(Epic poem, anonymous, Sumerian/Mesopotamian/Akkadian, c. 20th - 10th Century , about 1,950 lines)
�The Epic of Gilgamesh� is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia and among the earliest known literary writings in the world. It originated as a series of Sumerian legends and poems in cuneiform script dating back to the early 3rd or late 2nd millenium , which were later gathered into a longer Akkadian poem (the most complete version existing today, preserved on 12 clay tablets, dates from the 12th to 10th Century ). It follows the story of Gilgamesh, the mythological hero-king of Uruk, and his half-wild friend, Enkidu, as they undertake a series of dangerous quests and adventures, and then Gilgamesh�s search for the secret of immortality after the death of his friend. It also includes the story of a great flood very similar to the story of Noah in "The Bible" and elsewhere.
The story begins with the introduction of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, two-thirds god and one-third human, blessed by the gods with strength, courage and beauty, and the strongest and greatest king who ever existed. The great city of Uruk is also praised for its glory and its strong brick walls.
However, the people of Uruk are not happy, and complain that Gilgamesh is too harsh and abuses his power by sleeping with their women. The goddess of creation, Aruru, creates a mighty wild-man named Enkidu, a rival in strength to Gilgamesh. He lives a natural life with the wild animals, but he soon starts bothering the shepherds and trappers of the area and jostles the animals at the watering hole. At the request of a trapper, Gilgamesh sends a temple prostitute, Shamhat, to seduce and tame Enkidu and, after six days and seven nights with the harlot, he is no longer just a wild beast who lives with animals. He soon learns the ways of men and is shunned by the animals he used to live with, and the harlot eventually persuades him to come to live in the city. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh has some strange dreams, which his mother, Ninsun, explains as an indication that a mighty friend will come to him.
The newly-civilized Enkidu leaves the wilderness with his consort for the city of Uruk, where he learns to help the local shepherds and trappers in their work. One day, when Gilgamesh himself comes to a wedding party to sleep with the bride, as is his custom, he finds his way blocked by the mighty Enkidu, who opposes Gilgamesh's ego, his treatment of women and the defamation of the sacred bonds of marriage. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fight each other and, after a mighty battle, Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu, but breaks off from the fight and spares his life. He also begins to heed what Enkidu has said, and to learn the virtues of mercy and humility, along with courage and nobility. Both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are transformed for the better through their new-found friendship and have many lessons to learn from each other. In time, they begin to see each other as brothers and become inseparable.
Years later, bored with the peaceful life in Uruk and wanting to make an everlasting name for himself, Gilgamesh proposes to travel to the sacred Cedar Forest to cut some great trees and kill the guardian, the demon Humbaba. Enkidu objects to the plan as the Cedar Forest is the sacred realm of the gods and not meant for mortals, but neither Enkidu not the council of elders of Uruk can convince Gilgamesh not to go. Gilgamesh�s mother also complains about the quest, but eventually gives in and asks the sun-god Shamash for his support. She also gives Enkidu some advice and adopts him as her second son.
On the way to the Cedar Forest, Gilgamesh has some bad dreams, but each time Enkidu manages to explain away the dreams as good omens, and he encourages and urges Gilgamesh on when he becomes afraid again on reaching the forest. Finally, the two heroes confront Humbaba, the demon-ogre guardian of the sacred trees, and a great battle commences. Gilgamesh offers the monster his own sisters as wives and concubines in order to distract it into giving away his seven layers of armour, and finally, with the help of the winds sent by the sun-god Shamash, Humbaba is defeated. The monster begs Gilgamesh for his life, and Gilgamesh at first pities the creature, despite Enkidu�s practical advice to kill the beast. Humbaba then curses them both, and Gilgamesh finally puts an end to it. The two heroes cut down a huge cedar tree, and Enkidu uses it to make a massive door for the gods, which he floats down the river.
Some time later, the goddess Ishtar (goddess of love and war, and daughter of the sky-god Anu) makes sexual advances to Gilgamesh, but he rejects her, because of her mistreatment of her previous lovers. The offended Ishtar insists that her father send the "Bull of Heaven" to avenge Gilgamesh�s rejection, threatening to raise the dead if he will not comply. The beast brings with it a great drought and plague of the land, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu, this time without divine help, slay the beast and offer its heart to Shamash, throwing the bull's hindquarters in the face of the outraged Ishtar.
The city of Uruk celebrates the great victory, but Enkidu has a bad dream in which the gods decide to punish Enkidu himself for the killing of the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba. He curses the door he made for the gods, and he curses the trapper he met, the harlot he loved and the very day that he became human. However, he regrets his curses when Shamash speaks from heaven and points out how unfair Enkidu is being. He also points out that Gilgamesh will become but a shadow of his former self if Enkidu were to die. Nevertheless, the curse takes hold and day after day Enkidu becomes more and more ill. As he dies, he describes his descent into the horrific dark Underworld (the "House of Dust"), where the dead wear feathers like birds and eat clay.
Gilgamesh is devasted by Enkidu�s death and offers gifts to the gods, in the hope that he might be allowed to walk beside Enkidu in the Underworld. He orders the people of Uruk, from the lowest farmer to the highest temple priests, to also mourn Enkidu, and orders statues of Enkidu to be built. Gilgamesh is so full of grief and sorrow over his friend that he refuses to leave Enkidu's side, or allow his corpse to be buried, until six days and seven nights after his death when maggots begin to fall from his body.
Gilgamesh is determined to avoid Enkidu's fate and decides to make the perilous journey to visit Utnapishtim and his wife, the only humans to have survived the Great Flood and who were granted immortality by the gods, in the hope of discovering the secret of everlasting life. The ageless Utnapishtim and his wife now reside in a beautiful country in another world, Dilmun, and Gilgamesh travels far to the east in search of them, crossing great rivers and oceans and mountain passes, and grappling and slaying monstrous mountain lions, bears and other beasts.
Eventually, he comes to the twin peaks of Mount Mashu at the end of the earth, from where the sun rises from the other world, the gate of which is guarded by two terrible scorpion-beings. They allow Gilgamesh to proceed when he convinces them of his divinity and his desperation, and he travels for twelve leagues through the dark tunnel where the sun travels every night. The world at the end of the tunnel is a bright wonderland, full of trees with leaves of jewels.
The first person Gilgamesh meets there is the wine-maker Siduri, who initially believes he is a murderer from his dishevelled appearance and attempts to dissuade him from his quest. But eventually she sends him to Urshanabi, the ferryman who must help him cross the sea to the island where Utnapishtim lives, navigating the Waters of Death, of which the slightest touch means instant death.
When he meets Urshanabi, though, he appears to be surrounded by a company of stone-giants, which Gilgamesh promptly kills, thinking them to be hostile. He tells the ferryman his story and asks for his help, but Urshanabi explains that he has just destroyed the sacred stones which allow the ferry boat to safely cross the Waters of Death. The only way they can now cross is if Gilgamesh cuts 120 trees and fashions them into punting poles, so that they can cross the waters by using a new pole each time and by using his garment as a sail.
Finally, they reach the island of Dilmun and, when Utnapishtim sees that there is someone else in the boat, he asks Gilgamesh who he is. Gilgamesh tells him his story and asks for help, but Utnapishtim reprimands him because he knows that fighting the fate of humans is futile and ruins the joy in life. Gilgamesh demands of Utnapishtim in what way their two situations differ and Utnapishtim tells him the story of how he survived the great flood.
Utnapishtim recounts how a great storm and flood was brought to the world by the god Enlil, who wanted to destroy all of mankind for the noise and confusion they brought to the world. But the god Ea forewarned Utnapishtim, advising him to build a ship in readiness and to load onto it his treasures, his family and the seeds of all living things. The rains came as promised and the whole world was covered with water, killing everything except Utnapishtim and his boat. The boat came to rest on the tip of the mountain of Nisir, where they waited for the waters to subside, releasing first a dove, then a swallow and then a raven to check for dry land. Utnapishtim then made sacrifices and libations to the gods and, although Enlil was angry that someone had survived his flood, Ea advised him to make his peace. So, Enlil blessed Utnapishtim and his wife and granted them everlasting life, and took them to live in the land of the gods on the island of Dilmun.
However, despite his reservations about why the gods should give him the same honour as himself, the hero of the flood, Utnapishtim does reluctantly decide to offer Gilgamesh a chance for immortality. First, though, he challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights, but Gilgamesh falls asleep almost before Utnapishtim finishes speaking. When he awakes after seven days of sleep, Utnapishtim ridicules his failure and sends him back to Uruk, along with the ferryman Urshanabi in exile.
As they leave, though, Utnapishtim's wife asks her husband to have mercy on Gilgamesh for his long journey, and so he tells Gilgamesh of a plant that grows at the very bottom of the ocean that will make him young again. Gilgamesh obtains the plant by binding stones to his feet to allow him to walk on the bottom of the sea. He plans to use the flower to rejuvenate the old men of the city of Uruk and then to use it himself. Unfortunately, he places the plant on the shore of a lake while he bathes, and it is stolen by a serpent, which loses its old skin and is thus reborn. Gilgamesh weeps at having failed at both opportunities to obtain immortality, and he disconsolately returns to the massive walls of his own city of Uruk.
In time, Gilgamesh too dies, and the people of Uruk mourn his passing, knowing that they will never see his like again.
The twelfth tablet is apparently unconnected with previous ones, and tells an alternative legend from earlier in the story, when Enkidu is still alive. Gilgamesh complains to Enkidu that he has lost some objects given to him by the goddess Ishtar when they fell in the Underworld. Enkidu offers to bring them back for him, and the delighted Gilgamesh tells Enkidu what he must, and must not, do in the Underworld in order to be sure of coming back.
When Enkidu sets off, however, he promptly forgets all this advice, and does everything he was told not to do, resulting in his being trapped in the Underworld. Gilgamesh prays to the gods to return his friend and, although Enlil and Suen do not even bother to reply, Ea and Shamash decide to help. Shamash cracks a hole in the earth and Enkidu jumps out of it (whether as a ghost or in reality is not clear). Gilgamesh questions Enkidu about what he has seen in the Underworld.
The earliest Sumerian versions of �The Epic of Gilgamesh� date from as early as the Third Dynasty of Ur (2150 - 2000 ), and are written in Sumerian cuneiform script, one of the earliest known forms of written expression. It relates ancient folklore, tales and myths and it is believed that there were many different smaller stories and myths that over time grew together into one complete work. The earliest Akkadian versions (Akkadian is a later, unrelated, Mesopotamian language, which also used the cuneiform writing system) are dated to the early 2nd millennium.
The so-called �standard� Akkadian version, consisting of twelve (damaged) tablets written by the Babylonian scribe Sin-liqe-unninni some time between 1300 and 1000 , was discovered in 1849 in the library of the 7th Century Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, in Nineveh, the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire (in modern-day Iraq). It is written in standard Babylonian, a dialect of Akkadian that was only used for literary purposes. The original title, based on the opening words, was �He Who Saw the Deep� (�Sha naqba imuru�) or, in the earlier Sumerian versions, �Surpassing All Other Kings� (�Shutur eli sharri�).
Fragments of other compositions of the Gilgamesh story have been found in other places in Mesopotamia and as far away as Syria and Turkey. Five shorter poems in the Sumerian language ("Gilgamesh and Huwawa", "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven", "Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish", "Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld" and "Death of Gilgamesh�), more than 1,000 years older than the Nineveh tablets, have also been discovered. The Akkadian standard edition is the basis of most modern translations, with the older Sumerian versions being used to supplement it and fill in the gaps or lacunae.
The twelfth tablet, which is often appended as a kind of sequel to the original eleven, was most probably added at a later date and seems to bear little relation to the well-crafted and finished eleven tablet epic. It is actually a near copy of an earlier tale, in which Gilgamesh sends Enkidu to retrieve some objects of his from the Underworld, but Enkidu dies and returns in the form of a spirit to relate the nature of the Underworld to Gilgamesh. Enkidu�s pessimistic description of the Underworld in this tablet is the oldest such description known.
Gilgamesh might actually have been a real ruler in the late Early Dynastic II period (c. 27th Century ), a contemporary of Agga, king of Kish. The discovery of artifacts, dating back to around 2600 , associated with Enmebaragesi of Kish (who is mentioned in the legends as the father of one of Gilgamesh's adversaries), has lent credibility to the historical existence of Gilgamesh. In Sumerian king lists, Gilgamesh is noted as the fifth king ruling after the flood.
According to some scholars, there are many parallel verses, as well as themes or episodes, which indicate a substantial influence of the �Epic of Gilgamesh� on the later Greek epic poem �The Odyssey�, ascribed to Homer. Some aspects of the "Gilgamesh" flood myth seem to be closely related to the story of Noah's ark in "The Bible" and the Qur�an, as well as similar stories in Greek, Hindu and other myths, down to the building of a boat to accommodate all life, its eventual coming to rest on the top of a mountain and the sending out of a dove to find dry land. It is also thought that the Alexander the Great myth in Islamic and Syrian cultures is influenced by the Gilgamesh story.
The �Epic of Gilgamesh� is essentially a secular narrative, and there no suggestion that it was ever recited as part of a religious ritual. It is divided into loosely connected episodes covering the most important events in the life of the hero, although there is no account of Gilgamesh�s miraculous birth or childhood legends.
The standard Akkadian version of the poem is written in loose rhythmic verse, with four beats to a line, while the older, Sumerian version has a shorter line, with two beats. It uses �stock epithets� (repeated common descriptive words applied to the main characters) in the same way as Homer does, although they are perhaps more sparingly used than in Homer. Also, as in many oral poetry traditions, there are word for word repetitions of (often fairly long) narrative and conversation sections, and of long and elaborate greeting formulae. A number of the usual devices of poetic embellishment are employed, including puns, deliberate ambiguity and irony, and the occasional effective use of similes.
Despite the antiquity of the work, we are shown, through the action, a very human concern with mortality, the search for knowledge and for an escape from the common lot of man. Much of the tragedy in the poem arises from the conflict between the desires of the divine part of Gilgamesh (from his goddess mother) and the destiny of the mortal man (his mortality conferred on him by his human father).
The wild man Enkidu was created by the gods both as a friend and companion for Gilgamesh, but also as a foil for him and as a focus for his excessive vigour and energy. Interestingly, Enkidu�s progression from wild animal to civilized city man represents a kind of biblical �Fall� in reverse, and an allegory of the stages by which man reaches civilization (from savagery to pastoralism to city life), suggesting that the early Babylonians may have been social evolutionists.
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Dreams of Gilgamesh In most ancient cultures dreams were signs from the gods. They were depictions of what was to come or what had already happened. The Babylonian culture believed this true for the dreams present in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The dreams Gilgamesh experiences on his journey to destroy Humbaba are interpreted by Enkidu as reassurance of Humbaba’s defeat; however, there are many other ways the dreams can be analyzed and applied to the epic. The dreams are not only the foreshadowing of the defeat of Humbaba, but also of Gilgamesh’s manifestation of fears and past and future events that occur in the epic.
The first and second dreams have strong correlations to each other. The first dream, “In a mountain valley…. The mountain fell down on top of…. Then we like…. ” (31), is very short and the mountain is the only distinct characteristic. Gilgamesh’s second dream, “In my dream, my friend, a mountain…. It threw me down, it held me by my feet…. The brightness grew more intense. A man appeared, The comeliest in the land, his beauty… from beneath the mountain he pulled me out and…. He gave me water to drink and my heart grew calm. On the ground he set my feet. (32), gives more insight to what Enkidu thinks is there upcoming battle. There are many more distinct characteristics that appear in the second dream. Enkidu reassures his friend that his dream is a good sign and that Humbaba is not the mountain that is being seen in the dream. He also states that the man that helps Gilgamesh up is Shamash. Enkidu’s dream interpretation of the upcoming battle with Humbaba is correct; however, there are many other ways the dream relates to the epic. The man in the dream could actually be Enkidu.
The arrival of Enkidu saves Gilgamesh from his chaotic ways. The people of Uruk pleaded to the gods for an equal of Gilgamesh to be created to stop his tyranny, “You, Aruru, created mankind now fashion what Anu has thought of! Let him be a match for the storm of his heart, let them vie with each other, so Uruk may be rested! (4)” Enkidu became the voice of reason that stopped Gilgamesh from bedding the brides of other men and keeping the soldiers out on constant battles. Enkidu is the representation of order throughout the epic; his arrival brings order to the chaos that is Gilgamesh.
The mountain would then be the gods; the gods falling upon Gilgamesh could be a representation of them creating Enkidu as Gilgamesh’s equal. The dream could have foreshadowed the Gilgamesh’s passage through the twin-peaked mountains to the underworld. Gilgamesh has to take the path of the Sun God to find out the secret of eternal life. This could be interpreted by the first and second dream. The mountain that fell upon him would then be him traveling to the underworld. Essentially, the mountain would not have fallen upon him in this interpretation; Gilgamesh would have gone under it.
Following the path of Sun God, the intense light would then be Gilgamesh exiting the underworld, “at twelve double-hours Gilgamesh came out in advance of the Sun. (74)”. The intense light could also be Gilgamesh following Shamash, the Sun God, on his journey to the underworld. The man that pulled Gilgamesh out could have been Shamash as he completed the path of the Sun God. Gilgamesh made it through the underworld to come out on the other side, which could be the part of the dream where his heart grew calm. The calming of the heart would be in reaction to overcoming Gilgamesh’s greatest fear, death.
The fight with the wild bull shinning in the sky, Taurus, could have also been foreshadowed by this dream. Ishtar sent down the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh after Gilgamesh denied her sexual advances and proposal. The mountain in the first and second dream could have been considered the Bull of Heaven. The brightness that grew more intense would then be Anu releasing the bull to his daughter Ishtar. The beautiful man that pulled Gilgamesh out would be Enkidu since he was the one who helped destroy the Bull of Heaven. When they defeated the Bull of Heaven they returned to the palace to drink and celebrate.
He gave me water to drink could be them celebrating yet another victory. Gilgamesh not only overcame the Bull of Heaven, but he also overcame Ishtar who had taken so many other men before. This could be why his heart grew calm because he knew he had overcome the death that Ishtar would have sealed in his future. The third dream, “Heaven cried aloud, while earth did rumble. The day grew still, darkness came forth, there was a flash of lightning, fire broke out. The flames flared up, death rained down… and the flashes of fire went out, where it had fallen into cinders. You were born in the wild, can we take counsel. 33)”, was interpreted as a good sign by Enkidu. He stated that his dreams are manifestations of his fear of the upcoming battle. He also states that he will destroy Humbaba by locking horns like a bull and with force and the man in the dream was the god Lugalbanda. The dreams continually get more important characteristics as the battle with Humbaba drew closer. The dream can be interpreted as Gilgamesh’s restlessness in his heart and desire to make a lasting name among the gods. Throughout the epic, all Gilgamesh wants is to make a name for himself. The battle with Humbaba is a way for him to do that.
However, with his culture being a shame culture, Gilgamesh could be completely shunned from the community if he fails to defeat Humbaba. The anxiety from not knowing if he will be able to accomplish this and the fear of being shamed could be derived from this dream. The constant battle and destruction in this dream could be interpreted as this fear and desire. These emotions drive his quest but they are constantly battling within him. They are the reason there is so much doubt in his strength and ability to conquer death. This dream could also be foreshadowing the fight with the Bull of Heaven.
Gilgamesh never physically locks horns with Humbaba. However, in the fight with Taurus, Gilgamesh locks horns with the bull to overpower and destroy him. Anu is hesitant to release the Bull of Heaven until Ishtar threatens to raise the dead and destroy humanity. The rage that Ishtar demonstrations could be analyzed from the first few lines of the dream; however, those lines could also be related to the death of the Bull of Heaven. The cinders in the dream could be the disappointment that Ishtar feels as the bull is destroyed and as she is mocked by Gilgamesh and Enkidu after the battle.
The fourth dream, “I saw a Thunderbird in the sky, up it rose like a cloud, soaring above us. It was a …. Its visage distorted, its mouth was fire, its breath was death. There was also a man, he was strange of form, he… and stood there in my dream. He bound its wings and took hold of my arm, … he cast it down before me, …. upon it. (35)”, is interpreted by Enkidu as another good sign. Enkidu says that the man in the dream is Shamash and that the dream is stating that they will bind Humbaba’s wings and destroy him. The dreams get more in depth as the battle gets closer. The details and ostility become more apparent as the dreams progress. This dream could be directly related to the death of Enkidu. The death of Enkidu sparked Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life through enforcing the fear of death within Gilgamesh. The thunderbird could be Shamash taking Enkidu on the journey to the underworld. The dream tells of the distorted visage and its breath was death which could be Enkidu dying; His once strong body becoming frail as death overtook him. The man in the dream could be Gilgamesh standing by his friend as he died or it could be Enlil waiting to take Enkidu as death approaches.
He bound its wings and took hold of my arm could indicate that as Enkidu started to die his strength that was a large part of him slowly started to deplete as the gods cast him down to the underworld. This dream relates to the epic as a whole because it relates to the manifestation of Gilgamesh’s constant fear of death. Gilgamesh embarks on his journey for eternal life after the death of Enkidu. The death of Enkidu is also when Gilgamesh’s fear of death becomes most apparent. However, his quests from before Enkidu’s death were to make a name for himself.
This could be considered an indication of fear of death because in a shame culture a person can only live on through fame. This happens through being an amazing warrior or creating something magnificent. Gilgamesh chose the route of a warrior. The thunderbird bounding Gilgamesh and casting him down could the internal battle with fear that is constantly eating at him. In the last dream, “I had taken me hold of a bull from the wild: as it clove the ground with its bellows, the clouds of dust it raised thrust deep in the sky, and I , in front of it, leaned myself forward. Taking hold of ….. nclosed my arms. ……. He extricated me ….. by force…. My cheek…, my…. , he gave me water to drink from his waterskin. (37)”, Enkidu again reassures Gilgamesh that the dream was a good sign of the battle that is about to take place. That Shamash is the wild bull that was seen in the dream and will help them in time of peril. Enkidu also says that the man who lets Gilgamesh drink from the waterskin is his god Lugalbanda. Enkidu believes that the dream means they will join forces and do something unique. Enkidu’s explanation for the dream could be true for the upcoming battle with Humbaba.
It is evident through Humbaba existence that no one had ever conquered the beast before. Therefore the two men and with the help of the god joined forces to do something unique. The dream could be relate to the test that Gilgamesh is put through by Uta-napishti for eternal life. The test is to stay awake for a week and Gilgamesh fails to do so. Uta-napishti tells Gilgamesh of coral that is located deep under the sea that has the power of rejuvenation. The dream correlates with this because taking hold of the bull from the wild could be Gilgamesh fighting his inner struggle to stay awake to be granted immortality.
When he fails this Uta-napishti bathes and dresses Gilgamesh for his ride back which could be related to the part of the dream from taking hold of to my cheek. After Gilgamesh fails the test he is filled with shame. Being bathed and dressed in better garments may be considered Uta-napishti trying to wash the shame away by force. The part of the dreaming “gave me a drink from the waterskin” could be Uta-napishti telling Gilgamesh of the rejuvenating coral. Even though Gilgamesh did not pass the test Uta-napishti still gives him this location.
Gilgamesh does not get to join him in immorality at this point but, he still gets a taste of what it could be like to have that power. Skeptics could argue that the dreams were placed in the epic in direct correlation with the battle of Humbaba. It could also be argued that many of the dreams have more interpretations than the ones discussed. The dreams could be interpreted in many different ways based on the individual. These interpretations were based off my thought process and how I related the dreams to the rest of the epic. The dreams present in the Epic of Gilgamesh have many meanings.
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The dreams foreshadowed future events while making a connection with past events. They were also manifestations of the human emotions that were constantly battling Gilgamesh throughout the whole epic. These dreams give light and better understanding to the epic. As Gilgamesh strives to make a name for himself amongst the gods, the emotions he experience drive his quest. These human emotions exhibited could be the linked to the belief that there is divine in all of us which is the belief in most cultures; every human has the power to become a god. Works Cited George, Andrew. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Baltimore: Penguin, 1999. Print.
Author: Brandon Johnson
Dreams of Gilgamesh
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