We’re taking a look at the four elements in Avatar: The Last Airbender and their symbolism. First up, Water—what does it represent, and what’s the inner soul of a Waterbender or Water Warrior? Could you be a Water Person?
It is the combination of the four elements in one person that makes the Avatar so powerful. Avatar: The Last Airbender views human psychology through the prism of four elements: Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. Within this world, each nation and its people are defined by one central element, both in their styles of bending and in their overall personalities and approaches to life. Earth, for example, is the element of steadfastness and resolve. Fire is the element of passion and brightness. And air is the element of freedom and flexibility. So in this series about Avatar The Last Airbender, we’ll be looking at each of the four elements to ask what it represents about people’s universal natures, and how personalities of that type can master the element they’re made of, overcome their specific traps, and grow. First up, we’re looking at the element that begins Avatar Aang’s studies, and which gives its name to the show’s opening season: Water. Here’s our Take on Water People — whose natures are known for their power to adapt to constant change; their spirituality; their respect for tradition; and their exceptional sense of community and feeling for others.
Iroh: “They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them together through anything.” - S2, E9
Push and Pull
In the world of Avatar, the most important fact about water is that it moves and shifts, all the time. And likewise, you know you’re a water personality if you thrive in periods of great change. As Iroh puts it, “Water is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things.” At the beginning of the series, Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka constantly navigate the ice floes of the South Pole, teaching themselves to travel over and through the water that surrounds them. This is symbolic of a life that has trained them to adapt to transformation and upheaval—changes like watching their father go off to war, losing their mother, and embarking on a journey to help the Avatar save the world.
The Book of Water follows Aang, Katara, and Sokka traveling from one Water Tribe outpost to another. Though Aang, Katara, and Sokka spend much of their journey flying through the air on Appa’s back, bodies of water are a crucial part of the trip. Rivers and waterfalls often become focal points for their battles. Even when they’re traveling through the air, they’re in part traveling through water. Several of the villages the travelers visit in the first season are positioned directly on the water. Put simply, water is everywhere. That means that the most successful waterbending necessitates going with the flow and using water wherever you find it, like Katara using her own sweat. Waterbending is about being able to respond to any possible situation. And our central group learns many lessons about accepting and working with the ubiquity of water: they use it to escape and to hide their trail from enemies trying to track them. So the flowing, adaptable bodies of water open up new possibilities — just as water person Katara helps Aang figure out creative solutions to make progress in his seemingly impossible mission. Rather than being structured by unmoving points like earth, or formless like air, water, and the psyche of the waterbenders rest on the push and pull of the tide. The steady rhythm of the waves comes from the tidal pulls of the moon.
Yue: “The legends say the moon was the first waterbender. Our ancestors saw how it pushed and pulled the tides and learned how to do it themselves.” - S1, E19
Waterbending is more powerful at night, and at its strongest during the full moon. This implies that people with a water nature understand what’s not fully visible under the sun — they have instincts about the deeper, invisible fabric of humanity and our world. That moon spirit in fact lives at the North Pole, taking on the form of a koi fish endlessly circling the intertwined spirit of the ocean. So as much as water is about shift and flowing, all this change rests on a substantial foundation underneath it, created by the harmony of the moon and ocean. We can see this underlying firmness at the core of adaptable water people, too.
Katara: “I’m not leaving. I’m not giving up on these people.” - S1, E6
Just as water is stubborn when it finds an obstruction that must be overcome, Katara won’t budge when it comes to principles she’s sure of. Water is traditionally a symbol of emotion, and Water people like Katara show an exceptional ability to feel for others—to know (almost psychically) what people need, how to be there for them, and how to provide different kinds of support to various kinds of personalities. In other words, they have exceptional emotional intelligence and fellow-feeling. It follows that water people have a strong sense of community, understanding that everyone must do their part in a collective.
Katara: “Some of us might fetch water while someone else might set up the fire pit or put up the tent. Even Momo does his fair share.” - S2, E8
Water is known for its powers of healing. Katara’s ability to understand and support others takes a literal form in the healing aspect of her waterbending. But despite its tranquil, unthreatening reputation, water is also inextricably bound with its opposite, fire. Lightning (one form of fire) only comes in a storm. In fact, Iroh’s lightning redirection technique is based on the movement of waterbenders. And the flipside to water’s healing properties is the ability to inflict great devastation. Likewise, Katara’s waterbending can reach pure, directionless heights when she’s angry. In these moments, Katara is like a raging river. Even though water has no fixed form, it also takes up space. Sometimes, that means it builds up pressure. And if it builds up too much pressure, it is capable of exploding just as violently as unchecked fire.
Katara The Brave and Sokka the Genius
When we’re first introduced to the world of Avatar, our primary waterbending character is Katara. Like water, Katar takes the shape of whatever container she’s placed in. Consider the way she often goes with the flow, allowing herself and her friends to be directed by changing circumstances. Sometimes, that means a strategic retreat.
Katara: “I know it feels wrong to run, but I think it’s the only way.” - S1, E4
Other times, it can leave her open to manipulation, like when she becomes a bit too enamored with the fortuneteller Aunt Wu, unable to make decisions for herself without consulting an external source.
Why is Katara so open to influence? Partly, it’s because her incredible emotional intelligence lets her understand and open up to other people even when they seem to be her enemies. Consider the way Katara immediately accepts Aang, even though Sokka is concerned that this mysterious boy might be a Fire Nation plant.
On the other hand, she also quickly falls under the spell of glamorous freedom fighter Jet, even though Sokka can see he’s a cruel brute, and it’s soon revealed that Jet’s desire for vengeance against the Fire Nation has overcome all his principles. She even tries to trust Zuko in Ba Sing Se, though they’ve been enemies for a long time. But for all her open-mindedness toward people and tactics, Katara is iron-willed when it comes to her values and beliefs — and this is part of her strength.
Katara: “This is not the right way… There’s a right way to do this—practice, study and discipline.” - S2, E1
When she meets another waterbending master, the elderly Hama, this former prisoner of the Fire Nation shares certain essential Water qualities with Katara. Hama emphasizes resourcefulness and she’s open to finding different ways of getting what she wants.
Hama: “You’ve got to keep an open mind, Katara. There’s water in places you never think about.” - S3 E8
But Hama also embraces moral flexibility — she’s mastered a particular subset of waterbending that exemplifies the scary dark potential within a water personality who doesn’t subject herself to any limits:
Hama: “Bloodbending. Controlling the water in another body. Enforcing your own will over theirs.” - S3, E8
This is a line Katara won’t cross. When she comes face to face with the Fire Nation soldier who she thinks killed her mother, she does bloodbend at first, giving in to her fiery desire for revenge. But when she finds the actual killer—a sad, pathetic old man living with his mother—she can’t bring herself to do it, precisely because she understands him.
Katara: “I always wondered what kind of person could do such a thing. But now that I see you, I think I understand. There’s just nothing inside you, nothing at all.” - S3, E14
By the end of the series, Katara’s non-violent waterbending allows her to act decisively in a fight, trapping Azula and rendering her harmless without resorting to outright violence—a level of strategic thinking that shows how far she’s come. The other Water Tribe member we get to know best is Sokka, who starts out as something of a joke.
Aang: “Wait, how is Sokka a genius? Did the definition of genius change in the last hundred years?” - S1, E8
But he allows himself to be shaped by, and learn from, the many experiences he soon has with Aang and his sister. And just as his tribe’s ice dodging ritual requires Water Warriors to move swiftly around perilous obstacles, Sokka’s resourcefulness and tactical thinking allow him to navigate a huge range of dilemmas. While he can’t bend water, Sokka bends himself to fit the situation. He mimics his home element as he figures out how to use the tools in front of him and takes on the shape of his containers and their challenges. Since Sokka’s adaptability isn’t a flashy power like bending, for a long while he continues to be underestimated, but over time he grows into a supremely useful, brave and intelligent warrior of the Water Tribe.
By the end of the series, Sokka leads an expedition to a Fire Nation prison in order to free his father. Sokka also spearheads a previously unthinkable plan to use a Fire Nation airship in order to take down the rest of the Fire Nation fleet. Sokka exemplifies how the Water Tribe people are consummate problem-solvers.
“For Sokka, the mark of the wise, the same mark your father earned. For Katara, the mark of the brave. Your courage inspires us.” - S1, E15
Both Water Tribes are deeply traditional societies. Their devotion to ritual can be beautiful, creating structured opportunities for their people to bond and develop relationships with each other. Sokka’s unconventional ice dodging test, which he didn’t get to do in his village before his father left for war, brings out the pathos of Sokka and Katara’s stories. These two young people have been denied the traditions their tribe holds so sacred, by this war that’s wrenched their family life away from them.
Water people also have a deeply spiritual side. Water people have enormous respect for the moon and ocean spirits, and obey the dictates of those spirits. When the ocean spirit rages against the Fire Nation, the water soldiers know enough to fall on their knees. When Princess Yue realizes that she must become the new form of the moon spirit to restore equilibrium, she accepts her sacrifice without complaint, and her father Chief Arnook also accepts the outcome without question. His tribe’s grounding in tradition and appreciation for the visions of the spirits allow Chief Arnook to make sense of the loss of his daughter and find peace in the midst of his pain.
Aang: “You must be proud.”
Chief Arnook: “So proud. And sad.” - S1, E20
On the other hand, the Water Tribes risk taking tradition and ritual to a rigid extreme. Master Pakku, the premiere waterbending master of the Northern Water Tribe, refuses to allow Katara to practice offensive waterbending with Aang, instead forcing her to learn the traditionally female art of healing. Just as free-flowing water can solidify into ice, Pakku’s frigid, formal view of the world, based on outdated customs, makes him blind to Katara’s obvious skill. Katara gets through to Pakku by reminding him of her own grandmother, his love who got away, and how she bravely bucked tradition to follow her heart. So the Northern Water Tribe, need to remember that the true power of a water person lies in not letting themselves becoming too stagnant or fixed on meaningless conventions - just as the frozen ice and snow around them can always melt back into flowing water.
Pakku: “Katara, you’ve advanced more quickly than any student I’ve ever trained. You have proven that with fierce determination, passion, and hard work, you can accomplish anything.” - S1, E19
The Water Tribe is, by design, difficult to pin down. Korra, Aang’s successor as Avatar, comes from the Water Tribe—but her approach to bending couldn’t be more different than Aang’s, or Katara’s. Amon, the first villain in Legend of Korra, turns out to be a bloodbender. It might seem like Korra is upending the expectations of water we’ve come to have over the course of Avatar: The Last Airbender. But making waterbenders go from supportive, healing presences to an unrestrained, rash Avatar and manipulative, cruel waterbender sends the message that water never takes the form you expect—and that might be the deepest lesson of all. The water person has endless potential to become — and the only thing constant in her personality, is change.
As Avatar: the Last Airbender repeatedly reminds us, the point of knowing your nature isn’t just to lean into your element and ignore or dominate the rest; you should seek balance and learn from others who aren’t like you.
Iroh: “It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.” - S2, E9
So in the other videos in this series, we’ll be looking at Earth, Fire and Air personalities, and how each element complements the others to make the world whole.
Iroh: “We all depend on the balance.” - S1, E20