Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Unitive Mysticism and Digestive Deification in Hannibal

I’ve talked before about religious themes and undercurrents in Hannibal, so I’m returning for a second helping *food double entendre*. What I want to talk about today is the aspects of mysticism present in the show. Now, colloquially speaking, “mysticism” can be taken to mean almost anything that is vaguely spiritual—Tina the Tarot card reader down the highway may say she is a practitioner of mysticism; any New Age guru with their own faux-Indian merchandise and platitudes can claim they’re a mystic. However, in modern academic discourse, those paths and traditions termed “mysticism” have a meaning tied to transformative experiences related to a transcending of the self, typically with an end goal of a special kind of union with divinity. Examples range from the Christian ecstatics like St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross, to the practitioners of bhakti traditions in Hinduism like Ramakrishna, to the Sufi mystics of Islam, such as Mansur Al-Hallaj. Since the focus here is union with the divine object of devotion, for clarity’s sake, let’s call this strain of thought “unitive mysticism”. I believe we see examples of this particular religious/spiritual impulse in the show Hannibal, particularly in the cases of Will Graham and Francis Dolarhyde. Will and Francis are drawn to lose themselves in the identities of their objects of devotion, Hannibal and the Red Dragon personality, respectively. Join me after the jump to delve deeper.

Hannibal stag

Spoilers for the whole series after the jump.

Will Graham is a not something we see every day: a mystic in the world of today’s crime television landscape. It’s his encephalitis-fueled hallucinations in the first season that really lay the otherworldly and numinous atmosphere over the show, setting it apart from other shows that follow serial killers, like The Following or certain arcs on other crime/forensic procedurals such as Bones or the CSI family. Visions are part and parcel of a mystic’s experience; just look at ye olde mystic Hildegard of Bingen (whose visions, like Will’s, some scholars say may have been related to aberrant neurological processes, perhaps intense migraines). The greatest focus of Will’s hallucinations is the inimitable Ravenstag, which we come to learn is a symbol for Hannibal Lecter. As the show goes on and Will’s subconscious rises to meet the reality of who Hannibal really is, he comes to see an anthropomorphized version of the Ravenstag (a dark, antlered man), often termed Wendigo!Hannibal by the Internet. The most concrete evidence of Will’s connection to Hannibal being unitive mysticism is during the second season, when Will for the first time begins hallucinating a wendigo form for himself.

HANNIBALEp22WillStagAs the show progresses, we see Will behaving more and more like Hannibal, from his scheming and manipulation to get revenge on Hannibal, to his own eventual murdering and post-mortem “artwork” of Randall Tier and the old man at the Hannibal estate in Lithuania. But it is Will’s visions of his own wendigo self that indicate Will is becoming more like Lecter, that his former self is being disintegrated and in its place, his identity or sense of self is becoming tied up and transformed into the image of his object of devotion (or obsession might be a more accurate word in this case). This annihilation of former ego and subsequent re-identification with the object of devotion is classic unitive mysticism; the self has been dissolved and absorbed into a full union with the Godhead. As exemplified by the “amada en el Amado transformada” (beloved transformed in[to] the Lover) of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, this union is often couched in terms of a beloved being absorbed into the Divine Lover. This language of lover/beloved crosses all denominational boundaries in unitive mysticism, from The Mirror of Simple Souls in Christian European medieval history to the madhura bhāva of Hinduism’s bhakti traditions. Only the most heterosexist viewer of Hannibal could deny some love connection, however twisted, between Will and Hannibal; Will and Dr. Bedelia du Maurier even finally openly used the “l-word” when discussing the relationship in Season 3. However, the question becomes: how would this “love” be consummated? Since both are physical beings, unlike the beloved/lover of the mystic/deity, it seems the answer would be something physical: the clearest answer is sex (see: Tantric mysticism relating sex to divine union), but for our heteronormative show based on a cannibalistic serial killer, is eating a more likely alternative?

Dolarhyde-eats-painting-Hannibal-3x10_bmpWe just don’t know, as we never quite get the consummation we’re looking for; certainly not in some gay sex (aw, darn) or in murder and cannibalism. Will has at times tried to have Hannibal killed, and even had him at gunpoint at times, but never succeeded; would the killing and devouring of the Lover complete the transformation of the beloved into the image of the Lover? The question is put on the back burner, as the relationship of Hannibal and Will is strained going into Season 3, and the focus is shifted to a new killer, Francis Dolarhyde. Here too we have a glowing example of unitive mysticism. Dolarhyde has for object of devotion an inner entity known as the Red Dragon that he is actively trying to unite with and become, as seen by his tattoo and bodybuilding endeavors. Transformation is big in his vocabulary; he even uses it as a sort of euphemism for his murders. For the Francis and the Red Dragon, the union is blatantly and perfectly illustrated with the metaphor of eating: the iconic scene in which Francis consumes the William Blake print of the Red Dragon. For him, this is a key ritual or affirmation for the end of the former self and total identification with the object of devotion, a taking in so he might in turn be taken over. Curiously enough, Will and Hannibal working as one in defeating and killing the Red Dragon in the Season 3 finale is perhaps the closest we get to their full union.

hannibal_finale murder husbands

Murder Husbands

In Hannibal, we see rich re-iterations of the unitive mystical drive and experience. It’s a very dark mysticism; the God of goodness and mercy typically pursued by mystics has been replaced by Hannibal, who as I talked about before, can be said to see himself as a new and better god. Will is caught in a dark web of becoming, losing his sense of self in an over-identification with Hannibal fueled by his obsession with him and their strange love connection. This dark union is only matched by that of Francis Dolarhyde finally annihilating the self and fully identifying with the Red Dragon, a union consummated by an act of eating. Will’s loss of self and re-identification with Hannibal is never fully completed, thankfully; if one is to be re-made in the image of a higher power or object of devotion, there are certainly better options than Hannibal Lecter. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see this ancient impulse for mystical union show itself in contemporary American pop culture. Not just confined to medieval Spain or Persia, the unitive mystical experience refuses to be confined to dusty old tomes, but finds expression even in this modern time and medium.


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