Alchemy (錬金術, Renkinjutsu) is, as it is understood in the Fullmetal Alchemist series, the ancient metaphysical science/mystical art of manipulating and altering matter by using natural energy. This act is known as "Transmutation" and its sequence is usually described as:
- Comprehension - Understanding the inherent structure and properties of the atomic or molecular makeup of a particular material to be transmuted, including the flow and balance of potential and kinetic energy within.
- Deconstruction - Using energy to break down the physical structure of the identified material into a more malleable state so as to be easily reshaped into a new form.
- Reconstruction - Continuing the flow of energy so as to reform the material into a new shape.
The proper application of this craft requires not only a full understanding of chemistry and ancient alchemical theory, but also a sort of natural talent towards recognizing and manipulating the physical objects with energy, which require uncommon levels of intelligence and aptitude. Those remarkable individuals capable of studying and practicing alchemy are known as "Alchemists".
There are many paths by which alchemists can transmute the various substances of the world, with some alchemists being said to transmute by way of the Four Classical Elements (Water, Earth, Fire and Air) and some by way of the Three Essential Principles (salt, sulfur and mercury), but the basic tenet at the very foundation of all alchemy is that of Equivalent Exchange.
Equivalent Exchange Edit
The mystical practice of alchemy to create objects out of raw matter or turn one object into another is widely believed to be capable of anything - indeed alchemy is often viewed as magical or miraculous by those unfamiliar with the craft - but it is a science and as such is subject to certain laws and limitations, all of which fall under the concept of Equivalent Exchange: "In order to obtain or create something, something of equal value must be lost or destroyed."
In standard practice, Equivalent Exchange is separated into two parts:
- The Law of Conservation of Mass: Which states that energy and matter can neither be created from nothing nor destroyed to the point of elemental nonexistence. In other words, to create an object weighing one kilogram, at least one kilogram of material is necessary and destroying an object weighing one kilogram would reduce it to a set of parts, the sum of which would weigh one kilogram.
- The Law of Natural Providence: Which states that an object or material made of a particular substance or element can only be transmuted into another object with the same basic makeup and properties of that initial material. In other words, an object or material made mostly of water can only be transmuted into another object with the attributes of water.
Since the alchemical forces being manipulated are not human in origin, but of the world as a whole, the consequences for attempting to bypass the Law of Equivalent Exchange in transmutation are not merely failure and cessation. When too much is attempted out of too little, what occurs is called a Rebound, in which the alchemical forces that are thrown out of balance on either side of the equation fluctuate wildly of their own accord in order to stabilize themselves - taking or giving more than was intended in often unpredictable and catastrophic ways such as accidental mutation, serious injury or death.
Transmutation Circle Edit
Additionally, though no machines or equipment is needed to produce the energy necessary for transmutation, merely understanding the sequence of transmutation and the limitations of Equivalent Exchange is not enough. Just as the processes of "Comprehension, Deconstruction, Reconstruction" and "In order to gain, something of equal value must be lost in return" are cyclical concepts, the circle itself is the foundation of alchemy.
In order to begin an alchemical transmutation, a symbol called a Transmutation Circle is necessary. A Transmutation Circle can either be drawn on the spot when a transmutation is necessary (in chalk, pencil, ink, paint, blood or even traced in dirt) or permanently etched or inscribed beforehand, but without it, transmutation is generally impossible and all Transmutation Circles are made up of two parts:
The circle itself is a conduit which focuses and dictates the flow of power, tapping into the energies that already exist within the earth and matter. It represents the cyclical flow of the world's energies and phenomena and turns that power to manipulable ends.
Inside the circle are specific alchemical runes. These runes vary widely based on ancient alchemical studies, texts and experimentation, but correspond to a different form of energy, allowing the energy that is focused within the circle to be released in the way most conducive to the alchemist's desired effect. In basic alchemy, these runes will often take the form of triangles (which, when positioned differently, can represent the elements of either water, earth, fire or air), but will often be composed of varying polygons built from different triangles. For example: the hexagram is a commonly used base rune in Transmutation Circles because it creates eight multi-directional triangles when inscribed and can therefore represent all four classical elements at once. Other, more esoteric runes (including astrological symbols, symbolic images and varying lines of text) are prevalent and represent a multitude of other, specific functions for the alchemical energy that is released. Over the nearly 400 year history of alchemy in Amestris, great strides in alchemical research have been made by mixing these runes together to augment their power, converge their results and create entirely new pathways of utilization.
Human Transmutation Edit
Unfortunately, these experiments have given birth to a dark and sinister side of alchemy. Whether out of despair, malice or inquisitive hubris, several alchemists have been known to attempt the application of transmutation to human bodies and souls, in essence, playing god with human lives. But, just as the Law of Equivalent Exchange applies to the transmutation of non-living matter, devastating rebounds can occur in Human Transmutation because human lives and souls are priceless according to the flow of the world.
Attempts to bring deceased human beings back to life are the most common practice to be called Human Transmutation and play a significant role in the Fullmetal Alchemist series. Using various experimental theories and methods, multiple alchemists in the manga and anime have endeavored to resurrect dead loved ones, but such pursuits are always failures, forbidden by the flow of the universe and alchemy itself.
In the manga, it is determined that resurrective Human Transmutation is impossible because a soul that has left the mortal coil has passed on into the afterlife and can never be called back by human means. The attempt will cause a rebound due to both the inherent lack of any particular substance able to match a human soul in value and the fact that the initiated transmutation is reaching for an unattainable goal. Of the known attempted Human Transmutations, the rebound has been the "taking" of parts of the initiator's body out of the living world and into the void of the flow (in the case of the Elric brothers' attempted transmutation of their mother, Edward's left leg and Alphonse's entire body were taken and in the case of Izumi Curtis' attempt to revive her dead child, several of her internal organs were taken).
In addition, for having trespassed in God's domain with Human Transmutation, the initiating alchemists are essentially called into The Gate of Truth to face Truth itself. Being pulled through the gate grants alchemists great alchemical and universal knowledge - in exchange for paying a physical toll which usually takes the shape of the body parts "taken" by the rebound - and the ability to perform transmutations without a circle.
The next most referred-to form of Human Transmutation is the concept of an alchemically created human called a "Homunculus". Though largely considered impossible due to the fact that all recorded and reported attempts to make one have been failures, this act is one of those specifically noted in the Amestrian nationwide prohibition of Human Transmutation.
Soul Binding Edit
Another terrible form of Human Transmutation is the manipulation of human souls. Though appearing on no official records, there have been experiments with Human Transmutation involving the extraction of souls from human bodies and the alchemical binding of said souls to inanimate objects usually by way of a rune drawn in blood on the object itself. Though not all the specifics of soul binding have been made clear, it has been explained that the iron in the blood bonds alchemically with the iron in the object (as most instances of soul binding has used metal armor as a vessel) and the blood itself remains bound to the soul of the person from which it was taken. The Blood Runes themselves differ based on the theories and style of whatever alchemist performed the binding, but the three different Blood Runes that have been revealed depict a spark or flame (presumably signifying a soul) hemmed in by other symbols in a blood-drawn Transmutation Circle that suggests a soul trapped within a container. In essence, these souls exist in the mortal plane without their bodies, are able to manipulate the objects to which they are bound and communicate verbally with beings around them but, of course, there are caveats.
Despite the fact that these souls cannot feel pain or die by conventional means since the "bodies" they now inhabit are not mortal, the act of binding two such different things together is only temporary, as the soul and vessel will eventually reject each other and separate.
Though the manipulated soul is independent of its original body, the issues regarding the storage of knowledge and memory suggest that, for a soul binding to remain intact, the original body must remain alive somewhere. This creates another issue, as the soul and its original body will be inexorably drawn to one another.
The Amestrian government has experimented with soul manipulation and binding under the command of Father, but the case of Alphonse Elric's soul binding is remarkably unique as the only known instance of a particular human soul being purposely called back to the mortal plane from the Gate of Truth. Edward Elric, for performing this brand of Human Transmutation, let his right arm be taken as the toll and drew a rune using his own blood. It has been posited that this was only possible because the two brothers had been pulled into the Gate together and may have had their spirits crossed in the process. Additionally, the body of the soul-binding victim Barry the Chopper was infused with the soul of a lab animal and remains as the only known instance of a soul being bound to a living vessel. It is also unknown whether the act of transmuting the souls of Barry the Chopper and the Number 48 resulted in a rebound or appearance of the Gate of Truth.
Alphonse Elric is capable of transferring a small portion of his soul into multiple suits of armor simultaneously while still maintaining his original body and consciousness. The explanation is that throughout his life, his soul was bound to differing objects - from his human body to the armor to the Philosopher's Stone his human body once more - that it has been rendered unstable and can be manipulated more easily than other souls. Though when one of the suits with a portion of his soul is sent through the gate, his entire consciousness is temporally transferred to that suit of armor, and that suit of armor apparently had a blood rune.
Human Chimera Edit
Chimeric Alchemy is a branch of bio-alchemy that seeks to alchemically "marry" two dissimilar life forms into a new creature, but even though this science skirts the line of playing God, the prohibition of Human Transmutation forbids alchemists from incorporating human beings into the practice of chimera production. However, there are alchemists who flout this decree and step across the threshold into monstrous experimentation. Shou Tucker, the Sewing-Life Alchemist, was the first recorded alchemist to successfully create a Human Chimera, passing his crime off as a full-animal chimera capable of human speech until his second attempt was exposed to the military, but (as with Soul Binding) the Amestrian government has also been experimenting with this, having created several human-animal hybrids of increasing versatility.
Energy Transmutation Edit
A form of alchemy developed by the alchemy-using Homunculus, called Instinct. To use this form of alchemy, one must have passed through the Gate and seen Truth as well as possess a Philosopher's Stone. It then allows the practitioner to 'break' the Law of Conservation of Mass to create energy which he can use to power his physical moves and form energy blasts of alchemical energy.
Secret Origins Edit
In the manga, alchemy is said to have been taught to Amestrians over 350 years prior to the start of the series by a mysterious man known as "The Philosopher from the East" and is explained to harness the diastrophic energy that is released from the movement and collision of tectonic plates deep within the Earth's crust to power transmutation. As practitioners of Alkahestry understand alchemy differently, they are able to sense that the source of Amestrian alchemy's power is not diastrophic energy, but more akin to the movement of many, many human beings, suggesting that the origins of alchemy may in fact be rather sinister. It is revealed late in the series that, while the earthen energy source does exist, alchemy in Amestris is actually powered by Philosopher's Stone energy, being fed through a nationwide network of underground tubes from Father's body into the earth between the surface and the crust to act as a barrier between Amestrian alchemists and the true energy. Additionally, the ancient nation of Xerxes appears to have had an advanced understanding of alchemy that mirrors, but may be different from, the contemporary Amestrian understanding.
In the 2003 anime, though it is never outright explained from where the energy in transmutation comes, alchemists who attempt to create objects outside their range of skill are left exhausted, suggesting that at least some of the energy comes directly from their bodies. At the end of the anime series, it is explained that the energy powering transmutation is actually the energy of departed human souls passing through The Gate to the Fullmetal Alchemist world from the real world, negating the concept of Equivalent Exchange altogether.
- Alternative "Alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist" article.