In the year 2005, a new show aired on the Nickelodeon channel that would forever change the lives of  millions of TV viewers all over the world. That show was Avatar: The Last Airbender; a show about an Asian-centric fantasy world where people have the ability to manipulate any one of four (Avatar) elements; water, air, fire and earth. 

However, the Fire Nation, a nation of people who can bend fire, has laid siege over the other nations, and using a comet, gained the power to take over most of the world. Only one individual, a spirit-human who is able to manipulate all Avatar elements at the same time and is called the Avatar; can bring harmony back to this war-torn world. The show was known for its coverage of many themes, definitive storyline, and art designs and has since gone on to have a cult following. 

One of the most interesting and key features of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series are the Avatar elements themselves. Forces of nature, they are the driving plot of the series, and its spin off materials such as the comics, novels and The Legend of Korra spin off. But why just four elements? Let’s find out why.

Avatar Elements

The Avatar Elements: Four Instead Of Five

The very first episode of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series shows us right from the onset that there are four avatar elements with Katara’s narration. However, we never get to see why there are only four.

Sure, there do turn out to be more than this number of Avatar elements that benders control, but they turn out tobe sub-bending forms, categorized under the four main avatar elements. Take for example; metalbending for the earthbenders, bloodbending for waterbenders and firebenders can manipulate lightning for lightning bending. You might be wondering where air factors in here; but there is no direct bending sub skill for air, although some airbenders can manipulate air to receive flight as a sub skill.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 1
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Avatar Elements Origin

Get this, each of the sub skills mentioned earlier is actually a part of something called Wuxing or Wu-Hsing. It is a Chinese philosophy that is very ancient, and air is not one of them. Wuxing roughly stands for Five Phases in English, and it points out five elements of nature; water (shui), wood (mu), earth (tu), metal (jin) and fire (huo). So the real question is why aren’t these five being used as the primary avatar elements in the show?  

Avatar co-creator Bryan Konietzko gives us the perfect answer to this intriguing question. In the book Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Art of the Animated Series, Bryan points out that there were four avatar elements due to one thing: simplicity. It would have become too complicated to feature so many main elements. There is also the additional fact that the philosophy of the Five Phases is really not the only philosophy based on elements that is existent in ancient Chinese culture.

Konietzko continues; 

“People often assume the “four-element theory”… we brought to bending is exclusive to ancient Greece, and that in ancient China only a “five-element theory was used”… in our research we found the four-element theory was prevalent in ancient cultures all over the world, including ancient Buddhist teachings. While the five-element theory is interesting in its own right, we were attracted to the universality of the four simple elements.”

Avatar Elements: The Bare Facts

Elemental theories are a major part of our world; they have existed for thousands of years and continue to do so in modern times. Each culture has its own interpretations and representation on these theories, consisting of additions and variations; however the Avatar elements are some of the most common arrangements frequently appearing in element-based philosophies.

Also, you should know that the Wuxing philosophy is more flexible than the Avatar elements theory. Wuxing has a much different approach, calling the five phases rather than elements. This reflects the fact that they are ever-changing materials and so wood, fire, earth, metal, water do not have or possess Avatar’s same fixedness. This is one major reason why the English translation of Wuxing is regarded as Five Phases as opposed to Five Elements.

In the long run, it actually makes sense that the creators decided to take this path for so many reasons. The inclusion of air as one of the Avatar elements changes the tone of the show drastically. Also, if they had included a fifth avatar element, then we would have had to deal with a fifth nation as well as its corresponding bending form.

Sure, it might have been fun to see, but it definitely would have made the show overcomplicated. That would have been counterproductive, seeing as Avatar was created and directed towards children. With just four avatar elements, the show was able to properly explore each culture or nation’s intricacies as well as their bending form. It was also easier to honor the real-life cultures that inspiration had been drawn from to create the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

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We certainly enjoyed the outcome of the decision; and how the writers still included other natural elements as sub skills bending. The world of Avatar was already a very vast one, and the decision to keep it down to just four avatar elements was more than enough to help create the time to explore it all.

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