|PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN CREEDS|
Their Origin and Meaning
|The Edward Carpenter Archive|
by Simon Dawson
The Vernal Equinox has all over the ancient world, and from the earliest times, been a period of rejoicing and of festivals in honor of the Sungod. It is needless to labor a point which is so well known. Everyone understands and appreciates the joy of finding that the long darkness is giving way, that the Sun is growing in strength, and that the days are winning a victory over the nights. The birds and flowers reappear, and the promise of Spring is in the air. But it may be worth while to give an elementary explanation of the astronomical meaning of this period, because this is not always understood, and yet it is very important in its bearing on the rites and creeds of the early religions. The priests who were, as I have said, the early students and inquirers, had worked out this astronomical side, and in that way were able to fix dates and to frame for the benefit of the populace myths and legends, which were in a certain sense explanations of the order of Nature, and a kind of "popular science."
The Equator, as everyone knows, is an imaginary line or circle girdling the Earth half-way between the North and South poles. If you imagine a transparent Earth with a light at its very centre, and also imagine the shadow of this equatorial line to be thrown on the vast concave of the Sky, this shadow would in astronomical parlance coincide with the Equator of the Sky - forming an imaginary circle half-way between the North and South celestial poles.
|In the above illustration the signs of the Zodiac are represented by a belt which must be imagined at a practically infinite distance among the stars. The Sun is in the centre, and the dotted circle indicates the Earth's orbit - the numerals I, 2, 3, etc., standing for the places of the Earth in the corresponding months of the year. Thus in January. to the observer at (I) the sun would appear to be in Aquarius; in February he would appear in Pisces; in March in Aries; and so forth. The diagram shows these relative positions fairly accurately as they were 3,000 years ago. Now, owing to "Precession," the place of the Spring Equinox has moved to the right, and is in Pisces, and not far from Aquarius.|
The Equator, then, may be pictured as cutting across the sky either by day or by night, and always at the same elevation - that is, as seen from any one place. But the Ecliptic (the other important great circle of the heavens) can only be thought of as a line traversing the constellations as they are seen at night. It is in fact the Sun's path among the fixed stars. For (really owing to the Earth's motion in its orbit) the Sun appears to move round the heavens once a year - travelling, always to the left, from constellation to constellation. The exact path of the sun is called the Ecliptic; and the band of sky on either side of the Ecliptic which may be supposed to include the said constellations is called the Zodiac. How then - it will of course be asked - seeing that the Sun and the Stars can never be seen together - were the Priests able to map out the path of the former among the latter? Into that question we need not go. Sufficient to say that they succeeded; and their success - even with the very primitive instruments they had - shows that their astronomical knowledge and acuteness of reasoning were of no mean order.
To return to our Vernal Equinox. Let us suppose that the Equator and Ecliptic of the sky, at the Spring season, are represented by two lines Eq. and Ecl. crossing each other at the point P. The Sun, represented by the small circle, is moving slowly and in its annual course along the Ecliptic to the left. When it reaches the point P (the dotted circle) it stands on the Equator of the sky, and then for a day or two, being neither North nor South, it shines on the two terrestrial hemispheres alike, and day and night are equal. Before that time, when the sun is low down in the heavens, night has the advantage, and the days are short; Afterwards, when the Sun has travelled more to the left, the days triumph over the nights. It will be seen then that this point P where the Sun's path crosses the Equator is a very critical point. It is the astronomical location of the triumph of the Sungod and of the arrival of Spring.
How was this location defined? Among what stars was the Sun moving at that critical moment? (For of course it was understood, or supposed, that the Sun was deeply influenced by the constellation through which it was, or appeared to be, moving.) It seems then that at the period when these questions were occupying men's minds - say about three thousand years ago - the point where the Ecliptic crossed the Equator was, as a matter of fact, in the region of the constellation Aries or the he-Lamb. The triumph of the Sungod was therefore, and quite naturally, ascribed to the influence of Aries. The Lamb became the symbol of the risen saviour, and of his passage from the underworld into the height of heaven. At first such an explanation sounds hazardous; but a thousand texts and references confirm it; and it is only by the accumulation of evidence in these cases that the student becomes convinced of a theory's correctness. It must also be remembered (what I have mentioned before) that these myths and legends were commonly adopted not only for one strict reason but because they represented in a general way the convergence of various symbols and inferences.
Let me enumerate a few points with regard to the Vernal Equinox. In the Bible the festival is called the Passover, and its supposed institution by Moses is related in Exodus, ch. xii. In every house a he-lamb was to be slain, and its blood to be sprinkled on the doorposts of the house. Then the Lord would pass over and not smite that house. The Hebrew word is pasach, to pass. (Footnote 1) The lamb slain was called the Paschal Lamb. But what was that lamb? Evidently not an earthly lamb - (though certainly the earthly lambs on the hillsides were just then ready to be killed and eaten) - but the heavenly Lamb, which was slain or sacrificed when the Lord "passed over" the equator and obliterated the constellation Aries. This was the Lamb of God which was slain each year, and "Slain since the foundation of the world." This period of the Passover (about the 25th March) was to be (Footnote 2) the beginning of a new year. The sacrifice of the Lamb, and its blood, were to be the promise of redemption. The door-frames of the houses - symbols of the entrance into a new life - were to be sprinkled with blood. (Footnote 3) Later, the imagery of the saving power of the blood of the Lamb became more popular, more highly colored. (See St. Paul's epistles, and the early Fathers.) And we have the expression "washed in the blood of the Lamb" adopted into the Christian Church.
In order fully to understand this extraordinary expression and its origin we must turn for a moment to the worship both of Mithra, the Persian Sungod, and of Attis the Syrian god, as throwing great light on the Christian cult and ceremonies. It must be remembered that in the early centuries of our era the Mithra-cult was spread over the whole Western world. It has left many monuments of itself here in Britain. At Rome the worship was extremely popular, and it may almost be said to have been a matter of chance whether Mithraism should overwhelm Christianity, or whether the younger religion by adopting many of the rites of the older one should establish itself (as it did) in the face of the latter.
Now we have already mentioned that in the Mithra cult the slaying of a Bull by the Sungod occupies the same sort of place as the slaying of the Lamb in the Christian cult. It took place at the Vernal Equinox and the blood of the Bull acquired in men's minds a magic virtue. Mithraism was a greatly older religion than Christianity; but its genesis was similar. In fact, owing to the Precession of the Equinoxes, the crossing-place of the Ecliptic and Equator was different at the time of the establishment of Mithra-worship from what it was in the Christian period; and the Sun instead of standing in the He-lamb, or Aries, at the Vernal Equinox stood, about two thousand years earlier (as indicated by the dotted line in the diagram), in this very constellation of the Bull. (Footnote 4) The bull therefore became the symbol of the triumphant God, and the sacrifice of the bull a holy mystery. (Nor must we overlook here the agricultural appropriateness of the bull as the emblem of Spring-plowings and of service to man.)
The sacrifice of the Bull became the image of redemption. In a certain well-known Mithra-sculpture or group, the Sungod is represented as plunging his dagger into a bull, while a scorpion, a serpent, and other animals are sucking the latter's blood. From one point of view this may be taken as symbolic of the Sun fertilizing the gross Earth by plunging his rays into it and so drawing forth its blood for the sustenance of all creatures; while from another more astronomical aspect it symbolizes the conquest of the Sun over winter in the moment of "passing over" the sign of the Bull, and the depletion of the generative power of the Bull by the Scorpion - which of course is the autumnal sign of the Zodiac and herald of winter. One such Mithraic group was found at Ostia, where there was a large subterranean Temple "to the invincible god Mithras."
In the worship of Attis there were (as I have already indicated) many points of resemblance to the Christian cult. On the 22nd March (the Vernal Equinox) a pinetree was cut in the woods and brought into the Temple of Cybele. It was treated almost as a divinity, was decked with violets, and the effigy of a young man tied to the stem (cf. the Crucifixion). The 24th was called the "Day of Blood"; the High Priest first drew blood from his own arms; and then the others gashed and slashed themselves, and spattered the altar and the sacred tree with blood; while novices made themselves eunuchs "for the kingdom of heaven's sake." The effigy was afterwards laid in a tomb. But when night fell, says Dr. Frazer, (Footnote 5) sorrow was turned to joy. A light was brought, and the tomb was found to be empty. The next day, the 25th, was the festival of the Resurrection; and ended in carnival and license (the Hilaria). Further, says Dr. Frazer, these mysteries "seem to have included a sacramental meal and a baptism of blood."
"In the baptism the devotee, crowned with gold and wreathed with fillets, descended into a pit, the mouth of which was covered with a wooden grating. A bull, adorned with garlands of flowers, its forehead glittering with gold leaf, was then driven on to the grating and there stabbed to death with a consecrated spear. Its hot reeking blood poured in torrents through the apertures, and was received with devout eagerness by the worshiper on every part of his person and garments, till he emerged from the pit, drenched, dripping, and scarlet from head to foot, to receive the homage, nay the adoration, of his fellows - as one who had been born again to eternal life and had washed away his sins in the blood of the bull." (Footnote 6)
And Frazer continuing says:
"That the bath of blood derived from slaughter of the bull (tauro-bolium) was believed to regenerate the devotee for eternity is proved by an inscription found at Rome, which records that a certain Sextilius Agesilaus Aedesius, who dedicated an altar to Attis and the mother of the gods (Cybele) was taurobolio criobolio que in aeternum renatus." (Footnote 7)
"In the procedure of the Taurobolia and Criobolia," says Mr. J. M. Robertson, (Footnote 8) "which grew very popular in the Roman world, we have the literal and original meaning of the phrase 'washed in the blood of the lamb'; the doctrine being that resurrection and eternal life were secured by drenching or sprinkling with the actual blood of a sacrificial bull or ram." For the populrity of the rite we may quote Franz Cumont, who says:- (Footnote 9)
"Cette douche sacree (taurobolium) pareit avoir ete administree en Cappadoce dans un grand nombre de sanctuaires, et en particulier dans ceux de Ma la grande divinite indigene, et dans ceux: de Anahita."
Whether Mr. Robertson is right in ascribing to the priests (as he appears to do) so materialistic a view of the potency of the actual blood is, I should say, doubtful. I do not myself see that there is any reason for supposing that the priests of Mithra or Attis regarded baptism by blood very differently from the way in which the Christian Church has generally regarded baptism by water - namely, as a symbol of some inner regeneration. There may certainly have been a little more of the magical view and a little less of the symbolic, in the older religions; but the difference was probably on the whole more one of degree than of essential disparity. But however that may be, we cannot but be struck by the extraordinary analogy between the tombstone inscriptions of that period "born again into eternity by the blood of the Bull or the Ram," and the corresponding texts in our graveyards to-day. F. Cumont in his elaborate work, Textes et Monuments relatifs aux Mysteres de Mithra (2 vols., Brussels, 1899) gives a great number of texts and epitaphs of the same character as that above-quoted, (Footnote 10) and they are well worth studying by those interested in the subject. Cumont, it may be noted (vol. i, p. 305), thinks that the story of Mithra and the slaying of the Bull must have originated among some pastoral people to whom the bull was the source of all life. The Bull in heaven - the symbol of the triumphant Sungod - and the earthly bull, sacrificed for the good of humanity were one and the same; the god, in fact, sacrificed himself or his representative. And Mithra was the hero who first won this conception of divinity for mankind - though of course it is in essence quite similar to the conception put forward by the Christian Church.
As illustrating the belief that the Baptism by Blood was accompanied by a real regeneration of the devotee, Frazer quotes an ancient writer (Footnote 11) who says that for some time after the ceremony the fiction of a new birth was kept up by dieting the devotee on milk, like a new-born babe. And it is interesting in that connection to find that even in the present day a diet of absolutely nothing but milk for six or eight weeks is by many doctors recommended as the only means of getting rid of deep-seated illnesses and enabling a patient's organism to make a completely new start in life.
"At Rome," he further says (p. 230), "the new birth and the remission of sins by the shedding of bull's blood appear to have been carried out above all at the sanctuary of the Phrygian Goddess (Cybele) on the Vatican Hill, at or near the spot where the great basilica of St. Peter's now stands; for many inscriptions relating to the rites were found when the church was being enlarged in 1608 or 1609. From the Vatican as a centre," he continues, "this barbarous system of superstition seems to have spread to other parts of the Roman empire. Inscriptions found in Gaul and Germany prove that provincial sanctuaries modelled their ritual on that of the Vatican."
It would appear then that at Rome in the quiet early days of the Christian Church, the rites and ceremonials of Mithra and Cybele, probably much intermingled and blended, were exceedingly popular. Both religions had been recognized by the Roman State, and the Christians, persecuted and despised as they were, found it hard to make any headway against them - the more so perhaps because the Christian doctrines appeared in many respects to be merely faint replicas and copies of the older creeds. Robertson maintains (Footnote 12) that a he-lamb was sacrificed in the Mithraic mysteries, and he quotes Porphyry as saying (Footnote 13) that "a place near the equinoctial circle was assigned to Mithra as an appropriate seat; and on this account he bears the sword of the Ram [Aries] which is a sign of Mars [Ares]." Similarly among the early Christians, it is said, a ram or lamb was sacrificed in the Paschal mystery.
Many people think that the association of the Lamb-god with the Cross arose from the fact that the constellation Aries at that time was on the heavenly cross (the crossways of the Ecliptic and Equator - see diagram, ch. iii supra), and in the very place through which the Sungod had to pass just before his final triumph. And it is curious to find that Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho (Footnote 14) (a Jew) alludes to an old Jewish practice of roasting a Lamb on spits arranged in the form of a Cross. "The lamb," he says, meaning apparently the Paschal lamb, "is roasted and dressed up in the form of a cross. For one spit is transfixed right through the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs [forelegs] of the lamb."
To-day in Morocco at the festival of Eid-el-Kebir, corresponding to the Christian Easter, the Mohammedans sacrifice a young ram and hurry it still bleeding to the precincts of the Mosque, while at the same time every household slays a lamb, as in the Biblical institution, for its family feast.
But it will perhaps be said, "You are going too fast and proving too much. In the anxiety to show that the Lamb-god and the sacrifice of the Lamb were honored by the devotees of Mithra and Cybele in the Rome of the Christian era, you are forgetting that the sacrifice of the Bull and the baptism in bull's blood were the salient features of the Persian and Phrygian ceremonials, some centuries earlier. How can you reconcile the existence side by side of divinities belonging to such different periods, or ascribe them both to an astronomical origin?" The answer is simple enough. As I have explained before, the Precession of the Equinoxes caused the Sun, at its moment of triumph over the powers of darkness, to stand at one period in the constellation of the Bull, and at a period some two thousand years later in the constellation of the Ram. It was perfectly natural therefore that a change in the sacred symbols should, in the course of time, take place; yet perfectly natural also that these symbols, having once been consecrated and adopted, should continue to be honored and clung to long after the time of their astronomical appropriateness had passed, and so to be found side by side in later centuries. The devotee of Mithra or Attis on the Vatican Hill at Rome in the year 200 A.D. probably had as little notion or comprehension of the real origin of the sacred Bull or Ram which he adored, as the Christian in St. Peter's to-day has of the origin of the Lamb-god whose vicegerent on earth is the Pope.
It is indeed easy to imagine that the change from the worship of the Bull to the worship of the Lamb which undoubtedly took place among various peoples as time went on, was only a ritual change initiated by the priests in order to put on record and harmonize with the astronomical alteration. Anyhow it is curious that while Mithra in the early times was specially associated with the bull, his association with the lamb belonged more to the Roman period. Somewhat the same happened in the case of Attis. In the Bible we read of the indignation of Moses at the setting up by the Israelites of a Golden Calf, after the sacrifice of the ram-lamb had been instituted - as if indeed the rebellious people were returning to the earlier cult of Apis which they ought to have left behind them in Egypt. In Egypt itself, too, we find the worship of Apis, as time went on, yielding place to that of the Ram-headed god Amun, or Jupiter Ammon. (Footnote 15) So that both from the Bible and from Egyptian history we may conclude that the worship of the Lamb or Ram succeeded to the worship of the Bull.
Finally it has been pointed out, and there may be some real connection in the coincidence, that in the quite early years of Christianity the fish came in as an accepted symbol of Jesus Christ. Considering that after the domination of Taurus and Aries, the Fish (Pisces) comes next in succession as the Zodiacal sign for the Vernal Equinox, and is now the constellation in which the Sun stands at that period, it seems not impossible that the astronomical change has been the cause of the adoption of this new symbol.
Anyhow, and allowing for possible errors or exaggerations, it becomes clear that the travels of the Sun through the belt of constellations which forms the Zodiac must have had, from earliest times, a profound influence on the generation of religious myths and legends. To say that it was the only influence would certainly be a mistake. Other causes undoubtedly contributed. But it was a main and important influence. The origins of the Zodiac are obscure; we do not know with any certainty the reasons why the various names were given to its component sections, nor can we measure the exact antiquity of these names; but - pre-supposing the names of the signs as once given - it is not difficult to imagine the growth of legends connected with the Sun's course among them.
Of all the ancient divinities perhaps Hercules is the one whose role as a Sungod is most generally admitted. The helper of gods and men, a mighty Traveller, and invoked everywhere as the Saviour, his labors for the good of the world became ultimately defined and systematized as twelve and corresponding in number to the signs of the Zodiac. It is true that this systematization only took place at a late period, probably in Alexandria; also that the identification of some of the Labors with the actual signs as we have them at present is not always clear. But considering the wide prevalence of the Hercules myth over the ancient world and the very various astronomical systems it must have been connected with in its origin, this lack of exact correspondence is hardly to be wondered at.
The Labors of Hercules which chiefly interest us are:
The first of these is in line with the Mithraic conquest of the Bull; the Lion is of course one of the most prominent constellations of the Zodiac, and its conquest is obviously the work of a Saviour of mankind; while the last four labors connect themselves very naturally with the Solar conflict in winter against the powers of darkness. The Boar (4) we have seen already as the image of Typhon, the prince of darkness; the Hydra (3) was said to be the offspring of Typhon; the descent into Hades (6) - generally associated with Hercules' struggle with and victory over Death - links on to the descent of the Sun into the underworld, and its long and doubtful strife with the forces of winter; and the cleansing of the stables of Augeas (5) has the same signification. It appears in fact that the stables of Augeas was another name for the sign of Capricorn through which the Sun passes at the Winter solstice (Footnote 16) - the stable of course being an underground chamber - and the myth was that there, in this lowest tract and backwater of the Ecliptic all the malarious and evil influences of the sky were collected, and the Sungod came to wash them away (December was the height of the rainy season in Judaea) and cleanse the year towards its rebirth.
It should not be forgotten too that even as a child in the cradle Hercules slew two serpents sent for his destruction - the serpent and the scorpion as autumnal constellations figuring always as enemies of the Sungod - to which may be compared the power given to his disciples by Jesus (Footnote 17) "to tread on serpents and scorpions." Hercules also as a Sungod compares curiously with Samson (mentioned above, chapter ii), but we need not dwell on all the elaborate analogies that have been traced (Footnote 18) between these two heroes.
The Jesus-story, it will now be seen, has a great number of correspondences with the stories of former Sungods and with the actual career of the Sun through the heavens - so many indeed that they cannot well be attributed to mere coincidence or even to the blasphemous wiles of the Devil! Let us enumerate some of these. There are (1) the birth from a Virgin mother; (2) the birth in a stable (cave or underground chamber); and (3) on the 25th December (just after the winter solstice). There is (4) the Star in the East (Sirius) and (5) the arrival of the Magi (the "Three Kings"); there is (6) the threatened Massacre of the Innocents, and the consequent flight into a distant country (told also of Krishna and other Sungods). There are the Church festivals of (7) Candlemas (2nd February), with processions of candles to symbolize the growing light; of (8) Lent, or the arrival of Spring; of (9) Easter Day (normally on the 25th March) to celebrate the crossing of the Equator by the Sun; and (10) simultaneously the outburst of lights at the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. There is (11) the Crucifixion and death of the Lamb-God, on Good Friday, three days before Easter; there are (12) the nailing to a tree, (13) the empty grave, (14) the glad Resurrection (as in the cases of Osiris, Attis and others); there are (15) the twelve disciples (the Zodiacal signs); and (16) the betrayal by one of the twelve. Then later there is (17) Midsummer Day, the 24th June, dedicated to the Nativity of John the Baptist, and corresponding to Christmas Day; there are the festivals of (18) the Assumption of the Virgin (15th August) and of (19) the Nativity of the Virgin (8th September), corresponding to the movement of the god through Virgo; there is the conflict of Christ and his disciples with the autumnal asterisms, (20) the Serpent and the Scorpion; and finally there is the curious fact that the Church (21) dedicates the very day of the winter solstice (when any one may very naturally doubt the rebirth of the Sun) to St. Thomas, who doubted the truth of the Resurrection!
These are some of, and by no means all, the coincidences in question. But they are sufficient, I think, to prove - even allowing for possible margins of error - the truth of our general contention. To go into the parallelism of the careers of Krishna, the Indian Sungod, and Jesus would take too long; because indeed the correspondence is so extraordinarily close and elaborate. (Footnote 19) I propose, however, at the close of this chapter, to dwell now for a moment on the Christian festival of the Eucharist, partly on account of its connection with the derivation from the astronomical rites and Nature-celebrations already alluded to, and partly on account of the light which the festival generally, whether Christian or Pagan, throws on the origins of Religious Magic - a subject I shall have to deal with in the next chapter.
I have already (Chapter II) mentioned the Eucharistic rite held in commemoration of Mithra, and the indignant ascription of this by Justin Martyr to the wiles of the Devil. Justin Martyr clearly had no doubt about the resemblance of the Mithraic to the Christian ceremony. A Sacramental meal, as mentioned a few pages back, seems to have been held by the worshipers of Attis (Footnote 20) in commemoration of their god; and the 'mysteries' of the Pagan cults generally appear to have included rites - sometimes half-savage, sometimes more aesthetic - in which a dismembered animal was eaten, or bread and wine (the spirits of the Corn and the Vine) were consumed, as representing the body of the god whom his devotees desired to honor. But the best example of this practice is afforded by the rites of Dionysus, to which I will devote a few lines. Dionysus, like other Sun or Nature deities, was born of a Virgin (Semele or Demeter) untainted by any earthly husband; and born on the 25th. December. He was nurtured in a Cave, and even at that early age was identified with the Ram or Lamb, into whose form he was for the time being changed. At times also he was worshiped in the form of a Bull. (Footnote 21) He travelled far and wide; and brought the great gift of wine to mankind. (Footnote 22) He was called Liberator, and Saviour. His grave "was shown at Delphi in the inmost shrine of the temple of Apollo. Secret offerings were brought thither, while the women who were celebrating the feast woke up the new-born god. . . . Festivals of this kind in celebration of the extinction and resurrection of the deity were held (by women and girls only) amid the mountains at night, every third year, about the time of the shortest day. The rites, intended to express the excess of grief and joy at the death and reappearance of the god, were wild even to savagery, and the women who performed them were hence known by the expressive names of Bacchae, Maenads, and Thyiades. They wandered through woods and mountains, their flying locks crowned with ivy or snakes, brandishing wands and torches, to the hollow sounds of the drum, or the shrill notes of the flute, with wild dances and insane cries and jubilation. The victims of the sacrifice, oxen, goats, even fawns and roes from the forest were killed, torn to pieces, and eaten raw. This in imitation of the treatment of Dionysus by the Titans" (Footnote 23) - who it was supposed had torn the god in pieces when a child.
Dupuis, one of the earliest writers (at the beginning of last century) on this subject, says, describing the mystic rites of Dionysus (Footnote 24):
"The sacred doors of the Temple in which the initiation took place were opened only once a year, and no stranger might ever enter. Night lent to these august mysteries a veil which was forbidden to be drawn aside - for whoever it might be. (Footnote 25) It was the sole occasion for the representation of the passion of Bacchus [Dionysus] dead, descended into hell, and rearisen - in imitation of the representation of the sufferings of Osiris which, according to Herodotus, were commemorated at Sais in Egypt. It was in that place that the partition took place of the body of the god, (Footnote 26) which was then eaten - the ceremony, in fact, of which our Eucharist is only a reflection; whereas in the mysteries of Bacchus actual raw flesh was distributed, which each of those present had to consume in commemoration of the death of Bacchus dismembered by the Titans, and whose passion, in Chios and Tenedos, was renewed each year by the sacrifice of a man who represented the god. (Footnote 27) Possibly it is this last fact which made people believe that the Christians (whose hoc est corpus meum and sharing of an Eucharistic meal were no more than a shadow of a more ancient rite) did really sacrifice a child and devour its limbs."
That Eucharistic rites were very very ancient is plain from the Totem-sacraments of savages; and to this subject we shall now turn.
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