This is where I play around with the symbolism used in the show that seems to have derived from historical alchemy
. Before diving into this, it may be useful to browse through an alchemical text to demonstrate just how fluid all the images and citations and discussions in here are. I recommend Salmon's commentary
on the Emerald Tablet, which is one of the clearer texts I've found that covers a lot of ground. Dense, but clear. Relatively speaking. It will introduce a lot of the basic concepts.
Let's start with the particular symbols used most: the crucified serpent and the ouroboros.
Any fast google will tell you that the serpent cross means "fixing the volatile", but that doesn't really tell you what it means
so let's unpack it a little. First, volatile
in general means "changeable". In specifically alchemical terms it often refers to mercury
, which is certainly one of the most changeable elements alchemists worked with. Thus, in laboratory terms, "fixing the volatile" can mean rendering mercury by heat or other reaction to separate it into a stable form, or applying mercury as a solvent to a mineral. In more broadly alchemical symbolic terms, it means a lot more
Several of the substances produced by mercury reactions are red. The color red usually stands for the active principle, in alchemy. This may, from one direction or another, help explain why Mercury, in code terms, often stands for Spirit. Spirit, active, animal, mercury and red are all symbolically associated alchemical terms.
Some mercuric substances, such as calomel (mercury chloride), have also been used medicinally. Notably, mercury was also one of the treatments for syphilis, which, if it was used in antiquity, may help explain its significance in alchemy as a purifying agent. Efficacy against such a feared disease would certainly make the reputation of any substance.
We find another connection to healing in the derivation of the symbol itself
, which appears to come from one of the biblical tales of Moses, in which he nails a bronze serpent to a cross and displays it to relieve sufferers of snakebite and/or plague depending on your version.
So "fixing the volatile" generally means stabilizing the active principle, something which can separate harmful and beneficial elements from each other or even transform the harmful (pure active, too active) into the beneficial (balanced active).
The symbol that Izumi, Ed and Al wear, however, is not the crucified serpent alone. It is the crucified serpent winged and crowned. As we can see in many manuscripts
, wings are used to mark progress or advancement of an alchemical solution toward perfection. Crowns mark the final stage of a spirit or solution: perfection, completion, ascension.
If we interpret snake = Mercury = spirit, which is a common symbol chain, then the symbol can suggest that the final "rendering" of the spirit, by death or enlightenment, will produce the pure, perfected, incorruptible spirit that, in alchemical terms, tends to go along with an incorruptible body. In this reading, the symbol indicates immortality, the standard promise of the philosopher's stone.
One somewhat less classic way to read the whole symbol is as a statement that when the volatile is fixed into a stable, presumably healing, form, that is
perfection. That to reach a stage that is beneficial is either a) as close to perfection as we can come or b) the only perfection we truly need to seek. My own feeling is that this would be Izumi's interpretation. Certainly the fact that she wears this symbol on her body, which we have no indication Dante does, suggests that it means something significant to her. Another possibility, of course, is that it is a reminder to herself of own hubris in attempting human transmutation. It seems likely, after all, she knew that symbol was associated with that transmutation in some way.
The ouroboros is usually a snake or dragon biting its tail, though the continual circle can be formed by other animals, such as two birds
. In any event, it is a consistent symbol of an endless cycle, though the nature of that cycle is a subject of constant debate.1
Once again, though, the version we see in FMA is altered. This time, the dragon is winged and encloses the Seal of Solomon. This variation is not unique, similar concepts can also be found in the emblems of Theosophy
and its offshoots such as Martinism.2
It does, however, indicate a different interpretation than the standard ouroboros would.Mclean
mentions that the dragon in general is a very double edged symbol, representing the first alchemical stage (black, decomposed) when unwinged and the last stage "the spiritualising of the earthly substance" when winged. Thus, there is a double impact to the Homunculi's ouroboros: a winged dragon biting it's tail could indicate a sustainable perfected reaction, yet it invites contemplation of the unwinged dragon--and the Homunculi are most certainly an expression of decomposition and of the cycle of rebirth that an unwinged snake biting its tail would normally refer to.
If you look through the image archives
, at The Alchemy Website, you will find the Seal of Solomon pretty frequently. The two triangles that make it up will be different colors, if the image is colored, often blue and red or black and white. This is, as we will see in the Colors section later, a common way of noting opposing forces such as water and fire, or masculinity and femininity. Thus the Seal, which may show the triangles interlaced, indicates the balance or combination of opposing elements, up to and including the Above and Below. In that last variation, the symbol necessarily indicates the balanced unity of all that is, which can be taken as an aspect of perfection.
The Seal reinforces the notion of the winged ouroboros as an expression of the final stage, of perfection. The symbol as a whole suggests eternal perfection.
Thus, I would not say that the Sins' symbol and Izumi's symbol are opposites, as I have seen suggested. They can be read as expressions of exactly the same thing: perfection in balance, in unity, in healing. The Seal and ouroboros, in particular, connect directly to Izumi's philosophy of "All is One, One is All", and the incorruptible spirit and body implied by the crucified serpent are certainly what Dante is pursuing. They can also, of course, be read as different inflections of the same concept, with the crucified serpent showing permanence in stillness, at the apex if you will, while the ouroboros shows permanence in motion, the cycle that is centered.
On yet another level, and taking into account the characters involved, Izumi, Ed and Al can be seen as nailing down the runaway, destructive cycle that the Sins embody and act out. The appearance of the crucified serpent in the array Dante used to contain and bind the Homunculi certainly suggest this.
On a somewhat disturbing level, the positioning of these symbols can also be read as an indication that the Homunculi are a perfected state, marked with the perfection-in-motion while they are active and bound by the perfection-fixed. This reading suggests that the presence of a soul creates imperfection, and that it is out of this imperfection that alchemy is possible.
All symbols in alchemy are very fluid, and all of them have multiple meanings, few moreso than colors. One thing we can say, however, based on a study of colored alchemical images
, is that blue and red are often used as opposites.
The most common blue, in the show, is military uniforms, and since Ed's trademark is his red coat, and I can't help wondering if that was entirely on purpose.
More interesting still, the illustrations seem to use blue and white as interchangeable. Humberg
mentions that white is associated with the feminine and red with the masculine (or passive and active). On the other hand, "the crow's beak blue as lead" rather indicates blue is a variety of black, the crow being symbolic of Blackening or the first stage of transmutation. We could, in good alchemical tradition, combine both interpretations and thereby take the blue of the military uniforms as feminine/passive in the sense of being bound to carry out another's will, and also black in the sense of destroyed/destructive and taking the nature of death.
If the uniforms were a deliberate, symbolic choice, it adds a layer to the fact that Mustang and Hawkeye are in civilian clothes when they go to destroy Bradley. They have cast off passivity in both practical and esoteric symbol sets.
The color combination of black-white-red is also employed in Ed's clothes. Those are, in fact, the only colors he wears, and the balance of them seems significant. Black, the color of destruction, and red, the color of perfection, are both strongly represented. White, on the other hand, the representative of recombination, of harmony, is only barely present. The ensemble suits Ed's tendency to extremes, and also suggests that he may be missing a step to actually get where he wants to go.
Tidbits of Interest
Just some other things that caught my attention.
Humberg gives the three stages of alchemy as destroyed, recombined, perfected. This seems to be fairly standard.
No one in FMA uses those stages, though. The stages Armstrong quotes to Scar are understand, destroy, recombine, which seems to leave out the stage of perfection altogether. If perfection is synonymous with the Stone, and the Stone, in the FMA-verse, is simply a shortcut, a condensation of lives that the alchemist may draw on to circumvent having to pay with his/her own, then this may be understandable.
Izumi, on the other hand, uses accept, understand, create (ep 27). Izumi's version offers a hint that the ability to create is the distinguishing factor of human life/existence, particularly in light of how her philosophy seems to derive from her experience of having and losing a child. It is by her that we are reminded that the Elrics watched Elysia being born, and she seems to feel this is significant to their development.
This also suggests why Izumi refers to the total perception of space/time/matter/energy within the Gate as "a conjuror's trick": because to use that perception to alter what the world is, alchemically, is to deny the first step of her alchemy, acceptance. Ed it not wrong, really, when he says it's the Truth; but it's an instrumental truth, a mechanical truth. Truth, and total perception, are not wisdom. Izumi seeks wisdom: action and instrumentality of will that are in accord with the shape of what she has perceived, not seeking to alter that shape overall.
The text on the paper Roy hands Ed at the end of episode Eight, after the whole "name of Full Metal Alchemist" sentence, is taken from the end of Ripley's Recapitulation of the Twelve Gates
, as egregiously allegorical an alchemical text as you're likely to find. It's a fun read, really.
Both Izumi and Scar's older brother pay for their attempts at resurrection with the body parts most proximal to the one being called back: Izumi's uterus and nearby organs, Scar's brother's genitals.
The image on the Gate, an eye surrounded by a glory, is the Eye of Providence. Often used to indicate the beneficial oversight of God, it is also associated with the circled dot, which is sometimes a symbol of gold and sometimes a symbol for the sephirot Keter. More on this in the Gate
The parts of humans identified by FMA, especially in the context of alchemy, are inochi
(will or mind or spirit) and nikutai
(body). The part that allows alchemy to be done, the part the Sins are missing, according to Lust, is tamashii
. The energy source of alchemy, as identified by Hohenheim, is inochi
1. For an example of just how many ways the concept of ouroboros can be taken and applied, see this conversation thread
2. For the reference on Martinism, look a bit over halfway down this thread
. You may find it easiest to run a Find on "seal of solomon"; the second instance is the one you want.
My best source for things alchemical is The Alchemy Website
. This site offers primary sources in abundance, both text and pictures, and their archives contain a great deal of useful conversation between modern, practicing alchemists. The site is not very systematically arranged, quite in the alchemical tradition, but it is searchable.
If primary sources are too time-consuming for you, the Alchemy Dictionary
can usually give you a decent thumbnail sketch. Keep in mind, however, that these entries are necessarily abbreviated and, by that token, not entirely accurate.