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Know Your Lore: The Sha

Anne Stickney

The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.
Have you had the dream again? A black goat with seven eyes that watches from the outside.
- The Puzzle Box of Yogg Saron
We did not bring them to this land, they were there all along. But we unleashed them from their prison, allowing them to run rampant over the verdant hills and fields of Pandaria. Our arrival on Pandaria's coast was nothing more than a catalyst that sparked a chain of disastrous events the likes of which Pandaria has never before seen ... at least, not in written history.

The Sha are a unique villain, the first in Azeroth's history that we alone are responsible for. We've dealt with the horrors of the Burning Legion, we've fought the armies of the Lich King, we've even brought down and vanquished the fallen Aspect Deathwing. But we've never before had to fight something that was spawned not from the evil of the universe, but the evil within ourselves.

Which makes the Sha utterly fascinating ... and their origins even more so.

Please note: The following post is chock-full of spoilers for Mists of Pandaria.

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The origin of the Sha

In the beginning, there was Azeroth. And as has been written and re-written over the course of history, the Titans created the world, then returned to find it infested with creatures known as Old Gods, malignant entities intent on sowing chaos and evil across the fragile planet. The Titans and the Old Gods engaged in a horrific war, which ended in the Old Gods' defeat and subsequent imprisonment. In the tales of old, it was stated that an Old God had perished, and felled a Titan along with it.

While we know nothing of the presumed dead Titan, it was erroneously assumed that C'thun was the felled Old God. But as it turns out, the Old God in question wasn't C'thun at all -- it was an entirely different Old God, one we've never heard of before. And the reason we never heard of it is because it disappeared, along with all history of its death, when Pandaria disappeared. The Old God's name was Y'Shaarj.

Y'Shaarj was a beast with seven heads, and according to Klaxxi legend, he consumed hope, and begat despair. He inhaled courage, and breathed fear. Lest you think this merely legend, the Klaxxi speak as well of the war with the Titans, and of Y'shaarj's defeat. It is said that his last, terrible breath haunted the land of Pandaria, leaving behind shadows of his former horrific glory. These shadows are the Sha.

We are not dealing with an Old God -- what we are dealing with are the remnants of an Old God. Its malignant spirit. And that spirit is one that can never be killed; after all, the Old God is dead. Instead, the residents of Pandaria have learned over the eons how to deal with the Sha and how to combat the damage it has left behind, damage that it now continues to wreak with our arrival.

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Properties of the Sha

Because of their origin, the Sha aren't really your typical Azeroth villain at all. They spawn from negative emotion and energy, and the only way to keep them from spawning is to keep oneself free of that negative emotion. There is a reason the pandaren are so good spirited, for the most part -- the Sha inadvertently taught them to be that way. You will rarely see a pandaren lose himself in fear or hatred because of this.

And because of their origin, the Sha can never really be killed. There will always be Sha to contend with. That's why the Shado-Pan have been around all this time. The order would not have continued over thousands of years if they weren't needed. There's no way to really get rid of the Sha, there's no magical artifact from the War of the Ancients that can be brought to the future to rid us of the menace once and for all. They can only be locked away, which they were ... until we showed up.

But because of their origin, the Sha are limited to Pandaria, for now. The seven heads of Y'Shaarj were killed on Pandaria, and when Pandaria separated from the rest of the world, it took the remnants of the Old God with it. While we don't need to worry about the Sha of Pandaria extracting their vengance on the rest of the world, they do have a message to be taught. And for those that thought the Titans didn't have a large presence on Pandaria -- well, you'd be slightly right. But only slightly.

Y'Shaarj and the Titans

Kaddrak: Accessing. Creators arrived to extirpate symbiotic infection. Assessment revealed that Old God infestation had grown malignant. Excising parasites would result in loss of host. - Tribunal of Ages

In Wrath of the Lich King, the Tribunal of Ages event revealed that the reason the Old Gods were imprisoned, rather than eliminated, was because they had integrated themselves with Azeroth so tightly that there was no way to destroy them without destroying the world itself. At the time, I had begun to assume that this was because the Curse of Flesh had warped Azeroth's creatures in such a way that destroying the Old Gods would irrevocably damage anyone affected by the curse -- namely, nearly everyone on Azeroth.

However, it seems the issue is far more complicated than that. The Titans discovered the Old Gods were worked too far into Azeroth, because they saw the effects of what happened when an Old God was killed. In other words, they witnessed what happened with Y'Shaarj. They saw his spirit sink into the world as a malignant presence that would never, ever go away. And when they witnessed this, they witnessed what it really means to kill an Old God.

The Old Gods cannot be killed, because even in death they remain. Y'Shaarj and the Sha are evidence of this effect. So which is worse -- is it having to deal with the outbreak of an Old God that can be put down and locked away at some point? Or is it being the impetus, the cause, the very catalyst for the Old God's will?

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Because the will of the Old Gods is reflected in the Sha. It is fear, it is hatred, it is violence, it is doubt. It is anything that can be used to sow chaos and havoc, and if the Old Gods cannot sow it themselves with their deep whispers from the core of the world, they can make sure that their will is carried out upon death. They can curse this world with ther last breath and make certain that the creatures of the world will continue carrying out their cause, even if unwittingly.

This is why we cannot kill the Old Gods -- because if we killed them all, we would be releasing their spirits unto the world. And every action or movement we made would do nothing but continue to fuel their spirits, in a never ending cycle of chaos. Rossi wrote a fascinating Know Your Lore in which he discussed Deathwing and speculated that Deathwing was using a gambit in which no matter how it ended, he would win -- otherwise known as a Xanatos gambit.

While that particular Know Your Lore was speculation, a Tinfoil Hat Theory at its finest, we can still look at the Old Gods and view the same thing in full effect. The Old Gods win. They have already won. Their influence is so tightly entwined with Azeroth that they cannot be killed. And in the event that they are killed, their influence grows all the greater. We are fighting a no-win game with the Old Gods, and the Sha are direct evidence of that.

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The Black Goat with Seven Eyes

A little under a year ago, I wrote a Tinfoil Hat post about Azeroth and its peculiar relation to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. In the post, I spoke about the Puzzle Box of Yogg Saron, and its peculiar whispers, suggesting that the whispers suggested the number of Old Gods. In particular was the whisper of a black goat with seven eyes. It seems the box may very well have been whispering of Y'Shaarj and his seven heads -- each representing a different sha.

And in the Lovecraft mythos, this works out eerily well. The Black Goat of the Woods in the Cthulhu mythos is also known as Shub-Niggurath, and described as an enormous cloudy mass which extrudes black tentacles and slime-dripping mouths. Sound familiar? It's also a vague kind of pagan fertility god, which is reflected in the full title The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young. In a way, this is appropriate -- the lesser Sha are the children of the greater, parasitic beasts that spawn and feed off the emotions of those around them.

The Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath are referred to as "horrifying, pitch-black monstrosities, seemingly made of ropy tentacles." It's further clarified that they look vaguely like monstrous trees, which doesn't match the Sha in description, but the gaping maw, the mass of tentacles protruding from their head -- this all matches the minor Sha fairly accurately. And when one thinks about it, the minor Sha are very much the "children" of the major Sha. They don't have the power of the major Sha, but they're just as deadly, particularly en masse.

But there's another aspect to the Puzzle Box of Yogg Saron that may fit in with the Pandarian mythos as well. One of the other whispers of the mad little box is "The fish know all the secrets. They know the cold. They know the dark." While they aren't exactly fish, the Jinyu are fish-like in appearance. And in the story of the last Emperor of Pandaria, Shaohao deliberately seeks the council of a jinyu Waterseeker, in order to part the waters of fate and time and see what was in store for Pandaria.

Do the jinyu know more than they are telling? That remains to be seen. But it's clear that they have the ability to see far, far more than what crops will be fruitful the following day. The jinyu are an enlightened version of the much more common murloc, presumably given the same treatment by the Well of Eternity that shaped the dark trolls into the night elves we know today.

The seven heads of Y'shaarj

But there's one major question that hasn't been asked just yet concerning the Sha. We have records of Shaohao's fight against the Sha that haunted Pandaria, but these records are fractured at best. And we have the records of the Klaxxi, which document the felling of Y'shaarj, his seven heads breathing their last, terrible breath and tainting Pandaria for good. So let's count the major Sha we've found in game.

There's the Sha of Anger in Kun-Lai, the Sha of Despair that haunts the temple of Chi-Ji. There's the Sha of Doubt that wreaked havoc in the Jade Forest, and the Sha of Violence in Shado-Pan Monastary. And then we have the Sha of Hatred in the Townlong Steppes, and of course the Sha of Fear that we will eventually see in the Terrace of Endless Spring, the Sha that haunted the Grand Empress of the mantid.

That would be six Sha. We're missing one. Where is it, and what does it represent? What negative emotion are we missing? The one that immediately springs to mind is guilt or shame -- something that we as Alliance and Horde are experiencing in small doses right now. But that doesn't seem to be enough to invoke a Sha, does it? I guess we'd really have to mess up huge for a Sha of Shame to show up. I mean, it'd probably take entire armies of Alliance and Horde ripping the continent apart in their haze of hatred and violence.

Oh wait, aren't those forces arriving in a future patch?

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The Sha are honestly one of the most fascinating villains in Azeroth. And while the identity of the seventh Sha is currently a mystery, there is little doubt that its face will be revealed at some point in the future. For now, it remains unseen. But the Sha represent a villain the likes of which we've never before encountered, and the implications of Pandaria's future, not to mention Azeroth's, are uneasy at best.

We cannot combat the Sha with unmitigated violence. Doing so will merely feed them more power, in the end. We cannot fight the Sha as we have fought the rest of Azeroth's villains, one by one. There is no magical solution to the Sha, no spell or item that we need but seek out and find. In the end, the solution to the Sha lies in ourselves, and our ability to come to terms with our faults, our ability to keep ourselves in balance.

Until we divine a way to do that, Pandaria will forever be haunted by the Sha. Not because of the pandaren, who have spent centuries upon centuries keeping them at bay -- because of us. Because despite our thirst for what is good in the world, we still have not been able to banish negativity from our souls ... and it remains to be seen whether we ever will.

The void sucks at your soul. It is content to feast slowly ...
- The Puzzle Box of Yogg Saron

For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:

While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.

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