Howdy Mythsters. I am so freaking excited for this week’s pop culture blog, because we’re going to take a look at some of the dragon mythology in Avatar the Last Airbender. (Well, we’ll creep a tiny bit into Legend of Korra, but not much).
I love ATLA. The original, not the movie, of course. It has such a whimsical feel about it while addressing some important topics. Almost every single episode transports me from my self into a world of imagination, which is an amazing accomplishment for an animated series geared towards children.
For those of you who don’t know the show, it takes place in a heavily eastern-influenced world where some people have the power to control, or bend, the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. Each of these skills were taught to humans by natural masters. Badger moles taught earth bending, sky bison taught air bending, the moon taught water bending, and dragons taught fire bending.
While dragons don’t play a large role in the story, when they appear on the screen they are surrounded by mythology. While you don’t need to know the mythology to appreciate the story, it definitely gives more layers to the show. This video goes over the basic mythology of dragons in ATLA:
Without further ado, let’s dive into some dragons.
ATLA dragons definitely have an Asian appearance, but it is hard to nail just which country the makers were drawing from, and it is likely they combined several different mythologies to arrive at the ATLA appearance.
Most of the dragons appear to have fur instead of scales, which makes them a bit like Japanese dragons. They all have long, serpent-like bodies, shared among most East Asian cultures. They have wolf-like heads, also common in many cultures. They have fin-like ears, which reminds me a lot of the drawings of Bakunawa from the Philippines. It also gives a nod to Asian mythology associating dragons with water rather than fire.
The dragons in ATLA have four toes, which is common in Korean depictions.
While some of the dragons have wings, the earliest dragons — those who taught the first fire bender and appeared to Zuko in his dreams — did not have wings. However, they are all able to fly and for the dragons who have wings, the wings do not seem to be a necessary part of their flight.
It could be that the wings were added to make the dragons more appealing to western audiences. However, there are some eastern dragons that have wings, such as, once again, Bakunawa.
The dragons didn’t just have the appearance of eastern dragons, some of them also had the names.
Zuko’s dragon is named Druk, which is the name of the Thunder dragon in Tibetan and Bhutanese mythology. The Druk is actually the national symbol of Bhutan and is on Bhutan’s flag. Supposedly, when Tsangpa Gyare began to build the Ralung Monastery in there was a violent storm. The people of the region consider thunder to be the roar of the dragon. Gyare decided this was an omen and named the monastary Drug-Ralung and the disciples became known as the Drugpa, or “those of the Thunder.” As the sect became more popular, they set up monasteries in what is now Bhutan, and the area became known as the Land of Thunder.
Ran and Shaw
After dragons have been hunted to extinction by the fire nation, Ran and Shaw are the last two known dragons, hidden by the Sun Warriors. Ran means to burn or ignite in Chinese, and Shaw means to burn or blaze. The characters can also be combined to mean combustion or to kindle.
Ran and Shaw represent a more balanced approach to fire bending and teach Aang and Zuko that fire can not only bring death and destruction, but can bring life. This is more in line with the reverent, positive view of dragons most Asian cultures have.
If we are keeping to Chinese as the language of dragon names, Fang can be meant as to put, discharge, or release. Fang was Avatar Roku’s companion and, while red in real life, turned blue in the spirit world. As a spirit, he was often used to transport or “put” Aang different places. However, this might be a stretch.
Fang is one of the most European-looking dragons, with large wings that he actually uses. So it could be that Fang is an English name, meant to make the dragon seem fierce and violent, like European depictions. It’s also worth noting that Fang was the first dragon to show up in the series, so the creators could have started with a more blended look and drifted towards a more purely Asian look as the series progressed.
Throughout the series, there are several red and blue dragons. The red dragons are depicted as good and the blue dragons are evil. For example, Roku’s dragon Fang was red, whereas Sozin’s dragon was blue. In Zuko’s dreams, a red and blue dragon try to tempt him, the red giving him good advice and the blue bad advice. Finally, Ran and Shao were red and blue. However, they were depicted as both good, just balancing sides of the same force. In their dragon dance, they form the yin and yang symbol.
In Chinese culture, red is considered a lucky color that can bring health, wealth, and protection. There is also a blue-dragon called the azure dragon, who is known to be particularly fierce. However, like most Chinese dragons, he is considered a being of protection.
In the show, Zuko and Aang go to the temple of the Sun Warriors and learn the Dancing Dragon. This form was the first fire bending form the first Avatar learned from the white dragon. It is a graceful series of movements that helps the characters connect with the flow and life-giving force of fire. The dragons of ATLA are quite graceful, moving like Asian dragons that swim through the skies as opposed to the clunkier European dragons.
And that’s a wrap on dragons of Avatar. Of course, we’re headed to China next week, so hopefully Anike and Jaz can shed some light on more of the mythology that might be hidden in there.
Koji A. Dae
Koji is a dreamer, a mother, and a writer in that order. The first short story she clearly remembers writing involved fairies losing their wings, and ever since then mythology has found different ways to creep into her storytelling.