Varieties of Hylian Religious Experience

Here's an odd thing about religion in Hyrule: most people don't seem to do very much we'd call religious. In fact, for a world with genuinely real deities, religion has at best a minor presence.

Of course for Link (and thus, for the player) in his numerous incarnations, the religious or mythical elements of Hyrule's situation and history and the spirit beings who inhabit it are of paramount importance. However, most folk Link meets make little more than passing mention of this or that spirit or the Goddesses or the Triforce or the Sacred Realm, and so on. Moreover, while orthodoxy is prevalent, there's no evident orthopraxy; that is, Hylians don't seem to do much in the way of religious practice.

It may simply be our limited window on Hylian life usually centers on episodes of unrest during which religious practice is disrupted. Hyrule throughout the ages does maintain a strong tradition of sacred places, but Hylian temples have a tendency to become occupied by hostile creatures.

However, those temples' design rarely suggests the manner of worship they facilitate, if any at all. Indeed, most of the time they're primarily sacred storehouses for relics of varying importance, and in fact the temples themselves are usually complex defensive puzzles meant to protect their treasures. Even where a sacred edifice does seem amenable to worship, as with the Temple of Time (as it appears in Ocarina of Time), it still serves the main purpose of housing a sacred object.

The Temple of Time reappears throughout the Zelda saga as a central religious location. Even when the Temple of Time is apparently designed as a place of worship rather than a fortress (in Ocarina of Time it appears more or less like a plain Christian church), and even when centrally located in an urban area, it apparently doesn't draw worshippers and isn't attended by any kind of clergy. Given its role as the edifice marking the axis mundi of Hyrule (the doorway to the Sacred Realm), the lack of activity there in Ocarina of Time and the temple's ruined condition in Twilight Princess are rather curious.

Besides religious edifices, Hyrule's landscape is dotted with sacred places. Sometimes these locations are built up into temple complexes or smaller shrines (as with the fairy fountains throughout Hyrule), but others remain in a natural state. Most prominent are the pools in which four light spirits dwell in Twilight Princess. Here too, though, we see no evidence of religious activity.

This dearth of practice does have a couple notable exceptions in the most recent Zelda title. In Skyward Sword, we witness a Skyloft tradition called the Wing Ceremony in which the winner of a knightly tournament assists a ritual impersonator of a goddess in offering a prayer. Later, Princess Zelda herself makes a pilgrimage to the sacred fountains of the realm's temples to perform a ritual purification. However, in this latter instance the ritual seems probably an exclusive one, rather than something some common pilgrim might do.

One example of regular people praying is related in the introduction to Wind Waker, where the player is told the people of Hyrule entreated the Goddesses to protect them from certain impending doom. This instance of prayer also appears an extraordinary one, and tells us little more than that extremely pressing circumstances may move Hylians to call on the Goddesses even if such prayer isn't a regular practice.

What gives with the lack of religious behavior and experience on the part of average Hylians? I suggest three answers:

First, as we've already touched upon above, we may simply have thus far failed to observe Hyrule at a time when regular religious practices are carried out. Perhaps when the realm isn't under threat of domination or destruction from evil, religious behavior among common people finds expression as rich as we'd expect in a world where the gods are real.

Second, perhaps our expectation is off kilter. We began with the tacit assumption the actual existence of Hylian deities should find a corresponding profusion of religious behavior, but that assumption may well be entirely backward. Indeed, we might say in Hyrule the sacred is a fact of profane daily life. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised to find deities who require no sustenance of worship aren't receiving much of any, particularly when (unlike many deities familiar to us) they don't demand any.

The third possibility is really an expansion upon the second: that because the deities of Hyrule genuinely exist, knowledge of and interaction with them is effectively a matter of science, of rational apprehension of empirical reality. On the other hand, religion, much as it purports to apprehend reality, apprehends ideas. Since what we've been calling religious elements in Hyrule are simply elements of reality, those elements aren't religious at all, properly speaking. Accordingly, we find little religious practice of the sort we expect.

Interestingly, the Zelda franchise has in recent years reinforced the sense of the sacred as part of the empirical continuum by stylistically associating the sacred with the technological. In Wind Waker, the Tower of the Gods features circuit-board-like motifs, and the boss monster appears to be a sort of robot. Even more significantly, in Skyward Sword the Master Sword (the penultimate sacred object throughout the Zelda saga, second only to the Triforce itself) is shown to be inhabited by a spirit called Fi whose expressionless face, analytical demeanor, and stilted computer-like mannerisms strongly suggest the impression of an artificially intelligent automaton. These stylistic choices are not trivial considering the audience for the Zelda franchise has grown up in a world increasingly dominated by computers, and the old conflation of advanced technology or science with magic readily comes into play.

Although my first answer is reasonable, I confess I find it weak. Whatever merits it may have, the implications of the second and third answers for our understanding of religion (if we may still call it that) in Zelda and religion (properly so-called) in our world are much more substantial. The example the Zelda saga presents of a world where the central elements of religion are empirically real, rather than mere ideas, illustrates well how religions really are idea systems, and how religious traditions must actively sustain their ideas, whereas empirical reality simply persists as a matter of fact.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with the second and third mainly because of my understanding of modern Mongolian shamanistic practices. Spirits exist, Tenggri is right there and you can look at him, so when you go to Mongolia what one recognises as religious practices are mainly Buddhist rather than Tengriist. The Tengriist stuff we'd recognise as religious, the shamanic practices, are infrequent and usually private affairs, like when you'd go to a doctor. As a result, you don't get a lot of talk about belief and religion unless you're talking about Buddhism out there because Buddhism is on a more ideological level of reality, one that can be questioned. You don't question that colds exist, or that doctors have the ability to heal them.
    In such a way might the Hylian religion exist- people don't worship so much as do, and since you're in the adventurer's position in those games without even a family you may never see such private affairs.

    As for the computer thing though, I wonder if perhaps that isn't a relic of the Japanese concept of ancient cultures being more technologically advanced- that was alllll over Okami and I've seen it in other JRPGs that have "ancient" structures. Plus in Windwaker, it kind of cements the idea of the flood eradicating a more civilised culture than the one that survived...