The Triforce. Many Zelda fans have long pondered the origins of this strange symbol. Until now. This is the saga of the symbol we now call the Triforce…
The saga begins in Medieval Japan. Or more specifically, the Kamakura Period. The political situation in Medieval Japan was rather chaotic, as various ruling families jockeyed for power. In such a situation, the warrior was a very important part of society. In this case, the samurai. We must remember that the samurai were not quite what most people tend to think of them today (for instance, as being death machines superior to their equivalents in other parts of the world), but they were indeed skilled with the blade. But when samurai clashed on the battlefield, how would they know who was fighting on which side? The mon.
What’s a “mon?” Quite simply, it’s the family crest. It’s not unlike the heraldry that the European knights had, although the Japanese mon were generally much simpler and aesthetically cleaner in design. The mon was used to identify the samurai’s possessions (for instance, take a look at the markings on the clothing in the image above). Of course, perhaps the most important place for the mon was a flag to be carried into battle.
As it turns out, the design that we know as the triforce was actually the crest of the Hojo family. The Hojo family was a prominent family in Medieval Japan, and actually took over the country in the 13th century, bringing about relative peace and prosperity. But then, a dark shadow crept over the land . . .
The Mongols. The Mongols had the greatest army in the world. They captured vast amounts of territory, sweeping from China and Russia all the way through the Middle East and even into Central Europe. When the Mongols conquered China, they turned their eyes to the east-Japan. If it was not for Hurricane Kamikaze, there is little doubt that the Mongols would have won. But in any event, it would fall into the hands of the Hojo family to lead Japan’s defense against the Mongol invasion. This was their day for glory.
The Hojo family, then, was a very important family in the history of Japan. It is only natural then, that their crest would achieve special prominence too. But the question remains: why did the Hojo family use those three triangles? The answer is . . .
. . . Shintoism, a religion still very prevalent in Japan today. The Hojo family crest has the shape that it does because of the family dragon god, the guardian deity of fishermen. According to legend, Tokimasa Hojo (1138-1215) came into a cave on Enoshima, an island south of modern Tokyo. There he prayed that his descendants would be prosperous. And the dragon god, who dwelt in that cave-and there is a statue of the dragon in the cave today-granted him his wish, leaving behind 3 of his scales. These are the scales that are represented in the three triangles of the “Triforce” of the Hojo.
Towards the Present
And so the Hojo family made their mark on Japanese history. In turn, their family crest became ingrained into the Japanese culture. And thus, we find later crests that are based off of the original dragon-scale crest, as you can see below.
Image from Tsumao, Awasaka, Kamon no hanashi uwaeshi ga kataru monsho no bi, Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1997.
And the dragon-scale crest (and by the way, it’s also associated with fish scales) continued beyond even that. A 19th century publisher’s seal applied to Ukiyo-e paintings, for instance, consisted of the three triangles inscribed in a circle. Even today, the “Triforce” appears all over Japanese society. You find it on everything from company logos to souvenirs. And it comes as no surprise, since the aesthetically beautiful symbols of the samurai have found their place in modern Japanese graphic design. These symbols are, in fact, meaningful even to the Japanese in their modern context.
And so we can trace the history of the Triforce symbol from three dragon scales to the symbol of a mighty family to the motif in Japanese graphic design to the Zelda games themselves.. But does this really have any significance for the Zelda games? Check back next week to find out . . .
If you’d like to take a look at the Dragon-scale mon on a temple from the Kamakura region (linking it to the Hojo family, of course!), click here. And while you’re at it, can you spot the symbol in this picture?
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