Disclaimer: Oh, come on. You know it's not mine. It's Nickelodeon's.
Water, earth, fire, air, water, earth, fire, air. The circle goes on and on, repeating as endlessly as the seasons, yet the passage of time leaves its mark. Faces, lives, and kingdoms change. Perhaps the Air Nomads understood it best, that the nature of time is not a circle nor a straight line but a spiral, going on and on and on towards an unknown destination. And every spiral has a beginning.
A long time ago, longer than time has been measured, the Four Nations, the people of the earth and the sky and the sun and the sea, were at war. In those days, when the gifts of the spirits were new, fire and flood swept over the earth, leaving devastation in their wake. Great winds pushed them back, only to meet mountains that thrust out of the ground, encompassing the world in devastating earthquakes. The world was inhospitable for human, beast, and spirit.
One day, the Great Spirits gathered to discuss the problem of how to prevent their children from killing each other. Agni the Sun, Tu Di Gong the Earth, Tian the Sky, and La the Sea argued for days and nights over what was to be done, each one secretly favoring their own people even as they professed a desire for peace and balance. They agreed that one of them must go down to Earth as an avatar to quell the violence, but which of them?
"I shall go," said Agni the bright. "I will bring my light to the humans and the path of peace shall be revealed."
"No, I shall go," replied La the mighty. "I shall slake their thirst for violence, and the peace will be as all-encompassing as my waters."
"No, I shall go," stated Tu Di Gong the strong. "I will support the humans in their quest for peace, until every evil thought erodes away from their heads."
"No, I shall go," interjected Tian the free. "I shall guide them with my winds and whisper to them of better times, and blow them to peace as easily as a breeze."
Soon, the spirit's arguments became heated, as each thought that they were clearly the superior spirit, and so must be the one to solve the imbalance in the world.
"The earth is the base of all life, and supports all. So I am the best to go."
"But all creatures need air to live, so they will listen to me most."
"No, it is water that all creatures need."
"Nothing could survive without the sun."
"In the dark depths of my sea, there are those who do."
"Yes, and they are nourished by the earth!"
"Perhaps so, but the humans need air!"
The spirits argued on and on in the Spirit World, but nothing was done, and the wars between the Nations continued. Suddenly, the Great Spirits heard a small voice, so quiet that they almost missed it.
"I will go."
The spirit who spoke was a tiny thing, without even a name, a mere speck compared to the Sea, Sky, Sun and Earth. The Great Spirits laughed.
"You?" they said. "But you have no powers, no children in the physical world. You have no gifts to give and no wisdom to offer. You are too weak, too limited, too small, too delicate! How could you possibly help?"
"I can learn," said the small spirit. "And I will be fair to all Four Nations. If none of you can decide, why not send one who is impartial?"
The Great Spirits discussed the matter, and though none of them thought that it would be able to do anything, they decided it would not hurt let the small spirit try. "Go, do your best!" they laughed. "And good luck to you!"
So the small spirit went down to Earth as an avatar, and was born to the tribes of water, as a waterbender.
The many tribes that made up the Sea's children lived at the poles, and sent out raiding parties to attack the coasts. The Avatar learned that they believed themselves to be the most superior of all the Four Nations, for only their element could manipulate life itself. "None can stand in front of us," they told the Avatar. "For the Moon, the lover of the Sea, gives us power. Under her light, our opponents bend, and their life's blood is ours for the taking."
The Avatar was horrified. "Such use of your powers is barbaric!" the Avatar said. "They were given to you so that you may live in these barren climes, not that others may die!"
But the people of water turned a hard eye to the Avatar, and the Avatar left their city of ice to wander the world. The Avatar learned many things, but its body was mortal, and eventually died, as all mortals do. It returned to the Spirit World, and the Great Spirits questioned it, demanding to know what it accomplished in its time on earth.
"One lifetime is not enough," it replied, "I must go down again, to know what to do."
The Great Spirits reluctantly agreed, and so the spirit was again born in the physical world, this time to the kingdoms of earth, as an earthbender. The children of the Earth lived underground or surrounded by high stone walls, sending out their armies from their strongholds. They fought constantly over territory, believing that all earth truly belonged to them. "We are the people of the Earth!" they said. "So all earth belongs to us!"
"No," said the Avatar. "The Earth has been given to all Nations, not just your own. Just as the sky or the sea cannot be claimed, the Earth belongs to all."
"The other Nations do not deserve the Earth!" they cried. "They are inferior peoples!"
"If you ever left your cities of stone, you would know that they are not. They breathe and eat and love and die just like you. They are no different."
But the people of earth were angered by the Avatar's words, and banished it from their strongholds. Once again, the Avatar was cursed to wander, bereft of a Nation to call home.
When the Avatar's body died and it returned to the Spirit World, the Great Spirits again demanded to know what it had seen and done. "Two lifetimes are not enough to bring peace to the world," the small spirit said. "I need to go again." The Great Spirits were unhappy. Surely, they thought. We could have made peace in two lifetimes! But they still could not agree on which of them should go, so they let the small spirit once again be reborn.
This time, the spirit was born to the nation of fire, as a firebender. The children of the Sun were ruled by their passions, giving in to every whim. They hated and loved and fought and lived and died with equal fervor, letting their fires flare out of control. "We are the greatest of all nations!" they cried. "For only fire is alive as we are, and we and our fires consume all others!"
"You are letting one aspect of yourselves rule your lives," said the Avatar. "You cannot live as fire alone, or you destroy yourselves!" It was true, for in all the nations the fire people's lives were the shortest.
The people of fire did not want to hear it. "Get out!" they shouted. "Get out, or we will burn you!"
But the Avatar would not leave this time, for it was determined to make a difference. For its trouble, it died by flame.
In the Spirit World, the Great Spirits were angry. "Why are they still fighting?" they demanded. "You have spent three lifetimes among humans, but we see no difference!"
"The Four Nation's hate for each other runs deep," said the small spirit. "I wish to try once more."
The Great Spirits shouted and raged at the small spirit, but it stood firm, and they reluctantly agreed that the small spirit could try one more time.
So the small spirit was once more born, this time to the nomads of the air, as an airbender. The children of the Sky constantly traveled, never staying in one place for long. They roamed the world, taking what they pleased from others and obeying no borders. "We are as free as the wind, and none may hold us," they bragged. "We are the greatest of the Four Nations, for the entire sky is our domain."
"You may be free, but you still must keep the laws of the world," said the Avatar. "You cannot simply take what you want like thieves. Every human is bound by morality."
"No!" they cried. "We are free, we shall do as we please!"
And once again, the Avatar was without a home.
But this time, there was something different, for the Avatar had lived its life in all the Four Nations, and its spirit had learned all four ways of bending. And now that the Avatar had learned and lived them all it found that it could recall them, could use them even though it had been born an airbender. And so the Avatar wandered the world, and found that it could speak to every nation even though it belonged to none, spreading the word of peace. And when the Avatar died, it had a message for the Great Spirits.
"You have better have something useful to say," they said. "Or next time, all four of us will go down ourselves!"
"Listen," said the spirit, "I have seen many things. I have seen mothers cry as their children were ripped from their arms, and wail when they heard of their deaths. I have seen land destroyed for greed and the substances of the world itself fouled. I have seen hopelessness written in the eyes of the young and the old; I have seen innocence broken. I have seen war."
At these words, the Great Spirits could see that the small spirit had undergone a change. Where before it had no form, now it looked like a human, like all the humans it had previously been, and it spoke with authority and power. It now had a name.
"I have five pieces of advice." The Avatar Spirit turned to La. "First, the tribes of water. They have no respect for life and abuse their gifts. Their powers make them among the most powerful of the nations. They need limits."
La was deeply disturbed by this information. "What do you wish me to do?" asked the Sea.
"Speak to your lover, the Moon, and tell her to rein in her gift. Instead of shining her light upon the world every night, she should hide her face, and teach the waterbenders humility. Their gifts should be used to heal, not to harm."
La bowed to the wisdom of the Avatar Spirit's words, and since then, the waterbenders have only known the full extent of their powers once a month, when Tui the moon shows her full face.
The Avatar Spirit turned to Tu Di Gong. "The people of the earth know nothing of the world they live in. They live forever cloistered, and so think the other Nations to be less than human. Their walls must be taken down for them to truly live with the others in peace."
Tu Di Gong was stubborn, the most stubborn of any spirit, and stood firm against the Avatar Spirit. "Without their walls, how can my children protect themselves? They will perish!"
"They are a tough people, Tu Di Gong. You made them that way. They will survive."
Finally, Tu Di Gong acquiesced to the Avatar Spirit, and a great quake rent the walls of the earth strongholds, and the caverns of Ba Sing Se opened to the sky.
The Avatar Spirit turned to Agni. "The people of fire do not think, they only feel, and this prevents them from ever finding peace. Their fires must be quenched."
But Agni was not convinced. "Why should I stir up my children's way of life?"
And so the Avatar Spirit told Agni of all the terrible things it had seen in its travels, of all the broken villages and ruined lives, of the orphaned children and the cripples lining the roadsides. And as he spoke, the great Agni, the Sun, the eternal fire, began to weep. The other spirits watched in amazement as Agni took one teardrop on his finger and said, "May this tear take in all the passions of the firebenders and keep them, and may my children never destroy another life." Then, with a cry, Agni threw the tear, gleaming, into the heavens. "May it never return."
Finally, the Avatar Spirit turned to Tian. "The people of air have no home, and no respect for anyone else's. If they had a place to rest from their wanderings, they would know that a home is a precious thing, and that other people's should not be stolen from."
"But my people are free," objected the Sky. "They cannot, they should not, ever be tied down."
"Your people will never be tied down," replied the Avatar Spirit. "They will always be nomads. But shouldn't they have a place to rest, when they are weary? Not even the wind blows all the time."
Tian saw the Avatar Spirit's wisdom. The four Air Temples, planted as an idea within the dreams of the nomads, were the Sky Spirit's solution.
Finally, when all four Great Spirits had agreed to the Avatar Spirit's advice, it said that there was one more thing that needed to be done.
"I must go down again," it said, to the other Spirits' surprise. "The human's lives are too unstable to stay balanced. I need to assist them, to help them to keep to their path."
"But for how long?" asked the Great Spirits. "How many lifetimes do you have to spend as a mortal?"
"As long as it takes," the Avatar Spirit replied. "Forever, if need be. It is my destiny to do so."
Since that day, the Avatar Spirit has pledged itself to guide the humans through the spiral of time, and to maintain the balance between the elements, between civilization and nature, between matter and spirit, between yin and yang. The Avatar's promise and sacrifice brings hope to the world, and saves us from our own immorality. Those who follow the Avatar's teachings are blessed, and those who shun them invite back the dark times, when the world was engulfed by war. May such times never return.
-From the great library of Wan Shi Tong