Religious Symbolism in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood
Fullmetal Alchemist is an amazing series, in that it is exciting, and very enjoyable to watch. I already wrote all about that, with a subjective review. I found, however, that the series also happens to be a series that is rich with symbolism, and which can encourage a good amount of thought and debate. Specifically, the series seems to touch on religious ideas a lot. I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at some of the religious symbolism found within the series, for a more... academic-type hub. Here's a word of warning though -- and it's going to be the only warning. This article will contain major spoilers. I'll be discussing things at a level which necessarily requires stating specific details.
Father and the Homunculi
It's probably the least subtle of the series' themes, so let's get it out of the way first: The main antagonist's name is Father, he dresses entirely in white, he fulfills the role as a powerful creator, and he kind of has a Jesus haircut going there. His creations, the homunculi, are named after the seven deadly sins (Wrath, Envy, Pride, Gluttony, Sloth, Greed, and Lust.) Of course, these seven concepts have been popularized as sins by the historic poet Dante (which is probably why in the 2003 series the counterpart to the Father character is named as such), but their origin actually far pre-dates Dante's Divine Comedy. Here's the deal with them:
In the fourth century, there was a Christian ascetic monk by the name of Evagrius Ponticus.His list was a little bit different than the list we have today. His list, for example, included prostitution; also, he had eight vices instead of seven. But what happened was his works were translated and edited, before becoming absorbed into the Christian mindset as the list of seven sins that we now have today.
Another easily recognizable symbol from Fullmetal Alchemist would be the symbol that shows up on Ed's jacket, and on Al's armor. That would be Flemel's Cross. Nicholas Flemel was born in 1330, and died in 1418. He devoted his life to studying alchemy -- he was also a devout Christian. When he died, he left some symbols to adorn his grave, one of them being Flemel's Cross. When you break it down, it's pretty interesting. It actually refers to creating a philosophers stone by "crucifying a serpent." It's a metaphor for purifying something that is venomous, or dangerous, and becoming stronger with it. From a Christian lens, this can be interprereted as overcoming Satan (traditionally symbolized as a serpent.)
What it also consists of, is the Rod of Asclepius. Here, we step away from Christianity, and look at Greek Pantheology. Asclepius was the son of the more commonly recgonized Apollo. And he was the god of medicine and healing. This is why today, hospitals, insurance agencies, and other institutions relating to the health industry often make use of a symbol consisting of a snake entwined around a rod as well.
The marking held by each of the Homunculi (on Lust's neck, on Gluttony's tongue, on Pride's eye, etc.) has meaning as well. This symbol is known as an Ouroboros. The simplest explanation for this symbol's meaning, would be the endless circle of life: life, death, rebirth. In fact the name "Ouroboros" comes from Greek, and means "devouring its tail." The symbol probably came into existence between 1500 and 2000 years ago in Egypt, and you can find more information than you probably want about that, here. That's not my hub, but it was covered quite well, and it describes, in detail, how the Ouroboros relates to Egyptian gods and philosophies.
How it relates to the Homunculi of the show is pretty self-explanatory. You know how they have a tendency to get chopped up, shot, exploded, dematerialized, and burned alive... and then get back up like nothing happened? Yeah, that's an example of the rebirth process. In fact, on more than one ocassion, the homunculi -- different ones -- state explicitly, that they have "died." Gluttony, in particular, makes it clear that he doesn't enjoy "dying."
Comparisons with Jesus
Two incidents that occur within the series may remind the viewer of Jesus. The first is when Hohenheim seeks out Father. He starts out in the basement of a church. Seeking the Father in Church -- that's about as good a time as any to toss out some symbolism. Well, he finds a passageway leading to Father's nation-wide transmutation circle, but it's flooded. His solution? Hint: He doesn't drain it. He walks right over it, using alchemy. It's made clear throughout the series that Hohenheim is more than a normal man (he is, in fact, a "human philosopher's stone.") This parallel between him and Jesus solidifies this status.
The second incident occurrs when Roy Mustang is fighting Pride. Now worth noting, is that Pride had previously voiced his thoughts on the idea of God. Taken word for word from episode 30, we have:
"God? How strange. After all this, I've yet to be smote. How many more Ishbalans must I kill for that to happen? God is only a figure created by humans; that's all there is to it. If you want to bring an iron hammer down on me, do it yourself without having to rely on God, human!"
So there you have it. Fuehrer King Bradley doesn't like God. In fact, he's pretty contentious towards the idea of God. So when he manages to pin down Colonel Mustang, and he chooses to impale both of Mustang's palms... that's pretty interesting. The following episodes then contain a Roy Mustang who appears to have stigmata.
The Church of Leto
Early in the series, Ed and Al visit the city of Lior, where a religious cult has emerged. In this cult, Father Leto, who has a philosopher's stone, uses the powers of alchemy and to gain a position of power, then calls the acts of power "miracles of god." This could be the start of a very interesting debate on whether or not Leto is representative of a larger criticism of religion. However, we won't go in that direction -- at least not in this article. Instead, we'll simply look at it as Leto being an all-around bastard.
Remember what happened to Leto?
He was crushed by the fist of god -- literally. It took some help from Alchemy, but it's interesting how Ed won the fight. He transmuted the arm of what appears to be a religious deity, and uses it to attack Leto. This could be interpreted as god's integrity being preserved, or alternatively, as Ed being blasphemous towards the idea of a god. There's reasonable justification for both arguments. What this was not, however, was unintentional.
Is that a good start? Hopefully I've included enough food for thought to get everyone's mind working a bit. I feel there's still some aspects that could be explored further. I chose not to touch on the subject of Truth, because, to be honest, it's still pretty hard to work my mind around what commentary was being made with regards to him. Maybe someone else has ideas on this? I'd love to hear in the comments section. In fact, response to the article as a whole are highly encouraged!