Theology of Fullmetal Alchemist

The following is a transcription of an excerpt from Brotherhood, a podcast analyzing every episode of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. To listen to the rest of the episode this was taken from, click here.

We see a man walking across the desert, beaten and bruised, with nothing but the rough coat on his back. He is a sage, a rabbi, and a scoundrel — depending on who you ask — and this man has been forced to flee his home, like so many before him, because of his faith and his ancestry. He has lost everything to this war — friends, a brother, a home — and he will lose so much more in the future, but right now, this man of God has only one question on his mind, a question burned into his skull, and it is a question that will change the shape of his country forever.

In times of great crisis, it is only natural to wonder if there truly is a God watching over us. Many who believe are forced to ask why such a God would let these terrible things happen. Who is God that he can sit idly by as his people are slaughtered? But this man is no ordinary disciple. He doesn’t doubt who God is, he knows. He has prayed to Him, worshipped Him, dedicated his life to Him. He does not doubt. Many men have come and gone claiming to be God, or sons of God, to prey on the believers for their own selfish gain, and this man has seen through them all. As he grieves for the loss of his home, he does not ask Who God is, or Why. Only one question rings through his mind, now:

What is God?

Historians disagree over who the author of the Zohar really was, but tradition says is was Shimeon bar Yochai, a rabbi from the first and second century. The year 70 A.D. was not a great time to be a Jew — few years in history are — nor a particularly vocal one at that. But Shimeon had made a lot of enemies defending his belief and was driven into exile for it. In the aftermath of the burning of the temple, Shimeon fled into the desert to escape the Romans. It was during his exile that tradition says he was opened to the secrets of God — not just who God is, but what he is — secrets formerly known only by the patriarchs. These revelations were then written down in the Zohar and became the basis for the most misunderstood aspect of all Jewish faith, Kabbalah.

Teachings of the Zohar: The Foundation of Kabbalah

Open up any old copy and you’ll find a picture of an archway. It’s like the merry-go-round on Catcher in the Rye. Just about every copy has one. And for a Jew in the middle ages, when the Zohar finally surfaced in Spain, it would have been immediately obvious what the arch meant. They would have seen it each Saturday as they attended the synagogue. In some circumstances the word synagogue is even used synonymously for an archway. The arch marks the gateway to the Torah — the first and most sacred 5 books of the old testament. 

In Judaism, the Torah is everything. It is synonymous with the Word of God and knowledge of the divine. It is life. Therefore, a book with an image of an arch would have said something to the Jewish community. It would have said, "Hey! I’m important! I have the Torah and thus the greatest knowledge known and unknown to man inside of me!" 

That’s why it begins with a picture of an arch. Opening the Zohar is meant to be like stepping through a door to receive the greatest knowledge available. It contains secret knowledge of the creation, why it happened, and what it reveals about the nature of God. That’s the point of using the arch as a symbol. Not only is the Torah kept there, but more importantly, so is the shekinah, or presence of God. This bears some significance for Fullmetal Alchemist, where the presence of God is literally kept behind a door known as the Gate of Truth, where knowledge is given to all who enter. 

The arch could also be read as a symbol for the last room of the Temple, a holy place which kept a copy of the Torah and was filled with God’s presence. Of course, not just anybody could enter this most sacred room of the temple. Like every other part of temple worship, it required a sacrifice to enter. 

This too bears striking resemblance to the Gate of Truth in Fullmetal Alchemist, where in order to obtain knowledge of the divine and enter into the presence of God, a toll must be paid. The similarities stop there, though. In Judaism, temple sacrifices were always in a similitude of the coming Messiah. The Torah explicitly describes sacrifice is a teaching tool meant to strengthen the bond between you and God. It’s like half the law of moses. And if anyone tried offering a human sacrifice instead of a spotless animal, you can bet they would have been stoned to death for profaning the temple. No secrets of the universe for them! 

In Judaism, sacrifice is a sacred life lesson. Heck, the word Kabbalah even means "to receive". You’re meant to receive that knowledge. The Jewish God is desperate for people to enter shekinah and learn those secrets of the universe. In Fullmetal, not so much. There, the sacrifice to enter the presence of God and learn knowledge is reduced to a strictly monetary transaction, everything has an equivalent exchange, for better or for worse. I lean towards worse.

Fall of Adam

Speaking of creation, let’s talk about Adam. That dude’s pretty important in Kabbalah. And other faiths, too, I’m told. First man and whatnot. God made Adam first of all humans, and split them into a man and a woman. Yes, in Kabbalah, Adam was both man and woman. We’ll come back to that later. God placed Adam (meaning Adam and Eve) in the Garden of Eden with two charges: 1) tend to the garden, and 2) don’t eat that fruit. No really. Don’t do it. They did. As consequence, they were cast out of the Garden of Eden and made mortal, dooming us all to a life of misery and pain. 

But the Zohar teaches that everything, even the Fall of Adam, is for the best. According to the Zohar, without the knowledge that the forbidden fruit gave him, Adam never would have progressed as a person and God’s whole purpose in creation would have been foiled. Knowledge, in Kabbalah, is the most important thing. Your whole purpose in life is to receive knowledge, to learn! We see signs of this in everything: numbers, letters, puns. Especially puns. And after the Fall, Adam was exposed to greater knowledge than he ever could have imagined before. 

Kabbalah has a very positive take on the Fall of Adam that from a Christian perspective seems, frankly, odd. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden, they were able to speak directly with God. As punishment for eating the fruit, they were made mortal and cast out of God’s presence. From a Christian perspective — or any perspective, really — it’s hard to see how death and damnation possibly be for good.

Which brings us, finally, to alchemy.

The Purpose of Alchemy

Alchemy is a lot like postmodernism: everybody’s heard about it, and nobody knows what what it is. Least of all the experts. I mean, I consider myself reasonably well read, but before I started this show I couldn’t have told you hummus from a homunculus. Maybe you heard about it in Harry Potter and learned that Alchemy sought to create the philosopher’s stone. Maybe you learned that the philosopher’s stone was a magic rock that could turn lead into gold and make you immortal. Maybe you heard about it in chemistry, when you learned that alchemy was a proto-science which formed the basis of our modern chemistry. It would be easy, then, to dismiss alchemists as a bunch of benign crackpots, greedily seeking to become fabulously rich and elderly. It would be easy, but to do so would miss the point.

Have you ever stopped to wonder, "Why gold?" Plenty of times throughout history, gold has been out-priced by other precious minerals. If alchemy really was just about the money, we would expect to hear some account of the philosopher’s stone turning lead into silver or salt. But you don’t, and there’s a reason for that. Especially the silver. Remember that alchemy was a kind of early chemistry, and beyond just being rare, gold has properties that are unique among metals. Unlike silver, or iron, or bronze, gold doesn’t tarnish. It doesn’t oxidize. It doesn’t change over time. It’s eternal. Also, it kind of looks like the sun, and that matters. There’s a reason alchemists thought the philosopher’s stone, which transmuted lead into gold, would transmute men into immortal beings. The alchemists weren’t trying to become rich — well, maybe on their grant applications — no, they were trying to become like God.

Alchemists believed they could do this because of an old Egyptian maxim: as above, so below. They knew how to transmute metals and change their properties. They believed that if they could change the natures of man as they changed metals, they could also reverse the effects of The Fall. After all, as above, so below. This was the importance of the philosopher’s stone. It was never about money. It was never about glory. At least for the European alchemists, it was always about rescuing man from original sin and bringing him back to God.

It may seem odd at first that a show named Fullmetal Alchemist should spend so much time talking about God and the hubris of man becoming like him. But if you know why alchemy existed in the first place, it starts to make sense. By her own admission, author Hiromu Arakawa was never that interested in the practical details of alchemy. What she cared about was the philosophy. It makes sense, then, that her manga would begin not with the vials and crucibles of true historical alchemists, but in the shadow of a church, and a priest who claims to have connected with the divine, who our heroes discover is in fact a fraud.

While we’re on the subject of that beginning, I strongly suspect that the priest known as Cornello may have been the original villain of Fullmetal Alchemist. In other interviews, Arakawa shared that the manga was supposed to be a short story. She originally wrote it on spec for Shonen Jump magazine, but they loved the concept so much that they convinced Arakawa to rework the story into a series. I genuinely think the first chapter was originally supposed to be the only chapter. For me, the similarities between Cornello and Father are so pointed, and their stories so similar, that I wonder if Father wasn’t created to be a bigger version of Cornello for the sake of a bigger story. 

The Sephirot

And finally, we come back to Kabbalah, and the one piece of doctrine I have been the most excited to share in this episode. What is God? And why does it matter in Fullmetal Alchemist?

In Kabbalah, God is mysterious. I mean that both in the modern sense of the word and in the older sense of the word meaning “a secret known only to the initiated”. In Kabbalah, God is fundamentally beyond comprehension and can not be understood through text or speech. There are secrets of God that simply can not be transmitted. But there are some parts of him that we can begin to scratch the surface of, and we do it by entering into their presence, the shekinah, and immersing ourselves in the Torah. If you remember one thing, let it be this: Jewish mysticism isn’t about magic, despite what that geocities account will tell you. Those sparkle gif’s are not accurate. Mysticism is about knowledge, usually about God, and for us the knowledge that matters most is the knowledge of what makes God, God — and that means learning about the sephirot.

We’ve talked about the Sephirot on the show before. At the time I described them as the attributes of God, which is not entirely accurate, but that may be the best way to think about them. The Zohar describes them as emanations of light, like tiny suns filling the expanse of space. As we cary out each of the actions associated with the Sephirot, those emanations are increased. Evil, at least in some kabbalistic texts, is the result of an imbalance of these emanations. 

But what exactly are the sephirot? Well, there are 10 of them, or 11, depending on how you count, because Kabbalah is nothing if not complicated. They are usually drawn in the shape of a tree called the Tree of Life. You’ve actually seen them already, though you probably didn’t know it at the time. The tree on Edward’s Gate of Truth? That’s a tree of life, and the circles coming out of it are the 10 sephirot.

The first and most important sephirah is Keter — or Da’at (this is why counting the sephirot is complicated). Keter is divine will. All other sephirot are contained within it and it is the source of their divine light. The symbol for Keter is the crown, which stands above the tree of life in Edward’s gate.

The rest of the tree can be easily remembered for corresponding to different parts of the body. And also different characters in Fullmetal Alchemist. The left brain is Chochmah, or intuition — the wisdom that comes from within. King Bradley’s most terrifying quality is his uncanny ability to discern hidden truths through intuition. His ouroboros tattoo covers his left eye, symbolizing his connection to Chochmah and his dominant left brain.

The right brain is Binah, or intellect. When Riza figures out Pride’s true identity, he marks her on her right cheek, indicating she is a woman whose reasoning and intellect is to be feared. 

Riza’s connection to Binah is actually foreshadowed even earlier in the show. Remember that evil is the result of an imbalance of the sephirot, and each sephirah must be kept in check by its opposite. When Father sought to limit Riza and her friends, he placed her opposite King Bradley as his bodyguard, thus restricting Binah with Chochmah.

I mentioned Da’at earlier. Da’at is the connection between the left and right brain.  Da’at is the knowledge that comes from experience. I struggled to find a non-spoilery character who represents Da’at, so I’ll leave it at this: if a character lost all of the knowledge and experience they had acquired in life, and a marking appeared in the center of their forehead, that might mean they have a connection with Da’at.

Next is the right hand, Chesed, or love. Chesed is associated with an expansion, a desire to reach out and form connections with other people. Throughout the show, we see characters reaching out with their right hands in a gesture of wanting to connect. More importantly, both Scar’s brother and Edward lose their right arms in their attempts to bring back the people they love.

The left hand is Gevurah, or power. Unlike Chesed, Gevurah is associated with a contraction, a desire to take and to own. The character most connected with Gevurah is Greed, whose tattoo is located on his left hand, symbolizing his desire to obtain all things for himself. Gevurah is also associated with General Raven, whose left hand is stabbed by Olivia’s right handed sword for attempting to take the lives of her soldiers. Each time the right hand and left hand come together in Fullmetal Alchemist, as they often do, think about what that means for Chesed and Gevurah.

Neither Chesed nor Gevurah are good or bad. It is only when those desires of Chesed and Gevurah are imbalanced that they lead to evil. You can not have one without the other and achieve your true potential. The union of the two is Tiferet, or beauty, which is represented by the upper torso. Lust, whose beauty smote Havoc, wears her tattoo over her chest, between her left and right arms.

The left leg is Hod, or persistence. As punishment for trying to resurrect his mother, Truth also took from Edward his left leg, which empowered him to persist through Izumi’s grueling training. Hod is also supposed to represent splendor and majesty, which is funny because Envy’s tattoo is on their left leg. And if there’s one word I’d use to describe Envy, majestic would be the opposite of that. 

The right leg is Netzach, or within eternity. It is the drive to do and accomplish. It could be said that when Truth took Edward’s left leg, he failed to temper what most defines Edward as an alchemist: his uncontainable drive to achieve. Edward embodies many sephirot, but in my mind the sephirah he embodies most is Netzach.

Between Netzach and Hod is Yesod, meaning foundation. It combines the drive of Netzach with the persistence of Hod to create a focused energy. It’s the get work done sephirah. In addition, it corresponds with the part of the body between the left leg and the right. It’s also male. It’s a penis. Moving on.

The tree of life is divided into both masculine and feminine sephirot, because God is both male and female. For the most part, the left side of the tree is feminine and the right side masculine, but Malchut, or kingship, located in the center, is the most explicitly feminine. Kabbalistic texts describe it as the womb of all creation. It is the desire for family, a kingdom to rule over. When Izumi lost her child, having tried for so many years to raise a family of her own, she tried to resurrect her baby with alchemy. As punishment for her sin, Truth took the part of her that most symbolized her desire: the ability to have children.

Those are the 10 or 11 sephirot. As we go through the rest of the show, pay attention to the ways different characters embody each sephirah. If a character were to say, go blind, that might say something about their relationship to Binah and Chochmah. Pay particular attention to the way that physical characteristics reveal different parts of a character’s true identity. You might find something surprising.


Now comes the hard part: bring it all together.

It’s hard to say historically which came first: alchemy or Kabbalah. The foundational texts of Alchemy, especially the Emerald Tablets, predate the Zohar by well over 1,000 years. And yet, they seem to share a lot in common. The tree that decorates Edward’s gate wasn’t taken from a Kabbalistic text, it was taken from an alchemy illustration. Many alchemists tried to incorporate the doctrines of Kabbalah into their work. Or maybe it was the other way around. The Zohar describes the earth prior to creation as a kind of early philosopher’s stone. It’s complicated.

What there can be no doubt of is the enormous influence the two had on Arakawa as she was writing Fullmetal Alchemist. Transmutation may be a completely bogus idea that bears nothing in common with the chemical reactions performed by real alchemists, but her story cuts to the core of their philosophy.

Fullmetal Alchemist is a story about God, and men who wanted to be like God. And now that we are transitioning into the final chapters of her story, the influence is only going to be more clear. Hopefully with this shared knowledge, we’ll be able to fully appreciate the monumental scale of what she achieved with this story.

Addendum: The Creation of the Philosopher’s Stone

The creation of a philosopher’s stone goes as follows:

First: nigredo, the blackening. And if that’s not a Metallica album, it should be. The alchemist prepares prima materia, the chaos of the primal universe, by putrefying it, breaking it down into its fundamental elements. 

When Father sought to become like God, he broke himself down and removed from himself his seven deadly sins, each clothed in black. The symbol most associated with the blackening is the ouroboros, a snake devouring its own tail — forever consuming itself and forever replenishing itself — a symbol for both eternity and chaos. In the words of the alchemists, all is one and one is all. Everything is of a self sustaining whole.

Like the ouroboros, we are a part of a system that feeds and sustains itself. When we die, our bodies become the basis for new life. Only with the philosopher’s stone can that circle be escaped. Perhaps this is why the seven homunculi all bear a tattoo of the ouroboros on their blackened bodies, endlessly yearning to become something greater.

After that comes albedo, the whitening. The prima materia is purified, separated from its dark, unholy elements. When Father cast off his seven sins, he donned a white robe and sent his children away from his presence. Though he is the leader of Amestris, we always see Father alone, barefooted in his cave, separated from the world and his dark beginnings.

Then comes citrinitas, the yellowing, which refers to the awakening of the inner solar light. We can’t go into where Father fits on this process because of spoilers, but if ever we saw Father donning a yellow appearance in the presence of a burgeoning sun, we might say that he is in citrinitas.

Or perhaps he would be in rubedo, the reddening, the final stage in creating a philosopher’s stone. Later alchemists collapsed citrinitas into rubedo, saying that once the inner solar light had been awoken, the transformation was complete. The prima materia took on a red appearance and became the philosopher’s stone, perfect and whole. An alchemist who could complete this process in themselves would have broken free of God’s curse upon man, essentially becoming God’s equal. No longer cast out, he would be free to return to God’s presence.

You don’t see many alchemists searching for the philosopher’s stone, anymore. With the advent of chemistry and the scientific revolution, alchemy basically died. Some claim that it failed because science was much better equipped to describe the natural world. Others claim that the open exchange of information between chemists made the secrecy of alchemy unappealing. Those certainly contributed to the death of alchemy, but, in my opinion, alchemy was doomed long before the scientific revolution. It’s days were numbered the day it declared to have any respite from the fall of Adam. 

The problem with Alchemy, the reason it failed, wasn’t because of science. It was because it tried find an alternative to a path for which there is none. The only way to become like God, as any disciple could tell you, is by meekness and long suffering; by holiness; by perpetual self improvement and hard work; and for the Christian alchemist, it should have been by repentance through the blood of Christ. That is the only way. All other roads end in death.