The Pan-Asian world-building of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra is undeniably what makes the shows so enduringly iconic and unique within the canon of mainstream American children’s television. The characters are not simply imbued with the telekinetic power to manipulate different “elements” – they also have to physicalize their abilities with movements based on martial arts styles like tai chi and Northern Shaolin kung fu. The four fictional nations, often embroiled in various geopolitical conflicts, are not just centered on their namesake elements – they are also heavily inspired by actual cultures like Imperial Japan and the Inuit and Yupik peoples. The diverse name etymologies, clothing styles, cuisines, spiritual practices, and natural landscapes featured in the shows are not born of a high fantasy imagination – rather, they are drawn from or influenced by cultures from across the Asian continent. And so on, and so forth.
Naturally, the Spirit World that drives so much of the fantastic and supernatural conceit of ATLA and LOK is no exception to this rule. The shows dive deep into the lore surrounding this mystical parallel universe, the entities that dwell there, and the secrets that it holds about the fate of the mortal realm, all the while keeping it grounded in the mythologies and folklore belonging to a variety of real-world Asian cultures. Many of the spirits featured in the bestiary, for example, bear physical or symbolic similarities to figures from traditional Asian stories and belief systems.
Koh the Face Stealer, whose encounter with Avatar Aang in his Spirit World lair is one of the most hair-raising scenes in the entirety of ATLA, seems to be influenced by a type of Japanese yōkai called the noppera-bō. The noppera-bō is a faceless ghost that often assumes a human form and wears a false face, which it wipes off at opportune times to frighten unsuspecting observers. Tales of noppera-bō may involve a person coming up behind an ordinary-looking man or woman, who then whips around to display a blank, horrible mask of skin where their face should be.
(Meyer, “Nopperabō”; “Noppera-Bō”)
This specific interaction is mirrored when Aang, at the mouth of Koh’s lair, first spots a curly-tailed blue nose monkey from behind, only to be startled when it turns around and is revealed to be faceless – an unlucky victim of Koh (ATLA, 1.20, 7:55).
Then, in a more interesting twist, Aang comes face-to-stolen-face with Koh himself, who repeatedly tries to scare the Avatar by turning around suddenly with a new, often frightening face. Aang must remain expressionless, or else his face will be the next one that Koh snatches away and adds to his hoard (ATLA, 1.20, 11:02).
Alternatively, consider the dragon-bird spirit, one example of the many hybrid animals and spirits found in the shows. The very nature of its hybridity immediately calls to mind the long (or Chinese dragon) and the fenghuang (a mythical bird that is commonly referred to as the Chinese phoenix but is not to be conflated with the Ancient Greek phoenix). These two auspicious figures from Chinese mythology are often paired together to signify the harmonious union of male and female, husband and wife. When Avatar Korra, as a lost spirit wandering through the Spirit World in “A New Spiritual Age,” finally stumbles upon a dragon-bird in its adult form, its physical appearance, power, and regality cannot be called anything other than cross between dragons and phoenixes of the Chinese tradition.
(LOK, 2.10, 22:41; Insima)
As for the knowledge seekers that work for Wan Shi Tong in his library, they may look like regular, albeit extremely intelligent, foxes, but anyone familiar with Japanese Shinto mythology will recognize their resemblance to kitsune – fox spirits. Kitsune are prevalent throughout Japanese folklore, believed to possess supernatural qualities like heightened intelligence and longevity (or even immortality) that distinguish them from ordinary foxes. Some kitsune are depicted with up to nine tails; others have the power of shapeshifting. Mischievous kitsune, known as yako, may engage in shenanigans like assuming the form of a beautiful human woman, enabling it beguile or seduce unwary men and generally sow chaos.
Wan Shi Tong’s knowledge seekers, however, appear to be more closely related to the zenko, or the “good” counterparts of the yako. Like the zenko, they are friendly and benevolent, willing to even defy the wishes of their master in order to help the ATLA protagonists with their library quest (ATLA, 2.10, 15:13). On the subject of a master, zenko are frequently associated with the Shinto kami Inari Ōkami, for whom they act as assistants and messengers. This is certainly evoked by the knowledge seekers’ duties as archivists and collectors for Wan Shi Tong, a spirit who is their elder and superior.
As for the titular Avatar Spirit, it owes its foundation entirely to preexisting mythologies. The word “avatar” is a Sanskrit word that means “descent,” and it is a significant concept in Hinduism that refers to the physical incarnations of gods, usually in human or animal form. Although there are no equivalents of Hindu gods to be found in ATLA and LOK, the Avatar Spirit is revealed to be a fusion of a human spirit and Raava, the primordial spirit of light and peace. Therefore, every Avatar that walks the earth is more than human; they also contain a powerful, otherworldly spirit within them, so in that sense, they are essentially physical incarnations of Raava.
(LOK, 4.9, 19:32; ATLA, 2.18, 43:37)
According to the lore of the shows, the first Avatar was a man named Wan, who unwittingly separated Raava from her mortal enemy Vaatu, the spirit of darkness and chaos. Since the eternal battle between Raava and Vaatu is the force that keeps the entire universe in balance, Wan had to fuse his own spirit with Raava in order to chase down Vaatu, confront him again and prevent him from wreaking unmitigated havoc (LOK, 2.18, 17:41).
This fusion of spirits granted Wan the ability to bend all four elements, which made him one of the most powerful beings – mortal or spirit – to ever exist. That ability would also transfer to all of his future reincarnations, because Raava would remain joined to his spirit as the Avatar Spirit in every lifetime. (It is important to note that reincarnation is not unique to the Avatar. In another reference to Hinduism and other Indian belief systems like Buddhism, every human spirit in ATLA and LOK is reincarnated across countless different lifetimes until it attains spiritual enlightenment, as was the case with Iroh. At that point, the spirit becomes free to detach from the cycle of physical reincarnation and dwell in the Spirit World instead.)
Because each reincarnation of the Avatar is also an active “incarnation” of Raava, each Avatar with enough spiritual training has the unique ability to converse with their past lives. Furthermore, when an Avatar enters the formidable Avatar State, they are able to simultaneously channel the strength and knowledge of every previous Avatars, and they can draw upon the cosmic energies of Raava herself. An Avatar’s eyes glow white upon transitioning into the Avatar State, which indicates that Raava is temporarily asserting spiritual control over the Avatar in order to focus many generations’ worth of bending expertise and power through one body.
(ATLA, 3.16, 1:13:48; ATLA, 3.6, 10:48)
All of this is to underscore how the myth and mechanisms of the Avatar Spirit derive a wealth of conceptual inspiration from the Hindu avatar, who is also capable of unleashing deadly, awesome, and cosmic displays of strength through their divinity. Hindu gods tend to manifest as avatars “whenever there is a decline of righteousness and rise of unrighteousness” in the world; in an analogous manner, Raava initially formed the Avatar Spirit with Wan in direct response to Vaatu and his “rise of unrighteousness” as an agent of chaos roaming unchecked through the universe (Stefon).
(ATLA, 2.1, 22:04; Sangala)
The spirits that populate ATLA and LOK come in all shapes, sizes, powers, and significances, but when we regard them as a compendium and examine the role that they play within the multilayered mythology of the show, their Asiatic influence becomes clearer than ever. In the preface to his translation of the Shanhaijing, which he titled A Chinese Bestiary, Richard Strassberg wrote,
[T]he Guideways differs from the bestiaries of the late medieval period in Europe in that these strange creatures were almost never allegorically construed as vehicles of theological virtues or evils.
Rather, they were regarded as actual entities found throughout the landscape. A part of the ecology within the cosmos of heaven and earth, they dwelled elusively alongside humankind, which was obliged to learn how to recognize them and to employ the appropriate strategies for coexisting with them (xiii).
True to this analysis, ATLA and LOK employ distinctly non-Western methods of defining their monsters and ascribing them semiotic functions. Different spirits may be benign and helpful, curmudgeonly and troublesome, dangerous and hostile, eldritch and mysterious, or ancient and nearly omnipotent, but they are never framed as “good” or “evil.” Such a duality does not exist for the Spirit World. A zoologist might as well attempt to morally categorize lions and antelopes. Spirits are simply inhabitants of an otherworldly biome; unlike the abominations of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies that embodied the sins of men or the displeasure of God, all spirits are fully within their rights to simply exist. Their lack of inherent good or evil is reinforced by the phenomenon of spirits “turning dark,” in which being surrounded or influenced by negative energy causes them to become aggressive, hostile, and malevolent. Dark spirits feature prominently in multiple episodes of LOK, and I strongly suspect that “turning dark” is at least a somewhat relatable experience for the human viewers of the show, too.
Even Vaatu, with all his dark, corrupting, and apocalyptic power, is not an aberration to be vanquished and permanently erased. He certainly must be kept in check, but he also live, so that he can continue to struggle with Raava across countless ten-thousand-year cycles. LOK clearly establishes that the universe is not meant to function under the sole influence of either Raava or Vaatu. Both light and dark must be present, even if they must also be embroiled in conflict; in fact, there is nothing that can exist without its counterpart. The Spirit World, then, is an ecosystem of coexistence and balance, loosely based on the dualist concept of yin and yang from Ancient Chinese philosophy.
(LOK, 2.7, 21:28; ATLA, 1.20, 10:58)
Of course, the question of human coexistence with spirits is a different matter. In “Beginnings, Part 1,” LOK reveals that Spirit Wilds, home to diverse spirit flora and fauna, were much more widespread across the physical world in the early days of human civilization. However, those humans were afraid and suspicious of spirits, and it was common practice to arm oneself with bending abilities, temporarily bestowed by lion turtles, before venturing into the Spirit Wilds for food. The spirits, in turn, wanted nothing to do with their human neighbors. Thousands of years later, few spirits and little evidence of the Spirit Wilds still remained in the physical world, and the Spirit World became virtually inaccessible, cloaking itself in mystery and obscurity for all but the most spiritually devout of humans.
(LOK, 2.7, 14:59)
The Avatar, as the only being to exist at the intersection of spirit and human, is tasked with the super-objective to act as a “bridge” between the physical world and the Spirit World. Despite their many differences, humans and spirits are actually complementary entities that must learn to coexist, just like everything else that is complementary in the universe. Tragedies can ensue from lack of cooperation and mutual understanding; a powerful example is depicted in “Beginnings, Part 2,” when a group of humans vengefully burn down portions of the Spirit Wilds, and Vaatu is able to use the hurt and anger of the spirits to goad them into violently fighting back.
(LOK, 2.8, 12:12; 12:51)
Avatar Korra makes a huge stride toward the ideal of human coexistence with spirits by permanently opening the Spirit Portals and teaching the migrating humans and spirits how to begin living harmoniously next to each other. The Shanhaijing instructs its readers to understand and peacefully navigate the monstrous ecosystems adjacent to their own. Similarly, ATLA and LOK take humanity on a journey to reunite with its spiritual counterpart, after the two worlds have been separated and alienated for millennia. Now, it is your turn to dig deeper into the frightening unknown and begin the process of…
Barney, Stephen A., et al., translators. “The Human Being and Portents.” Etymologies, by Isidore of Seville, Cambridge University Press, 2006
Insima. “Chinese Dragon And Phoenix.” Dreamstime, 5 July 2017, www.dreamstime.com/stock-illustration-chinese-dragon-phoenix-playing-pearl-feng-huang-ball-vector-illustration-image95503889.
Meyer, Matthew. “Myōbu.” Yokai.com, yokai.com/myoubu/.
Meyer, Matthew. “Nopperabō.” Yokai.com, yokai.com/nopperabou/.
“Noppera-Bō.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Nov. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noppera-b%C5%8D.
Sanagala, Naveen. “21 Avataras of Lord Vishnu.” HinduPad, 14 Nov. 2018, hindupad.com/21-avataras-of-lord-vishnu/.
Stefon, Matt. “Avatar.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2011, www.britannica.com/topic/avatar-Hinduism.
Strassberg, Richard E., editor. A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways through Mountains and Seas [Shan Hai Jing]. University of California Press, 2002.