his dead sister, Mischa, in Clarice’s brainwashed body. This is to also gloss over the character of Mason Verger, a sexual predator and sadist whose outward appearance has been transfigured by Hannibal’s influence to match his ugly, crippled interior; in the show, as well, all characters undergo marked transformations and powerful arcs throughout the series, all motivated by Hannibal and all making for some of the finest television we’ve seen on any station, from any show runner, in years. Most of all, Hannibal in the series is concerned with Will’s becoming, a progression reflected episode by episode in a killer-of-the-week backdrop which serves as the framework for the relationship between Will and Hannibal, and the way Will copes with it by, at the end of the series, falling into Hannibal’s arms like Faust’s into those of damned Helen of Troy at the end of Marlowe’s play. Hannibal sees in Will’s great empathy the potential of becoming a serial killer, and wishes to bring it out of him; but this is, in a deep and profound way, a ploy on the level of Mephistopheles’ goal to see Faust condemn himself to hell. The real goal here is the goal of a multi-leveled pathos, for both the character, and the audience. The Devil is, naturally, his own finest advocate: and we all know that the real purpose of a Devil’s advocate is to put on a good show, and play the villain so those experiencing my reach the right conclusion. Throughout the series there is an association built between God and power, and power and murder; it is an exploration of how God is found equally in the shadows as in the light, and how violence has, even in its odiousness, divine orchestrations. It is also, importantly, an exploration of the Devil’s love of God, of mankind, and, of course, himself—for it is not just Will’s becoming which is unfurled in the show, but also Hannibal’s.

Perhaps the unconscious reason of Hannibal’s love of the Goldberg variations is he is playing a game with himself, all his variations: of who can be the most Hannibal of the all the Hannibals. We all should strive to be like him in that manner: to achieve, through hard work, diligence, discipline and imagination, the highest peak of our Becoming, the highest variation of all our possible selves. Throughout the series, great pains are taken—especially in the second and third season—to draw parallels between Will Graham’s tenuous, invisible non-perception of God, and his omnipresent sense of Hannibal. Early on, during season one, Hannibal tempts the wife of Jack Crawford to commit suicide, and then revives her against her wishes, having earlier in the episode cited the story of Lazarus and established parallels to Christ and God. (Indeed, speaking of temptation, Bedelia is noted in as saying during her season 2 FBI interview that Hannibal’s only true crime for which there is at that point evidence is that of ‘influence’.) As Bella’s vision fades, we are given shots from her perspective and see Hannibal crowned in, effect, a halo. This parallel is further emphasized in season 2’s episode about the muralist, wherein the muralist’s pupil of bodies looks up into the sky and finds there not God, but Hannibal. The Spirit Mercurius, after all, is Christ as much as he is the Devil, and Hannibal is Devilishly impetuous enough to dabble in both.


In describing Hannibal to a figment of his imagination, Graham posits that Hannibal wouldn’t have any fun being God and that defying God is his idea of a good time. However, as discussed, no one can defy God—there is no such thing as a ‘rebellious angel’, no matter how evil the Devil may seem. And, in fact, Will Graham himself soon after says of God’s acceptance of suffering that, “Elegance is more important than suffering.” And what tool of the divine could be more elegant than the cannibalistic, cultured Devil of Doctor Hannibal Lecter?

Love Hannibal? Then you’ll love DELILAH, MY WOMAN, about a murderous artist whose love of two women causes his life to spiral out of control. Read that while you’re waiting for THE LIGHTNING STENOGRAPHY DEVICE to find an agent. In other news, there are now two stageplays I’m shopping around, and I’m hard at work on yet another new novel, so stay tuned for more on all of that, and come back in two weeks for a new essay, the second in our multi-part series about Hannibal. Next entry, we’ll detail more of the psychological techniques used by NBC’s Hannibal, the psychic experiences of Will Graham, and a few other subjects as they can be applied in real life by those interested in bettering their psyche–but hopefully not cannibalism.

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