The power of the Avatar is central to the worlds of Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) and The Legend of Korra (LoK). The Avatar, like the monsters Timothy K. Beal describes in Religion and Its Monsters, is “in the world but not of the world” (4), a human whose energy is fused with the power of the ancient spirit Raava, granting them incredible power and the responsibility of keeping balance and order in the world. The Avatar is defined by hybridity, multiplicity, and borderlessness, following Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s description of monsters as harbingers of “the category crisis” (40): they are both human and spirit, bridging the two worlds; they can manipulate (or “bend”) all four elements (fire, water, earth, and air); they even shatter the boundaries of time by reincarnating and accessing their past lives. Yet, this disruption of clear categories is what gives the Avatar the unique ability to keep the world balanced. Beyond the indirect emphasis on the categories of normalcy usually provided by a monster’s transgression (through their aberrance, we see what is normal), the Avatar explicitly serves order. Their ability to shatter boundaries is not viewed as a horrific threat but instead as an incredible gift, necessary for maintaining balance in the world.

So is the Avatar a powerful hybrid monster? Or a peace loving god tasked with fighting disorder? The answer is, predictably, complex. The complexity of the relationship between the monstrous and the divine is explored by Beal in his text, and the ancient stories he analyses provide important inspiration for and insights into the world of ATLA and LoK. By looking at reflections of ancient texts and traditions in ATLA and LoK, we can deepen our understanding of the Avatar’s nature, reconsidering them as both a god and a monster through the category of the chaos god. This reading of the Avatar and their major conflicts reveals that balance and order are precarious states and the conflict between chaos and order is a perpetual one.

Echoes of Gilgamesh

ATLA and LoK borrow elements of their lore and worldbuilding from the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian epic poem considered the oldest work of literature. The Avatar and Gilgamesh, the king and hero of the epic, are both hybrids: Gilgamesh is described as two-thirds divine and one-third human (Gilgamesh). In the section called “Of the Fight With Humbaba,” we find another connection with ATLA and LoK: in order to defeat the monster Humbaba, Gilgamesh calls upon the Sun God, requesting divine aid. The Avatar often also requests divine power to defeat their foes, tapping into the spirit of Raava within them to enter a heightened spiritual state called “the Avatar state.” In the epic, the Sun God then sends eight winds against Humbaba to defeat him. The power of the wind in the epic is echoed in the practice of airbending in ATLA. Avatar Aang was born an Air Nomad, and he is the last airbender in the world. The creators’ choice to focus on an airbender Avatar in ATLA may have some roots in the ancient emphasis on the power of winds.

The ancient epic and the modern series diverge in their consideration of mercy. In the epic, Humbaba begs for mercy from the victorious Gilgamesh, but Gilgamesh does not spare Humbaba’s life. Avatar Aang, on the other hand, repeatedly seeks ways to honor life, most exemplified by his refusal to take the life of the Fire Lord in the finale of ATLA. Aang chooses to remove the Fire Lord’s bending ability in order to spare his life, an important departure from the ruthlessness of the ancient source.

“It Takes a Chaos Monster”

In Religion and Its Monsters, Beal seeks to rethink how the monstrous complicates an understanding of religion as “exclusively about the establishment of order over chaos” (9). On first glance, it seems like ATLA and LoK are also preoccupied with the same hierarchy: the restoration of balance in a world always hurting toward chaos and darkness. However, by analyzing the Avatar—and the Avatar’s antithesis, the Dark Avatar—through the lens of chaos gods, we can see that the separation between chaos and order is a bit more hazy: the universe of ATLA and LoK is “like many of our religions and like many of ourselves, caught in endless, irreducible tensions between order and chaos, orientation and disorientation, self and other, foundation and abyss” (Beal 10).

Season 2 of LoK draws heavily on the concept of the chaos god. Beal describes the “chaos god” or “chaos monster” as “the chaos out of and against which the world is created…personified…who must be defeated by another god in order to create or maintain cosmic order” (15). In LoK, this cosmic battle is depicted several times and serves as the origin for the Avatar. Wan, a human who will become the first Avatar, comes upon two spirits, Raava (the “force of light and piece” [LoK, 2.7, 22:43]) and Vaatu (the “force of darkness and chaos” [LoK, 2.7, 22:39]), locked in a fight. Vaatu tricks Wan into helping him escape, and Raava reveals that Wan has released darkness into the world. In order to prevent the world from being plunged into chaos, Raava and Wan merge energies, making him the first Avatar, and together they are able to imprison Vaatu. The fight between Raava and Vaatu, however, is not over: every 10,000 years, during a cosmic event called “harmonic convergence,” the battle must be waged again. LoK follows Avatar Korra, 10,000 years later, as she travels to the spirit world to face Vaatu. This time, Vaatu merges with the human Unalaq to create the Dark Avatar, an antithesis to the Avatar who seeks to bring chaos rather than balance.

Vaatu and the Dark Avatar are clearly modeled on chaos gods. Faceoffs between chaos gods and champions of order abound in ancient Near Eastern stories (Beal 19). In the ancient Babylonian Enuma Elish, the chaos god Tiamat rages out of control surrounded by spirits and monsters, much like Vaatu and the Dark Avatar in the final episodes of Season 2 of LoK (Beal 16). The hero god Marduk defeats Tiamat in order to establish and maintain political and social order, just as Korra must defeat the Dark Avatar. Even the later Christian evolution of the chaos god, Satan, seems to provide some inspiration for Vaatu, as Vaatu’s imprisonment in the tree of time recalls the binding of Satan in a pit in the Apocalypse of John (Beal 78).

Vaatu and the Dark Avatar, however, are not wholly bad, despite the temptation to characterize the conflict between the Avatar and the Dark Avatar as good versus evil. When Vaatu terrorizes a village in the episode “Beginnings, Part 2,” a monk asks, “Why is the great spirit of darkness here but not his other half?” (LoK, 2.8, 4:41). Raava and Vaatu are two halves that are meant to be engaged in struggle so that the word can be in balance. Raava explains to Wan the interconnectedness of the two spirits: “He [Vaatu] cannot destroy light any more than I can destroy darkness. One cannot exist without the other” (LoK, 2.8, 8:53). Even if Raava were to defeat Vaatu in a single battle, “darkness will grow inside [Raava] until [Vaatu] emerges again. The same will hold true if Vaatu defeats [Raava].” (LoK, 2.8, 9:01). Raava and Vaatu exist within each other, and their resistance to a purely dualistic understanding of “good” and “evil” reflects the traditions of chaos gods that Beal examines. Beal writes:

Rather, these chaos monster gods are part of a divinity that is deeply divided within itself about the future viability of the cosmos and of life as humankind knows it…. The precariousness of the world as a livable abode for humankind is believed to be rooted in a divinity in which creation and chaos are in perpetual and ultimately unresolvable tension with one another. (22)

Raava and Vaatu represent the tensions which govern the universe of ATLA and LoK, and their cyclical struggle—fighting for the fate of the world every 10,000 years—codifies this perpetual and unresolvable division and the precarity of a world “in balance.”

An understanding of Raava and Vaatu as parts of a divided divinity deepens our understanding of the Avatar and their relation to the Dark Avatar. In his discussion of chaos gods, Beal notes that, in the story of Tiamat and Marduk, “the one who defeats the chaos monster in this story is also the one who most resembles her” (18). The same is true in LoK, when Korra must face Unalaq. Other than their theoretical motives (to bring peace versus chaos), there is little taxonomical difference between the Avatar and the Dark Avatar. They are both created by a human host fusing with one side of the Raava/Vaatu spirit, significantly increasing the human’s existing abilities—and capacity for destruction. Though the Avatar is meant to be the hero, in ATLA, Aang is often angry and out of control in the Avatar state. In the episode “The Avatar State,” an Earth Kingdom general wishes to use Aang’s Avatar state as a weapon of mass destruction, and he forces Aang to fight in the Avatar state by threatening Aang’s friends. In a later episode, “The Guru,” Aang recalls the destruction he caused in the Avatar state as something he feels most guilty for. The Avatar, though fused with the spirit of peace and light, carries the capacity for destruction as much as the Dark Avatar. Unalaq points out the shared nature of the Avatar and the Dark Avatar in the episode “Harmonic Convergence.” When Unalaq reveals his plan to fuse with Vaatu, Korra’s father asks, “Are you willing to throw your humanity away to become a monster?” (LoK, 2.12, 13:17). Unalaq responds: “I’ll be no more of a monster than your own daughter” (LoK, 2.12, 13:22). Indeed, as Beal writes, “[p]erhaps it takes a chaos monster to kill a chaos monster” (18).

Of course, as Beal notes and as LoK enacts, no chaos monster is ever really killed. Vaatu, like the chaos gods upon which he is based, is never fully defeated, and neither is Raava. Both will always grow in the other, reemerging to fight again every 10,000 years. The Avatar’s cycle of resurrection through a series of human hosts underscores Raava’s inability to die, a trait shared by chaos gods. In the Tiamat and Marduk story, Tiamat’s body becomes the foundation upon which the world is built, creating a “lurking sense that the watery monster of primordial chaos might stir and rage out of control again,” as good monsters tend to “reawaken, reassemble their dismembered parts, and return for a sequel” (Beal 18). In the Baal-Anat Cycle, an Ugaritic story of the rain god Baal’s efforts to defeat other gods, the chaos gods Mot and Yamm are killed multiple times, but they always reappear; Baal, who appears as chaotic as the chaos gods he fights, is also resurrected (Beal 22). A good chaos god—Vaatu or the Avatar—does not stay down for long, so there is “always the possibility of a rematch” (Beal 21)—or, as Cohen puts it in his theses, “the monster always escapes” (38). Order and balance is always precarious.

Cosmic Politics

The instability and threat embodied in chaos gods, both of ancient texts and of ATLA and LoK, extends beyond the cosmic into the political—or, rather, understands the cosmic and the political as intertwined. Beal points out the Biblical habit of associating political enemies with chaos monsters (30) and reads Marduk’s defeat of Tiamat as both cosmic and political through its dual action of creating the world and founding Babylon as its center (33). ATLA and LoK stay true to this tradition of connecting the political and the cosmic. In ATLA, the major antagonist is the Fire Lord, the dictatorial leader of the fascist Fire Nation who wishes to rule the world, even if he has to eradicate the other nations in order to do so. The connection between the political and the cosmic is most obvious in the final battle of the series: the Fire Lord chooses to eradicate the Earth Kingdom when Sozin’s Comet appears, a rare celestial occurrence that grants firebenders added power. Here, we see an intersection of cosmic forces and political agendas. The fight against the Fire Lord is described in cosmic proportions: Zuko, the son of the Fire Lord and an ally of Aang, tells Aang that if he doesn’t defeat the Fire Lord before Sozin’s Comet appears, “there won’t be a world to save anymore” (ATLA, 3.16, 10:39). When Avatar Aang defeats chaos and restores balance, he, like Marduk, founds a city: Republic City, meant to be the center of the four nations and a symbol of unity. In LoK, the battle is even more cosmic: Korra must engage in Raava’s cyclical fight with Vaatu, and if she fails, the world will be plunged into 10,000 years of chaos. Yet, the results of her battle also have political implications. Unalaq, the leader of the Northern water tribe, has occupied the Southern water tribe; after defeating Vaatu, Korra quickly re-establishes the Southern water tribe’s political independence. The Avatar thus faces not only the cosmic tendency to devolve into chaos but also the precariousness of political stability as well.

Apocalypse Again?

The stakes in the battles fought by the Avatar could not be higher: the fate of the world is on the line. In ATLA and LoK, these final battles are imbued with apocalyptic language. Both Aang and Korra refer to their duty to “save the world,” and in truth, the worlds they know would be radically altered if they failed: the Fire Nation would wipe out an entire people and dominate the globe, and Vaatu would rule in chaos for 10,000 years. But what makes these almost-ends apocalyptic are the lessons they provide—and the new worlds they forge. An apocalypse is defined by its revelatory nature: rather than simply bringing an end, it provides a glimpse at a future and reveals some deeper truth.

In ALTA and LOK, the Avatar seems to thwart a full apocalypse: they are able to save the world from plunging into a future ruled by the Fire Lord or the Dark Avatar, respectively. However, if we understand the apocalypse as potentially ending in a better future, as is the case in the Jewish and (eventually) the Christian apocalypse, we can see the Avatar as steering the world through the apocalypse by receiving revelation. Aang and Korra both make revelatory discoveries about themselves and their world when faced with the end of it. Aang discovers that he does not have to take the Fire Lord’s life but instead can remove his firebending ability, learning that there is always another solution and a way to respect life. Katara discovers that the Avatar should not be the only bridge between the human world and the Spirit World, deciding that the portals between the human world and the Spirit World should remain open. Aang’s choice ushers in a new political era, uniting the four nations together as a republic; Katara’s choice radically alters the rules of her world, creating a new age in which humans and spirits must learn to live together. In both of these cases, the Avatar receives revelation and founds a new era, marking the end of the world before.

And even then, apocalypse is bound to come again. As we’ve seen through our analysis of the divided divinity of the duelling chaos gods, order is precarious. Each Avatar will face the end of the world, over and over again. While that future may seem bleak, there is hope to found, not only in knowing that Raava will always return, but also in knowing that change can still happen. Aang and Korra learn something from their apocalyptic encounters, allowing them to steer the world into a better future and opening the possibility of progress, even amidst the perpetual irreconcilability of chaos and creation. Perhaps the balance the Avatar seeks is not the domination of stability over chaos but rather the balance provided in an equal match, a constant battle, two halves of an irreconcilable and inseparable whole.


The Monster Within Us

Episode Analyses

A Film/Media Perspective



Works Cited

A note on in-text citation: in order to cite moments from the episodes as accurately as possible, I’ve indicated the series via the abbreviation ( ATLA for Avatar: The Last Airbender and LoK for The Legend of Korra), the season and episode number (for example, Season 2, Episode 8, is indicated as 2.8), and the time stamp for the end of the line which I’m quoting.

Beal, Timothy K. Religion and Its Monsters. Routledge, 2002.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2020, pp. 37–56.

DiMartino, Michael Dante and Bryan Konietzko, creators. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon Animation Studio, 2005-2008.

DiMartino, Michael Dante and Bryan Konietzko, creators. The Legend of Korra. Nickelodeon Animation Studio, 2012-2014.

Thompson, R. Campbell, translator. The Epic of Gilgamesh Complete Academic Translation: Translated from Cuneiform Tablets in the British Museum Literally into English Hexameters. Forgotten Books, 2007. Open WorldCat,