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Isis and Madonna

A Lecture By
Rudolf Steiner
Berlin, April 29, 1909
GA 57

This is the first publication of this lecture by Mercury Press. It was previously available in typescript only. The translator is unknown. It appears in the German in Wie und wo Findet man den Geist?. Bibliogr. – No.57, published by the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland, 1961.

Copyright © 1987
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Goethe has repeatedly pointed out how a man who draws near the secrets of nature yearns for the worthiest exponent of her secrets, namely, for art. And all through life Goethe showed in his creations how art was to him the interpreter of truth. It may be said that in this conception Goethe lit on something that has been a basic conviction, a basic theme, throughout all ages and epochs of human evolution.

In the different arts more or less consciously we are presented with different languages that give expression to certain truths living in the human soul. They are often the most secret truths, the most secret knowledge, which cannot readily be reduced to rigid concepts nor clothed in abstract formula but seek artistic expression.

Today our attention is to be drawn to a secret truth of this kind which for centuries has endeavored to find expression in art; it is true this has always found its scientific formulation in certain narrow circles, but for a wider public it will only become a matter of popular knowledge in the future through spiritual science. Goethe himself was able in his soul to approach this truth from very many angles. In one of my lectures here on Goethe I pointed to the significant moment in his life that was an instance of this kind of experience. In the second of the lectures on Faust I told you how Goethe on reading the Roman writer Plutarch came across the remarkable story of Nikias, who wanted to make subject again to the Romans a certain town in Sicily belonging to the Carthaginians, and on that account was being pursued. In his flight he feigned insanity, and by his strange cry: “The Mothers, the Mothers are pursuing me!” it was recognized that this insanity was of no ordinary kind. For in that region there existed a so-called “Temple of the Mothers,” set up in connection with ancient Mysteries; hence it was known what was signified by the expression “the Mothers.” When Goethe was able to let the full significance of the expression “the Mothers” sink into his soul, he realized that if he wanted to reach the highest point of awe-inspiring beauty in one of the scenes in the second part of his Faust, he could not express this better than by sending Faust himself to the Mothers.

Now what does this journey to the Mothers signify for Faust? We have made brief mention of this in the lecture referred to. Mephistopheles himself cannot enter the realm where the Mothers are enthroned although he gives Faust the key. Mephistopheles is the spirit of materialism, the spirit contained in the forces and powers of man's material existence. To him the realm of the Mothers is the realm of nothingness. Faust, the spiritual human being, with his bent towards the spirit is able to answer: “In thy nothingness I hope to find the All.” Then follows the highly remarkable and significant description of the realm of the Mothers, and we are told how they weave and live in a sphere out of which the forms of the visible world are fashioned; how man, if he would penetrate to the Mothers, must rise above all that lives in space and time. Formation, transformation, this is the essence of their realm. They are mysterious Goddesses holding sway in a spiritual realm behind the reality of the senses. Faust must penetrate to them if he is to obtain knowledge of all that transcends the sensory and physical. Only by widening his soul to this realm of the Mothers can Faust worthily unite in Helen the eternal with the temporal. In that lecture on Faust it was possible to indicate that Goethe fully understood how in this realm of the Mothers one has to do with a sphere into which man is able to penetrate when he awakens slumbering spiritual forces in his soul. This is for him the great moment in which are revealed to him the spiritual beings and facts which are always around us, but which with the eyes of the senses we see as little as the blind man sees color and light. It is the moment when the spiritual eyes and ears are opened to a world lying behind the physical world. Entrance into this realm is portrayed by the journey to the Mothers.

In these lectures it was repeatedly indicated that when man practices certain inner exercises on his soul, certain minutely-prescribed methods for sinking deeply into the world of his conceptions, feelings and will, then his spiritual eyes and ears actually become open and new realms are unfolded around him. It was also shown that whoever enters this realm is confused by all the impressions that work upon him. Whereas in the physical world we perceive objects in sharp outline from which we take our bearings, in the spiritual world we have a confused feeling of inter-weaving, hovering form, just as Goethe describes it in the second part of Faust. But it is out of this realm of the Mothers that there is born all that is given to our senses, just as in the mountains metal is born out of the mother-ore. And because this mysterious realm, the Mother-realm of everything earthly and physical, the realm containing, so to say, the divine substance of all things — because this mysterious realm is resounding in Goethe, the expression “the Mothers” works with such fascination and awesome beauty. Thus, when he read in Plutarch that someone cried “The Mothers, the Mothers,” he recognized that this was not a mad vision into an insane and unreal world, but a vision into a world of spiritual reality. The Mother problem of the world stood before Goethe while he was reading Plutarch, and in the way he did with much else he inserted this Mother problem as a mystery into the second part of his Faust.

Now anyone wishing to enter this realm of the Mothers, the realm of the spiritual world, has had at all times to undertake, besides other exercises that may be found in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds, what has invariably been called preparatory purification, catharsis of the soul. He must so prepare himself that his soul, out of which the higher spiritual forces are to be derived is free of all urge and passion for the ordinary world of the senses. The soul must be purified from all those things which have sensuous attraction and provide food for the senses and which hold the understanding captive in the physical body. The soul must be free, then it can awaken within itself the spiritual eye and penetrate into the spiritual realm. The so-called purified soul, the soul that has passed through catharsis and is no longer turned towards the physical world of the senses, wherever knowledge of this mystery has existed has always been called the higher being of man, that inner being of which it has been said that it does not originate in anything the outer eyes can investigate, but in sources of a higher soul and spiritual nature; it has not an earthly but a heavenly home. It was thought that the ennobled, purified soul was connected with this true origin of man, for what has been spiritual science through the ages has never been able to speak of a purely material evolution, of a perfection or imperfection in accordance with the senses. Spiritual science does not condemn as erroneous what today is called evolution, the ascent from the lowest to the most perfect physical being wandering on the face of the earth, namely, physical man. As I have often emphasized, that is fully recognized. The scientific theory of evolution and descent is fully recognized by spiritual science, but at the same time it is pointed out that the whole being we call man is not included in this evolution, which evolution only applies to the external side of man's development.

Now when we trace man back through all the changes of time we find that the further we go back to ever more imperfect physical forms the more we meet with man's origin as a soul spiritual being. We have often gone back to an age of human evolution when the being we now call man had as yet no kind of physical existence and was securely sheltered within an existence of spirit and soul. Attention has repeatedly been drawn to how, in the sense of spiritual science we look upon the material form, man's physical body, as a densification of a being who was once only spirit and soul. This being of spirit and soul has been densified, as it were, to present-day man, as water is solidified into ice. This picture has often been made use of, when it is said: Let us imagine a quantity of water condensed to ice so that finally we are left with a certain amount of water together with the part that is changed into ice. Here we have an image of man's origin. In the man who was once just soul and spirit there existed as yet nothing of the physical, material bodily nature today perceptible to the eyes and tangible for the hands. Man becomes gradually ever more physical, until he comes to his present physical form. The age to which orthodox science can look back reveals indeed man in the physical form we see today. But spiritual science looks back into a primordial past when man was born out of the spiritual world and was still of a spirit and soul nature. When we contemplate the soul of man today we can say that the soul element in him is the last remnant, so to speak, of the spiritual and soul nature that once was his. We look at the inner nature of man, learning to know his spiritual and soul being, and come to realize that as he is in his inner being, so he was once long ago when he was born out of the womb of the spiritual world. This being of soul is sheathed from outside in the lower elements of the sense world, but he can be purified and cleansed, can raise himself to a perception free of the senses, thereby regaining the spirituality out of which he was born. This is the process of spiritual knowledge that passes through purification. Thus in spirit we gaze into man's being of soul, and speaking not merely in imagery but with reality say: Knowing this soul being in its truth, we perceive that the being is not of this world. In the background of this soul being we see a divine spiritual world out of which he was born.

Now let us try to turn what has been said into a physical picture. Let us ask ourselves: Do we not possess a physical picture of what has been described, where the spiritual world is represented by cloud formations out of which the spiritual is born in the form of angels' heads portraying the human soul? Have we not in the Virgin's figure in Raphael's Sistine Madonna a picture born out of the divine spiritual world?

Let us go on to ask: What becomes of a man whose soul has been cleansed and purified, who has ascended to higher knowledge and has unfolded in his soul those spiritual images that give life within him to the divine, living and weaving through the world? This human being who gives birth in man to the higher man, to a man who represents a little world in the great world, who out of his purified soul brings forth the true higher man — what is he? He cannot be otherwise described than by the word clairvoyant. If we try to make a picture of the soul that gives birth to the higher man out of himself, out of the spiritual universe, we need only call to mind the picture of the Sistine Madonna, the Madonna with the wonderful Child in her arms.

Thus in the Sistine Madonna we have a picture of the human soul born of the spiritual universe, and springing from this soul the highest that a human being can bring forth — man's own spiritual birth, what within him is a new begetting of cosmic creative activity.

Let us try to experience in our feeling what clairvoyant consciousness does. There was once a time when the structure of the world was founded on divine spirituality; for it would be senseless to seek in the world for spirit if this spirit had not originally built the world. All that surrounds us in the world has sprung from the spirit we seek in the soul. Thus the soul has sprung from the divine Father-spirit living and weaving throughout the universe, bearing the Son of wisdom Who is like unto this Father-spirit, of Whom He is a repetition.

We understand now the way in which Goethe approached this problem in all its mystical significance when he tried to gather the whole content of Faust together in the “Chorus Mysticus”, where he speaks of the human soul as the “eternal feminine” that draws us onward to the universal spirit of the world. This was Goethe's attitude to his Madonna problem at the very end of Faust. From the figure which the portrayal of the Madonna has assumed, even today it is hardly possible to recognize fully what is here expressed as in a picture which is nevertheless founded on profound truth. If, however, we trace this Madonna problem back to its origin, we shall realize that in very truth the mightiest human problem, though closely veiled, confronts us in the figure of the Madonna. These Madonnas are, it is true, greatly changed from the simple figure of the catacombs in the first Christian centuries, where we find Madonnas with the Child groping for the mother's breast. From this first simple figure, having little to do with art, it is a long way to the fifteenth century, to Michaelangelo and Raphael, where after many transformations the Child and the Madonna have become in the modern sense much more in accordance with art — in accordance with the art of painting. It is, however, as if these supreme artists proceeded from no very full knowledge but a definite feeling of the deeper truth of the Madonna problem. Very beautiful experiences arise in us when we stand before the so-called Pieta of Michaelangelo in St. Peter's in Rome, where the Madonna is sitting with the corpse across her knees — thus the Madonna is at the age when Christ had already passed through death but is portrayed with all the beauty of youth. In Michaelangelo's day it was a much discussed question why at her age he had given the Madonna this youthful beauty. When asked about it he replied how it was well known that virgins long preserve the freshness of youth — and this is no mere belief but spiritually derived knowledge. Thus why should he not be right in representing the Mother of God at this age still with all the freshness of youth? It is a remarkable conception here expressed by Michaelangelo! Although it is not openly expressed by Raphael, nevertheless we feel it to be there in his pictures. We can, however, understand this conception only by going far back into the times when what meets us in the Madonnas as unconscious art was still outwardly living. We might go very far back, and actually we should find the Madonna problem all over the world. We might go to old India and there find the Goddess with the Krishna child at her breast; in a Chinese cult we might find similar pictures.

We will not, however, go back into these far-off regions, but keep the representations repeated so impressively in olden times and which is given us again with such beauty in the Madonna. We will turn to the representations of Isis with the child Horus. These representations which have grown entirely out of Egyptian wisdom may in a certain sense be the key for the correct understanding of the portrayal of the Madonna. Here, it is true, we must direct our attention to the nature of the wisdom that led to this remarkable figure of the Egyptian Goddess, fix our attention on what this wisdom, expressed in the Isis Osiris saga, means to us. For when we understand it aright, this saga leads us deep into the actual problem of humanity. Wherever we look in the religion of Egypt, the saga of Osiris is still what is most significant and full of content — this King who in primordial times ruled as if in a golden age among men, and married his sister, Isis, who brought happiness and blessing to mankind. He stood before the eyes of ancient Egypt as a human King of divine power and divine virtue; and he ruled until he was killed by Set, his evil brother. He was killed in a strange way. At a banquet the evil brother Set, in later times called Typhon, caused a chest to be made, and craftily induced Osiris to lie down in it, when the lid was quickly closed. The chest was then thrown into the water and swept away to the unknown. His sorrowing spouse Isis seeks everywhere for her husband, after long searching finally discovering him in Asia. She brings him back to Egypt where he is dismembered by his evil brother Set, his fragments being interred in many graves. Hence the great number of tombs of Osiris in Egypt. Osiris now becomes King of the Dead, as previously he was King of living men on earth. From that other world a ray pierces the head of Isis and she gives birth to Horus who becomes the ruler of this world.

According to the Egyptian legend Horus is the posthumous son of Osiris. Horus, who has come into existence as the result of impregnation from the world beyond, is ruler of the earthly world of the senses; Osiris is ruler of the realm of the dead. Whereas the soul while enclosed in a body is subject to the rulership of Horus, when it abandons the body — so the Egyptian Book of the Dead testifies it enters the realm of Osiris, itself becomes an Osiris. The Egyptian Book of the Dead describes in what a deeply impressive way the soul is arraigned before the tribunal in these words: “And thou, O Osiris, what hast thou done?” Thus the soul by passing through the gate of death itself becomes an Osiris.

According to the old Egyptians, then, we look towards two realms, the realm perceived by the senses, the realm of Horus, and the realm into which the soul enters after death where Osiris holds sway. But at the same time we know that according to the old Egyptian initiates, the initiate who had acquired the faculty of clairvoyance already in his lifetime entered the same region which otherwise can be entered only after death — that he could be united with Osiris. The initiate therefore himself became an Osiris. He tore himself from the physical, renounced all habits of the physical plane, all passions and desires, cleansed himself of the physical, became a purified soul and as such was united with Osiris.

Now what does this legend tell us? It is a childish idea to maintain that this legend is supposed to represent the yearly course of the sun round the earth. The learned ones of the earth in council have created the legend that Osiris is the sun, whose disappearance signifies his conquest by nature's wintry powers said to be Set, the evil brother Typhon. And in Isis we have the representation of the moon who seeks the sun in order to be irradiated by his light. Only those who spin theoretical myths about nature out of their own minds can make such statements. The truth is that this is the external, pictorial expression of a most profound truth.

What is this age when Osiris ruled over men? It was the time when men were still beings of soul and spirit dwelling in the world of soul and spirit among beings who also had their being in soul and spirit. When, therefore, the realm of Osiris is spoken of, it is not the physical realm that is meant, but a realm of the past in which man held sway as a being of soul and spirit. And the brother, the enemy of Osiris, is that being who enveloped man in a physical body, who densified part of this spirit and soul being into the physical body. Now we see how the once purely spiritual Osiris was laid in a chest. This chest is simply the human physical body. But because Osiris is a being who in accordance with his whole nature cannot descend so far as the physical world, who is meant to remain in the divine spiritual world, the laying in the chest, the human body, has for him the same meaning as death.

Here, then, is represented in a wider sense the passage from the realm of soul and spirit to the physical evolutionary epochs of humanity. Osiris could not enter this physical realm; he died to the external physical world and became King in the realm the soul enters on leaving the physical world of the senses, or on developing clairvoyant powers. Hence the initiate is in his soul united with Osiris.

What has remained to man from that realm of soul and spirit, to man who did not withdraw like Osiris from the physical sense world but entered into it? What has remained to him? It is his soul, his being of spirit and soul that will always draw him onwards to the original source of spirit and soul — to Osiris. This is the human soul dwelling within us, Isis, in a certain sense the eternal feminine who draws us onward to the realm out of which we are born.

Isis, when she is purified and has laid aside all that she has received from the physical, is impregnated from the spiritual world and gives birth to Horus, the higher man, who is to be victorious over the lower human being. Thus we see Isis as the representative of the human soul, as that in us which as the divine spiritual is born of the universal Father and has remained within us, seeking Osiris and only finding him through initiation or death. By conjuring this Osiris and Isis saga in a picture before our soul we are looking into the realm that lies behind the physical world of the senses, into a time when man was still among the Mothers, the primordial grounds of existence, when Isis was not yet enclosed in the physical body but still united in the golden age with her spouse Osiris.

Then there is revealed to us the most beautiful flower of mankind, the highest human ideal, which is born out of the human body impregnated by the eternal world-Spirit. Hence how could it be other than the most sublime ideal, the highest peak of humanity, the Christ Himself — for He is the ideal of what they represent — Who would naturally enter the realm of the Mothers. In Goethe's Faust we meet with three Mothers seated on golden tripods — three Mothers. The human soul has passed through its evolution during the ages when it was not as yet in a human body. What we today have as human conception and human birth appears to us only as final emblem and symbol of the earlier form of the same thing. In the physical Mother we see the ultimate physical form of a spiritual Mother who is behind her; and we see the impregnation of this spiritual Mother taking place not in the way happening on earth today but out of the cosmos itself, just as in higher knowledge our souls are fructified from out the cosmos. We look back to ever more spiritual forms of fructification and reproduction.

Therefore in the true sense of spiritual science we do not speak only of one Mother but of the Mothers, realizing that what we have today as the physical Mother is the last development of the soul-spiritual figure out of the spiritual realm. Crux Ansata There are in fact images of Isis representing not one Mother but Mothers, three Mothers. In front we have a figure, Isis with the Horus child at her breast, resembling the oldest representations of the Madonna. But behind this figure in certain Egyptian representations we have another figure, an Isis, bearing on her head the two familiar cow horns and the wings of the hawk, offering the “crux ansata” (see Figure left) to the child. We see that what is physical, human, in the foremost figure is here more spiritualized. Behind there is yet a third figure, bearing a lion's head and representing the third stage of the human soul. This is how these three Isis figures appear, one behind the other. It is an actual fact that our human soul bears in it three natures — a will nature, found in the inmost depths of the being, a feeling nature and a wisdom nature. These are the three soul Mothers; we meet them in the three figures of the Egyptian Isis.

That behind the physical Mother we have the superphysical Mother, the spiritual Mother, the Isis of spiritual antiquity, with the hawk's wings, the cowhorns, with the globe of the world between them on the head of Isis — this is profound symbolism. Those who understand something of the ancient so-called theory of numbers have always said — and this corresponds with a deep truth — that the sacred number three represents the divine masculine in the cosmos. This sacred number three is pictorially expressed by the globe of the world and two cowhorns which are, if you like, a kind of image of the Madonna's crescent, but actually represents the fruitful working of the forces of nature.

The globe represents the creative activity of the cosmos. I should have to speak for hours were I to give a picture of the masculine element in the world. Thus behind the physical Isis stands her representative the superphysical Isis, who is not impregnated by one of her own kind but by the divine masculine living and weaving throughout the world. The process of fructification is still portrayed as being akin to the process of cognition. The consciousness that the process of cognition is a kind of fructification was still living in ancient times. You may read in the Bible: “Adam knew his wife and she brought forth ...” What today we receive as spiritual gives birth to the spiritual in the soul; it is something that represents a last remnant of the ancient mode of fructification. What comes to expression here shows us how today we are fructified by the spirit of the world receiving this spirit into the human soul as spirit of the world in order to acquire human knowledge, human feeling, human will.

This is what is represented in Isis. She is fructified by the divine male element, so that the head is fructified; and it is not material substance that is offered the child, as in the case of the physical Isis, but the “crux ansata” which is the sign of life. Whereas here from the physical Isis physical substance of life is offered, there is offered the spirit of life in its symbol. Behind the physical Mother of life there appears the spiritual Mother of life; behind her again the primal force of all life, represented with the life force, just as the will dwells behind everything in the still spiritual, far distant past. Here we have the three Mothers, and also the way in which out of the cosmos these three Mothers impart vitalizing force to the sun. Here we have what is not an artistic expression, nevertheless a symbolic expression of a profound cosmic truth. What lasted throughout the Egyptian evolution as the Isis symbol was received in more recent times and transformed in accordance with the progress made by humanity as a result of the appearance of Christ Jesus on earth; for in Christ Jesus we have the great prototype of everything that the human soul is destined to bring forth out of itself. The human soul in its fructification out of the spirit of the world is given tangible form in the Madonna. In the Madonna we meet, as it were, with Isis reborn and in an appropriate way enhanced, transfigured.

What could be portrayed in pictures at the beginning of the lecture now comes before our souls as bound up with the evolution of humanity, streaming forth from hoary antiquity, artistically transfigured and given new form in the modern pictures presented throughout the world to the human souls thirsting for art. Here we see how in very truth art, as in Goethe's words, becomes the exponent of truth. We see how in reality when our gaze falls on the Madonna, when this gaze is permeated with deep feeling, the soul partakes in certain knowledge of the mighty riddle of the world. We realize that in such surrender our soul, seeking in itself for the eternal feminine, is yearning for the divine Father-Spirit born out of the cosmos, to Whom as the Sun we give birth in our own soul. What we are as man, and how as man we are related to the universe, this is what meets us in the pictures of the Madonna. That is why the pictures of the Madonna are such holy things, apart altogether from any religious stream, from any religious dogma. Hence we can feel it as something born out of the cosmos when the hazy masses of cloud form themselves into the heads of angels, and out of the whole the representative of the human soul comes into being. The Madonna also includes what can be born out of the human soul, the true higher man slumbering in every human being, all that is best in man, what as spirit flows and weaves through the world. Goethe too felt this when he gave final form to his Faust when he had led him on through the different stages up to higher knowledge and the higher life. This is why he makes Faust go to the Mothers and why the name “Mothers” sounds to Faust so awe-inspiring and so beautiful, instilling in him a feeling for the wisdom echoing down from ancient times. Thus Goethe felt that he must send Faust to the Mothers, that only there could Faust seek and find the eternal through which Euphorion can come into being. Because the human soul appeared to him to be represented by the Madonna Goethe gave expression to the riddle of the soul in the words of the Chorus Mysticus: “The eternal feminine draws us upwards.”

Whatever modern times may have to say, this is the reason why Raphael in his wonderful picture of the Madonna, succeeded so well in leading us back to the realms to which the old figures of Isis belong. From what is spiritual, from what can no longer be expressed in a human figure because it would be too material, from that Isis whose force can be represented symbolically only by the lion's head, we descend to the human Isis who transmits her force to Horus through physical substance. Raphael unconsciously expressed this in his Sistine Madonna. But spiritual science will lead man consciously back to the spiritual realm out of which he has descended. Two lectures that I shall be giving here will furnish examples of how man has descended out of spiritual heights and will ascend again to this higher existence. Both lectures (5/1/1909 not translated. 5/6/1909, see Anthroposophical Quarterly, IV, 3.), that of 1st May and that of 6th May, 1909, will show us in a strictly scientific sense how these Madonna pictures and representations of Isis are indeed dearly and definitely artistic exponents of the very deepest secrets of Nature and of the spirit, and how in reality they are just a transcription of Plato's sublime words: “Once man was a spiritual being; he descended to earth only because he was robbed of his spiritual wings, and was enveloped in a physical body. He will struggle out of this physical body again and re-ascend to the world of spirit and soul.” This was proclaimed by the philosopher Plato. Pictures of the Madonna proclaim the same, for in the most beautiful sense they are what Goethe wished to express in the words: “Art is the worthiest exponent of the recognized mysteries of the world.” Man need not fear that art will become abstract or wholly allegorical if it is once again compelled, I repeat compelled, to recognize the higher spiritual realities; nor need he fear that it will become stiff and lifeless when it finds itself unable to continue using outer, crude physical models.

Because man has forgotten the spiritual, art has become bound up with the outer senses. But when men find the way back to spiritual heights and spiritual knowledge, they will then realize that true reality lies in the spiritual world, and that those who perceive this reality will create livingly, without being slavishly bound to physical models. Goethe will be understood only when it is more widely recognized that art and wisdom go hand in hand, when art again becomes a representation of the spiritual. Science and art will then again be one; in their union they will become religion, for the spiritual will work in this form as divinity once again in the heart of man, and give birth to what Goethe called the true, genuine piety. “A man who has both science and art also has religion,” says Goethe. “If anyone does not possess these two then let him have religion.”

In truth, whoever has knowledge of the spiritual secrets of the world and knows what speaks through Isis and Madonna sees in them something of primeval life, something much more living than all it is possible to express in any slavish imitation of a physical human model. A man of this kind whose gaze penetrates as through a veil through the living quality these Madonnas portray, and beholds the spiritual behind it, can, free from all dogma and prejudice, again feel piety in complete spiritual freedom. He will unite in his soul science or wisdom with art and give new birth to genuine free religious feeling — to genuine piety.

 



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