Triforce of the gods: a sacred realm of new media

by Barrett Burgin

This essay explores the ways that the “Legend of Zelda” series has purposefully capitalized on religion. The essay demonstrates how the series accessed religion, how religion developed organically within it, and how the series centered around it, and the implications this has for religion and ritual surrounding new media. The suggestion is made that religion has actually played a vital role in the success of the series, providing both a familiar sense of cultural structure, as well as a valid religious experience. 

Imagine waking up from a prophetic dream. In this dream, you heard a voice or saw a vision foretelling an imminent danger that will almost certainly come to pass. Within the next several hours, you come to learn that the gods have chosen you for a special purpose—to stop evil from spreading through your sacred land.Such is the beginning of most installments in The Legend of Zelda, a renowned video game series that has remained relevant since its inception alongside the birth of home entertainment systems. 

Many game franchises have come and gone, but Zeldahas lasted through even the slowest dips of its parent company, Nintendo. It has become a cultural phenomenon, continually referenced in other media as a symbol of adventure and inspiring an unparalleled fan base[1]. There are many factors that cause the Zeldaseries to stand out, but there is one particularly unique element present that has rarely been highlighted or explored—religion. In both structure and experience, religion has consistently played a key role in one of the most recognizable and iconic video game franchises of all time. This essay will explore the ways that religion has been purposefully capitalized on by the series, accessed and developed organically within it, and paralleled around it, as well as the implications this has for religion in new media.

Throughout history, many of the most resonant stories have been born first within a religious context. This is true of oral legends, of sacred literature, and even throughout the history of the moving image, such as the many landmark biblical epics. It should be unsurprising, then, that it is also true in video games. Like books and movies, games explore a variety of topics, but one of the earliest began by dabbling in religion. Today, many other mainstream games such as Haloor World of Warcraftfrequently evoke or rely on religious narratives, symbols, and rituals to frame and facilitate gameplay[2].

Significantly, Zeldahas always been a Japanese game series developed for a Western audience. This calculated desire for American approval meant the game’s religious influences would only grow diverse over time; the original religion showcased in The Legend of Zeldawas very intentionally Christianity. However, the American branch of the company did not warmly welcome this Western appeal. Religious terminology and symbols were censored in the international releases of the first three games. The Legend of Zelda’s Book of Magic was originally called “the Bible” in the Japanese release. Places of worship became “temples,” “sanctuaries,” or “chapels” as opposed to “churches.” Even words that referred to general religious concepts rather than to a specific religion were at risk. Crosses were systematically removed from gravestones, and even the title of the game A Link to the Pastwas changed from its original Japanese name, Triforce of the Gods. Still, there are some symbols that survived, such as the cross on the shield of the game’s protagonist, Link, or a crucifix the player picks up to ward off ghosts in Zelda II [3].

Nintendo once again ran into controversy when it tried to superimpose another specific religion onto one of its titles. In the 1998 game Ocarina of Time, one area sampled a group of men chanting Islamic prayer over background music, a practice that is forbidden in Islam. The game also featured a group of desert-dwelling thieves whose symbol was similar to the star and crescent moon that is prominent in the Islam, communities in the Middle East, and several national flags in Asia. Both the prayer and the symbol were removed from later versions of the game[4].

Ironically, it would seem that the religious connection Japanese developers were trying to capitalize on in incorporating monotheistic traditions into the game only came later, once the religion in the games was unspecified and original. It is noteworthy that forcing a specific religion into the series did not ring “religious” with the players; rather, as the lore and mythos in the world of Zeldagrew on its own, players began to buy into those stories, as manifest by the enormous fanbase that now follows the lore of the games. The traces of existing religions never went away, but they were woven into a new context usually as a subtle parallelism rather than explicit reference[5]

The Zeldaseries has indeed developed a lore that might as well be considered its own religion—it has many of the qualifications. There are prophetic dreams and special prayers, instances of resurrection and reincarnation, temples and shrines, and sacred realms. There’s a goddess that becomes incarnate and sacrifices herself to save her people. There’s a “promised land.” A great flood. A life-giving tree. There is even a creation story. In The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy, Patrick Dugan notes “In the mythology of Hyrule, the world was created by three goddesses, each with a complementary nature, as if the primal forces of the universe. These three left the Triforce as their legacy, their symbolic gift to the universe they made. The mythology of Hyrule is not the only one to bear such a symbol, or such a divine relationship structure.” Like Catholicism or Hinduism, the Zeldagames have even developed their own unique godhead[6]. As the native belief of Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator ofZelda, Shinto themes of nature are also found across the entire gameography. However, unlike many religions, the game world’s lore is never so easily defined as to force the player to adhere to a specific moral code.

In the same book, Dr. Paul Brown of The University of Manchester has weighed in on this idea of a more fluid, open religion in video games: 

It could be argued that the less defined and rule-bound the religion, the better these purposes are served. The more an attempt is made to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of a doctrine, the more it is exposed to the rigour of reason and the burden of proof. It is better, perhaps, when religion is vague, fuzzy, and almost out of sight. This is largely the case with [The Legend of Zelda], where artifacts and echoes of religious imagery and myth tug at the edges of the experience. Unlike, say, that other giant of the genre, DragonQuest, the world of The Legend of Zeldanever presents the practicalities of organized religion. While the former has a chapel in every town providing formality and regularity, the latter has occasional temples that serve as comforting, fragmented hints of something more. The Legend of Zelda series also has that mythically suggestive backstory of Din, Nayru, and Farore, which remains in the player’s memory, regardless of when she took her first baby steps in Miyamoto’s Garden of Eden.[7]

Because of the accessibility of the lore in Zelda and its use of religious narratives, symbols, and rituals to facilitate gameplay, some scholars have suggested that perhaps playing the game and participating in the narrative is itself a form of “implicit religion”. This is to say that the virtual world might offer the player a type of religious experience. While in games such as Second Lifethe player might undergo virtual versions of preexisting religious interactions in the real world, Zeldais unique in that it provides an original context, a new potentially-religious experience for someone playing the game[8]

What is to say that someone isn’t having a valid religious experience in the fictional world of Hyrule, even while they don’t literally believe its lore? If they are playing the game, fulfilling objectives offered by the goddesses, are they not actively participating in the religious experience offered by the game? This “implicit religion” offered by Zeldacould be what makes the game series so resonant. The universality of Zelda’s lore is what makes it so relatable. Theologian Benjamin B. DeVan draws a comparison between Zeldaand the fantasy works of C. S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, referencing Lewis’s comments on the longing for an ultimate spiritual reality these kinds of fantasies provide[9]. And Brown notes, “Without a prophet or sacred text, no one in Hyrule will suffer religious persecution on account of his or her color, creed, or sexuality. Moreover, here is a religion purged of almost all superstition and absurdity with the attendant injustices and horrors such things can bring. In the final analysis, no leap of faith is necessary. Not only does God exist, but he is also one of the good guys.[10]” It’s highly possible that many who are turned off to religion find a suitable replacement in Zelda.

This kind of religious fervor is not unheard of in the context of popular fiction. As previously noted, The Lord of the Ringsand The Chronicles of Narniahave inspired enormous followings. The Harry Potterfranchise has its own “wizarding world.” And what began as a joke for some has grown into an attempt to construct a viable religion based on Star Wars. According to the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, “Jediism” is now a “very genuine” religious movement, numbering about 2,000 in the UK (Castella)[11]

Like the many other examples of “religious” devotion to media, the fanbase surrounding Zelda has literal, physical action and interaction in relation to the series. There are communities, costumes, official guides and books (that almost function as a work of scripture[12]), debates about different legends and timelines and what qualifies as “canon”, and even official merchandise. The difference, perhaps, between the culture surrounding these other works of fantasy and The Legend of Zeldais the level of interactivity within the medium itself. This kind of interactivity is relevant as both a cinematic and spiritual discussion point. Like other examples of stories told through the moving image, the viewer has no control in the outcome. The personal agency accessible in a video game may be what authenticates it as a religious experience. Numerous religions preach that life exists for a purpose, that we move through life to achieve that purpose, and that the outcome of our spiritual lives is, in some sense, up to us. This is exactly the case in games. We are not passive observers; the player can move through the game with as much religiosity and devotion and agency as he does outside of it.

Theologian Mark Hayse notes that the sense of wonder and mystery found in Zeldacomes from the ability to explore and interact with the game, and that gamers see the avatars as themselves. He equates this sense of mystery with faith, calling it a form of “transcendence”[13]. This ability to make choices is perhaps what validates video games as an inherent religious experience. In fact, artist David Hellman has criticized the more recent installments of the Zeldafranchise for becoming too linear, limiting the “sense of wonder and discovery” present in earlier Zeldagames, while Josh and Rachel Rasmussen contend that the linearity of the games provides a way to understand the theological tension of free will and predestination within the context of the Zeldauniverse[14][15]. The very fact that this sort of dialogue can exist attests to the intractability of the medium.

Whether we project existing religious beliefs onto the Zeldaseries, interacting and engaging with the in-game lore, or just analyze the presence it has continually played in the franchise, religion is an intrinsic element in The Legend of Zeldaexperience. It is as foundational to the heart of the series as Princess Zelda herself, and has therefore played a fundamentally important but still largely inexplicable role in its success. Perhaps as we better understand why religion has resonated in Zelda, we can also learn to widen the potential of the video game medium and its ability to provide even more truly meaningful experiences.

Works Cited

Brown, Paul. “Hyrule’s Green and Pleasant Land: The Minish Cap as Utopian Ideal.” The 

Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am. By Luke Cuddy. Chicago and Le Salle: Open Court, 2008. 173-74. Print. Popular Culture and Philosophy.

Campbell, Heidi A., Rachel Wagner, Shanny Luft, Rabia Gregory, Gregory Price Grieve, and 

Xenia Zeiler. “Gaming Religionworlds: Why Religious Studies Should Pay Attention to Religion in Gaming.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion84.3 (2015): 641-64. Oxford Academic. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.

Castella, Tom de. “Have Jedi Created a New ‘religion’? – BBC News.” BBC News. N.p., 25 Oct. 

2014. Web. 9 April 2017.

Commonwealth Realm. YouTube, 24 Dec. 2016. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.

DeVan, Benjamin B. “High Rule? Vintage Virtue in The Legend of Zelda.” The Legend of Zelda 

and Theology. Ed. Jonathan L. Walls. N.p.: Gray Matter , 2011. N. pag. Print.
Dugan, Patrick. “A Link to the Triforce: Miyamoto, Lacan, and You.” The Legend of Zelda and 

Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am. By Luke Cuddy. Chicago and Le Salle: Open Court, 2008. 208. Print. Popular Culture and Philosophy.

Ewalt, David M. “The Best-Selling Videogame Franchises.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 02 Aug. 

2006. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.

Grieve, Gregory Price, and Heidi A. Campbell. “Studying Religion in Digital Gaming – A 

Critical Review of an Emerging Field.” Online Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet5 (2014): 58-59. University of Heidelberg, 2014. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.

Hayes, Mark. “The Mediation of Transcendence within The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.” 

The Legend of Zelda and Theology. Ed. Jonathan L. Walls. N.p.: Gray Matter , 2011. N. pag. Print.

Heidbrink, Simone. Knoll, Tobias. Wysocki, Jan.  “Theorizing Religion in Digital Games – 

Perspectives and Approaches.” Online Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet5 (2014): 58-59. University of Heidelberg, 2014. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.

“Nintendo Officially Talks about the Infamous Ocarina of Time Fire Temple Chant.” Zelda 

Informer. N.p., 30 May 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.

Rasmussen, Josh and Rasmussen, Rachel. “Freedom versus Destiny: A Hero’s Call.” The Legend 

of Zelda and Theology. Ed. Jonathan L. Walls. N.p.: Gray Matter , 2011. N. pag. Print.

Hebrew word for prophet “Navi”


[1]Ewalt, David M. “The Best-Selling Videogame Franchises.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 02 Aug. 2006. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.

[2]Campbell, Heidi A., Rachel Wagner, Shanny Luft, Rabia Gregory, Gregory Price Grieve, and Xenia Zeiler. “Gaming Religionworlds: Why Religious Studies Should Pay Attention to Religion in Gaming.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion84.3 (2015): 641-64. Oxford Academic. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.

[3]Commonwealth Realm. YouTube, 24 Dec. 2016. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.

[4]“Nintendo Officially Talks about the Infamous Ocarina of Time Fire Temple Chant.” Zelda Informer. N.p., 30 May 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.

[5]Once exception to the less referential approach to religion is in Skyward Sword (2011), in which both Hinduism and Buddhism are alluded to in the design of the “The Ancient Cistern”. There is an enormous statue of the Buddha in the center of the dungeon, and the final enemy bares a striking resemblance to the Hindu god Vishnu. The entire dungeon is divided into two sections, the upper level resembling “heaven” and the lower signifying “hell”. There is even a portion where Link has to climb up a thin thread to the higher level while shaking off zombies, undoubtedly inspired by the Buddhist short story “The Spider’s Thread”. 

[6]Dugan, Patrick. “A Link to the Triforce: Miyamoto, Lacan, and You.” The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am. By Luke Cuddy. Chicago and Le Salle: Open Court, 2008. 208. Print. Popular Culture and Philosophy.

[7]Brown, Paul. “Hyrule’s Green and Pleasant Land: The Minish Cap as Utopian Ideal.” The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am. By Luke Cuddy. Chicago and Le Salle: Open Court, 2008. 173-74. Print. Popular Culture and Philosophy.

[8]Grieve, Gregory Price, and Heidi A. Campbell. “Studying Religion in Digital Gaming – A Critical Review of an Emerging Field.” Online Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet5 (2014): 58-59. University of Heidelberg, 2014. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.

[9]DeVan, Benjamin B. “High Rule? Vintage Virtue in The Legend of Zelda.” The Legend of Zelda and Theology. Ed. Jonathan L. Walls. N.p.: Gray Matter , 2011. N. pag. Print.

[10]Brown, Paul. “Hyrule’s Green and Pleasant Land: The Minish Cap as Utopian Ideal.” The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am. By Luke Cuddy. Chicago and Le Salle: Open Court, 2008. 173-74. Print. Popular Culture and Philosophy.

[11]Castella, Tom de. “Have Jedi Created a New ‘religion’? – BBC News.” BBC News. N.p., 25 Oct. 
2014. Web. 9 April 2017.

[12]Hyrule Historiais a collector’s book which acts as the official source of the timeline and lore of the series. It contains concept artwork and detailed descriptions of the world in the Zeldagames. In debates and discussions over the timeline of the overarching story, Hyrule Historiais often referenced as the final say on the matter, similar to canonical scripture. Another official book was just recently released, Arts and Artifacts

[13]Hayes, Mark. “The Mediation of Transcendence within The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.” The Legend of Zelda and Theology. Ed. Jonathan L. Walls. N.p.: Gray Matter , 2011. N. pag. Print.

[14]Heidbrink, Simone. Knoll, Tobias. Wysocki, Jan. “Theorizing Religion in Digital Games – Perspectives and Approaches.” Online Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet5 (2014): 58-59. University of Heidelberg, 2014. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.

[15]Rasmussen, Josh and Rasmussen, Rachel. “Freedom versus Destiny: A Hero’s Call.” The Legend of Zelda and Theology. Ed. Jonathan L. Walls. N.p.: Gray Matter , 2011. N. pag. Print.