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Avatar – Part 2: Origins of the word

Excitement continues to build for the theater release of James Cameron’s upcoming epic, “Avatar,” on December 18th. The film is a 3D science-fiction action movie starring Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a paralyzed Marine who becomes reborn as an alien species – his “Avatar.”

While it’s uncertain exactly how the movie intends to use it, Cameron’s use of the word “avatar” is probably different than the one we encounter in our industry and the hype surrounding the film inspired us to delve into the word itself. This three part blog series will explore the use of the word avatar as we know it, the origins of the word and the varying cases in which the word “avatar” has been applied.

In the first part of this series we discussed the word avatar and gave the modern definition as a graphical representation of one’s self, personality or alter-ego while engaging in online communication. Avatars take on many forms in the computing world, but the word itself dates back thousands of years.

The word “avatar” comes from the Sanskrit word अवतार (avata-ra) which means “descent” or “coming down from far away.” The idea comes from the Hindu religion, where it implies a descent from a higher realm of spiritual being into lower forms of existence. Many of these ancient avatars were said to have had special powers and were used for certain purposes on Earth. This concept dates back to 500 BC and earlier, used for years in oral traditions before being recorded in an ancient Hindu text known as the Garuda Purana.

The Gurada Purana tells of the ten avatars used by the god Vishnu to perform special tasks in the human realm. Vishnu’s avatars, known as Daśāvatāra, took many forms such as a tortoise, boar and even the Buddha himself.

It wasn’t until thousands of years later that the term avatar as we know it made an appearance in the realm of the metaverse. Arguably the first use of “avatar” in computing games comes from Ultima IV, an RPG released in 1985. The player is tasked by the character Lord British to become the Avatar, a shining example of spiritual enlightenment to ensure peace.

It is interesting to note the theme of limitation used to describe the Hindu avatars. Avatars were a “lower form” of being, limited in what they could do in comparison with their godly nature. In many ways our avatars are limited versions of ourselves. Even though they escape aesthetic barriers, they are not granted the level of function that we have as physical human beings.

Read More: Avatar – Part 1: Defining the Modern Avatar and Avatar – Part 3: Future of the avatar

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