Christian Symbolism and Fullmetal Alchemist

Bring on the religious analysis!

I’ll warn you to start off with – in all likelihood, this will wander around a bit, because it isn’t a school assignment, so I don’t feel like making the effort to plan it out in advance with an outline and everything; I’m doing this for fun after all, so I don’t want to make it feel like I’m just doing another paper for a class.

Also, please remember that this all concerns the FMA TV series, and not the manga, as that is a. ongoing, and b. I’ve only read up to volume four thus far, or the movie, as I have yet to see that.

That Fullmetal Alchemist begins with a scenario involving the busting of a fraudulent religious sect is no mistake, for, ultimately, the anime version of FMA utilizes religious symbolism and a framework that one can find in several different religions. Ed’s sacrifice at the end, I would argue, posits him as a Christ-figure, much like Kamina is in Tenga Toppa Gurren Lagann, particularly in light of where it occurs.

As I previously stated, the anime begins with the Elric brothers exposing a fraudulent priest for what he and his cult really is – false. Edward in particular works hard to expose the priest for what he is, drawing parallels between himself and Christ’s actions in the destruction of ‘false’ idols in the New Testament of the Bible, especially when Edward takes control of one of the statues of the god of the false cult and then proceeds to smash it. This early action sets the tone for the idea of Edward as a Christ figure.

For the most part, though, this parallel of to the two fades into the background of much of the series. Edward’s refusal to destroy/kill enemies for the bulk of the series could be shown as further evidence, although this behavior is fairly staple for shounen shows. Edward also views beings that could be considered as nonhuman as human, such as when he refuses to rub out the blood seal on the armor that houses the souls of number 48, a pair of brothers that were supposed to have been executed for their murderous ways. Christ himself reached out his hand to those considered inhuman by the many, such as Mary Magdalene, giving them the opportunity to redeem themselves; although we know that the brothers known as 48 are killers, and although they tried to kill Ed, we feel their passing because their aid to Ed redeemed them in our eyes.

At the end, Ed sacrifices himself in a city beneath a church to save his brother, Alphonse, from death. But Ed is also sacrificing himself to end the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, thereby saving his country, even perhaps the world, from the agony that the Philosopher’s Stone’s creation demands, and the further misery that ensues as a result of its existence. He calmly faces his own death, accepting it as the price for his brother’s resurrection and the end of the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone.

Rose’s place in the end of the series also emphasizes this symbolism, for it is very, very clear that Rose functions as a holy mother (she has a cult of followers and has been positioned as such by Dante), and in this one can see shades of the Virgin Mary (ignoring that her child is not as the result of a virgin birth). Rose acts as a savior for Ed a few times at the end, enabling him to make his ‘final’ sacrifice, which, admittedly very loosely (ok, seriously loosely), can be compared to the Virgin Mary’s own enabling of Jesus’s final sacrifice.

That we next see Ed in another world, reunited with his father, furthers the idea of Ed as a Christ-figure. Ed has left the world he knows, having saved his brother and the people of his world, and has crossed over to a different one. Here he is with his father, Hohenheim of Light, a figure who in a sense could be considered god-like, given his immortality. It is very easy to see this as an allegory for the reunification of Christ in heaven with his father, God.

However, one could go a separate route and see a symbolic exile from Paradise in Ed’s situation – both he and his father sinned, and they are paying for that in their separation from Paradise. Ed ate the forbidden fruit by trying to resurrect his mother, and then by re-establishing his brother’s physical body in his own world. Hohenheim ate the forbidden fruit when he pursued eternal life. Thus, both have been forcibly separated from their original world, a place that perhaps had its own sorrows, but had all those they held dear.

To continue in a Christian vein, the positioning of Christianity in Ed’s world, as a dead religion, ties in with the fact that alchemy is so central to that world. Alchemy is a practice that was demonized by the Church in medieval times, due to alchemy’s taking on of metaphysical aspects. Alchemists began to view organic and inorganic chemical substances, molecular make-ups, and physical states as symbolic of spiritual states and entities, and thus the transformations that alchemists attempted as spiritual acts. This metaphysical/spiritual interpretation of alchemy thus put it at odds with the Christian church; given such, one could not have a world in which both Christianity and alchemy operated on a vast scale, and the government’s official policies on alchemy and the approval granted in the form of the position of State Alchemist clearly illustrates that it was alchemy that won out, leaving Christianity to rot away in the corners.

Although Christianity existed in the world of FMA, the Ishbalans themselves can be seen as symbolic of early Christians (or even the ancient Jews, although here I will be solely looking at the idea of them symbolically representing ancient Christians). The Ishbalans are heavily persecuted, and live in a desert land reminiscent of the ancient Middle East. They reject the majority ideological framework of their land, much to their own pain. But they stand strong by their religion and their god, Ishbala, believing that Ishbala holds all Ishbalans dear. This view, of course, leaves Amestris as a sort of Rome, something not entirely illogical given the expansionary manner of their military policy, along with the plethora of border skirmishes.

It is interesting to draw parallels to Christianity in FMA, though, given the seemingly negative positioning of Christianity within it in the form of their world’s Christianity. Dante leads Rose down the a secret passageway from a church to what she plans to be Rose’s end, and, as she walks, speaks of the extinct religion that was housed in the church. Dante states that it was a religion which demanded sacrifice, much to Rose’s horror, and there is an implication that it was what led to the chaos that in turn led to Dante and Hohenheim’s creation of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Anyway, that’s a wrap for this one – I’ve pretty much exhausted every avenue I saw a need to cover. I do intend to take another hack at analyzing religious symbolism and the importance of religion in FMA in the near-ish future, though, and hopefully will get to extend this one once I get my hands on the movie. Hope I didn’t bore you too much; I know it had little central structure, after all, and was a bit long.

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6 Responses to Christian Symbolism and Fullmetal Alchemist

  1. Mike says:

    I think it’s hard to find exact parallels in the religion of the FMA world with any existing religion here on our world, especially given that we see near the end that our world is in fact simply on the other side of the gate. That said, I actually saw the sun-god cult of the first two episodes as standing in for the author’s POV on religion in general, not just Christianity or false idols in particular. The POV of the show is generally pretty critical of religion, though not quite as bluntly as Scrapped Princess. There are definite inversions of certain particularly Christian themes (resurrection, sacrifice, the seven deadly sins, etc) that are used to make opposite points than their original intentions.

    It’s worth remembering that Ed states early on that he is no god, so I’m not sure it works to draw parallels to him and Christ.

  2. Mike says:

    A minor note too–alchemy in much of the Christian Middle Ages wasn’t especially demonoized until the beginning of the rise of modern science in the 17th century. It was always somewhat suspect, but as it was tied to Aristotilean physics and philosophy, many of the neo-Aristotilean thinkers, including heavyweights like St Thomas Aquinas, dabbled in alchemy or theorized about it. Physics and philosophy were inseparable back then a large extent, though as you point out some did begin to tie it to Gnostic-inspired spiritual concepts: folks like the real Hohenheim, for instance. That’s when it started becoming treated like witchcraft and heresy.

    Isaac Newton was also quite an alchemist himsef, and he died believeing he had in fact transmuted lead into gold. He was probably the last major figure to take it seriously; it stopped being treated as real science not long after him.

  3. adaywithoutme says:

    @ Mike – I would note that I used the term ‘demonized’ specifically because it was the Church hierarchy which condemned it; the later denigration of alchemy by science wasn’t demonization so much as the dismissal of it as being sheer foolishness.

    As for FMA and religious symbolism – I certainly agree its pretty anti-religion, although I’m planning to address that in the future in another post, as it is curious to see a dim view of religion set within a world that, in a sense, DOES have an overarching religion, e.g. alchemy. This of course all demands a definition of religion, which is impossible to define, but I will be clarifying my view on the subject in the future.

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  6. Savannah Joelene says:

    Okayy…first of all…I loved this. My sister and I have been discussing possible religious symbols in FMA all week. But I would like to offer a slightly different view on the Ishbalans.She and I had discussed the idea ofthem representing the Jewish nation because of the persecution but we also toyed with the idea of them being the Muslim nation. It is widely beleived that Muhamed was a decendant of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, born of Sarah’s hand maid (or something like that). This would explain the name considering how similar the two names are. Also their God’s name is Ishbalah which is quite similar to Alah. If you explore the posibility of mixing times here then it is possible that in this particular story line the Jesus figure , Ed, has come during a time like the crusades where folowers of God were wayoff track with how to “go to the ends of the earth” and wiped out all who beleived differently than they did…starting, if I am correct, with the Muslims. Of course this isn’t fully thought through yet…we are only on episode 29 of the first series soooo…yeah…but just throwing that idea out to ponder on…

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