Elements in The ATLA Universe

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a beloved cartoon to an entire generation of animated film and TV lovers, myself included. I often say that the Yumihari World is, in part, inspired by the ATLA world, in addition to Japanese mythology. ATLA, however, mostly takes inspiration from Chinese history, mythology, and philosophies. Although the show is more like a Westernized version of these concepts, there are a lot of key similarities between the cultures represented in the show and real life. There is one major difference, however!

In Avatar, there are four primary elemental forces: Water, Air, Earth, and Fire. In Chinese philosophy, as well as Japanese and other elemental systems, there are FIVE elements, not four.

In China, the five elements are Water, Fire, Earth, Wood, and Metal. There’s no Air element in classical Chinese wuxing. However, like referenced in my books, the Japanese elements are still Water, Fire, Earth, Wind, and Void (or Aether).

It occurred to me after receiving a question in my newsletter to deeper question why the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender chose to use 4 elements instead of 5, and why air instead of wood.

A quick Google search brought me to this article: Avatar: Why There Are Only 4 Elements (Not 5)

The long-short of it: the creators decided to keep four elements instead of five to keep the lore simpler, and because the 4 chosen elements are rather universal. Despite the five elements being predominant in Chinese philosophies, there is a four-element system in ancient Buddhism, which does utilize Wind as one of the four dominant elements. Additionally, you can really see the Buddhist references in the Avatar show and comics, especially within the Air nomadic tribe.

Let’s take it all a step further and break down the elemental systems. Note, I don’t consider myself an expert on these topics, this is all out of pure love and interest in Asian philosophy and history, so I apologize if I make any mistakes!

The Four Elements in Avatar: The Last Airbender

In the lore of Avatar: The Last Airbender, creatures were the first beings to master the four elements. First there were the Lion Turtles, who roamed the untamed world for a very long time before they handed the elemental powers to humans. However, it was the four elemental beings who were the first benders and taught humans how to use their newfound powers.

Air: The first airbenders were the Sky Bison, who taught humans to use the dynamic fluidity of the wind to enhance their evasion and speed.

Water: The first waterbender was the moon, teaching humans how to manipulate currents and waves. Rather than focusing on raw strength, water is all about versatility and motion.

Earth: The first earthbenders were the Badgermoles, who taught earthbenders to rely on the stability of the earth for both defense and offense.

Fire: The first firebenders were the Dragons, granting humans with destructive and regenerating fire that’s the most combat-ready of the four elements.

I love this chart I found on Google that shows the intersectionality and the interaction between the four elemental powers:

Looking at this chart really makes me want to design one for the Yumihari World… it’s just so intriguing to look at everything laid out this way. But, we’ll get to that another day.

The Four Elements in Buddhist Philosophy

According to my brief look at Wikipedia (not the most reliable source, but I plan on doing more reading on this topic in the future) the four elements in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy are air, water, earth, and fire. In Buddhism, the Great Elements are referred to as cattāro mahābhūtāni and mastery of the four elements is required to reach Nirvana.

Earth: Representative of solidity and attractive forces.

Water: Representative of liquidity and motion.

Fire: Representative of heat and energy.

Air: Representative of expansion or repulsive forces.

All humans have internal matter which embodies the four elemental powers such as our skin (earth), blood (water), the aging process (energy/fire), breath (air), and so on. Entities can also embody more than one element at a time, but the physical world is considered to merely be an arrangement of these elements.

The article also argues that there is potentially a fifth and sixth element present in Buddhist teachings, Space and Consciousness, but there’s not a lot of information available about them.

 

Now, those are the four elemental systems, but what about the five elemental systems? While there are plenty of other 4 and 5-element systems, let’s revisit Chinese and Japanese elements.

 

The Chinese Five Elements

We’ll start with the Chinese elements because although I am less familiar with them than the Japanese version, a lot of sources credit the Japanese version as a variant of both wuxing (the Chinese elements) and Buddhist teachings.

In wuxing, the five elements are used to explain the interaction between the forces of the world, be that physical or metaphysical, with complex systems that relate strengths and weaknesses of each element. There is a carefully created relationship between the elements and each element has its associated days the week, months, and years, and the chart below only scratches the surface of the simplified version. Wuxing and elemental reactions forge the foundation upon which other Chinese beliefs and systems are built on, including martial arts and alchemy.

Wood: The growing phase, where energy is expanding and reproducing. It is associated with generosity and social consciousness, but wood needs water to thrive.

Fire: The stage of prosperity and luck, where matter and energy are most convective. It represents strength, persistence, and creativity, but also aggression and impatience.

Earth: The changing point in matter, creating stabilizing energy. It represents patience and hard work, but on the flip side, also stubbornness and ambition. The desire to draw things together and create stability can lead to worry.

Metal: The phase of decline and decomposition, where energy is contracting. It is associated with rigidity, determination, and self-reliance. However, metal also has a taste for luxury and strong impulses.

Water: The stage of death or hibernation, where matter is focused inward on conservation. It represents intelligence and flexibility, but too much water can become indecision and weakness.

The Japanese Five Elements

The Japanese five elements are the system I’m most familiar with, as this is what I use in the Yokai Calling series. Majyu can manipulate one or multiple elements based on the strength of their ki. However, that’s not exactly how it works in classical Japanese philosophy.

The Japanese five elements called godai stem from the Japanese version of Buddhism and from the Chinese wuxing system, using five elements with two changed out. However, as far as I am aware, the godai system is not nearly as complicated as wuxing, and although it interacts with other beliefs in Japanese culture, it’s not to the same extent as it is in Chinese philosophy. In many cases (as I’ve found during my research for the Yokai Calling series) the Japanese versions are slightly altered from the Chinese originals, such as in the sexagenary calendar cycle, where the names are different, but the elemental association between days, months, years, and so on, remain the same.

Earth: Highly resistant to change, just like the solid earth the element represents. It is confidence but also stubbornness, a reliance on stability, physicality, and gravity.

Water: The fluid things of the world, but also including plants. Representative of adaptability and thought, movement and magnetism.

Fire: Representative of the energetic, forceful powers in the world. Passion and motivation are parts of the fire element, including movement.

Wind: Growth and freedom in the external sense, but also mental expansion in our personalities and intelligence. Associated with carefree attitudes, but also evasiveness.

Void: Represents that which is beyond the physical realm. Pure energy, divinity, the phenomena of creation. It is considered the highest of the elements, indicating inventiveness and magic.

 

While you can see at a glance that the key traits of each element are similar across the compared verions from ATLA, Buddhist teachings, Chinese philosophy, and Japanese philosophy, there are some key differences as well. Of course, Avatar incorporates the fantasy ideals of spirits and creatures interacting with humans to share invaluable knowledge, whereas the real systems have developed and been reshaped over hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Because of the similarity between Buddhism and Japanese elemental systems especially, you can see the progression and development of ideas laid out nicely, and how each culture adapted the original beliefs, including in the fantastical Westernized version in Avatar: The Last Airbender. And when you look at the complicated considerations in wuxing, it’s obvious to me why the creators of Avatar decided to go with a simpler four-element system instead of five!

—Erynn

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