Chris is a proud nerd. He loves video games, anime, manga, and programming. He also loves spending all of his money on these things.
"Fullmetal Alchemist" Is Full of Symbolism!
Fullmetal Alchemist is an amazing series, in that it is exciting and very enjoyable to watch. 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 article. 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 of 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 Flamel's Cross. Nicholas Flamel 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 philosopher's 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 interpreted 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 recognized 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 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.
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 as if nothing happened? Yeah, that's an example of the rebirth process. In fact, on more than one occasion, the homunculi -- different ones -- state explicitly, that they have "died." Gluttony, in particular, makes it clear that he doesn't enjoy "dying."
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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 nationwide 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 occurs 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 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 are 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, responses to the article as a whole are highly encouraged!
Nonno on May 25, 2020:
Thanks for pointing thses out
Dvt on November 12, 2019:
'Truth' is enlightenment, think of it as opening the 7th chakra in Yoga (Or the tree of life in Christianity)
Noah Miller on August 10, 2017:
I also noticed alot off symbolism in transmutation circles, as boby points out, Alex Armstrong has Hebrew writing on his fists, and at least to me Roy mustangs circles look very similar to a star of David, as well as plenty of triangles in circles which symbolizes the Trinity and the human transmutation circles that are straight up hexagrams
bobby on August 02, 2017:
What about all the hebrew in this show, such as on Alex Armstrongs fist, and on the Gate of Truth? BTW the translation for the writing on Alexs fist is Strong or chasak in hebrew
ET on September 12, 2016:
this anime has a taste of life's secrets. The universe, life, soul, mind, body, alchemy and everything. Completely a different and indirect way to express a message on society to help them question life and seek knowledge on their own. For oneself. A starter. A step. A glimpse for those who are ready to receive the message.
namar on August 29, 2016:
It just need to be added that the symbol within the Ouroboros is high likely to be The Star of David. Ouroboros doesn't have the star symbol inside and surely was added by the author. If you follow the story, you would realize that for example Ishbala was destroyed by one of the Homunculus during a civil war. Symbolically, Ishbalans are arab muslims who are living in Israel/Palestine and probably also in Syria/Jordan. Even Ishbala is litterally very similar to Israel, and their God, Ishballah is very similar to Allah. So probabely the author wanted to transfer some meaning considering real historical and current events happening in the world. This even makes more sense when we pay atention to Elric brothers who are originally from Xerxes (symbol of Persia) and they are fighting with Homunculi, or more accurately they are chasing and fighting with Elric brothers. These symbols are very clear.
Also, Elric brothers flannel/armoire symbol is indicating both Christian cross and ancient Greek medicine symbol plus a Crown and two wings which probably symbolize Farvahar in Zoroastriaism (in ancient Persia). So altogether they carry Roman (christinaty), Greek and Persian (Zoroastriaism) power.
jane on July 03, 2016:
it's very interesting & i have learned so many thing's when u discuss this topic..i'd really like this anime and i think there are so many thing's to be discover on this anime..funny how this writer of this anime could make a manga like this it's awesome !..that guy have a different side of imagination but not only that but also has a different perspective of what's real in this world.
Bob on April 17, 2016:
King Bradley is wrath in brotherhood not pride
Edward Francis on March 08, 2015:
In the old series, on the opening, where they show the picture of Edward and alphonse when they were little, you will find there is a book cover slightly seen, which says "Dawn" at the end, actually it refers to a very old alchemical book regarding the philosopher's stone, "The age of the golden dawn".....another symbol is that Edward's look,
He has gold coloured eyes and hair, which according to early alchemists, the philosophers stone was supposed to make, he is highly intelligent , joined the millitary at a very young age, his long coat is the colour of the philosopher's stone, and the black jacket and white / silver ends are also the colour that takes part in the reaction, in short he represents the philosopher's stone... his attitude is exactly the same as an alchemist named paracelsus von hoenheim, who in this series exist as his father.
Travis on November 12, 2014:
In brotherhood, Bradley is Wrath and his son is Pride.
KeikoArtz on September 25, 2014:
I remember reading this months ago before I knew about hubpages! Still love it man! :)
Jessica Priscilla Nangoi on May 09, 2014:
Accidentally read this article of yours :)
Actually, this is what my thesis is about. Your interpretation is good, I didn't notice some of it. And by the way,I did interpret Truth :)
Journie on February 16, 2014:
What about Scar's arm? His right arm -or hand - destroys. And he uses it to destroy alchemists, who he says are a crime against god. He claims he's doing it in god's name. God's right hand of destruction? Sounds like something Old Testament.
Vanne on December 29, 2013:
Owen Sanders, you comment made me realize something. The priest, Cornello, was trying to accomplish money and power by tricking the people in that city in believing in his miracles. In other words, Cornellos gluttony for power literally "ate" him in the end.
Owen Sanders on December 05, 2013:
The priest wasn't named Leto, Leto was the sun god. Also, the priest was eaten by gluttony. Not crushed. He was ALMOST crushed, but he was missed. Gluttony ate him,
Jeffreyscott456 on October 17, 2013:
Well also to mention the fact that in brotherhood toward the end of the seris hohemiem and that girl+ al seem to use the satanic pentigram often used in withcraft and the study of satanism.
Chris Qu (author) on May 27, 2013:
Hey, I've just returned to Hubpages after many months away from it. The first thing I did when I logged back in was read through and approve any comments left on the hubs I've written. And I wanted to thank both Belligerentkj and Ben for leaving the comments that they did. I had hoped that a hub like this would spark some thought, and perhaps discussion. I'm glad to see that it has!
Ben on August 29, 2012:
I think one of the biggest evidences that can be offered to the comparison of Christianity is actually the ending pertaining to both Ed and Dwarf in the flask and the way people are saved. When Jesus was alive he mainly dealt with a religious group called the pharisees. The pharisees were a very prideful group that claimed strict adherence to the law and strict punishment for those who broke the law. When jesus dealt with them, he condemned them for their hypocritical ways saying that their boasting in the law would only lead to a judgement of their ways which no human could survive. In the same way dwarf in the flask tried to be perfect but for all his boasting was not and in the end was condemned for it. Jesus instructed that faith in him and not in your own works was the way to salvation. This was basically saying that there is nothing that you are capable of doing in order be justified. You must accept that the only way you can be justified is through the sacrifice of another. In the same way Ed threw away his door rejecting the idea of equivalent exchange saying that it lead to more trouble then it was worth and in the end admitting that he was a lowly human. The person beyond the door then smiled and said that was the right answer.
Belligerentkj on July 09, 2012:
It does bring a smile to my face to see the interpretation and enlightenment of religions; so open to the mind of those willing to seek out the truth. The question will stand the test of time, Did God make Man or did Man make God? I have only my interpretation of life to answer this question with. As the truth is little more than our interpretation of life given the knowledge we seek out for our selves. What is true today is not so tomorrow. The secrets of life are only hidden from those not willing to seek them out. A man that learned this well was Napoleon Hill. It would be worth ones time to delve into his works with an open mind. Transmutation you will find is a subject not lightly spoken of. More to come...
Chris Qu (author) on January 11, 2012:
Thanks a lot everyone, I'm glad you found it interesting. :)
Rhys Baker from Peterborough, UK on January 11, 2012:
I love FMA and was gutted when it finished. This has given me something to think about! I may HAVE to watch them all again with my mind on symbolism. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for answering my question by directing me to this great hub. Voted Up and awesome
emmaspeaks from Kansas City on January 05, 2012:
Very interesting comparisons, indeed. I, too am a fan of both animes, Brotherhood, and the original. Some of the symbols I noticed right away were, of course, the church of Leto, but I hadn't really thought about Flemel's cross as a symbol. Great hub! Voted up!
Naomi Starlight from Illinois on January 02, 2012:
This was very interesting, it's hard not to notice all these in the anime but it's tough to figure out what they mean and whether the creators intended a symbolic meaning by using them.
Stephanie Bradberry from New Jersey on December 29, 2011:
There is certainly enough food for thought here. While there is a lot of overt religious overtones, some of the more subtle ones are easy to miss, like your discussion of the ouroboros. Thanks for bringing this to light, pun intended :)