(For my narrative analysis of Majora’s Mask, read here.)
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was released in April 2000, to both commercial and critical success. It is one of the only direct sequels in the series, and is the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Ocarina of Time has the protagonist, Link, fighting against a wicked man known as Ganondorf. The game uses a traditional symbolic structure, where a chosen hero must defeat a purely evil villain. Once Ganondorf falls, he transforms into Ganon, a beast who symbolically represents Satan himself. But Majora’s Mask is different—it inverts the traditional symbolism present in Ocarina of Time, and the rest of the Zelda series.
In Ocarina of Time, Link must defeat the beast known as Ganon who is evil incarnate.
To summarize the narrative in Majora’s Mask, Link finds himself in a new land. He is no longer in Hyrule where most games in the series take place. Rather, he is in Termina, and in Termina everything is turned on its head. Link falls into this land while looking for his lost fairy.
Link has three days to stop the moon from crashing. It is a moon with a menacing face. Skull Kid, the game’s antagonist, is set on destroying Termina. But Skull Kid is not the primary antagonist because he is a puppet of Majora’s Mask. In Ocarina of Time, Ganondorf is Satan incarnate. But in Majora’s Mask, evil has been abstracted up a level. Skull Kid is not so much evil himself, as he is a tool of Majora’s Mask. The mask covers Skull Kid’s identity, as evil does.1 2
It reminds one of Plato’s insistence through Socrates that evil is a lack of knowledge about the Good.3 Similar to Socrates’ claim—evil has a certain unreality in Majora’s Mask, even though it is entirely present.
Majora’s Mask was used in an ancient tribe’s hexing rituals. It bestows evil powers upon anyone who wears it. Wearing the mask amounts to being possessed by evil, one could say it amounts to demonic possession. The person no longer has a conception of the real, the Good.4 They are a puppet of abstract evil. The ancient tribe sealed away the mask in darkness, out of fear of its dark power. But chaos, or perhaps more accurately evil, cannot be kept indefinitely on the perimeter of Being.5 It seems that is part of what Revelation is getting at. Eventually, the periphery of existence finds its way into the walled garden.6
No longer in the familiar land of Hyrule, where most Zelda games are set, but now in the bizarre land of Termina, the player encounters an inverted world. Even the characters themselves are inverted. Nintendo only had one year to develop Majora’s Mask, so they reused the character models from Ocarina of Time, but gave the characters new identities. They look the same, but are different people. Everything about Termina is upside-down, especially for players who already played Ocarina of Time.
Symbolically, Majora’s Mask portrays what the world is when it’s inverted.
Skull Kid is a boy without friends. He was friends with giants, but they all left him to fulfill their oath of protecting Termina. Yet Skull Kid is not just a blank slate of a character, he is a joker. He might have been a holy fool at one time, and somewhat was one while playing music in The Lost Woods in Ocarina of Time—and before he stole Majora’s Mask, when all he cared about was harmless practical jokes. But he did steal Majora’s Mask, and once he donned it, the fool became a tyrant. Evil inverted him.
The Four Giants left Skull Kid to fulfill their oath.
The first way the game uses inverted symbolism directly in its narrative, is by making the fool the tyrant. Fools, or jesters in the king’s court, are there to poke fun at the system.7 They show the limit of the system.8 But in Majora’s Mask the fool is no longer a fringe character, an exception with no decision-making ability who only influences the king through humour and shows the impossible attempt of any system to totalize all aspects of Being. The fool demonstrates what is being kept outside of the system, the periphery, as a reminder that the system cannot capture all aspects of existence.9 But in Majora’s Mask, the fool becomes the tyrant and tries to encapsulate everything in his system.
Instantly, this makes the fool inverted. He is granted ultimate power, symbolically represented through the dark magic of Majora’s Mask. So, even though Skull Kid laughs hysterically, uses his own rear end to taunt Link, and considers all the evil he is inflicting on Termina and its inhabitants to be a great joke—because the fool is inverted to have the power of the king, and because the fool wants to make the periphery become a totalizing force—the outcome for Termina is disastrous.
Skull Kid uses the dark powers of Majora’s Mask.
The dark powers of Majora’s Mask use Skull Kid.
Because of Skull Kid, these inversions happen: the water in the swamp turns into poison, the summer in the mountain turns into never-ending winter, the cool sea which nourishes the life of the Zora species becomes too hot to support life, and the dead of long-past wars in the valley turn into living-undead monsters. The people in the town, Clock Town, constantly complain of Skull Kid’s “tricks” because they recognize he is a joker. One of his tricks is to transform a soon-to-be groom into a child so he cannot get married. And Skull Kid transforms Link into a pathetic wooden creature at the beginning of the game. This species Link is transformed into is a small enemy from Ocarina of Time, which is easily dealt with. Skull Kid finds all of these tricks hilarious, tricks which make the periphery central.
Throughout the game, time is running out. The player has three days to stop the moon from crashing and a countdown timer is always displayed on screen. At the dawn of each day an ominous clock bell is heard. This is another inversion. Historically, the clock bell would ring from the church as a reminder of prayer services or to “drive away demons”.10 It was something positive. But in Majora’s Mask, the screen shrinks with each strike of the clock until dawn arrives, which adds to the player’s anxiety. It is something negative. Time is presented both as the precious resource it is, and is inverted to be one of the main enemies the player is against. With a one-year deadline—because Majora’s Mask had to capitalize on the success of Ocarina of Time before the Nintendo 64’s commercial life ended, Nintendo made a game about time running out.
Even in Clock Town, the amount of time left is always displayed at the bottom of the screen.
The townspeople are all preparing for the Carnival of Time, which is about to happen in Clock Town, starting officially on the same night the moon is set to crash. Any carnival is an ordered inversion of normality. One can look at the Feast of the Ass, where a donkey was brought into the Church, and people would make donkey sounds.11 Or the Feast of the Fool, where a fake bishop was elected who would do the opposite of what a bishop does.12 Skull Kid is the fool self-elected to be bishop, but his service does not end.
Carnivals are a planned-for steam valve. They are a calculated event to make sure people remember the system is not totalizing.13 They serve the same function as the joker. They are a means of letting go for one day, before normal life resumes. At carnivals, the periphery is made central.14 In Majora’s Mask the carnival takes place in the central location on the map (Clock Town), but only for a short while before normal life returns and the exception goes back to being what it is, an element at the fringe of reality. However, in Majora’s Mask, because Link is trapped in a three-day time loop, it is always carnival time. That is why Skull Kid’s time as bishop does not end.
Skull Kid stands on top of the Clock Tower in Clock Town, often dancing like a clown.
Majora’s Mask is a game about symbolic inversion. It only makes sense this pattern takes place during a carnival. Part of what is unsettling about the game is that the player cannot escape the time of the carnival. The player can rewind the clock back to the first of the three days, to stop the moon from crashing. But everything repeats when that happens and the player restarts everyone’s suffering. The game takes place in an eternal present where the carnival never ends, similar to the movie Groundhog Day.
There are also slowly spinning clocks in many of Clock Town’s buildings, much as any carnival relies on spinning attractions such as the Ferris wheel or the merry-go-round. The clocks serve as a reminder that the player is spinning around in circles in the same slice of time eternally, all during the carnival. Even the mini-games in Clock Town are all carnival-like, complete with spinning and aiming.15
In the valley of the undead, there is one colourful house with living people which plays carnival music. So within that inverted valley, the only semblance of traditional symbolism is this carnival house within the wider carnival of Termina. That house inverts the inversion and stands as a beacon of hope.
Zelda series creator Shigeru Miyamoto states in the canonical Hyrule Historia—a book giving definitive rulings on aspects of the series which were debated for years, such as the timeline of the games—that Link is named Link because he links all the people of the land together.16 Link is the in-between character. He travels to all regions of Termina or Hyrule and unifies all the disconnected people to stop evil.17 So Link, being a traveler, acts out the pattern of Saint Christopher.18 19
Saint Christopher’s name translates from the Greek as “Christ-bearer”.
St. Christopher was working for a king who made the sign of the cross at the mention of the devil. Then St. Christopher tricked this king into telling him where to find the devil, because he wanted to work for the most powerful being in the world. But while working for the devil, St. Christopher noticed the devil avoided a cross on the road. So he tricked the devil into telling him where to find Christ. After, St. Christopher found a monk, who instructed him to pray and fast in order to serve Christ. But he was not willing to do that. Instead, the monk told him to serve Christ by carrying people across a river.20
One day, a child he was carrying across the river became so heavy, St. Christopher almost collapsed. He asked the child why he was so heavy, and the child said it was because he was carrying the sins of the world. The child transformed into Christ then disappeared. Ultimately Christ tricked the trickster St. Christopher.21 So, while he carries people across a physical river, Link carries people’s suffering across the river of time. It is also interesting, in a game where the fool is the tyrant, that Link has elements of the trickster like St. Christopher.
One can see the trickster elements in Link, in Majora’s Mask, because he must acquire masks of certain individual characters, from other species, who have died. These masks allow him to transform into those dead people (their bodies at least) to help the different regions of Termina. The masks allow Link to access the spirits of these dead characters, who he heals at their deaths, and then he incarnates in their bodies. This is that pattern of tricking, because no one knows it is Link inside these characters’ bodies. In a sense, he has to defeat Skull Kid’s misuse of tricking, by himself becoming a holy trickster and taking on the persona of fallen souls.
(Vatican II, in Sacrosanctum Concilium, removed many saints’ feast days due to overcrowding of the New General Roman Calendar.22 Saint Christopher’s feast day was removed, but he is still widely venerated in the Christian world, and is the patron saint of travelers like Link.)23
The Goron mask is one of three transformation masks Link acquires in Termina, when he heals the souls of fallen beings.
Because Link is able to rewind time to prevent the end of the world, he is able to carry people across the current of time. He saves them by carrying them back and forth through time. He links all the disparate people together to save Termina, and if the player helps all the people of Termina, the player is given the Fierce Deity Mask (more on that later).
It’s also worth noting that Christ goes into the inverted land of Egypt, much as Link goes into the inverted land of Termina. Egypt is an inverted land because as a child, Christ took refuge there, but it is also the land where the Jewish people were slaves.24 It shouldn’t be a safe place, but it is. And Joseph took Jesus and Mary to Egypt, because he saw an angel in a dream who told him to.25
Now at the end of Ocarina of Time, Link’s fairy—and these fairies are essentially guardian angels of the Kokiri, forever children who live in the forest—leaves Link because he is not a true Kokiri, but a Hylian. Then Majora’s Mask begins with Link looking for his fairy in The Lost Woods, which is a maze with portals, and a place which can only be navigated with a fairy.
Joseph sees an angel who tells him to go to an inverted land, and Majora’s Mask inverts that symbolism by having Link’s lack of a principality be the reason he goes to an inverted land. He is looking for his fairy in The Lost Woods, when he falls into a portal leading to Termina.
In Hyrule Historia, Termina is confirmed to be a parallel world to Hyrule.26 Clearly, Termina is an inverted world. Termina is ruled by a fool-tyrant, and Hyrule has a wise king. The only way to stop Skull Kid’s joke of destroying Termina, is for Link to awaken the Four Giants who can hold the moon.
Again, there is symbolic inversion here. In most myths, the moon represents calm, the feminine, and potential.27 28 In Majora’s Mask, not only does the moon literally have a male face, but it is the reason players have anxiety while playing the game. In the inverted symbolism of Majora’s Mask, the moon represents anxiety, time running out, destruction, and actuality, not potential.
The moon with a menacing face is almost always staring at Link as it gets closer to Termina.
The traditional representation of giants is also inverted in Majora’s Mask. In most traditions, giants are somehow created by subscribing to the negative pole of reality—through evil acts.29 Within Christendom, giants are seen as being the descendants of people who favoured Lucifer. 30 But in Majora’s Mask, the giants are wise, kind, patient, kingly souls who seek to protect Termina. That is their duty. (The Epicurean poet Lucretius also inverted giants’ symbolic meaning.)31
Moreover, as Symbolic World readers know, some legends of St. Christopher say he himself was a giant, and some Orthodox icons depict St. Christopher as a dog-headed man.32 33 This pattern is relevant to Link, because in Majora’s Mask he must use the masks of other species to transform into those species to save Termina. Symbolically, Link must become a dog-headed man in order to help people cross the seas of time to prevent death. He is acting out the pattern of St. Christopher.
And when Link puts these masks on, he is in excruciating pain and the surrounding world darkens. He is at “the limit, edge or buffer between two things” by putting on these “garments of skin” which “comes to us as death or darkening.”34 This is the pattern of St. Christopher being a dog-headed man: “this marginal space can also appear as a hybrid, mixture, an in-between which mingles elements together.”35
The Fierce Deity Mask is the final mask Link earns. It transforms Link into a giant version of himself. Yet again, the game inverts traditional symbolism by making the giant a good thing. Once more, Link is acting out the pattern of St. Christopher. That same inversion, making giants good, can be seen in the stories of St. Christopher which say he was a giant—because St. Christopher inverts his own giant symbolism by turning to Christ. St. Christopher is no longer a giant working for the devil, but becomes a good giant, serving Christ, by carrying people across the river.
The player can also earn the Giant’s Mask, which can only be used for one fight. It makes Link a giant so he can defeat Twinmold more easily. Twinmold is two giant worm-like creatures. Rather than cutting their heads off so their bodies die, their bodies die and that makes their heads die. This is another symbolic inversion, as it is the opposite of the traditional story of cutting off a snake’s head.
Link’s identity is not obscured when he dons the Fierce Deity Mask, so much as it is heightened. This is an inversion of the role of masks.36 37 Symbolically, this heightened identity speaks both to the process of theosis, which allows self-centeredness to fall away as a person begins to embody Christ’s identity, and to the inversion of giants as beings who lose human personhood as they fall to Satan. But that loss of personhood is what happens to Skull Kid when he wears Majora’s Mask, because it is evil.
The place where you use the Fierce Deity Mask to finish the game is inside the moon. And the inside of the moon looks like the Garden of Eden. The only problem is, this place is not a walled garden. It is a broken garden. There are no walls. Rather than having order (walls) to keep out chaos, there are no boundaries there and the chaos, or perhaps evil, of the periphery can enter the garden at any time—as Majora’s Mask itself does.
There is a child at the tree who asks Link if he wants to play a game. The child is wearing Majora’s Mask and tells Link he will be the bad guy and the mask will be the good guy. Then the child gives Link the Fierce Deity Mask. So Majora’s Mask itself thinks of good and evil as inverted. Majora’s Mask possesses Skull Kid and inverts his sense of good and evil.
On the official poster for the game, the giants, the tree, and the children around the tree are the only silhouetted beings, appearing at the bottom of the world. This is another inversion, because in the game they are either holding up the moon (giants), or in the moon (children/tree). In either case, in the game, they are above the world. But on the poster they are below the world.
The game places a tremendous amount of emphasis on the moon. It is as if the player’s attention is called to be inverted from saving Termina, through good works on the ground below, and instead be focused on destruction from above. In a way, even the cosmos is upside-down in Termina.
In Rev. 12:1, Mary is standing on the moon. Symbolically, this means she is standing above the human tendency to move with the seasons, be volatile in decision-making, and doubt faith—which are all manifestations of the symbolism of potential.38 She is above the chaos of potential, which the moon traditionally represents.
Link, by being like St. Christopher, comes to be like Mary as he steps foot on the moon. The game uses traditional symbolism in this instance, because Link is now representing the solution to the inverted world of Termina—standing above the inversion, and reverting things back to their proper order (right-side-up) by dethroning the tyrannical evil of Majora’s Mask, while acting out the pattern of St. Christopher.
The game continues to maintain a large cult following. Most of the appeal is in how unsettling and weird the game is in comparison to the rest of the Zelda series. Those responses should not be a surprise, given the game relies so heavily on inverted symbolism. Players are upside-down in Termina, especially if they first played Ocarina of Time. The inverted symbolism of Majora’s Mask makes the game hard to understand, and that kind of mystery can give art longevity.
The inverted symbolism in Majora’s Mask is a warning of what happens when the world is upside-down. The game is supposed to make players feel off. The feeling is almost unavoidable because Majora’s Mask takes that symbolically-sound world of Hyrule and then sends the in-between character of Link into the carnival world of Termina: where up is down, there is a fool-tyrant, the carnival never ends, giants are good, and the moon is more actual than the ground.
But as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear the fool is not meant to be the king. The solution to that problem is in the pattern of St. Christopher, as Link carries people across the river of time.
In our current time, where the periphery—the exception on the outer edges of human experience—is constantly drawn to the center of our attention, Majora’s Mask is a good reminder that every carnival must end.39 A carnival is a carnival only so long as it is an exception. The periphery is the periphery for a reason.40 And when a carnival lasts forever, in a timeless eternal present as it does in Majora’s Mask, one must be careful the moon does not crash.
Hopefully, giants are not needed to hold the moon in place.
Dan Sherven is the author of three books: Light and Dark, Classified: Off the Beat ‘N Path, and Live to the Point of Tears. Here you can find his current books, articles, podcasts, and more.