The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has received (nearly) universal praise for its accomplishments – whether it be surpassing the quality and impact of its famed and timeless predecessor The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, breathing new life into an aging “Zelda formula” or rethinking the role of dungeons, items and controls – but one of its most overlooked accomplishments is the subtle complexity of its aesthetics.
To read more about the story of the Ancient Cistern, make the jump – but don’t forget to roll! It’s a long one.
It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Read This…
At first glance, you might think the world of Skyward Sword is based around the soft, Gaussian-blur watercolors reminiscent of impressionist painters (but that’s old news). Your first encounter with Skyloft’s most feared (read: misunderstood) citizen may lead you to believe the game’s playful humor and human-enough characters are the foundation on which the world around them is built…at first glance. Layered beneath the countless allusions to past Zelda titles are intuitive conceptual and architectural designs that tell stories far outside of the Zelda canon. Today’s post is shrouded in overarching themes of rebirth, redemption and enlightenment. This area, built by a civilization that perhaps predates the Lanayru Mining Robots, is a culmination of hundreds of years of religious cultural development and twenty five years of superb dungeon design. Grab your shield and ready your sword as I take you through an in-depth conceptual analysis of Lake Floria’s Ancient Cistern.
Part I: The Spider’s Thread
In 1938, Ryunosuke Akutagawa wrote a short story for a Japanese children’s magazine called Kumo no Ito, or The Spider’s Thread. In this story, the Buddha Shakyamuni was strolling alone alongside a lotus pond in Paradise. Between two lotus leaves and through crystal clear celestial water, the Buddha peered into hell. Among the suffering he observed a man by the name Kandata, whose sole good deed in life was sparing the life of a spider while walking through the woods. Touched by this act of compassion, the Buddha lowered a string of silver thread, taken from a spider in Paradise, to save Kandata from damnation. Kandata, overjoyed by the thought of not having to drown in the Lake of Blood at the bottom of hell or chased up the mountain of Needles again, began climbing the thread to Paradise. When the shadows of hell began to fade and the light of Paradise was visible, he looked down at the other sinners. Terrified by the assembly of people climbing the thread, Kandata feared it may break under their weight – and began yelling, kicking, and screaming – telling them this fate belonged to him and him alone. At that moment, the thread broke, and Kandata was flung back into the lake of blood with the rest of the sinners. The Buddha shook his head in disappointment, and continued his morning stroll along the banks of the lotus pond. Even an eternity of punishment, he thought, could not instill an ounce of compassion in the man.
For those of you who have played through Skyward Sword, the parallels between The Spider’s Thread and the design of the Ancient Cistern are easy to identify. Many of the story’s elements manifest themselves physically – such as the pond full of lotuses bordering the meditating Buddha Idol and the white thread descending into a lake of bones and cursed Bokoblins – but other aspects of the story, and Buddhism itself, are worked into the active process of moving from room to room. The recreation of this story relies on both physical placement and progression as methods of storytelling, with no direct verbal references to The Spider’s Thread explaining their connection. The dungeon is designed to tell this story in two ways – through Link and the Idol, and the story begins to unfold as soon as you enter the Ancient Cistern.
Part II: The Idol and the Lotus
“One day, the Buddha was strolling along the edge of a lotus pond in Paradise.”
The Ancient Cistern’s Main Hub: Paradise
The transition between Lake Floria and the Ancient Cistern is practically seamless – replacing one serene waterscape with the next. Hidden behind the waterfall of Lake Floria is a seemingly untouched shrine. Standing above the pristine water, with its head just below a sprawling depiction of a lotus flower, is a golden Idol resembling Siddhartha Gautama – referred to in The Spider’s Thread as the Buddha, and commonly referred to in Buddhism as the Buddha Shakyamuni. Bordering the Idol is a pond filled with lotus flowers, a seemingly celestial arrangement that suggests the Idol is peering through the crystal clear water. Spatial relationships play the largest part in telling the story of the Ancient Cistern – the Buddha sits at the edge of a pond, peering down between the lotus petals. Danger lurks below the Buddha, where Hell is said to be in The Spider’s Thread, and flying around the Idol’s head – placed just below a massive lotus flower – are phoenix-like creatures called Furnixes (which are found only in the Ancient Cistern). Although Link can see these birds flying above him, he cannot yet reach them. This is perhaps an intentional and poetic gesture towards the notion of rebirth, which cannot be attained without the Buddha’s gift.
In Buddhism, this gift is enlightenment.
In Skyward Sword, this gift is the Whip.
The Idol’s Gift to Link
On either side of the structure is a large wheel with eight spokes, which are perhaps the most identifiable mechanical structures in the Idol Room. These too are clever notions toward Buddhism, as the Eightfold Path – said to lead the way to the cessation of suffering – is traditionally represented by a Dharmachakra with eight spokes. In the game, these wheels are the devices which control the movements of the Idol. Progress is made possible only when the Idol is moved by these wheels – just as progress towards enlightenment is made only by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
Traditional Dharmachakra representing the Eightfold Path
This notion towards the eightfold path is complimented by the inclusion of underwater structures surrounding the Buddha. Stretching out below the lotus pond are open hands baited with silver rupees. If Link acts on his desire for wealth and swims toward the rupee, the hand will close, and he will get crushed. Although a well timed spin-attack can add a glint of silver to your Tycoon Wallet, this gestures toward the fifth part of the Eightfold Path – practicing Right Livelihood – which suggests that your wealth must come from peaceful, legal, and righteous work.
There’s nothing righteous about stealing.
Perhaps the most easily dismissed architectural structure in the room is the strange formation crowning (hint hint) the door directly below the Idol’s head. From the front, the shape resembles the center of a lotus flower – a symbol rebirth and fertility, whose placement would indeed parallel that of the giant lotus on the ceiling above he Idol’s head. From an angle, however, we see that our eyes have tricked us. The structure distorts and takes on a three dimensional shape which, following the themes of fertility and birth, takes on the flesh-like appearance of a woman’s genitalia.
seemingly flat-looking lotus stamen
A Vagina. There. I said it for you.
It is said that in order to become enlightened, one must “empty their cup” and free themselves of assumption, fear and desire. In other words, one must be mentally reborn. It isn’t until link unlocks this door, until he is willing to be “reborn”, that he is able to manipulate the wheels and the Idol. In other words, it isn’t until one is reborn that they are able to walk the eightfold path and progress towards enlightenment.
The lotus are also said to represent different Chakra, or spiritual energy which can be manipulated through meditation. It’s no coincidence that the colors which represent inner truth, or enlightenment, are the same colors of the giant lotus mural above the Idol – white and gold – also known as the Crown Chakra. The designers took this name literally and intended for the white-gold lotus above the Idol’s head to be worn like a crown. It is only through the Idol, which already adorns this great crown, that Link can reach the white-gold lotus. It is only through Buddha’s teachings that a monk can truly be gifted with enlightenment.
Wearing the Crown Chakra
The theme of enlightenment is further supported by the recurring lotus symbol inside of the Idol. It serves as a reminder that the end all goal of manipulating the wheels (Dharmachakras) and the Idol (Buddha) is to reach the top of the lotus (enlightenment).
The Lotus is the Key…literally
Once Link obtains the whip, it’s possible to ascend to the top of the Idol. Looking down into Paradise, we can make sense of the unusual layout of the dungeon’s primary platforms. Though it may not be an allusion to any particular Buddhist or Zelda lore, it remains an admirable aesthetic inclusion reminiscent of the Ancient Cistern’s overarching themes.
Ripples in the celestial pond
These stories and allusions don’t belong to the Ancient Cistern’s first room (and central hub) alone. What it accomplishes through its architectural and conceptual themes later play a vital role in other areas of the Cistern. The first room establishes themes of rebirth, enlightenment and purity. It draws inspiration from some of the central principles of Buddhism and sets the stage for the telling of The Spider’s Thread.
Part III: On the Path to Paradise
“After a time, the Buddha paused at the edge of the pond and from between the lotus leaves that covered it saw a glimpse of the state of things below.”
Before entering the Idol, Link has to find a key. If the design of the Ancient Cistern’s central hub was constructed to parallel The Spider’s Thread, then what comes next should also seem natural – both in design and story telling. In the same vein as Mega Man X, Skyward Sword forces you to surpass obstacles which play a central role in conceptual development. In Zelda’s case, the game makes sure that you are introduced to the primary themes of the story before thrusting you into its narrative. In this case, the game forces you to find a key before you can manipulate the Idol – and while finding this key, we run into two enemies whose arbitrary presence suddenly take on a new meaning:
There are spiders in Paradise
Reiterating the caption above, the spider’s placement in the Paradise portion of the Cistern is crucial to the telling of The Spider’s Thread. This strengthens the spatial relationship between the Idol and the lotuses, as the presence of Skulltalas in Paradise correlates with the Buddha’s merciful act of lowering a silvery thread into Hell to save the sinner Kandata. The key is found just beyond these spiders, and once returning to the Idol, entering the door (representing the willingness to be “reborn”) and attaining the Idol’s gift (the Whip) – Link gets a small glimpse into what lays below the Idol…
“Now this celestial pond just happened to lie directly over Hell, and peering through that crystal-clear water was like looking through a magnifying glass at the River of Death…”
Is this the River of Death?
Continuing through the Waterway eventually leads Link to a switch which lowers the Idol’s feet into an area contrasting the divinity of Paradise above. Indeed, it is directly below the Idol and the Lotus Pond that this place exists.
As Link ventures to the depths below the pond, it becomes very clear where he is.
“Now this celestial pond just happened to lie directly over Hell…”
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
“…and peering through that crystal-clear water was like looking through a magnifying glass at the River of Death…”
The River of Death
Part IV: …And Then Into the Maw of Hell
“Those who were so evil as to be sent to this place were tired by its various torments, and left without even the strength to cry out.”
The fate of Ghirahim’s minions is the fate of a sinner
Torment and torture takes many forms – but the most condemning aspect of eternal imprisonment isn’t the inability to escape eons of pain and suffering. The most damning fate to befall in hell, surpassing its thousand pains, is silence. There is no fire, no screaming hordes of unsaved people, no demons to prod and poke at the frightened and helpless – there is only silence. It’s no coincidence that the only demons employed by the Prince of Darkness (Bokoblins, as Skulltulas, Keese, ChuChus are naturally occurring enemies that perceive Link as an an intruder, but don’t have any nefarious motives. Think of the relationship between the denizens of Talon IV in Metroid Prime and Samus) make their horrifying debut in the depths of the Ancient Cistern. Despite their undead appearance, these Bokoblins are not referred to as Zombie Bokoblins.
They are called Cursed Bokoblins*.
*Note: Likely due an aging cultural obsession with Zombies, these creatures are often misidentified as “Zombie Bokoblins”. In the Japanese AND English version of the game, they are indeed called Cursed Bokoblins.
Eternal life is as much a blessing as it is a curse. These Bokoblins have been given the gift, but lived a life of sin – and so they must live forever in the maw beneath the golden Idol’s feet – beneath Paradise – undying and unfeeling.
This area is intentionally made to feel like it isn’t a part of the dungeon – and we see this both in its aesthetic appearance /and/ its music. Skyward Sword typically has a fairly robust brass section – yet, as if to reflect the passage from The Spider’s Thread which crowned this section, the brass in this piece sounds exasperated. They push very little air through the instrument which gives the song a feel of exhaustion and desperation. Indeed, this arrangement appears only in the presence of the Cursed Bokoblins – and nowhere else.
The journey through Hell is a long one, with half as many exits as there are gateways.
The Lotus still stands as a symbol protection through purity
A rotating pillar alluding to the cyclical aspects of Buddhism
Do I even need to explain this one?
To reach his goal, Link must traverse the river of death atop the ever-so-prevalent Lotus lily pads. He must use the whip to cross the great chasms of the abyss. At this point, you know that your presence in hell has not gone unrecognized. The Idol acts as a passive sentinel, allowing you to overcome the obstacles that the denizens of hell cannot. In the deepest part of this dungeon, accented by the presence of fiery Keese, lays the strongest connection between the Ancient Cistern’s design and The Spider’s Thread.
“But one day, raising up his head and glancing at the sky above the lake, in the empty darkness Kandata saw a silver spider’s thread being lowered from the ceiling so far, far away.”
A Path to Paradise
Faintly glowing amidst a dry lake of bones is a single radiant thread. All that stands before it is death – the skeletons of those once suffering in the river of death. there is but one way into Paradise, the Idol has made that clear. Link, and the player, knows what he/they must do.
But hell is not without its restless sinners.
The path to Paradise has turned into a race. The undead are not without their envy – and they, too, want a chance to look out upon the celestial ponds and lotus flowers of Paradise.
Link does not initiate violence, and so shows compassion – though when the Zombie Bokoblins let their determination and desire overpower their own compassion, their selfish act gets them thrown back into the lake of bones. Link climbs still, higher and higher, into a blinding, heavenly light…
Link climbs and climbs until he is completely surrounded by this light…
Finally, Link ascends into the light and climbs back into Paradise (the Ancient Cistern’s main hub). After activating a switch, he is told that he must once again descend into the depths of hell – if only to retrieve the Blessed Idol (AKA Boss Key) from beneath the Idol’s holy feet.
The Key to Enlightenment, in the mouth of the beast
Link makes quick work of retrieving the blessed Idol, which bears a close resemblance to the larger Idol above. The cursed ones are furious – and the Idol knows this. It begins to lower its feet, as if it were aware of the looming danger (take note Link did not activate any mechanism or switch, and it is not timed – as this event is only triggered by taking the Blessed Idol). Almost instantly, Cursed Bokoblins appear and attempt to make the area Link’s tomb. Yet, the Link escapes…
The Key to Enlightenment has guaranteed Link’s safety
Finally, with the key in hand, Link returns to the top of the Golden Idol and places the Blessed Idol key into the slot, completing the image of a lotus flower and opening the path to enlightenment.
That is not where this tale ends. Link may continue to slay the possessed machination Koloktos, but there is a final notion towards the complex subtleties of the Ancient Cistern’s design that many will overlook. There is a portal to Hell, far beyond the depths below the lotus pond and further still beyond the Ancient Cistern’s rendition of Paradise. It is here that the merciful Idol has made use of its damned subject, whose greed and selfishness was so powerful that it managed to feed him life for centuries…
Unknowingly protecting Nayru’s flame from evil…
Unknowingly providing a service to the Goddess…
LD-002G SCERVO, misunderstood scourge of the seas, is reborn as LD-003K Dreadfuse.
In the final dungeon, LD-002G SCERVO has been spared from an eternity of pain and suffering in order to ensure that the Triforce only meets the hands of the Goddess’s chosen hero. Albeit unknowingly, SCERVO protected Nayru’s Flame with such persistence that he killed anything which attempted to steal it – Ghirahim’s minions included. Selfish though he was, it was clear to the Goddess that the Flame was in the hands of an effective sentinel, and so into him was breathed eternal life – which could only be brought to an end by her chosen hero. He is in death what he was in life – a protector, reborn as LD003K Dreadfuse*.
But the dead cannot exist outside of Hell, and doing so would oppose the laws of life. He is able to survive in the Skykeep only in a room resembling the maw beneath the Ancient Cistern’s Lotus Pond. It’s safe to assume that this, too, was a portal to Hell – and one specifically saved for a man whose intentions were unknowingly righteous.
*Still not convinced? Take a look at the last two characters in their service numbers. LD-002G ends with 2G, meaning “Two Grand” or “Two Thousand” while Dreadfuse’s service number, LD-003K, can be read as “Three Thousand”. This slight alteration of service numbers correlates with an upgrade, which comes in the form of reversing in which hand he holds his sword and hook. The notion of an upgrade could also be a gesture towards imperfection and betterment through reincarnation.
*STILL not convinced?! Take a look at LD-003K’s new look. He’s been reincarnated with the same colors which adorn the Master Sword (Gold, Blue and Silver), while also sharing some consistency with Boss Key Chests and the Crown Chakra.
Part V: Thank You!
Assuming you’ve made it to the bottom of this Article, I appreciate your time and patience with my rant! This is but one instance and a single example of the stories Nintendo has been able to tell through the worlds they’ve created. I urge you to look beyond the game, beyond the Hero of Time, Princess Zelda and the Triforce and peer into the lotus pond under which these stories are cleverly hidden.
There is so much to be appreciated and so much that goes unseen.
It is this sort of design, whether intentional or accidental, that makes me proud to be a Zelda fan.
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be returning to do a bi-weekly segment similar to Allegories in Architecture here on Zelda Dungeon! So if you’re interested, stop by again, let me know what you thought of this installment, give me an idea of what you’d like to see and stay tuned for more in-depth exploration of The Legend of Zelda’s universe.
Though I may be new here at Zelda Dungeon, I’m no stranger to Hyrule.
Thanks for supporting the site! I’ll be seeing you.