Edward Elric, the main character of a wonderful Japanese manga, Full Metal Alchemist, wears an odd symbol on his bright-red cloak. It’s called a Flamel, a snake on a cross with a crown and wings above. This is the symbol of a famous French author and alchemist of the 1300s, Nicholas Flamel who appears also, tangentially, in Harry Potter for having made a philosopher’s stone. But where does the symbol come from?
A first thought of a source is that this is a version of the Asclepius, the symbol of the American Medical Association. Asclepius was an ancient Greek doctor who, in 85 BC distinguished between chronic and acute disease, developed theories on diet and exercise, and cured parasitic snakes under the skin by wrapping them around a stick. In mythology, he was chosen to be ship’s doctor on Jason’s voyage, and was so good at curing that Hades told Zeus he revived the dead. Zeus then killed him and set him among the stars as a constellation (the snake-handler, visible in the winter sky between Scorpius and Hercules). Though the story shows some similarities to Full Metal Alchemist, the Asclepius symbol don’t look like Elric’s Flamel. Asclepius had two daughters, Hygeia (hygiene), and Panacea (drugs?); the cup of Hygeia, below, is similar to the Asclepius but not to Ed’s Flamel.
Another somewhat-similar symbol is the Caduceus, symbol of Hermes/ Mercury, left. It was the symbol of the AMA until 2005, and it has wings, but there are two snakes, not one, and no cross or crown. The AMA switched from the Caduceus when they realized that Hermes was not a god of healing, but of merchants, liars, and thieves. Two snakes fighting each other is how the Greeks viewed business. The wings are a symbol of speed. The AMA, it seems, made a Freudian mistake picking this symbol, but it seems unlikely that Flamel made the same mistake.
The true source of the Flamel, I think, is the Bible. In Numbers 21:8-9, the Jews complain about the manna in the desert, and God sends fiery serpents to bite them. Moses prays and is told to put a bronze snake on staff as a cure – look upon it and you are healed. While one might assume the staff was a plain stick like the Asclepius, it might have been a cross. This opinion appears on a German, coin below. The symbol lacks wings and a crown. Still, it’s close to the Flamel. To get the crown and wings, we can turn to the New Testament, John 3:16-17. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up … “that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” The quote seems to suggest that the snake itself was being lifted up, to holiness perhaps or to Devine service. In either case, this quote would explain the crown and wings as an allusion to Jesus.
I should mention that Flamel’s house is the oldest still standing in Paris, and that it contains a restaurant — one that would be nice to visit. Flamel died in 1418. His tomb has this symbol but was found to be empty. A couple of other odds and ends: the snake on the cross also appears in a horror story, the curse of the white worm, by Bram Stoker. In the story (and movie), it seems there are serpent-worshipers who believe it was the serpent who died for our sins. If you re-read the lines from John, and take the word “Him” to refer to the serpent, you’d get backing for this view. Edward might have adopted this, either as part of his mission, or just for the hell of it. The following exchange might back up Ed’s desire to be controversial.
Roy: I thought you didn’t believe in gods, Full metal.
Edward: I don’t. That’s the thing. I think they can tell, and it pisses them off.
As for the color red, the color may allude to blood and or fire. In this direction, the Salvation Army symbol includes a red “S” on a cross with a crown and the words “Blood and Fire.” In the manga, life-blood and fire appear to be the ingredients for making a philosopher’s stone. Alternately, the red color could relate to a nonvolatile mercury compound, red mercury or mercuric oxide, a compound that can be made by oxidation of volatile mercury. Flamel claimed the symbol related to “fixing the volatile.” Either that’s making oxide of mercury, or putting a stop in death.