The Many Sacred Veils: Language, Text and Esotericism in Initiation

Abstract: In the following paper I intend to illustrate the inherent importance of Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ in the Western Esoteric Tradition. Plato’s Allegory has for centuries been read as representing the idea of a process in increased hermeneutical understanding; as a turn towards to the Sun, to the alchemical ‘unus mundus’, as it were – in other words, it represents a process of noetic understanding that leads us towards the attainment of ‘gnosis’. This concept of ‘gnosis’ is at the heart of true understanding in the esoteric mindset, and Plato’s allegorisation of it is crucial to its overall historical development. The following paper attempts to investigate this central idea by focusing on traditional concepts that surround epistemology, hermeneutics, and the literal, symbolic and metaphorical power of words. 

Introduction:

The significance of a word in translation is often the consequence of a considered and deliberate attempt to either metaphrase or paraphrase a given text. C.D.C Reeve writes in his preface to G.M.A Grube’s 1974 translation of Plato’s Republic, that ‘one and the same Greek word may have many different meanings and different Greek words may have the same meaning’. [1] An objective reader might suggest then, that any particular translation’s individual fidelity to the original (whether formal in its equivalence or dynamic) will inevitably be, to a greater or lesser extent, an act of interpretation.

Indeed, Reeve states as much – ‘every translation, even the most self-consciously and flatfootedly literal is an interpretation’. [2] Being then an interpretative act, surely there exists no such thing as a perfect translation in itself, but rather a transmission of sorts; a transmutation even of equivalence and meaning to a different temporal or cultural context. To what extent, therefore, is our knowledge of the meaning in a text, indeed the text itself, particularly a sacred text, dependent on such interpretative and inherently transmutational acts? Are we to assume the meaning lies rather more in the way we read a text, rather than the text itself? The truth in the method? Or as Wittgenstein said, ‘every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life? – In use it is alive. Is life breathed into it there? – Or is the use it’s life?’. [3]

Such questions were often characterised in traditional biblical hermeneutics by the principle of a ‘four-fold’ hermeneutic. Church Fathers such as St Thomas Aquinas (1225 -1274) and St Augustine of Hippo (354- 430) eulogised the scriptural meaning of Christian theology within the hermeneutical framework of a literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical interpretative structure. To them, these levels of interpretation represented a deepening of knowledge, a move towards a greater sense of unity and inner experience.

The medieval mind saw these levels as something that must be experienced simultaneously and in unison. Initially, it is the literal level we encounter first, that is the story or image at face value. This level is often described as void of spiritual understanding and somewhat superficial – the realm of the literalist or fundamentalist. As Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) states, ‘the sign has it’s being only in application…it must be foregrounded from the context… in order for its own being as an object to be superseded and for it to dissolve (disappear) into its meaning’. [4] It is beyond this initial level, therefore, when we move into the allegorical level, that the first stages of a properly spiritual understanding of a text are achieved. This might not necessarily bring us towards a deeper sense of gnosis, but it is the beginning of a broadening in our spiritual understanding. From here, if we have the capacity, we should read a text on the moral or Tropological level. Tropological means the turn inwards we take as our interaction with the text gains a greater sense of intimacy; we are changed and start to reflect on ourselves and the deeper meaning of the text in our lives. Finally, the select few might reach the hermeneutic and internalised glory of an anagogical or mystical union with the text, – a realisation of the Word, rather than it’s mere representation.

St Aquinas quotes the Neoplatonist Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite in his Summa Theologica (1265-1274) saying, ‘the divine rays cannot illuminate us unless they are wrapped in many sacred veils’. [5] These sacred veils provide us with a level of meaning that is in accordance with whatever level of capacity we have to understand it. ‘God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature’. [6] Such methodology, while indicative of principles first found in the work of the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus (410-485) and formulated in the works of the Origen of Alexandria (184/5-253/4) and Philo of Alexandria (20-50 CE), was also practised in both Jewish and Christian scriptural exegesis.

Hermeneutics in late antiquity: ‘The logos becomes flesh’.

Neoplatonic in origin, such notions regarding different levels of spiritual knowing (sense perceptive, rational and intellectual) might more accurately be described as representative of a more ancient and fundamentally Platonic, Hermetic and even Gnostic current emerging from the Hellenistic religiosity of Late Antiquity. Evidence suggests that during this period there existed a great ontological importance placed on the reader’s capacity for a hermeneutically obtained spiritual engagement in the attainment of symbolic knowledge.

Peter T. Struck in Birth of The Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts (2004) explains the importance of allegory (allos goria), symbol (σύμβολα) and metaphor (μεταϕοά) in the hermeneutical approaches of Late Antiquity and states ‘the allegorical approach shares conceptual tools with other well-attested fields of interpretive inquiry in the ancient world, including divination, magic, religious rite and certain traditions of esoteric philosophy’. [8]

‘More consistently in the allegorical commentaries, one sees a view of the individual poet (or some ur-mythmaker) in isolation, as a figure with some special insight into the underlying structures that govern the world, the hidden way of things. Allegorists are more likely to approach the poetic text not as a finished example of a craft but as a sui generis artefact. Where rhetorical critics see a polished handiwork, allegorical commentators tend to see a deep well of wisdom, which everywhere nearly vibrates with arcane observations on the structure of the world and the place of humans and gods within it. Allegorists see great poetic language as deeply figurative, with the potential always, even in the most mundane details, to be freighted with hidden messages’.[9]

All Platonic thought is concerned with these hidden harmonies and our capacity to engage with them. [10] The Platonic Allegory of the Cave clearly distinguishes the literal realm or veil of shadows and signs, with the intelligible, anagogical or mystical world of true meaning and knowledge. The allegories of the Sun, Line, and Cave presented in Plato’s Republic divide reality into the intelligible and sensible, that is, into distinct modes of ‘knowing’ that apply equally throughout all levels of Plato’s ancient microcosm-macrocosm ontology. This, I will show, is also indicative of the core traditions of esotericism emerging from the world of late antiquity – Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and Hermeticism. [11]

Esotericism in Late Antiquity:

Platonically speaking, if a text (which might equally be a sign, symbol, myth or image in the Neoplatonic tradition) is to be properly read, that is symbolically read and not taken at face value, a great emphasis is placed on a ‘turn’ inward for meaning – in looking for meaning in the world, we must look beyond it.

‘Ultimately, the world stage is a linguistic phenomenon’. [12] ‘Those who explain me shall have eternal life’. [13] But, by which method does one acquire this intuitive knowledge of this veiled cosmos? How does one break the chains and turn towards the Platonic Sun? Furthermore, what does this mean on a theosophical level if the text to be translated is the Book of Nature (physica sacra)?

Plotinus (205-270) tells us that ‘the world is full of signs’, that ‘the wise man is the man who sees in any one thing sees another’. [14] If hermeneutic wisdom penetrates all the microcosm-macrocosm and ‘the entire universe is a great theatre of mirrors, a set of hieroglyphs to decipher’, does this imply that Nature might also undergo the same kind of dynamic transmutation if ‘read’ or translated in the same way? [15] Will we, like the alchemists perhaps, also undergo this soteriological transmutation from the nigredro, albedo, to the rubedo?

Out of the light came forth the Holy Word which entered into the watery substance… the fires was insubstantial piercing and active. The air, being light, followed the breath…The earth and water remained in their own place mingled together…and they kept in motion by the breath of the Word. [16]

The etymology of ‘esotericism’ clarifies the second meaning of the word by suggesting that one has access to comprehension of symbol, of myth, of reality, only through a personal struggle for progressive elucidation on many successive levels, that is, through a form of hermeneutics. [17]

Fortunately, we have no interest in etymology here, but it is from this premise that we begin to investigate the influence of Plato’s allegory on the traditions that have in modern times been baptised ‘esoteric’, or in some circles – occult.

Antoine Faivre’s famous taxonomy of esotericism indicates that there exists a common hermeneutical interest in ideas of correspondence and equivalence, of transmutation and transmission or with the use of imagination in the meditation of concordances between any numbers of given texts in many of the theological, theosophical and hermeneutically philosophical traditions that represent the core components of the Western Esoteric traditions. [18]

Antoine Faivre’s Taxonomy 

Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism (1994) and Arthur Versluis, What is Esoteric? Methods in the Study of Western Esotericism (2002), are instrumental studies in the construction of the suitable methodological and historical framework from which to discuss these esoteric traditions.

Many critics draw particular attention to discussions of Faivre’s defining taxonomy and its value in the study of esotericism. I will focus mainly on his distinction of the three ‘traditional sciences’, or ‘rivers’ of western esotericism – alchemy, astrology, and magic.[19] I also follow him further in distinguishing the number of ‘streams’ which he states are representative of the core components of the esoteric currents themselves: Neoplatonism, Neo- Alexandrian Hermeticism, Gnosticism. [20]

I intend to illustrate the inherent developmental importance of Plato’s allegory within the context of these particular core esoteric traditions.  If I can show the Allegory of The Cave can be read as representing the idea of a process in increased hermeneutical understanding; as a turn towards to the Sun, to the unus mundus of the alchemist, to a noetic understanding, to gnosis, then this is a concept that to many scholars, including Arthur Versluis, is central to their understanding and definition of esotericism in the West and therefore will be presented here as evidence for its importance in development of esotericism as a tradition. [22]

Under the shadow of the wings of Minerva…

As the roots of Western esotericism lie in syncretic ruins of late antiquity, the basic phenomenological means or epistemological capacities a skilled late antique Hellenic reader might use to initiate themselves into this intuitive and visionary theosophical hermeneutics of unity can be explained by again turning to those ill-fated prisoners of Plato’s Cave. The prisoner’s initial understanding of the world would be regarded as representing the Greek term eiskāsia; that of being in an unenlightened state of understanding, concerned with mere appearance and shadows; essentially mirror images and mīmēsis (μίμησις), far removed from a faithful truth of the world and chained to a mere literal apprehension. Beyond this is the state known as pistis (πίστις) or doxa (δόξα); a common-sense belief in something or in the visible objects of every day and with them our moral speculations regarding, but with no knowledge of the reasons for such beliefs.[23] It is only after we transcend this state of understanding that we are able to leave the realm of mere opinion and move into the realm of knowledge. Our inquiring Greek might then, like Plato’s prisoner, become unfettered from his hermeneutical chains and achieve Dīanoia (διάνοια). A form of reasoning from a premise to a conclusion, this state of knowing is the bridge from opinion to knowledge, a knowledge informed by mathematics and empirical understanding; here we can start to understand that it is the fire that has cast the shadows on the walls of the cave. Although Dīanoia is still theoretical knowledge, it is still distinct from practical wisdom such as techné (τέχνη) or phronēsis (φρόνησις).[24] Our inquiring Greek might then move to the next step in his understanding and achieve a form of apprehension known as epistēmē (ἐπιστήμη). Representing a dialectical understanding of the world through philosophical conversation regarding the truthful account or logos (λόγος) of a Form or eidos (εἶδος) of any given subject, epistēmē as Plato and the our intrepid Greek would have understood, is a necessary preparatory state close to a true understanding of the reality of the world.[25] Finally, given time and insight he might achieve the height of understanding; noesis (νόησις), an anagogical understanding of the world, an intuitively rational understanding of the form of the Good (τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέαν).[26] The Neoplatonist Plotinus identifies the One with The Good, as did Plato. Plotinus posited an Absolute, Transcendental One or Good, defined in the Aristotelian phrase as ‘that to which all things aspire’ very similar to Plato’s theory of forms and the Platonic idea that all things must resolve in unity. As Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke states ‘Plato had clearly separated the higher world of Ideas from the lower world, but he provided for a soul which was capable of being reminded of the higher world through its sensory experience of things in this lower world’.[27]

This separation and subsequent unity are clearly borne out in Plato allegory. It is also indicative of ideas fundamental to the Neoplatonic tradition. As one of Faivre’s core ‘streams’ in the development of western esotericism, Neoplatonism is closely related to that other core ‘stream’ of esotericism; Hermetism, in that both advocate this breakdown of the subject-object relationship in a soteriological hermeneutical experience.

If one wishes to lead to become silver and silver gold, one must not separate knowledge (gnosis) from interior experience, or intellectual activity from active imagination. This illuminated knowledge, which promotes a second birth, a fundamental idea in modern Western esoteric currents, particularly theosophy, is often called ‘gnosis’. [28]

Neoplatonism is described by Goodrick-Clarke as bringing a ‘new direction to Platonic philosophy between the third and sixth century’.[29] Platonism has throughout its history been transmitted in various Neoplatonic guises. The Platonic tradition from Antiquity onwards is deeply syncretic and complex. Indeed, a large part of Platonic literature was even presented under the name of Aristotle as secret teachings of Plato.[30] This is no less so during the Renaissance. Thus being composed of Hermeticism, Christianity, Neoplatonism and Aristotelian ideas, this perpetuated the view of Plato in later esoteric traditions such as Rosicrucianism and German Naturphilosphie, as being that of prisca theologia or as an ancient theology. This theology was viewed as a great chain of initiates including Moses, Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Plato, and Orpheus and was venerated as such.[31] This, in turn, facilitates a related transmission of methods of hermeneutical interpretation and hence the allegorical aspects of Plato were considered as integumenta and involucre, meaning as Cees Leijenhorst explains ‘words that concealed a deeper, hidden meaning that had to be dug up by the philosopher’.[32] St Augustine, a Platonist, learned the philosophy of Porphyry and other Neoplatonism, no doubt influencing his idea on the interpretation of scripture and the medieval fourfold hermeneutic as well.

Neoplatonic philosophy understands existence as a spiritual activity that can be refined by a turn to the divine, again by an applied ontological hermeneutics towards the correspondences and sympathies that prevail in the living cosmos. As Faivre states ‘scripture…and Nature and necessarily in harmony, the knowledge of one further the knowledge of the other’.[33]

Through these hermeneutics, Neoplatonism is concerned with a plurality of levels or emanations that constitute different levels of being and a mystical ascent upwards. These emanations or levels may be traversed in the same way as the fourfold hermeneutic by the turn inwards, towards divinity, to an anagogical experience through our experience of what Faivre calls a Living Nature; part of course, of his defining taxonomy. Porphyry (234– 305), Plotinus’ assistant and another important Neoplatonist, insisted on the positive effects of theurgy in this process. Theurgy represents the direct hermeneutical application of these correspondences within nature to effect, of course, the practitioner and the whole Nature itself. Iamblichus (260 – 330) went much further than Porphyry in asserting the claims of theurgy as a means of mystical ascent. By exploiting the correspondences of the signs and text of the universe, again through the correct ontological hermeneutics might reach transcendence with the divinity. ‘Oracular inspiration was sought through the manipulation of symbolic objects and the use of occult linguistic formula’ to escape from the Cave. [34]

The breakdown of the subject-relationship and the soteriological transmutation of both the text or sign and the reader is an indicative idea in western esotericism as Faivre makes clear. Through the manipulation of the sympathies prevalent in the universe, we might bring transcendence to the soul and the world. ‘Unlike scientific or ‘Rational’ knowledge (which the Gnostic also uses), Gnosis is an integrating knowledge, a grasp of fundamental relations: among gods, Humanity and the Universe.’[35]

This is of course very similar to ideas expressed in The Corpus Hermeticum. ‘Immediately, the Word of God leap forth from the downward moving elements to the pure work of the Creator’[36] A work of many authors these 17 treatises written in Greek in the second and third centuries are the most famous texts of the Hermetic tradition. Goodricke Clarke informs us that ‘these treatises are variously addressed: Hermes to his son Tat (Thoth) Hermes to Asclepius and Poimadies (The divine pymander) addressed by the god Nous (supreme intellect) to Hermes’.[37]

The Hermetic philosophy calls on Mankind to apprehend god in equal terms. Through Man’s ability to ‘read’ the signs of the cosmos and properly interpret them, thus achieve Platonic unity; the representative of our visionary hermeneutic of western esotericism. ‘The Corpus Hermeticum strongly implied a partnership between the human spirit and God, and it attributed a divine intellect to humans, whereby they could reflect the whole universe in their minds’.[38]

Due to this Hermeticism manages to avoid the ontological dualism of that other core tradition in the development of the esoteric philosophies; Gnosticism. Where Hermeticism and Neoplatonism believe that Man can achieve the visionary hermeneutics required to read the signatures of the Divinity and unite the divide, Gnosticism is not so optimistic.

A significant current in the Christianity of late antiquity; as with Neoplatonism, Gnosticism placed the origin of everything in a primary Principe. ‘This first principle was a pure, perfect and supreme power and is eternal, infinite and absolute. This god is hidden, unknown and unknowable’.[39] Yet the Gnostic believes that this universe we inhabit is produced not this effable God but by an inferior being known as The Demiurge; identified with Jehovah of The Old Testament and the Demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus. Mankind is trapped by this Demiurge, only gnosis can return Mankind to the true divinity. The divine spark of gnosis enables the hermeneutical process to begin in Man and to aid him to ascend the multitude of spiritual plains. Yet still, the Gnostic rejects the world, they reject the literal, the sign, the symbol itself and reach for mystical union directly. They portray man and the world in a miserable state.

The gnostic negation of this world is essentially at odds with the esoteric principle of continuous correspondence between the macrocosm and microcosm and the fundamental goodness of God’s creation.’[40]

Conclusion:

It seems apparent that while the influence of Plato’s allegory shines through the core components of western esotericism – Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Neoplatonism are fundamentally concerned with this different varying levels of an increased hermeneutical knowledge. Through different initiatory and visionary hermeneutical approaches, the esoteric traditions teach us to turn inward towards an experience of transcendence and transmutation. Out of our knowledge of the sympathies and antipathies of the universe, particular ontological hermeneutics might help achieve a transcendental enlightenment that transforms not just the text but the reader and the entire world that surrounds them both. The universe is a ‘book’ to be ‘read; God is known by his signature. We can decipher the symbols which point towards God. Therefore as we emerge from Plato’s hermeneutical cave, we can traverse a multitude of metaphors and symbols that help illuminate the levels of knowledge available to the human soul.

Plato’s allegory begins by asking us to imagine a cave in which human beings have been imprisoned since childhood. Bound so as only to see ahead of themselves and unable to see a burning fire far above and behind, the prisoners are unaware that on higher ground above their heads there is a path where a small wall has been built from which puppeteers enact shadowy plays for them. The prisoners, ‘in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than shadows’.[41] If unfettered from their bonds, pained and dazzled, the prisoners are forced to confront the light outside, and as the Sun fills their eyes, they become unable to see the shadowy illusions they once thought true. ‘At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in the water, then the things themselves,’ states Plato’s Socrates.[42] Furthermore, ‘of these, he’s able to study the things in the sky…more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars…looking at the sun and the light of sun’.[43] In time the prisoners would be ‘able to see the sun, not images of it in the water or some alien place, but the Sun itself, in its own place, and be able to study it’.[44] As stated, this is a ‘place’ beyond the muddied alien reflections of Time and Space; a supra-physical place in which gnosis is attainable. Through the pioneering work of Antoine Faivre, we have seen that esoteric philosophies have at their core components this idea of a second birth, of emergence from the Platonic Cave of separation and unity through the apprehension of correspondences and their subsequent transmutational effect. We have seen that esotericism does not represent an intellectual or speculative knowledge but rather a hermeneutical understanding that offers an ontological rebirth to the subject. As in alchemy, through a spiritually hermetical engagement with the correspondences of the microcosm and macrocosm, a process of refinement and purification, illumination is experienced, a mystical anagogical unity that breaks down the subject-object relationship. From the outset, we have presented an epistemological analysis of various acts of historical and antiquated hermeneutical approaches that have helped shape the western esoteric traditions; if not defined them altogether. The importance of Plato’s allegory, which is itself here presented as a hermeneutical parable, is shown in the way that both Plato’s allegory and western esotericism are both equally as concerned with the same kind of hermeneutic questions.

 

Notes:

[1] Plato, Republic, trans. by G.M.A Grube, rev. by C.D.C. Reeve (Indiana: Hackett, 1992), p.vi.
[2] Plato, Republic, trans. by G.M.A Grube, rev. by C.D.C. Reeve, p.vi.
[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G. E. M Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953), para. 432.
[4] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 413
[5]St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I.10 <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/&gt; [accessed 02 June 2012] Dionysian philosophy maintains that God is ‘beyond being’, unknowable and ineffable, that God is ‘beyond negation and affirmation’. Dionysus describes God as ‘Cause’ in a Neoplatonic manner to avoid making God into another being besides his creatures. Dionysus employs Plato’s notion of the Good / God from a Christian perspective; whereas Plotinus presents an unknowable and ineffable God. Man is created in the image of God and he has the privilege to turn to God or towards the world. See The Works of Dionysus the Areopagite, Part 1. Divine Names, Mystic Theology, Letters & c., trans. by Rev. John Parker, M.A (Merrick, NY: Richwood Publishing, 1976), pp.32-72.
[6] Aquinas, I.10
[7] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans.by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 418.
[8] Peter T. Struck, Birth of The Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p.4.
[9] Struck, p.4.
[10] Maria Luisa Gatti, ‘Plotinus: The Platonic and the Foundation of Neoplatonism,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, ed. by Lloyd P. Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 10–38.
[11] Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 6.
[12] Faivre, p. 11.
[13] Ecclesiastes. 24:31
[14] Plotinus, Enneads. II.3.7 trans. Stephen MacKenna (London: Penguin, 1991), pp. 80-81.
[15] Faivre, p. 10.
[16] Clement Salaman, Dorine Van Oyen and William D. Warton, trans. by The Way of Hermes: The Corpus Hermeticum, including The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, trans. by Jean –Pierre Mahe (London: Duckworth, 1999), p.21.
[17] Faivre, p. 5.
[18] Faivre, pp. 10-15.
[19] Faivre, p. 5.
[20] Faivre, p. 6.
[21] Faivre, pp. 10-15.
[22] Arthur Versluis, ‘What is Esoteric? Methods in the Study of Western Esotericism’, Esoterica, IV (2002) <www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeIV/Methods.htm> [accessed 20 December 2011]
[23] Struck, p.5.
[24] Struck, p.4.
[25] Struck, pp.5-6.
[26] Struck, pp.5-6
[27] Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 38.
[28] Faivre, p. 13.
[29] Goodrick-Clarke, p.20.
[30] Cees Leijenhorst, ‘Neoplatonism II: Middle Ages’, in Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism, ed. Wouter J. Hanegraaff with Antoine Faivre, Roelof van den Broek and Jean-Pierre Brach (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005), p. 837.
[31] Goodrick-Clarke, p. 7.
[32] Leijenhorst, p. 836
[33] Faivre, p. 5.
[34] Goodrick-Clarke, p.24.
[35] Faivre, p. 19.
[36] Clement Salaman, Dorine Van Oyen and William D. Warton, trans. The Way of Hermes: The Corpus Hermeticum, including: Jean –Pierre Mahe’, trans. by The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, (London: Duckworth, 1999), p.21.
[37] Goodrick-Clarke, p.18.
[38] Goodrick-Clarke, p 18.
[39] Goodrick-Clarke, p.20.
[40] Goodrick-Clarke, p. 20.
[41] Plato, Republic, 515c.
[42] Plato, 516.
[43] Ibid., 516.
[44] Ibid., 516b.

 

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