Buzz is underway for James Cameron’s followup to Avatar, which has held the record of the top-grossing film of all time. (Avengers:Endgame coming in second, and Cameron’s Titanic being #3.) The new film is called Avatar: The Way of Water, and is slated for release Dec 16, 2022. This reignites the confusion between this franchise and that of another Avatar series, which we conveniently also make products for.
So…why two different properties with that name? What is an Avatar, anyway?
Coming from the Sanskrit word अवतार, which sounds like “Avatara” and is directly translated as “descent”, the term “Avatar” meant “manifestation,” “embodiment,” or “incarnation.” Dating at least as far back as Indian literature from the 6th century, the word stems from the idea of a soul or spirit, usually a deity or other supernatural being, presenting itself in a specific form. This often meant that a kindly deity showed themselves in mortal form in order to spread kindness to mortals.
For instance, there are Hindus who believe that the Buddha-the spiritual teacher also known as the historical figure Siddhartha Gotama- is one of ten avatars of the Hindu god, Vishnu. Other such Avatars of Vishnu include Rama and Krishna. Of course, since the term “Hindu” wasn’t coined until India came into contact with western Christians and Muslims, it’s likely that the concept of Avatars predates the concept of, or at least the term, Hinduism.
This idea continued with some schools of Buddhism, who cite that various figures are embodiments of compassion or determination, and likewise, that certain beings are further embodiments. For example, the Dalai Lama is considered an Avatar of the Bodhisattva (great being) of compassion. Western myths have similar stories of Zeus taking form as a swan or bull, but usually with less compassionate goals. That said, if you research into the more esoteric schools, you start learning about Avatars of Avatars of Avatars. It’s fascinating and confusing. For now, let’s just acknowledge that Avatar started out meaning “When one being is the embodiment of something else.”
Jumping from ancient India to the relatively recent 1784, when Sir William Jones first wrote the word in English, to describe “descents of the deity as preserver’ in connection of, “the omni-presence, wisdom and goodness of God’ in Hindu belief.” It was used in English literature sparsely, mentioned in the 2001 Harvey Danger song, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and generally not an important term until Second Life came out in 2003. Each player created a digital representation of themselves, but rather than just making a digital VERSION of themselves, they created a unique being for the game, and this being was called their Avatar. From there, “Avatar” became a well known term for one’s on-screen identity. Your Avatar was not you, but it represented you in this specific context.
In 2005, Nickelodeon released Avatar: the Last Airbender. The Avatar here mentioned specifically refers to Aang, a fun-loving 12 year old “Airbender” who turns out to be the last survivor of genocide, a rather intense subject for a “kid’s show.” The world of this show has four nations, based on geography, which are color-coded and themed on the classic four “elements” such as Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. Certain members of each nation can “bend” their respective element, so airbenders can control air and are light on their feet, earth benders can control rocks and dirt and are grounded, etc. “Only the Avatar can master all four elements…” Here, the Avatar is the latest in a series of beings, each their own person with their own personality, but also that generation’s embodiment of peace and balance, going many generations back to Wan, the first Avatar. (The rest is arguably spoiler territory for some episodes in Legend of Korra.) This definition takes cues from the original: there’s a bigger than life concept that is embodied in a specific mortal. When that mortal dies, the conceptual spirit moves on to another mortal. So, when Aang died, long after the cartoon and comics he starred in, Korra the new Avatar was born. This concept of the Avatar being reincarnated is based directly on the idea of the real-world Dalai Lama, or at least the legends surrounding him.
Not long after, James Cameron released his epic 2009 film, simply titled Avatar. This caused confusion because there was already the cartoon Avatar, although the cartoon was fully called Avatar: the Last Airbender. Thing is, there was a less epic 2010 film called The Last Airbender which was a reboot of the cartoon. The cartoon could be referred to in writing as AtlA, but nobody was calling it “ATLA” out loud, so many people got further confused. In any case, the idea of the blockbuster’s story was that humans could have their consciousness enter and control clones that were hybrids of humans and an alien species, the Na’vi. This use of “Avatar” is more similar to the modern use- technology based, in which the Avatar of someone is something they control, and is both a representation of who they are while being a unique thing in and of itself. However, one reason the Avatars in this Avatar were blue was to honor blue-skinned Hindu Avatars.
At the moment of writing this, we’re just learning about the details of the return to Pandora, the world of James Cameron’s Avatar, but a few items that won’t help existing confusion is that actor Cliff Curtis, who played the leader of the Fire Nation in The Last Airbender, is playing the leader of the reef people in Avatar: The Way of Water. Likewise, “The Way of Water” should not be confused with Avatar: The Last Airbender’s first season named “Book 1: Water.” It’s also worth noting that the Na’vi have items called songcords, a sort of wearable record of history, which are not to be confused with “Song Chord” which is a new song written by Simon Franglen and performed by Zoe Saldana. (Zoe Saldana, of course, plays Gamora in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise and related Marvel properties, including a new film coming out in 2023!)
What we do know about Avatar: The Way of Water, also known as “Avatar 2,” is that it features the return of old friends…and enemies… as well as many new characters, places, and creatures. While it took over a decade for this sequel, Avatar 3 is expected to hit screens in 2024, with two more sequels expected every couple of years after that! We will be releasing jewelry and accessories for Avatar: The Way of Water, so stay tuned for details! In the meantime, get your holiday and personal shopping going with our selection of Pop Culture Accessories and Superhero Jewelry!