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At first glance, it seems that bending is genetic/racial. In the original series, each nation has its own element and there is no crossover (the Avatar being the obvious exception). The upcoming series mixes things up by introducing two brothers, Mako and Bolin. Mako is a firebender and Bolin is an earthbender. This lends itself to genetics pretty easily as one could assume they came from mixed parents.

Then I remembered that humans did not always posses the ability to bend. Each nation was originally taught their respective art by an external force.

  • Earthbenders were taught by the badgermoles.
  • Firebenders were taught by the dragons.
  • Airbenders were taught by the skybison.
  • Waterbenders learned by watching the moon push/pull the tides.

We know that at least one of these methods still works at the time of the original series as Toph learned eathbending directly from the badgermoles. So then one could assume that bending in itself is not so much genetic as is the aptitude for bending.

So is there anything other than tradition that determines a bender's element? Could someone other than the Avatar learn to bend multiple elements if they had the means to seek out these animals and the willpower?

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Based on Tarrlok's parentage, and his bending capabilities, it seems bending ability and power is in large part genetic. –  Keen Jun 23 '12 at 15:57
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7 Answers 7

First, bending is not given to everyone. Someone like Sokka won't be able to bend water no matter how hard he tries or how long he watches the moon push/pull the tides. One could draw a parallel between Bending arts and Force sensitivity in StarWars, without the Midi-chlorian.

Secondly, Avatar: The Last Airbender is all about spirit, karma, and chi and thus bending arts are more a spiritual matter than a genetic one. There is a lineage link, as child from a tribe that is linked to a element are only able to bend that element. But I think it's more caused by the spiritual link between a bender and his ancestor. Since the whole series is from oriental inspiration, this might be inspired by traditions like Filial piety.

We also know that an bender's element is not linked to birthplace, as the Foggy Swamp Tribe lived on Earth Kingdom.

Thirdly, it's explicitly stated many times that the Avatar is the only physical being with the ability to practice all four bending disciplines. Whether someone else could not master more than one element, there is no canon information that confirm that statement. But I would say it's unlikely.

Finally, here an excerpt from Bending arts avatar.wikia

It is unclear how the ability to bend is distributed amongst the population or how closely it is linked to heredity; even among identical twins it is possible for one to be a bender and the other not. In the case of mixed marriages, the children may be benders of either element if they are benders at all; for example, Firebender Mako and Earthbender Bolin are brothers with parents from the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. The only case of any one person being able to bend multiple elements, or an element not associated to their nation of birth, is the Avatar him- or herself, the spirit of the world incarnate, who has the ability to practice all five bending arts.

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Ancestry is an interesting aspect that I had not considered. While I don't necessarily disagree, do you have any sources that support a non-bender being unable to ever learn bending? –  Origami Robot Feb 2 '12 at 13:12
    
Well, I thought Sokka was a good example, but another example I could pull out of my hat is Kuei, the Earth King. Also think about the way the south tribe's waterbender where hunted and why Katara's mother scarified herself; Why hunting them if anyone could learn waterbending? Also note that Kanna (Katara's grandmother) was not a waterbender. –  DavRob60 Feb 2 '12 at 13:40
    
I meant is there any evidence that it is impossible for those people to learn bending? –  Origami Robot Feb 2 '12 at 17:20
    
No, but there's also no evidence that it is possible. –  DavRob60 Feb 2 '12 at 17:32
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Five bending arts? What? –  Gabe Willard Mar 29 '12 at 18:53
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As I've mentioned before the main aspect of a bending is their personality of the way they think. In the first series, you see Aang struggling to learn earth bending, because he's still thinking like an airbender. This has some bearing on which element you can learn. Though ultimately I think it it is down to genetics, even the open minded Iroh is only seen adapting fire bending, using water techniques to bend lightning. Though it's never covered if he could have learnt another element.

Mako and Bolin are stated to be from 'a multiracial family', which is possibly why they have different bending talents.

I don't believe anyone other than the current Avatar could possibly learn more than one style of bending though, even if you sought out the animals/satalites that could teach them. I'm basing this on there being no examples of anyone succeeding at this in canon.

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What about an open minded person such as Iroh? We already know he adapted waterbending techniques to create a method for redirecting lightning. –  Origami Robot Jan 30 '12 at 15:49
    
That's an exceptionally good point. –  Pureferret Jan 30 '12 at 16:02
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@OrigamiRobot - I believe lightning-bending is effectively just an advanced (and rarely mastered) form of fire-bending. Similarly, I recall that Toph taught herself metal-bending and Katara was able to master blood-bending. We may never know what the advanced level for air-bending would be, since the Airbenders are effectively extinct. –  Iszi Jan 30 '12 at 17:56
    
@Iszi my roomate came up with a somewhat interesting idea for that: vacuum bending. bending the ABSCENCE of air. –  acolyte Jul 3 '12 at 14:19
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The ability to bend is inborn, genetic. An earthbender, no matter if he were born in the earth kingdom or on a tiny tropical island of waterbenders, would only ever be able to learn to bend earth.

Their ancestors learned how to utilize the power they already possessed by watching their element/creatures, but it is not something that just anyone can up and learn; if you weren't born a firebender, you'll never be able to bend fire.

Same with multiple elements; even if you had all four nations in your ancestry, one element would be dominant, and that's the element you'd be able to train in/learn.

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There are multiple factors that determine what element, their aptitude with that element and ultimately what level of progress a person may develop as an element bender of the Four Nations.

enter image description here

Elemental bending is linked to:

  • An as yet undisclosed genetic disposition linked to the various kingdoms. Each of the kingdoms has a predisposition for each element. Each claims to have been taught or influenced by a natural phenomenon or animal patron; fire by the dragons, Earth by the badgermoles, Air by the skybison and Water by the moon. No one may bend an element not native to a land of one of their parents.
  • Cultural technique even within an element may take precedence and influence how an element is controlled. An Earthbender of Ba Sing Se and an sandbender of the Earth Kingdom deserts are both Earthbenders but each deals with their element based on the training of their respective cultures.

enter image description here

  • Consistency and training; a bender may have the aptitude for bending but without training and discipline may never develop any significant ability. Consider Kitara before she left the Water Tribe. She was able to bend but it was uncontrolled and the results unpredictable.
  • A personality profile does seem to affect how easily or difficult it is for a bender to master their element. If their personality runs contrary to their element's nature, they may have greater affinity or difficulty mastering it. Consider Aang and Earthbending, it was completely foreign to his personality.
  • With discipline, subsets of that element can be controlled as well; fire can bend lightning, Earth could bend metal, Water could bend blood or perform healing. Air does not appear to have a subset skill.
  • There is the lost art of energybending of which there are no living beings capable of performing it. The last known energybender was Aang who was taught by the lion-turtle.
  • Aside from the Avatar, who is the living spirit of the world, no one has displayed a propensity or capability to bend more than one element at a time. Indeed this is the hallmark of the Avatar and the indicator of their reincarnation after death.

enter image description here

Each type of bending is also linked to a martial art technique. It is possible for a bender of one type of element to learn the martial style of another bending type, but they still will not be able to bend that element whose style they are imitating.

  • Airbending is linked to Ba Gua Kung Fu; whose techniques are focused on circular motions and redirecting the energy of the opponent back upon themselves.
  • Waterbending is linked to Tai Chi Chuan and is focused on feeling the flow of an enemy's fighting style and redirect that energy away from the martial artist.
  • Earthbending is linked to Hung Gar (though there are others), Earth fighters focus on strength, power and resistance in their fighting technique. They are durable and strong fighters physically overpowering their enemies. They are also known for their ability to cause collateral damage to the environment.
  • Firebenders are linked to Northern Style Kung Fu, which offers strong aggressive and defensive capabilities and is one of the most well balanced in terms of offense and defensive techniques.

The power to bend the five elements (air, earth, fire, water, and energy) is linked specifically to the nations (and people) of the Avatar World by an as yet unknown mechanism. With the exception of the Air Nomads, mixing of bending types does not necessarily ensure what bending abilities will manifest, or whether ANY bending ability will be inherited at all. Nor is it clear how the power moves between family members. Even twins of parents from two different lands can possess different bending abilities.

Since there are variant powers such as metal-bending (a variant of earth-bending, or explosion bending (variant of fire-bending), this might also denote why there is such a study of lineage among the people of their world, to attempt to predict what bending abilities and strengths might manifest in a family line.

From the Avatar Wikia article on Bending Arts:

Though each nation is affiliated to a specific bending art, not all from any nation, with the exception of the Air Nomads, are born with the ability to bend. It is unclear how the ability to bend is distributed amongst the population or how closely it is linked to heredity; even among identical twins it is possible for one to be a bender and the other not. In the case of mixed marriages, the children may be benders of either element if they are benders at all; for example, firebender Mako and earthbender Bolin are brothers with parents from the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom.


With the release of the Avatar the Last Airbender IP Bible, (kudos to Keen for finding it) several of the suppositions I made have been released and confirmed. I am copying them here in the event the source document link is later lost. Rationales are not always listed but some things are clearly defined:

From page one of the Rules:

  1. A bender's powers cannot extend beyond his native element.
  2. Only the Avatar can master all four elements
  3. Bending is the physicial manipulation of the elements and is defined by the skill, strength and stamina of the practitioner.
  4. The ability to bend is something you are born with. And not everyone in a nation is a bender. Only a small percentage of each population is a bender.
  5. Benders represent only small percentage of all people in the world. They may be born to parents of benders or they may be born to parents with no powers.
  6. A Bender's skill level determines the range of his attack
  7. A Bender's elemental powers never extend beyond their immediate area.

This document qualitatively proves no one but the Avatar can master the four elements and no one can ever bend more than a single element.

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I think you meant that last section for a different question. I fail to see how any of it addresses "What determines a bender's element?" –  Gabe Willard Jun 22 '12 at 20:10
    
It addresses the answer by saying NOTHING determines a bender's element. We can make any suppositions we like but the IP Bible says there is no rationale at all. –  Thaddeus Jun 22 '12 at 20:12
    
But the rules you quote from the IP bible don't say that at all, unless I'm not seeing "8. Nothing determines a bender's element." –  Gabe Willard Jun 22 '12 at 20:15
    
My point Gabe, is looking at the document in toto, we are not given any information about what determines a Bender element. Nothing. Other than the area of origin of the parents, we are given no information about how or why a person is able to become a Bender, what they will be able to bend or why they get or don't get the power at all. We are rationalizing something that even the creators haven't bothered to discuss in their own IP Bible. So what determines the the character's ability? The Writer who makes the decision! –  Thaddeus Jun 22 '12 at 22:18
    
It's not the whole IP bible, however. Per the page it's posted on: "...we came into the possession of a few pages of the Avatar:The Last Airbender's I.P. Bible." I'm not trying to nitpick over details, Thaddeus. I just do not see that conclusion from what evidence we have. The bible says that there is no cause for an individual's ability to bend or not. It doesn't say anything about what determine's a bender's (someone who has bending ability, which we do not know the cause of) specific element. –  Gabe Willard Jun 22 '12 at 22:43
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I believe that at the end of the era of Raava, the people who still contained the power of their element passed on the power to their children, making it a genetic thing. But since there are non-benders in the place there is still the possibility that they might bear non-bending kids.

The stories, i.e. bison etc., might have come from the people who didn't realise that they had the power.

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The lion turtles only bestowed the power of the element to humans, but it was the animals that taught them how to use it effectively, for example Wan. Before Wan learned the true meaning of fire bending from the dragon, he was just shooting fire widely but after he learned from the dragon his fire was controlled and acted as an extension of his body. –  Reiko96 Apr 20 at 22:14
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What determines a bender's element? According to the show, it depends on two things. One is the environment your born into. If you're born around other Waterbenders or in a specific tribe of people, that will determine your element. The second thing is your mentality. An Earthbender will not be born in the Water tribes because the characteristics of an Earthbender do not thrive in those environments. The same applies to all of the elements.

So in short, your bending element is determined by the environment in which you're born, and your mentality (which grows in the shape of your environment anyway).

Its obviously not based on genetics, because Katara had two nonbending parents, but she WAS born in a Water tribe and had the mentality of a Waterbender.

Until the show states otherwise, this is the safest answer to assume.

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I went ahead and got rid of your original answer, since you said it didn't apply. It was distracting from your main point. :) –  Gabe Willard Jul 6 '12 at 3:34
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Now we know that humans did not get bending from each respective animal they were given their power by the lion turtles at the end of the era of raava

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Hello and welcome to SFF.SE. Can you add more details, like where do you get this info from, and how exactly it answers the question asked? Thanks! –  Kalissar Nov 21 '13 at 10:59
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