by Celeste Roberts
"We Gerudo have no tolerance for unfinished business." — Urbosa, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Reminiscent of the Amazon warriors in Greek mythology and the world of Wonder Woman, the Gerudo race is a formidable and enigmatic presence in several The Legend of Zelda games. First appearing in Ocarina of Time, the race of (almost) entirely female thieves is isolated in the desert region of Hyrule, except whenever some of the ladies head into Hyrule proper to seek boyfriends and potential partners (as shared from a Gossip Stone).
I admit I was as intimidated as I was impressed by the Gerudo when I first encountered them. When I unlocked the Gerudo mask as child Link in Ocarina of Time, I immediately headed for Gerudo Valley to see whether my clever disguise would outsmart the omnipresent guard. Instead, I was chastised for impersonating one of their own. I think my height and clothing may have given me away, too.
As adult Link, I could not wait to venture farther into the barren wasteland, but I quickly learned that the Gerudo still were not welcoming strangers, especially men, into their home fortress. After a few times of being imprisoned after being spotted, I managed to sneak around the labyrinthine fortress, free the imprisoned carpenters, and earn the coveted Gerudo Token, which allowed me to explore the entire span of the desert without fear of capture.
After completing Ocarina of Time, I was left unsatisfied. Yes, the elaborate party at Lon Lon Ranch amused me, and I was thankful for the feeling of accomplishment. However, I noticed an ambivalence about the Gerudo: although they are responsible for Ganondorf’s existence every century and are practically outcasts because of their thievery and insularity, Nabooru, the second-in-command of the tribe, was destined to become the Sage of Spirit, a powerful position used to help seal Ganondorf away.
Despite their previous insistence on rejecting foreigners, destiny often has different plans for the Gerudo.
The Desert Dwellers
One of the most striking aspects of the Gerudo tribe is the ladies’ confidence, which is evident in their gait, their speech, their clothing choices, and their battle prowess. Video games were becoming more sophisticated by the time I began enjoying them in the 1990s, and strong female characters were gradually making their way to the forefront of several titles, no longer remaining solely as damsels in distress.
Unlike their Hylian counterparts, the Gerudo do not not revere Hylia or worship Din, Farore, or Nayru. Some speculate that Hylia fell out of favor with the ladies after Urbosa’s death. In lieu of these goddesses, the desert race reveres a Goddess of the Sand, whom we first see in Ocarina of Time in the Spirit Temple. Some theories indicate Din is connected to the desert dwellers because of her role in “cultivat[ing] the land and creat[ing] the red earth,” as mentioned in Ocarina of Time and as indicated with the fire the goddess statue bears at the Arbiter’s Grounds in Twilight Princess.
Muava, an elderly Gerudo in Breath of the Wild, provides a wealth of information if the player takes the time to chat with her (she’s also keen enough to recognize that Link is merely in disguise and not a woman): "No one here really believes in that stuff anymore, though, so they tend to avoid stopping here [by the Goddess Statue]. Kind of like they avoid me..." I do notice that the elderly Gerudo like to keep to themselves (or are they considered a burden? Hm…).
Are the Gerudo rebels or pariahs? Is their semi-isolation coerced or self-imposed? In Breath of the Wild, we learn that the Gerudo, to some extent, do treat other races with respect, even allowing the girls and women of other races a safe place to visit within their walls. Male Gorons are welcome, too, but the reason behind their inclusion is unclear. They’re a cute race, so maybe their looks help.
Any men attempting to enter the town, however, are immediately turned away or thrown out (yes, I did climb the walls without my vai disguise to see just how well the security works; nothing gets by these ladies!). Don’t let the hostility and exclusion fool you, though, because the single Gerudo attend dating and cooking courses in order to refine their suitor-hunting techniques.
Symbols in the Sand
Who doesn’t love deep dives and wondering whether signs, names, and art in a video game world include hidden messages? Each race in The Legend of Zelda series has an icon that seems to allude to that race’s beliefs, mysteries, and/or mannerisms.
In the Nintendo 64 version of Ocarina of Time, the Gerudo crest “resembled a mirrored version of the symbol commonly used to represent the Islam
faith. It was later replaced in subsequent versions with a new symbol first introduced in Majora's Mask, as it violated Nintendo's own policy of avoiding religious material in their games” (Zeldapedia).
The current Crest of the Gerudo shows the back of a king cobra, a deadly, typically venomous snake that resides mostly in rainforests in addition to semi-arid deserts. The king cobra’s role in mythology may better explain the tribe’s choice of emblem: in ancient Egypt, a rearing cobra (uraeus, or “she who rears up”) was prolific because of its association with the afterlife, protection, and many deities. These women have no fear in the face of danger; their agility and skill with an assortment of weapons likely instill fear in the hearts of anyone bold (or stupid) enough to cross their paths.
These ladies are not subtle in their desire to remain separate from the rest of Hyrule, including having their own language. In Breath of the Wild, though, players can learn basic greetings and terms whenever they speak with the desert dwellers. The optimist in me hopes this acceptance of diversity and melange of native tongues indicate the world of Hyrule is healing after centuries of avarice and turmoil.
Beyond the Desert
Because the Zelda series is a work in progress, pieces of the lore gradually complete the puzzle. Even after researching my favorite race in this game, I still have several questions: How can they be depicted as “benevolent” thieves? The tribe allegedly avoids stealing from the weak and children, but why is any sort of robbery tolerated in Hyrule? What kind of men choose to wed and procreate with Gerudo? Why don’t we see these families together? How did the queen of Hyrule become friends with Urbosa? Are all male Gerudo evil (i.e., are they all born as Ganondorf)? Also, I am amazed this group of fearless women is open to the tradition of allowing a male born every century to lead them after proving themselves as one of the most powerful nations in the world. I also wonder whether the Gerudo replaced the thieves in A Link the Past after their nefarious leader (Ganondorf, of course) slaughtered them after they helped him to find the Triforce.
A way the writers and developers could allow players to understand and perhaps sympathize with the Gerudo would be to include a thievery mission in which Link must assist a Gerudo in surreptitiously acquiring items, such as necessary supplies, a desired jewel, or even a potential male partner for a lucky lady. Stealing seems contradictory to Link’s honorable nature, but aside from their stealing the Zora eggs in Majora’s Mask, the Gerudo are never shown performing illicit means of surviving.
I was surprised and pleased to see various Gerudo wandering Hyrule in Breath of the Wild. I didn’t fear these formidable denizens; instead, I took their freedom to stroll as a sign of renewal and hope in a torn land. Will these vai welcome voe into their town one day? I would love to see their spouses and their children; I wonder why no families were shown living outside of Gerudo Town. Should we have a new take on the Tarrey Town side quest and create a town for the ladies and their families (including more than Hudson and Rhondson)?
Do you have a favorite race in The Legend of Zelda? Which would you like to explore more? Let me know on Twitter. Until next time, sav'orq!