Thoughts on Themes of AVATAR

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I was fortunate enough to see the film AVATAR with an insightful chick from India, who explained to me at intermission (we have those in Sri Lankan movie theaters) that the word “avatar” still has spiritual meaning to people in India, and therefore when they’re referring to the movie, they might differentiate it by pronouncing it with an American accent!  


The definition for them is “The incarnation of a Hindu deity, especially Vishnu, in human or animal form.” She pointed out that Vishnu’s avatar is Krishna and both are blue.  And also that the Na’vi had tails, much like the monkey god, Hanuman. 


She also mentioned that the word “Na’vi” sounds like the Hindi word for “new” and she wondered how the Na’vi language was developed, so I found an explanation for her on Wikipedia.


The name PANDORA

You’ve probably heard of Pandora’s Box from Greek Mythology, and that when curiosity got the better of her and she opened it, she unleashed all the ills of the world.  What you may not know is that Pandora was supposed to be the first woman, and that she closed the box in time to keep Hope inside. 


If we think of the first woman as our mother, then naming a planet after Pandora is very much like the calling the Earth, "Gaia." That's also a Greek name, but is actually the name for the Earth goddess—the personification of the Earth, much like an avatar is a personification of a deity. Of course, Westerners are familiar with Mother Nature. See how it all points to the same thing? "Honor the planet as you would your mother, who has the the goddess-like power of creating and sustaining life."


I was in a singing group called “Pandora’s Vox” (Vox is Latin for “voice”) and our signature song was “Urban Tribe”.  It occurred to me that this fits too, as the Na’vi tribe was introduced to speaking English and to the ways of the modern world.  I've created a video montage (above) using publicity stills and an excerpt from the song (which was written by Daniel Rey and arranged by Emile Dyer, Carla Bellefeuille and myself.) Unfortunately the song is longer than the number of stills I could come up with, so I had to fade it out, but you get the idea.


Themes Echoed from Elsewhere

Echoes of other stories resonated in my brain as I watched Avatar, but that’s part of what makes it such a popular film.  It’s the nature of mythology that it resonates with familiar things that lay deep within us, and our culture has its own mythology.


Here’s what came to my mind:

Disney’s Pocahontas – echoes the tribe’s relationship with nature and the chief's daughter's relationship with John Smith, a guy from another culture. She sings in Colors of the Wind, "You think you own whatever land you land on, the earth is just a dead thing you can claim, but I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name…The rainstorm and the river are my brothers, the herron and the otter are my friends, and we are all connected to each other, in a circle, in a hoop that never ends." The Na'vi could've sung that to the Sky People. Plus Pocahontas had a very strong relationship with a tree – which she called her Grandmother and offered her wisdom. 

~Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books – these stories featured a lifetime bond and deep mental and emotional connection between a human and the flying dragon that chose him/her. Together they protected their planet.

~Joe Versus the Volcano – where the rich guy offers the natives what they want to get the Buburu (just like Unobtainium), found only on the island on Waponi Woo, to make his superconductors.  They want a hero to jump into their volcano, so the rich guy offers up Tom Hanks. I frickin’ LOVE that cartoony symbolic journey movie. But the business people on Pandora can’t figure out what the Na’vi want. 

~Star Wars and the Ewoks – there are similar scenes in Return of the Jedi with walking machines and otherworldly creatures running through the forest. Star Wars was based on the themes of hero myths from around the world as outlined in Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces – and you see what mythology did for the success of those films! And let's not forget their description of the energy that underlies all of life — The Force. (Click the link for a great web page that describes how to access The Force using your chakras!)


~ The Matrix – in that series of films, the operating system for the life most of us experience is a web of energy. In this film the network of electrical, data-filled energy runs through the roots of the trees. Grace explains in Avatar, "It’s a network — a global network. And the Na’vi can access it — they can upload and download data — memories — at sites like the one you destroyed." Sounds quite similar – though The Matrix is not the truth, whereas Pandora's Eywa and The Force are Truth with a capital "T".


Real Life Nature Stuff

The character of Jake Sully and his unstudied ability to connect with the Na’vi reminded me of Jane Goodall. Because she was a novice, she was able to see things as she observed the chimps in Gombe that trained eyes would not have.  


In the nighttime scenes on Pandora, I loved the use of bioluminescence, which is generally only seen deep, deep, deep underwater. But James Cameron has spent a lot of time in specialized submersibles underwater, hasn’t he?  Hence “The Abyss” (one of my favorite films) which features bioluminescent aliens…oh yeah… and Titanic! 


Nature Worship…Why Not?

I know the Vatican is worried they’re losing followers to James Cameron, but seriously, in the words of the immortal prophet Rodney King “can’t we all just get along?”. 


As I see it, simply, “God made dirt, dirt don’t hurt.” It makes total sense to me that God is present in all life on our planet. And it also makes sense to me that God’s wisdom was the guiding hand behind evolution—I mean, nature is a mind-blowing example of intelligent design. I also don't think it matters what name we call God, it's all the same energy.


Anyway, was the Vatican also worried that people might go worship The Force? Because as far as I’m concerned, that’s the same thing too. Obi Wan said, "It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." And the Na’vi concept of Eywa is much the same—it guides, connects and keeps everything in balance. That all sounds like God to me! 

So in closing: Thanks, James Cameron!



Malayna Dawn is an author and freelance writer who loves to explore how symbols and their themes resonate within us, transforming our lives…if we let them. Visit her blog, Symbolic Themes or read her novel Echoes Across Time for more inner adventures!

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