Pagan themes have been a ready source of inspiration for popular culture for decades, providing mythic heroes, sinister occultists, and enduring symbols in every genre of entertainment. But rarely has any inspiration been so widely used and so widely misunderstood. Join us for thoughts, criticism, and commentary on the intersection of Paganism and popular culture.
Skyward Sword and Sacred Marriage
My roommate bought a Wii not too long ago, and the first (and so far only) game he's bought for it is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. I haven't played much of it beyond the beginning, but the beginning is a fascinating piece of work -- especially to someone looking at it through Pagan eyes.
OK, so, if you haven't played it, or if it's been a while, here's what happens. Link, the nameless, wordless pretty-boy hero of the story, lives in a city in the clouds (but not that Cloud City.) He's training to be a sky knight, or, in other words, a knight who lives in the sky. (Try to keep up.) He rides a gigantic bird and learns sword-fighting and all sorts of other knightly things.
There's a big competition coming up for the sky knights in training, and whoever wins the race takes part in some mysterious ritual atop the enormous statue of the city's patron goddess. The only other participant in that ritual is the princess, Zelda.
Throughout this first stage of the game, Link's goal is made pretty clear: he/you must win the competition and be the male actor in the ritual. Your rival, who looks strangely like a 50's greaser, says he'll never let you get some "alone time" with Zelda. He kidnaps your gigantic bird, and it looks like you'll miss the race; Zelda freaks out about this, and she, too, emphasizes how important it is that Link win the competition. She can't stand the thought of anybody else being alone with her in that chamber.
Link, being the hero, naturally rescues his bird, goes into the competition, and wins. (I don't think you can actually lose. Certainly my roommate tried his best to fail, but after twenty minutes of flying around aimlessly in the clouds surrounding the city, he managed to win. Probably by accident.) And then the ceremony begins...
"You... do know what happens at the end, right?"
I mean, I could take a guess.
Since the Zelda series, despite growing far darker and mature in its themes and design over the years, still doesn't believe in showing characters kiss, we get the (pretty hilarious) switcheroo of Zelda essentially pushing Link off a cliff. But the "Goddess Ceremony" is clearly making allusions to a ritualistic sexual union - if the shot of Zelda removing her outermost layer of clothing while discussing "granting the blessing of the Goddess" doesn't bring that to mind, I feel your mind is far too innocent for us to be friends.
As I was playing through this scene, my mind drifted to Herodotus's description of the sacred prostitution of Babylonian religion, and from there to Neil Gaiman's memorable re-purposing of that practice for the Sandman volume Brief Lives, where a woman describes the rites of Ishtar, unaware that Ishtar herself - reduced to a life as a stripper at a bar called Suffragette City - is standing right next to her.
And then I thought: man, Zelda has come a long way from the days when Link had a cross painted on his shield, hasn't it?
The topic of the Goddess in video games is one I expect I will be returning to in the future; there is a peculiar phenomenon in video games where a culture can be marked as "other" (usually in a kindly way, but still as "other") by making its religion Goddess-centered, and it deserves a bit of scrutiny.
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