In the world of Avatar, it's quite established that nature and spirituality are intrinsically connected, and as such the influence of real world spiritualities and their reverence for celestial bodies is occasionally explored. The Moon and it's influence on waterbending is perhaps one of the most notable examples of this link in the series, where the bending art is dependent on the celestial body, represented by a spirit incarnated as a koi fish. It's death and rebirth are essencial to the plot of the end of the first series, a narrative that in some ways mimics real world myths about the Moon, but with it's own spin.
Therefore, with the role the Sun has had in most historical spiritual traditions, it'd be expected that both Avatar series would mention it at least once. Indeed, both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra reffer to the Sun's spiritual side, in wo rather distinct, seperate contexts. This text will analyse how the Sun is portrayed as a spiritual force in both series.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender
The Sun's power is reffered as early as Book 1. Here, it is discussed that firebending is closely tied to the Sun, much like waterbending is closely tied to the Moon: "You rise with the Moon. I rise with the Sun". Jeong Jeong's firebending training involves sitting outside for long periods of time and feel the Sun's heat, while firebenders are noticeably at higher power during daytime. Enough is the connection between the Sun and firebending power that sunrise takes a downrightly dreadful meaning, as it heralds the enemy's period of strength.
This connection is further explored in The Library, where it is discovered and discussed that a solar eclipse would have the ability to remove firebending en masse temporarily. Sure enough, skipping forward to the Day of Black Sun two parter, this is exactly what happens, with all firebenders losing the ability to manipulate their element as the Sun is blocked by the Moon, casting the world into darkness. Thus, even when firebending is enhanced by external factors like geothermic heat, and negatively affected by rain or nighttime, it is by default a solar process, being terminated when the Sun's influence on earth is countered. However, as we will later discuss, there is a possible caveat to this.
The Sun's connection to firebending is further elaborated upon in The Firebending Masters, where we learn that the ancient Sun Warrior civilisation was the first human culture to master firebending (though, as later seen in LOK, not the first firebenders). Here, we learn that firebending's previous emphasis on rage and negative emotions is a new devleopment, and that originally firebending expressed life itself, treating fire as a creative and illumining energy. This by itself correlates strongly to solar symbolism, cemented by the comment that this method of firebending is "like the Sun, but inside you". Ran and Shaw also produce a spectable of fires of many colors, not only expressing the beautiful and life-giving essence of fire, but also recalling the rainbow and it's lights being filtered from pure white. Finally, Sun Warriors also have an interesting technological device, the sunstone, which activates passages in accordance to the angle of sunlight hitting it.
The Fire Nation itself also has some hints of solar worship or at least spiritual relevance: Fire Lord portraits have iconic asian solar symbols like sun disc halos, while the suplimental Escape from the Spirit World online game shows that fire temples still have sunstones. Thus, at least until Sozin's rise to power, the Fire Nation saw the Sun as more than simply a power booster, as an object of admiration and possibly worship.
Firebending, pure or corrupted, is thus established as fundamentally solar in execution, as no matter what other sources of heat there are, it cannot be used when the Sun is symbolically "destroyed", during the eclipse. However, we find a possible establishing disconnect when the Sozin's Comet skims the atmosphere: not only does it work as a tremendous power source, but it is established to the block the Sun, flooding the earth with it's only light to the point that the sight of sunlight is the moment that ends the Hundred Year War, effectively eclipsing the earth in it's own way. It was previously shown that other heat sources do not negate an eclipse's disastrous consequences on firebending, so while the "comet"'s sheer heat is logically a source of power, the fact that it symbolically "kills" the Sun should have a negative effect. This could be interpreted as a distinct statement that firebending is not inherently solar and that it's normal solar connections are simply the consequence of the Sun being the only celestial object that produces heat, or that the "comet" possesses the same kind of spiritual essence that the Sun has. It is also possible that the "comet" may be actually have it's origins in the Sun, as a spiritual phenomenon derived from it. Given the in universe explanation for the aurorae, this isn't unfeasible.
Outside of firebending cultures, the Sun as an object of veneration is also discussed in The Great Divide, as appearently part of the religious beliefs of the Gan Jin tribe. They hold that the tribe's founder, Jin Wei, engaged in a "redemption ritual" that involved carrying a sacred crystal orb from their Eastern Gate to their Western Gate, symbolising the daily movement of the Sun, an yearly ritual that sought to strengthen the connection of the tribe with the spirits. This ritual is seemingly no longer carried anymore, as the sacred sun orb was supposedly stolen by Wei Jin, justifying their animosity towards the Zhang tribe (though in their version, the fact that he was arrested by the Gan Jin should suggest that it returned to the tribe...), and being scarcely the focus of the episode not much is known about it, though the Gan Jin wear distinct white and yellow robes, as opposed to the more earthly palette of other peoples of the Earth Kingdom, suggesting that solar symbolism still plays a role in their iconography.
This particular cultural tradition is relevant for two particular reasons:
- Second, the sacred orb is invisioned as having the distinctive swirl common to all bending art symbols. This could suggest that the Sun is elementally neutral or even connected to energybending, especially when it is firmly connected to light in the series ("Since beginning-less time, darkness thrives in the void, but always yields to purifying light").
In The Legend Of Korra
The Sun's power and symbolism once again return in the sequel series' Book 2: Spirits. The Sun's alignment with the planets in the solar system is what triggers Harmonic Convergence, forcing Raava and Vaatu to fight and greatly enhancing spiritual energy, allowing the portals to remain open and to free the spirit of darkness from his prison. At first, the Sun is treated as a neutral power, not boosting or aiding Raava against her dark counterpart, and the artwork utilised for the Sun in Outer Space seems rather suggestive of fire, being depicted in NASA-style filtered tones of gold and red, it's iconic plasma projections even drawn to resemble flames, effectively seperating the Sun from light as a spiritual energy and focusing it as solely aligned with elemental fire.
Then comes A New Spiritual Age, and this perception is reversed, with the Sun being inclusively tied to light: it shines brighter when positive emotions and light energy are manifested, even showcasing a blue-ish glow in the likeness of Raava, and according to Iroh this isn't a Spirit World-only phenomenon. Likewise, in Light in the Dark, Jinora's luminous descent strongly implies that the light she offers is gathered sunlight. In this very same episode, the sky above the "Taijitu arena" where the spirit portals are located changes from what appears to be dark clouds to the appearence of sunrise, connecting the Sun to the triumph of light over dark.
With this in mind, a few points to consider emerge:
- In the Avatar universe, light and fire are intrinsically connected, a connection made very obvious in real life beliefs, but frustratingly unadressed in Avatar, where the antagonistic Fire Nation is depicted in classical villainous visual cues like dark lighting and black and red clothes, and where darkness is seemingly malevolent as per the revelation of Vaatu's existence.
- Considering that Raava is an independent being from the Sun (unlike Tui, for instance, which is stated to be the Moon's spiritual essence incarnated in the physical world), and she is the singular light spirit, it begs the question of whereas the Sun is a spiritual entity in the Avatar universe. Given the Sun's increase in intensity in response to Korra's inner light manifesting through, it appears that the Sun is a physical expression of Raava's essence, though the fact that it also occurs in the Spirit World might imply otherwise.
- Being a source of light energy, it seems strange that it doesn't boost Raava's energy in any way, given the Sun's raw power.