You know, I've had a surprizing number of people ask me this, through the years, as a Zelda fan, and I discovered something that I would like to share with the world. The Zelda timeline is actually pretty easy to explain if you also go over the events in each game and how they tie into each other. So I'm going to actually sit down and do that.
Maybe consider it an explination of Hyrule History.
As such, I'll be referencing games, but in the context of telling a much greater story.
That means that there will be spoilers for literally every single Zelda game.
Throughout, I reference a certain race as, "The demon tribe". I think I'm doing that because I'm playing through the Skyward Sword remake, but this may cause confusion because of some translation issues with these games and accompanying materials. These people are consistantly refered to as "The Oni Tribe" in Japanese, but during localization they were given different names in different games just based on who was translating. So sometimes it's 'demon', like in Skyward Sword, sometimes it's 'monster' like in Minish Cap, and sometimes it's 'evil' like in Twilight Princess, I think they were called the 'Tribe of Darkness' one time- it's just a lot to remember how they were translated in each game so I think I just use "the demon tribe" and "demon" throughout. It's what Ghirahim would do.
In the beginning, before the concept of time or place, three goddesses descended on the formless void that was the mortal plane.
There are many retellings of this creation story, but they are all consistant, so I'll use the one from Zelda 3 here. It doesn't really matter which one you use, they tell the same story. Click on the image to make it bigger if you can't read it.
Having created and ordered Hyrule, the goddesses returned to their world, leaving behind a link to them and their powers of creation in the form of a mythical object called the triforce, which was to be held in the light temple, under the guard of a sage, and can only be accessed by one of their champions, The Forger of Strength, the Keeper of Knowlege, or the Juror of Courage. Upon touching the triforce, this person will be allowed one wish using the very power that created their world. This is why it is so important to keep it away from anyone who is not a champion of the goddess.
The triforce, as a symbol, is the most important religious symbol for any hyrulian. So if you've never played Zelda but seen this symbol everywhere, now you know!
Now, after the creation myth, things begin to be a little fuzzy, because there are other gods in the Zelda universe, but their origins are not listed so neatly, and 2 of them are about to become important. But, because the actual creators have not neatly spelled out their origins, we are left to speculate.
There are 2 major fan theories about the origins of the other gods in the Zelda universe.
1: They were created by the creation goddesses, after the creation of Hyrule but before the creation of the Triforce, and it's subsequent holding place the Sacred Realm. They are less powerfull than the creation goddess, because they were created by them. - This is the theory I personally find the most reasonable.
2: They came from the same place that the goddesses came from. The Hylian holy texts say that the creation goddesses came from somewhere, indicating that there may be a dimension filled with gods, all as powerful as the creation goddess. - This is believable, it's just not the theory I subscribe to.
But what we do know for sure is that sometime in the past two of those gods got into a territorial dispute over an area known as "the surface" which puts into motion all the events of the Zelda games. The leader of the Demon Tribe (Oni Tribe in Japan) is named Demise, and is referred to repeatedly as a god. The leader of the Human Tribe, Hylia, is also referred to repeatedly as a god. We don't know for sure where they came from, but we know for sure they had this war some time before the events of Skyward Sword.
Hylia and the humans eventually sucessfully killed Demise. The game Skyward Sword says that she did this herself, but the comic that came with the Hyrule Historia said that she had a champion who looked exactly like Link do it. Either way, Demise is dead. But the humans still lose the territory, because a demon general named Ghirahim fights them off, forcing them to retreat into the sky. Hylia, after the war, decides to be reincarnated as a mortal for reasons I did not feel were adequately explained, but that's what she did and it's her life, she can live it however she wants to.
It might be because Ghirahim is actively looking for her, because he used his magical powers to actually save a sliver of Demise in the form of a monster called the Imprisoned, and he's going to use the power of her god soul to ressurect Demise. The game implies this is the reason, but it's never outright stated. This process of the soul stealing ceremony involves a lot more interpretive dance than you would imagine.
He eventually finds her anyway, even in a human body, so he kidnaps her and you have to stop him before he can do the ceremony, but he encases her in like... amber.... and it's a whole THING and there's time traveling and none of it is relevant to our purposes in discussing the timeline, but is really fun to play, and at the time of this writing just got a rerelease on Switch. The important part for our purposes is that Ghirahim does get her, through what many people believe is cutscene bullshit, but that is neither here nor there, but he does get her and is going to ressurect Demise, and every time you stop him he has a new plan, and it's a whole thing, but he does eventually do it- threw me off because he used time travel to do it the second time and life is complicated enough without all this time travel bullshit so I forgot that was a thing. But anyway, he ressurects Demise.
Then we find out he was actually a sword spirit the whole time and it's a whole other thing, but again, not important for the timeline. It is a little important for the story because it brings about the idea of sword spirits as a concept, and a very important one is introduced in this game.
The Master Sword, also called The Blade of Evil's Bane is a hand and a half blade forged by the goddess Hylia herself of Master Ore. It is also the Sword Spirit Fi, who will not allow herself to be wielded by any but the pure of heart, and will only kill those with evil in their hearts. Because she can pick and choose like this, only sincerely, genuienly good people with no evil in their hearts can wield her. Much is made about this and this another sacred artifact that will keep coming up throughout the game. When not in use (often between games) it is usually returned to it's pedistal, where it awaits the next kind hearted person, who fights not for glory or revenge or anything except kindness and a desire to protect. This is usually the Legendary Hero, who we will get to later, but for now just know that this sword is important and it has this magical ability to not only tell good from evil, but also to only kill evil-hearted people, and can only be weilded by pure hearted people.
Fi herself and the master sword is an interesting topic that I could write an entire article on, but for our purposes for the timeline just keep it in the back of your mind that this exists and has the powers it does.
This is important, because though Demise is a god, he has a lot of evil in his heart. So he dies, once again, after everything Ghirahim went through, because you slay him with the Master Sword. As his body dies he curses you, saying that he will set in motion a cycle that will always be born anew, and he will seek revenge on both Hylia and her hero.
Ghirahim just literally teleports away at this point NEVER TO BE SEEN OR HEARD FROM IN THE TIMELINE AGAIN. He doesn't die, he's in his sword form and he teleports off. And we just never see him again. I guess he went and got some therapy or something and settled down to start a new life, because he's an immortal sword spirit and should be around as long as Fi (the Master Sword) but we just... never see him again after this battle. The series just kind of forgets about him like he wasn't the main antagonist of a whole game except for some appearances in some side games like Hyrule Warriors. I personally really like this character and feel like this is a major missed opportunity and hope that we see him back in a main series game someday.
Now that the war is over and Demise is dead for good, the humans descend from Skyloft onto the surface and begin colonizing it.
In the Official History of Hyrule, aptly named the Hyrule Historia, this time period is broken into two eras, but it gives no explination of how long an era is, so it's not particularly helpful.
The first of these eras was named by hyrulian Historians, "The Era of Chaos". During this time, the humans were running around the entire surface looking for members of the demon tribe and trying to wipe them out, and in the process meeting the other peoples who lived on the surface, and often having wars with them in their attempt to claim the entire surface under Hyrulian rule as outlined in the holy texts. It was, well, chaotic. But, it eventually ended with the humans conquering the surface and establishing the kingdom of Hyrule. During this time, it was discovered that many demons, such as sword spirts, could not be killed, and these were rounded up and trapped in a magical artifact, a chest. I want to make it clear that it is never stated that Ghirahim is among them. He literally just does not come up again in the rest of the series after he teleports away.
In terms of magical artifacts, however, it was notsomuch the chest, but, yet again, a sword. The Picori blade was given to the hero during the war, by Piccori who descended from the sky. It was placed into the chest, which sealed the chest and kept it closed, trapping the demons inside.
This is not stated in the game, but this alliance and the fact that the Picori came from the sky leads me to believe that they have some connection to humanity, given their similar backgrounds. By the time of the Minish Cap, however, the Picori also live on the surface, with the humans. But they also descended from the sky and have a home there. Travel is permitted through a special door only at certain times.
After the Era of Chaos came the "Era of Prosperity". The humans did well on the surface with their new resources, established the Kingdom of Hyrule, and lived life in peace and prosperity, just vibing basically, for at least 3 generations, but maybe more. The opening of Minish Cap, which marks the end of this era, simply uses the text, "Long long ago" to describe the events of the Era of Chaos. This lack of specific dates is consistant throuhout the series and is one of the reasons so many people have difficulty with the timeline. But the bullet point to take away seems to be that it lasted a long time and was an era of unmatched prosperity for the new kingdom.
But that would be boring, so it didn't stay that way forever.
A picori (minish is just another word for the same species, so I may use them interchangeably), named Vaati was a sorcer's apprentace who learned of a great magical power that the picori people bestowed upon the Hyrulian royal family called, "the light force". But he doesn't know that it was given to the royal family, he thinks that it was sealed inside the chest, because the Hyrulians have a festival every year, to celebrate the picori and their contributions to the war effort. At this festival a sword contest is held, and the winner is allowed to touch the piccori blade embedded in the chest, considered quite a high honor.
So Vaati and his master had been working on a powerful magical item, a hat that would grant one wish for the wearer. So Vaati decided that he wanted to get back the Picori power of The Light Force for himself, so he steals the hat and puts it on. He wished to become a mighty sourcerer, and uses his new magical powers to
1: Trap his master, Elzo, in a hat, both because then he can't stop him, whatwith being a hat, and because it is kinda funny.
2: Shape shift into a human so he can win the sword fighting contest and get to touch the Picori blade. I don't know if he actually uses the magic to win the contest or if he just sincerely is really good at swordsmanship, because that isn't really addressed, but he does win.
I would like to take this opportunity to request Elzo in Smash. Not even in his Minish form, just full on hat. Just a hat with a bird head hopping around.
Because, for real, this form that Vaati trapped Elzo in is not like, a normal hat, it's got a bird head. It's weird. Look at this thing.
Anyway, Vaati wins, and he gets to go touch the Piccori Blade, which he breaks, instantly. The chest flies open and all the demons come out- which is problem for everyone who is not those demons, but Vaati is more just mad that the light force wasn't in there.
Princess Zelda, being the princess of the kingdom he just destroyed with no shits given, who will have to deal with the new war he just started, is very pissed about this whole situation, so Vaati is all, "Look, I hear you, but like what if I just used my magical powers to turn you to stone though?" And then he does. And then he goes off to look for the light force somewhere else.
What an asshole. Just, overall. You have to love it. No redeeming qualities whatsoever, just pure kid's game asshole. No deep tragic background, just wants power and screws over everybody to get it. Also, he's creepy to ladies. Perfect villian. Not in Hyrule Warriors for reasons that have never been adequately explained. One of the most evil villians in the series, carried two games. But no, we gotta make sure we get Ravio in there. Fans want Vaati, we have been very clear on this.
Anyway, in the story, the King calls his guards and is all, "Y'all need to go find that sorcerer who let those demons out AND turned my kid to stone and tell him that I don't cotton to it. And find out what the 'light force' is that he was hollering about because whatever it is, it won't do nobody no good for him to have it."
Which, yeah, absoluely. This is the exact response one should have in this situation. Also, Vaati is a drama queen and not only signed up for the contest with his real name but also just announced it and everything he was doing as he did it. And he continues to be that dramatic and I love everything about him. That's why the king knows his name.
The guards are unsucessful, but lucky for them the apprentace blacksmith by pure luck (or, as we can assume, divine intervention, because we, the audience, know this boy to be the Legendary Hero, the Juror of Courage, descended from the Hero's Bloodline, because chronologically we already played Zelda 3 and know that is a thing. This is another thing that trips people up, the chronological release order and the actual order of the timeline have NOTHING to do with each other.) stumbles upon a talking hat, who tells him the entire story. Because it's Elzo, just hopping around screaming this story to passeryby or like, maybe just the universe, in exasperation.
Link, being a brave courageous soul, decides to help him defeat Vaati, and Elzo lets him, despite him being like 10. No one questions this. Any game with kid Link they just let children do buckwild shit and we're all just cool with it, so don't think about how weird this is or it's gonna hold you back the whole time.
This is, once again, a really fun game to play, and I highly reccomend it, but for our purposes most of the actual gameplay middle part is not important, just know that Link and Elzo do get together and head back to the castle.
The king has learned that they can reforge the piccori blade, so at least there's that. And that if they can use elementals in this light forging process, it can also show them where that light force Vaati was afer is so they can protect it from him, and maybe use it to unstone Zelda.
This is a goddamn ordeal that your hat volunteers you for.
But you do it. And it's a lot. And you're 10. And your hat, being an old man, is just telling long rambling old man stories every time you see a new thing. This is a great experience and I reccomend it, but Elzo is basically Abe Simpson and I think you can tell that by looking at him.
You: I found an elemental
I, personally, love rambiling old man stories so this is pretty cool. But you do get that done and head back, and the king is all happy, but the sword shows that the light force is actually INSIDE princess Zelda.
PLOT TWIST AND MAJOR SPOILER: It was never the king. It was Vaati the whole time! He used his shapeshifting magic to pretend to be the king so you would bring him the sword and show him the light force!
Thanks, Captain Recap, back to work.
Vaati has really mastered the art of knowing when to walk away, so he takes Zelda and locks himself up to drain the light force out of her, so you have to book it to him. But, Zelda manages to get that magic cap- remember that, the wish granting cap that Vaati used to get his power? She got that. And she used it to wish away all the damage that Vaati, who is lying on the ground half dead complaining about how he got SOME of the light force out of her before she got away so he should not have been defeated by a 10 year old and a hat, had done. And then destroys it.
Vaati, one again, is the king of running away, so he doesn't die at the end. He actually gets away. But unlike Ghirahim this is important because he doesn't just... let things go, like Ghirahim did.
Either Minish live a long time, or Vaati gained a long life through magic, because generations later, somebody starts kidnapping people. And it's Vaati. But everybody kind of forgot about him, so nobody thinks to look for him. But this is the whole game, he keeps kidnapping people and you eventually find out it's him. This is a fun game with a simplistic story called "Four Swords", but the story is not the main focus, it's primary focus is on cooperative gameplay, a very fun experience. But the story can be told fairly quickly. So it isn't that I don't like this game, there's just not a lot to it, for our purposes.
Another magic sword, called the Four Sword splits the users soul into 4 different bodies, allowing them to be in four places at once. Vaati acts like he doesn't know where this came from, so let me tell you this my friends: It's the same sword. It's the same damn sword. It's the Picorri blade. After you put those elemts in it, plus the wind one you got out of Vaati, that turned it into the four sword and gave it this power. So Vaati kind of did this to himself. Should have minded his buisness and none of this would have happened.
You then trap his soul in this sword. In a form of ultimate poetic justice.
Y'all might be wondering what happened to all those demons, because I gave no answer to that plot point. UNCLEAR. This game does not adderss it.
Y'all, he broke out of the sword.
It did LITERALLY nothing, he just gets right out. I mean, it takes a while, but he gets out.
Then he immediately goes and kidnapps Princess Zelda to draw her into a wedding and hopefully fuse their bloodlines, but like, he's gross and turns people to stone and she hates him. So if you think about that for more than 2 seconds it just got... really dark. And he is so, so creepy, too, it just adds to it.
But again, it's a rather simple story, you just have to go save Princess Zelda and trap Vaati in the sword again, and that is it, that's 4 Swords. Most of the game is just traveling to get to him through very unsafe terrain with traps, his minions, and the like.
Really fun, just doesn't do much. He starts a sword and he ends a sword and it's like none of it ever happened. That's because in this game, the real story is the friends we made along the way, as the player. With the 3 other people playing.