Gate to the Desert

The world of Hyrule is, all and all, an amazing place.  Over the various games, I’ve fallen in love with so many characters, places, and legends.  It was the stuff that much of my adolescent and young adult dreams were made of.  Hyrule, to me, wasn’t one of those things that I was content to play and then, afterward, simply leave on its own.  It was something that I wanted to explore utterly and fully.  I craved all the details, and when details were missing—and there are many details still missing—I wanted to find my own answers.

One of the biggest mysteries that has yet to be told, however, is the Gerudo.  Long ago, back when LiveJournal was a thing, I joined a group that was dedicated to trying to find elegant solutions to the strange quirks and situations involving the Gerudo.  Outside of the timeline, wanting to know the story of the desert people was one of the ones I desired to know most, because the desert people seemed to be yearning to tell a story that was otherwise unspoken and unmentioned.

And so this is the first article in a series called The Mysteries of Hyrule, where I endeavor to dig deep into the possible answers to some of the more vexingly vague stories that the Legend of Zelda has told.  Today, we look into the Gerudo.

The Gerudo are one of the more mysterious races of the series and especially within Ocarina of Time.  Outside of the Sheikah, perhaps the least is known about them as most of the other races either seem fairly straightforward, get significant expository, or appear a multitude of games to flesh out their society.  Discounting Ganondorf for the moment, the Gerudo only appear in three different games:  Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Four Swords Adventures, and whether or not you truly count Majora’s Mask in the equation is arguable (despite them still retaining the Gerudo moniker).  Even if you add Ganondorf to the equation, he only additionally appears in Gerudo form in Wind Waker, though he is also mentioned in passing as such in A Link to the Past.

And yes, before someone dares to remind me, Koume and Kotake show up in the Oracle games as well.  The Gerudo really aren’t mentioned there though, so I don’t see a point in really dwelling on them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start with the Gerudo’s first chronological and most prominent appearance:  Ocarina of Time.

A Gang of Thieves?

For many players of Ocarina, Ganondorf is one’s first impression on exactly what it is the Gerudo embody.  Before we even get to the adult portion of the game, Ganondorf is certainly busy pursuing many a sinister thing in order to pursue his goals.  He curses the Deku Tree unto death, he blocks Dodongo’s Cavern from the Gorons, he somehow upsets Lord Jabu-Jabu and makes him swallow Princess Ruto (perhaps less sinister and more funny), and he kills one of the Royal Family’s composer brothers.  It’s obvious that he’s clearly seeking to steal the Triforce out from under the nose of the Hylian people.  If the Gerudo are anything like him, we get the idea that they’re a sinister bunch.

And Kaepora Gaebora’s warning of the Gerudo seems to confirm this fact as well.  He refers to them as “a gang of thieves” and refers to their fortress as “a hideout,” both of which fairly negative terms, making them seem like they’re outlaws from the Wild West.  And for quite some time, I drank those words and didn’t really question them.

Saving the Carpenters

Yet upon reflection, the Gerudo never act out really what they’re claimed to be.  Outside of Ganondorf himself, you never see any of the Gerudo outside the confines of the desert, nor do you see them wantonly stealing anything from anyone else.  In fact, there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary as to their character.

After Ganondorf’s attack on the castle, one man seems rather surprised by Ganondorf’s path of destruction.  “We don’t see a lot of Gerudos in these parts,” he says.  “Something fishy is going on!”  Even Sharp the composer seems to have precious little knowledge about the Gerudo:  “You’re not one of Ganondorf’s men, are you?”  Notice the use of the masculine word men here; considering that Ganondorf is the only male Gerudo that exists (and indeed possibly the only one to have existed during Sharp’s lifetime), it’s curious he doesn’t use women or some other gender-neutral word instead.  And if you pair that up against the Gossip Stones’ clue that “Gerudos sometimes come to Hyrule Castle Town to look for boyfriends,” one might wonder if that might be somehow common knowledge.

At the very least, it would appear at first blush that the Gerudo have a generally peaceful relationship with the Hylians… or at least some form of symbiosis.  Whether or not it’s truly peaceful remains to be seen (again, not counting Ganondorf).

However, we have to reconcile these statements with what we see seven years later.  The third-in-command Gerudo, Ocarina’s analog to Majora’s Aveil, calls their leader “the great Ganondorf, King of the Gerudo Thieves.”  She also repeatedly calls the second-in-command Nabooru as “exalted” despite the fact that, according to the carpenters once they’re rescued, “Nabooru’s gang of thieves stands for cruelty and brutality.  She claims to be a chivalrous robber, but… no way!”

Ganondorf’s Aspiration to Politics

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know what is transpiring within the Gerudo culture because there is a crucial piece of evidence missing.  That critical clue is our inability to march into the Gerudo Fortress as a child and ask the Gerudo what’s what.  All we do know of the Gerudo when Link is 10 is that Gerudos don’t often come to Hyrule Castle Town, Nabooru is a lone wolf thief, and she neither supports Ganondorf nor “[steals] from the weak” according to the carpenters.  However, seven years later we see practically the whole of the Gerudo country in full support of their fearless leader.

What’s going on?

Koume and KotakeKoume and Kotake papercraft by Ninjatoes

We are told by the carpenters after rescuing them that Nabooru “is experimenting with brainwashing many people at the ruins in the desert,” which is precisely what happened to Nabooru during her seven-year stay with the witches Koume and Kotake.  However, this little fact had to be something of a secret, something that the carpenters didn’t discover until after they had been captured.  Otherwise, why would they initially be so eager to join the Gerudo?

I’m Ichiro the carpenter.  We were really interested in joining their all-female group, but they locked us up like this just because we’re men!  We don’t care about the Gerudo anymore!  They’re so rude!

I’m Jiro, the carpenter.  These women are so scary!  I’d rather work as a carpenter than join them!  I can’t wait to say good-bye to this place!

What we see here is an extremely strange set of circumstances, all things considered, so let’s review what we know:

  • Nabooru at one point used to be a lone wolf; she was respected and didn’t attack the weak.
  • Apparently, general consensus is that, while the Gerudo are thieves, they’re not entirely bad.
  • This is despite the fact that Ganondorf attacked Hyrule Castle Town and later completely ransacked the place.
  • Some amount of brainwashing transpired over the course of those seven years, in part led by Nabooru, who herself was brainwashed.

I hate to invoke Godwin’s Law on this one, but to me it sounds like Ganondorf, in many ways, is something of an Adolf Hitler figure.  Bear with me; the comparison might be more uncanny than you might think.  If you look at Germany during the 1920s and ‘30s, they had fallen on very difficult times due to the Treaty of Versailles that was primarily forced upon them by the Franch.  The sharp inflation of the German currency essentially crippled their economy and caused severe hardship across the country, priming the country for a revolution.  And that’s when Hitler enters the scene and promises a wholesale reversal for the country, which would include openly defying some of the nastier provisions of the treaty.  And what happened after that, well, history speaks for itself.

So picture this:  The Gerudo live out in the desert, mostly minding their business and occasionally thieving from someone worth stealing from, a.k.a. the rich and haughty.  At least, that’s the way it is until Ganondorf’s rise to power.  As Gerudo’s automatic leader, he looks at Hyrule’s beautiful greenery and political prominence and hates bending the knee to their king.  So he starts making rowdy, vitriolic beer hall speeches about how they shouldn’t be forced to settle for subsistence living but instead deserve a much grander prize, all of Hyrule!

This very idea is of course divisive, and we can see Nabooru start her own opposition movement against Ganondorf.  However, Ganondorf’s steamroller is already on the move, and he manages to establish a nice re-education encampment off in the all-but-uncrossable desert where his political enemies rot until the day he gains sufficient power to have his war with the other races of Hyrule.  All the while, the Hylians have no clue what is going on behind enemy lines, presumably just chalking it up to one rotten Gerudo apple in the orchard.

But that just begs another question:

Why promise Hyrule?

Ganon goes emo

It’s a pretty valid question, really?  Sure, there’s an obvious answer.  The Gerudo are a lowly band of thieves living in terrain with rather harsh climate adjacent to a land of plenty full with power and promise.  There was much to gain by Ganondorf offering the Gerudo a better life away from the harsh sands of the desert.  Gold, money, riches, power, and influence could be theirs if only they would reach out their hand and grasp it.  In The Wind Waker, Ganondorf seems to suggest that this is the very thing that he offered… or was at least the thing he personally desired.

My country lay within a vast desert.  When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world.  And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes.  No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death.  But the winds that blue across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin.  I coveted that wind, I suppose.

It’s a logical premise, and perhaps the best possible one that we can directly infer from the game.

However, even if that’s the case, there are still a few snippets of dialog here and there among other realizations that cast a dubious light onto this possibility.  And all of them center on the strong connection the Gerudo have to the desert.  In Ocarina of Time itself, there’s the relief of the Goddess of the Sand on the front of the large rock containing the Spirit Temple.  The Player’s Guide to Ocarina of Time mentions that “[t]he Spirit Temple was built by the ancient ancestors of the Gerudo people” (97).  That the Gerudo have any sort of belief bordering on religious association to a desert goddess signifies a special connection to their place of origin.

desert_templeThis sentiment is actually reinforced later in Four Swords Adventures as Link approaches the Desert of Doubt chapters.  The Red Maiden tells Link that “[t]he Gerudo honor the desert.”  The Gerudo themselves elaborate exactly why.  “The pyramid [built by the Zuna] is sacred to our people,” one Gerudo mentions.  In fact, the pyramid deep within the desert is so important that “[t]he Desert Temple was built to keep people away from the pyramid.”  Given that the Gerudo are unaware of the Zuna and the actual origins of the pyramid, we can presume that it was the Gerudo that were the ones to build the temple at the chokepoint before the pyramid itself.

Of course, all of this is really theoretical and academic, nothing really solid in the way of evidence.  Thankfully, we do have one more interesting fact to consider.  The carpenters in Ocarina of Time tell us that it was the Gerudo who broke the bridge that led out of the desert to the rest of Hyrule.  If they were eager to conquer Hyrule, why remove their only way (besides dropping down into the ravine) there?  All in all, it seems that the Gerudo are in the desert because that is their home of choice and not because it is a home by force.

There is another possibility for why the Gerudo might be tempted to support war against Hyrule:  revenge.  It is mentioned both by the Deku Sprout in Ocarina of Time and in Hyrule Historia that a civil war broke out in Hyrule around the time of Link’s birth and was the cause of Link’s mother’s death once she had reached the relative safety of the Kokiri Forest.

“The war in Hyrule raged unabated for countless eras.
The fighting was eventually quelled by the king of Hyrule, and the entire land was unified under his kingdom.
The scars of war faded from Hyrule, and it seemed that, at last, the world was at peace.
Ganondorf, leader of the Gerudo, the people of the desert, once again swore fealty to the king of Hyrule.  However, Ganondorf’s true aim was the Triforce, said to lie somewhere within the kingdom.  Seeking the three Spiritual Stones necessary to open the gateway to the Sacred Realm, he carried out his plots in secret, in every corner of the land.”  (Hyrule Historia, 84)

So even if the Gerudo really just wanted to hold onto their desert territory, they could have been supporting Ganondorf’s revolution in order to strike back at Hyrule for their previous loss in the war.

But what did the Gerudo stand to gain?

Yet this theory itself brings about two significant problems.  The first of these is fairly minor and easy to work around, but I think it’s nonetheless significant that Hyrule Historia doesn’t mention who partook in Hyrule’s civil war or why it even took place.  Go and read the quote again; the primary point of mentioning the civil war in both Ocarina and Historia is to set up the story to explain why Link grew up with the Kokiri when he himself wasn’t, not to establish the Gerudo as some evil boogeyman out in the desert.

Honestly, I think the account was purposefully written this way so that Nintendo has the chance to flesh it out in a future game.  As the timeline has become more and more clear with time, Nintendo has been sparser and sparser with extravagant details so as to preserve our imagination and their creative liberty later.

But when it comes to the account of Ganondorf kneeling before the King of Hyrule, there’s also a lack of clarity here as well, though this is on account of an unclear choice of grammar.  The grammar of the phrase “once again swore fealty [emphasis mine]” could signify that the Gerudo had once been allies with Hyrule, rebelled, and now Ganondorf was vowing allegiance again, but it could simply mean that Ganondorf had already been to Hyrule Castle once already to pledge fealty and that this was him reaffirming that fealty, perhaps as an excuse to gain access to something inside the castle.  Princess Zelda gives us no help either, as she simply says, “Though he [Ganondorf] swears allegiance to my father, I am sure he is not sincere.”

However, as mentioned, this is perhaps the weaker of the two problems, and it’s not outlandish to assume the former possibility.

So with that, let’s look at the second problem.  If you assume that the Gerudo took part in the uprising against Hyrule, then one has to question why they did so that time.  Assuming they were part of the civil war means that one has to answer the same question as to why the Gerudo would support Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time if they hadn’t done so.  The question essentially boils down to, during the civil war, what did the Gerudo stand to gain from Hyrule by rebelling against them?  It could simply be because the Gerudo by tradition automatically and fully follow the commands of their mythical male heir born once a century, but that seems a little bit cheap and too convenient.

And if you look at Gerudo society during the adult portion of Ocarina of Time, well, there really isn’t an obvious benefit that having Hyrule under Gerudo control would net them.  Considering that the Gerudo themselves broke the only bridge connecting them to Hyrule, the desert tribe seems quite happy living off by themselves in the desert as per tradition.  You don’t see them living the high life in Hyrule Castle Town now that the smug Hylians have been kicked out.  You don’t see their hideout littered with gold, jewels, and riches from the towns they looted.  As far as we know, they’re living practically the same life they lived seven years ago before Ganondorf had conquered the realm.

Link becomes an honorary GerudoOn top of that, if the Gerudo were so eager to support Ganondorf’s cause, why would they ever befriend Link?  Link by this point would be Public Enemy Number Two right behind the princess.  Sure, they might respect Ganondorf or even deify him in many ways, but one would think that, if their faith in their leader were so devout, that they might do worse things to Link than just jail him up until he showed sufficient strength to impress a few of their skilled swordswomen.

What’s more, the reactions of the Gerudo to young Link don’t add up either.  We know that Nabooru is completely shocked by Ganondorf’s methodology.  “Though we’re both thieves,” she says, “I’m completely different from Ganondorf.  With his followers, he stole from women and children, and even killed people!”  Yet the rest of the Gerudo generally seem almost impassive to Ganondorf’s doctrine when it comes to young Link.  Whoever those followers of Ganondorf might be, they certainly aren’t the guards just outside the valley.  “The Gerudo’s Fortress is located beyond the gate.  A kid like you has no business there.”  Here they have the best opportunity to mug Link and take his lunch money, and they just let him go and otherwise ignore him.

The only logical conclusion is that the Gerudo have more interest in and support for Ganondorf than so his ideals.

Male:Female Ratios and Genetics

Ocarina of Time

But if we can find one more potential cause for the Gerudos’ support of Ganondorf, it would have to be found within the strange male-to-female ratio amongst them.  This, I would allege, is perhaps the single biggest mystery behind the Gerudo people:  the fact that only one male child is born to them every century.

If I can digress for just a moment, I have to admit that I was ardently hoping that Skyward Sword somehow was going to provide some sort of explanation to this mystery… only to discover that the only “origin” to the Gerudo namesake that was to be had was the brief mention of the Gerudo Dragonfly amongst the collectible bugs.  I figured that, of all the races to deserve a proper origin story, this race had to be it.  Alas, one wasn’t to be had.

I will admit that I actually do have a good friend who does know the dark secrets contained in Nintendo’s famed “timeline document.”  (Or at the very least, my friend knows a few more things from internal Nintendo Emails that we commoners would.)  At any rate, I was mentioning my disappointment about this, and all of a sudden, a sudden smirk came unbidden to my friend’s lips.  It was in that moment I knew something was up; I knew that, perhaps internally, Nintendo did have an answer that would explain this crazy story behind the Gerudo… but they were waiting in secret to find precisely the right opportunity, the right game, to actually throw it into a story.  Or maybe that’s my imagination.  At any rate, I received no secret details about this from my friend, alas.

However, the biggest problem I have with the whole one-child-every-100-years shtick is that it flies right in the face of everything we know and take for granted in basic human genetics.  While not every species on planet Earth uses the XX-/XY-sex chromosomes that we use, and while scientists don’t actually understand how some species’ sex determination works, practically every sex determination system that we do understand nets you an unbiased sex determination, that is, 50% male and 50% female.  So just off of that alone, the Gerudo having this practically-all-female thing going on is somewhat odd.

But I decided to run with the possibility and figure out what the odds would have been, say, if the Gerudo didn’t have a simple 50/50 split between males and females.  What if, much like a good number of Pokémon species, the odds of getting a female child were drastically greater than a male?

To do this, I needed some mathematics and a few necessary assumptions:

  1. I assumed that the Gerudo population would, more or less, remain constant over time.  That is, the birth rate for Gerudo children would exactly equal the death rate of Gerudo elders.
  2. I assumed that the child of a Gerudo with any race—whether Gerudo, Hylian, or (God forbid) a Zora—would result in a Gerudo child.  This isn’t necessarily a given, but I’d hate to see how things would be for Gerudo women were it otherwise.  The Gerudo women would have to be nonstop birthing facilities until they finally were able to pop out a single Gerudo child just to replace their dying… and then what would happen to the other children given that the Gerudo are so isolated?  No, I don’t want to go there.
  3. I needed to assume how many Gerudo children would be born in a century’s time.  This is the most unscientific part here as it requires some wild guesses.  But in short, I needed to estimate their total population and the average life expectancy of a Gerudo, the two variables in the equation.  (As it turns out, the numbers don’t matter that significantly, but to do the actual probability analysis, it had to be done.)
  4. Total Gerudo population in Ocarina of Time:  maybe 30.
  5. Average life expectancy of a Gerudo:  60 years.
  6. Thus, the total number of Gerudos who will die per century:  30 * 100 / 60 = 50.
  7. Thus, the total number of Gerudos that need to be born per century:  50.
  8. Thus, the average (mean) birth rate of a Gerudo male:  1 / 50 = 2%.

"Birth of a Gerudo King" by DeviantArt user kichisu“Birth of a Gerudo King” by DeviantArt user kichisu

Now, if genetics in Hyrule have any similarity to real genetics on Earth, we can assume that every birth has an independently equal chance of producing a male child.  That is, the next child to be born after Ganondorf still has a 2% chance of producing another male heir.  Never mind that that’s against the rules, but so goes the laws of Earthly genetics.

As a result, we can model this system with a binomial probability distribution with µ = 0.02.  Presuming that the average probability of getting a male child is 2%, over a series of 50 births, we find out something rather alarming.  The odds of getting exactly one male child over a century  is only 37.2%.  (The odds of getting none is 36.4%, and the odds of getting more than one is 26.4%.)  In other words, though over the long haul of time there will be an average of one male child per century, it is actually unlikely for there to be exactly one male child each century.

Making the Impossible Probable

And that’s actually giving the system the best benefit of the doubt!  This doesn’t even model correctly the necessity that the only male children born are at exactly each 100-year mark.  The above numbers allow for the last child of one century and the next child of the next century to both be male.  If we were to calculate the odds for the first 49 children after a given occurrence of a male child to be female followed by a single male child, that would actually be wholly improbable, a scant 0.7%.  And so, we have to assume that something else is at play, and I’ve come up with three possible solutions:

First, the Gerudo might participate in infanticide.  In short, maybe they actually do conceive more male children than simply once every 100 years, but in order to perpetuate the myth of the centennial boy, they kill or abort any male children that get conceived over the remainder of the century.  I… really hate this idea for a multitude of reasons, and I heavily believe that Nintendo wouldn’t dare dream to use this as the official explanation.  They like to keep their family-friendly reputation, so with that, I’m just going to sweep this under the rug.

Second, Hyrulean genetics are just plain strange.  This is a wholly possible idea; this bends towards the possibility that some of the sex determination techniques in some mammals are sufficiently complicated (like platypuses) or are completely deterministic (like alligators, which can actually choose the sex of their children to hatch by regulating the temperature of the eggs).  While there’s promise in the theory, I prefer not to use this as my explanation because I find the third choice much more compelling; it has a lot of potential to really be the basis for a game later on.

And that third idea is this:  Something happened to the Gerudo tribe to cause this to happen, something like a magical curse.

"Gerudo Sorceress" by DeviantArt user mattleese87“Gerudo Sorceress” by DeviantArt user mattleese87

I have to admit that this wasn’t originally my theory, but, ever since I heard it, I have wanted it to be canon.  I would like to believe that, way back before the days of Ocarina of Time, the Gerudo and the Hylians (or perhaps another race altogether, but why not the Hylians?) got into a tiff that led to some gigantic war between them.  Perhaps it was some sort of treachery, espionage, or subterfuge, or maybe it was just religious in nature.  Regardless, the Gerudo possibly were after the Triforce (why not?) in order to one-up the arrogant Hylians.  And ultimately, the Hylians won, and in order to show the Gerudo who wore the pants in the kingdom, they cursed their race so that they would never have many men in their population with which to stir up war against them ever again.  This would in turn lead to the women having to become stronger and respect strength within their society, becoming essentially the Gerudo we see today.

It’s all a theory, I know, but it’s one that has some interesting teeth to it.


The Gerudo are an interesting people for certain.  They cry out to have a proper origin story that explains precisely why their people are the way they are.  The Goddess of the Sand begs to be discussed more than just being a large carving on a mountain.  And I can’t help but want to know the story of why they became thieves—or even honorable thieves; I yearn to know what the catalyst was.  But more importantly, I love the race a lot, and I really would love to see them get some more screen time in a future title.

After all, the Gerudo Desert is one of the most amazing soundtracks in all of Ocarina, getting its own movement in the Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony.  It’d be worth it if only to hear that melody in game again.