I’ve gone down a rabbit hole. It happened so unexpectedly. Dustin said to me, “Corey, want to write about antlers?” Antlers. Antlers? What? Two TV series recently have made very striking use of antlers. True Detective and Hannibal, both beautiful shows that saw fit to turn antlers into recurring images of horror. But what is it about antlers that struck such a chord, and what exactly is the symbolism these shows are drawing upon? One question led to another, and I dug deeper and deeper into the recesses of writing on antlers. I come back to you now, largely unscathed and only slightly insane, with knowledge to share. So get ready for some serious antler talk!
The Horned God
Let’s start with paganism. Though referred to as The Horned God, the Celtic deity, Cernunnos, was a Stag god represented as a man with a pair of antlers atop his head. It is believed Cernunnos was a god of nature or fertility, as well as the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. So we’re talking about a “good” god here, but Cernunnos was also a pagan deity, ultimately demonized by Christians. While many Christian representations of demons or devils use horns, antlers are sometimes used instead, likely derived from pagan sources. Thus the image of branching antlers becomes something that, when presented in a darker light, is very sinister.
True Detective seems to have used antlers, fashioned into crowns on the heads of murdered women, mostly for their aesthetic qualities. The oddest part of this is that antlers, except on reindeer, are exclusively grown by males. Placing a crown of antlers on female murder victims in an act of cult sacrifice indicates a willful crossing of boundaries, both between human and animal, as well as between male and female. Hannibal also makes use of these darker aesthetic qualities, derived from pagan depictions, as well as others.
The White Stag and the Black
Early in Season 1 of Hannibal, Will Graham began envisioning a black stag. It was a specter of evil representing the Chesapeake Ripper. In looking for the symbolic importance of the black stag I came up short, but I did find plenty on the white stag. It was creature also common among the Celts, with white being a symbol of the otherworld. The white stag was said to appear when a person transgressed, breaking a taboo. It’s a protector, a symbol of beauty and purity in the face of evil or wickedness. An example you will probably be familiar with is the stag Patronus in the Harry Potter series.
The makers of Hannibal take the white stag and flip it, making it black. The strength remains, but the purity is turned to evil. The role of protector becomes that of danger and manipulator, not unlike a certain Dr. Lecter we all know and love.
A Symbol of Strength
As I’ve said, antlers are primarily a male trait, and because they’re used often as a weapon against other stags and animals, they are a symbol of strength and power. The first time we see antlers in Hannibal is in the very first episode: A person has been impaled on antlers, and the image is gruesome. The intention is clear. The antlers, a symbol of power and strength, juxtapose with the powerless dead person on top. Later in the series, we see dreams of Hannibal and Will wearing antlers, and in those moments they are the embodiment of masculine power, scary as it can so often be.
Virility in Antlers
Because antlers are a sign of a stag’s strength, they are often a symbol of virility and fertility. Antlers are a mode of sexual attraction, and Hannibal uses this symbolism as well. It’s no secret that there’s a homoerotic charge between Will and Hannibal, and though the images of antlers and stags in the show are often seen in nightmares, they also exhibit a dark sexual energy. Will is attracted to Hannibal’s power and virility, even if he’s at the same time repulsed by it. It’s a dichotomy the series has exploited beautifully for two seasons now.
At the end of Hannibal Season 1, Will finally discovers that Hannibal is the Chesapeake Ripper, and the image of the black stag is transformed into a Wendigo. The gaunt, oily-skinned monster with antlers on its head is a manifestation of Hannibal within Will’s psyche. The Wendigo is a mythical creature of the Algonquin peoples of Canada and the United States. It is a demon spirit, consumed by gluttony and greed. It is believed a human being becomes a Wendigo by resorting to cannibalism to satisfy hunger.
The parallels to Hannibal are clear, but they go deeper still. The Wendigo is often rendered in different ways, often with animal features and sometimes with antlers, as in the series. It is also said that the Wendigo grows in proportion to the thing it eats, and so it can never be full. This sense of perpetual hunger is what makes Hannibal Lecter so scary, and is why the image of the antlered Wendigo is so appropriate. This powerful, evil monster, always feeding on the minds and flesh of his victims, is at the heart of the series. Hannibal is a dark force like few other characters on television, and the associated imagery, including antlers, adds extra depth to the depiction.