The great dragon that adorns the front of
Thomas Harris’s Hannibal once again testifies to the research put into
his works. Together let us explore the fascinating history of this
symbol and what that says in relation to Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Indeed, the sculpture on the front of
Hannibal is the heraldic coat of arms of the Visconti family. If the
reader recalls Harris tells us that Dr. Lecter’s mother was a highborn
Italian. It is quite ingenious of Mr. Harris to tie the coat of arms
to Lecter; we shall get back to this later. Now, let us explore the
history and symbolism behind the Visconti coat of arms.
In heraldic symbols the serpent represents
wisdom, cunning, and mystery. There is no need to belabor the obvious
parallels to Dr. Lecter. There are numerous references made by Mason
Verger and by the gypsy woman to Dr. Lecter being Satan. With an
ironic Miltonian twist Lecter is described as, “Walking to and fro on
the earth” and being imperially slim (both qualities of Satan). In
the account of Genesis Satan is said to have appeared in the form of a
serpent. So the snake represents not only the cunning and power of
the Visconti family but also, has the double meaning of referring to
Hannibal Lecter’s own power and cunning.
It is interesting to note that the person
in the jaws of the snake is not being swallowed but is being born. A
reference to this shield is found in Alciato’s Book of Emblems.
To the most illustrious Massimiliano, Duke
of Milan. An infant springing from the
jaws of a curling snake is your family’s noble device. We saw the
Pellean king had made such coins, and had celebrated with them his own
decent. It teaches that while he was sown from the seed of Ammon,
his mother was fooled by the image of a snake and that he was the
offspring of divine seed. He comes forth from the mouth. Is it
because in this way, some claim, certain snakes bear their young, or
because Pallas sprang that way from the head of Jupiter?
There is a great deal of mythological
influence upon this Emblem. The aforementioned Pellaean
king is Alexander the Great. Plutarch in Lives recounts a pertinent
legend about Alexander’s mother, Olympias. The legend is as
follows, “A serpent was once seen lying stretched out by her side, as
she slept, and this dulled Phillip’s attentions to his wife. He no
longer came to sleep by her side.” Plutarch suggest that
Alexander’s father was the god Ammon (Egypt’s equivalent to
Jupiter/Zeus). Now, the legend of Pallas Athena pertains to the
child coming out of the serpent’s mouth. Pliny the Elder talks
about certain snakes, which produce young from their mouths. Ovid in
Metamorphosis tells that Athena sprang full-grown from the head of
Thus, step by the step the shield is
explained by the use of riddles. Answers to the riddles suggest
political power in the form of the conquering general Alexander, natural
mystery symbolized by snakes, and divine power represented by Athena.
Thomas Harris uses these same images to suggest things about Hannibal
Lecter. In Lecter’s case; Alexander represents the power Dr.
Lecter exerts over his surrounding and other people, the snake symbolizes
the wisdom that Lecter has over the minds of people and his almost
Mephisto like qualities. It is possible the snake is also a sly
reference to Satan. Athena suggests the supposed supernatural
qualities of Dr. Lecter as evidenced in the book, “Hannibal Lecter was
to some of the servants a frightening child, frighteningly intense,
In 1447 the Sforza family took over control
of Milan and Lombardy from the Visconti. Instead of using a
different coat of arms the Sforza continued to use the Argent a serpent
vert or serpent with a child. It was in this year that the ducal arm
was changed slightly. The crown was taken off and the meaning was
changed to Argent a serpent (without a crown) and instead of child being
born out of it a Saracen was being swallowed. These changes were to
honor and recall certain traits of one Lodovico Sforza. He was both
cunning and power hungry. The picture on the front of Hannibal was
taken from the crest carved upon Castello Sforzesco in downtown Milan.
Now as we see the serpent is shown to bore
children from it’s mouth and to swallow Saracens. This shows a
dual nature of Dr. Lecter. If the serpent symbolizes Lecter than the
child being born out of it symbolizes change and new birth. This
could be interpreted as the change he implemented within Clarice Starling.
On the opposite end the Saracen infidels could represent the “herd” or
infidels that Dr. Lecter consumes.
Once again Thomas Harris has illustrated
his tremendous and painstaking research. It is quite appropriate
that the Visconti Ducal arms were transformed into a metaphor of the
Dr.’s qualities and attributes. Kudos to Mr. Harris. I think the
Good Doctor would approve.