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An artist’s conception of the shen creating illusions

Chinese mythology features numerous animal-spirits with magical powers.  One of the most bizarre is a shen—a giant clam/mollusk monster capable of creating illusory landscapes and cities.  Classical Chinese texts use the word “shen” to describe large bivalve mollusks such as oysters, clams, or mussels; and, indeed, such shells seem to have had an (unknown) magical usage in funerals and sacrifices.  Later texts emphasized the Shen as a mythical giant oyster/clam which was the source of huge magical pearls.  By the middle ages the shen had evolved into its current manifestation—an immense clam-like spirit creature which could blow bubbles from its tubes which gave the illusion of towering cities and fantastical fairylands.


The main character of the manga series “Naruto” fights a Shen (or at least I think that’s what is going on here)

I wish I could write more about the shen—where it came from, what it wants, and so forth, but there isn’t much information on the beast.  Some sources seem to suggest that it is affiliated with dragons (the protean universal mythological being of Chinese culture) or with nāgas—magical serpent people.  When gifted with magical powers of illusion these beings are imagined to hide themselves as big green clams (from which base they weave fairy-like illusions for unknown purposes).  Slightly more practical individuals have explained the illusory cities supposedly produced by the shen as the Fata Morgana, an optic illusion caused by thermal inversion which distorts ships, islands, and detritus at the edge of the offing into weird grotesque towers and blobs.  If anybody knows anything else about the mysterious shen I would love to hear it!

A distant boat distorted into a weird monolith by Fata Morgana

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