Of the Phœnix.

THAT there is but one Phœnix in the World, which after many hundred years burneth it self, and from the ashes thereof ariseth up another, is a conceit not new or altogether popular, but of great Antiquity; not only delivered by humane Authors, but frequently expressed also by holy Writers: by Cyril, Epiphanius, and others, by Ambrose in his Hexameron, and Tertullian in his Poem De Judicio Domini; but more agreeably unto the present sense, in his excellent Tract, De Resurrectione carnis. Illum dico alitem orientis peculiarem, de singularitate famosum, de posteritate monstruosum; qui semetipsum libenter funerans renovat, natali fine decedens, atque succedens iterum Phœnix. Ubi jam nemo, iterum ipse; quia non jam, alius idem. The Scripture also seems to favour it, particularly that of Job 21. In the interpretation of Beda, Dicebam in nidulo meo moriar, & sicut Phœnix multiplicabo dies: and Psal. 31, δίκαιος ὣσπερ φοῖνιξ ἀνθήσει, vir justus ut Phœnix florebit, as Tertullian renders it, and so expounds it in his Book before alledged.[1]

All which notwithstanding, we cannot presume the existence of this Animal; nor dare we affirm there is any Phœnix in Nature. For, first there wants herein the definitive confirmator and test of things uncertain, that is, the sense of man. For though many Writers have much enlarged hereon, yet is there not any ocular describer, or such as presumeth to confirm it upon aspection. And therefore Herodotus that led the story unto the Greeks, plainly saith, he never attained the sight of any, but only in the picture.[2]

Again, Primitive Authors, and from whom the stream of relations is derivative, deliver themselves very dubiously; and either by a doubtful parenthesis, or a timerous conclusion overthrow the whole relation. Thus Herodotus in his Euterpe, delivering the story hereof, presently interposeth, ἐμοὶ μὲν οὐ πιστὰ λέγοντες, that is, which account seems to me improbable. Tacitus in his annals affordeth a larger story, how the Phœnix was first seen at Heliopolis in the reign of Sesostris, then in the reign of Amasis, after in the dayes of Ptolomy, the third of the Macedonian race; but at last thus determineth,[3] Sed Antiquitas obscura, & nonnulli falsum esse hunc Phœnicem, neque Arabum è terris credidere. Pliny makes yet a fairer story, that the Phœnix flew into Egypt in the Consulship of Quintus Plancius, that it was brought to Rome in the Censorship of Claudius, in the eight hundred year of the City, and testified also in their records; but after all concludeth, Sed quæ falsa nemo dubitabit, As we read it in the fair and ancient impression of Brixia; as Aldrovandus hath quoted it, and as it is found in the manuscript Copy, as Dalechampius hath also noted.[4]

Moreover, Such as have naturally discoursed hereon, have so diversly, contrarily, or contradictorily delivered themselves, that no affirmative from thence can reasonably be deduced. For most have positively denied it, and they which affirm and believe it, assign this name unto many, and mistake two or three in one. So hath that bird been taken for the Phœnix which liveth in Arabia, and buildeth its nest with Cinnamon; by Herodotus called Cinnamulgus, and by Aristotle, Cinnamomus; and as a fabulous conceit is censured by Scaliger.[5] Some have conceived that bird to be the Phœnix, which by a Persian name with the Greeks is called Rhyntace; but how they made this good we find occasion of doubt; whilest we read in the life of Artaxerxes, that this is a little bird brought often to their Tables, and herewith Parysatis cunningly poisoned the Queen.[6] The Manucodiata or Bird of Paradise, hath had the honour of this name, and their feathers brought from the Molucca's do pass for those of the Phœnix. Which though promoted by rarity with us, the Eastern Travellers will hardly admit; who know they are common in those parts, and the ordinary plume of Janizaries among the Turks. And lastly, the Bird Semenda hath found the same appellation, for so hath Scaliger observed and refuted; nor will the solitude of the Phœnix allow this denomination; for many there are of that species, and whose trifistulary bill and crany we have beheld our selves. Nor are men only at variance in regard of the Phœnix it self, but very disagreeing in the accidents ascribed thereto: for some affirm it liveth three hundred, some five, others six, some a thousand, others no less then fifteen hundred years; some say it liveth in Æthiopia, others in Arabia, some in Egypt, others in India, and some in Utopia; for such a one must that be which is described by Lactantius; that is, which neither was singed in the combustion of Phæton, or overwhelmed by the innundation of Deucalion.[7]

Lastly, Many Authors who have discoursed hereof, have so delivered themselves, and with such intentions, that we cannot from thence deduce a confirmation. For some have written Poetically, as Ovid, Mantuan, Lactantius, Claudian and others:[8] Some have written mystically, as Paracelsus in his Book De Azoth, or De ligno & linea vitæ; and as several Hermetical Philosophers, involving therein the secret of their Elixir, and enigmatically expressing the nature of their great work.[9] Some have written Rhetorically, and concessively, not controverting, but assuming the question, which taken as granted, advantaged the illation. So have holy men made use hereof so far as thereby to confirm the Resurrection; for discoursing with Heathens who granted the story of the Phœnix, they induced the Resurrection from principles of their own, and positions received among themselves. Others have spoken Emblematically and Hieroglyphically; and so did the Egyptians, unto whom the Phœnix was the Hieroglyphick of the Sun.[10] And this was probably the ground of the whole relation; succeeding Ages adding fabulous accounts, which laid together built up this singularity, which every Pen proclaimeth.

As for the Texts of Scripture, which seem to confirm the conceit, duly perpended, they add not thereunto. For whereas in that of Job,[11] according to the Septuagint or Greek Translation we find the work Phœnix, yet can it have no animal signification; for therein it is not expressed φοῖνιξ, but στέλεχος φοίνικος, the trunk of the Palm-tree, which is also called Phœnix; and therefore the construction will be very hard, if not applied unto some vegetable nature. Nor can we safely insist upon the Greek expression at all; for though the Vulgar translates it Palma, and some retain the word Phœnix, others do render it by a word of a different sense; for so hath Tremellius delivered it: Dicebam quod apud nidum meum expirabo, & sicut arena multiplicabo dies; so hath the Geneva and ours translated it, I said I shall die in my Nest, and shall multiply my days as the sand. As for that in the Book of Psalms,[12] Vir justus ut Phœnix florebit, as Epiphanius and Tertullian render it, it was only a mistake upon the Homonymy13 of the Greek word Phœnix,[14] which signifies also a Palm-tree. Which is a fallacy of equivocation, from a community in name inferring a common nature; and whereby we may as firmly conclude, that Diaphœnicon a purging Electuary hath some part of the Phœnix for its ingredient; which receiveth that name from Dates, or the fruit of the Palm-tree, from whence, as Pliny delivers, the Phœnix had its name.[15]

Nor do we only arraign the existence of this Animal, but many things are questionable which are ascribed thereto, especially its unity, long life, and generation. As for its unity or conceit there should be but one in nature, it seemeth not only repugnant unto Philosophy, but also holy Scripture; which plainly affirms, there went of every sort two at least into the Ark of Noah, according to the Text,16 Every Fowl after his kind, every bird of every sort, they went into the Ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein there is the breath of life, and they that went in, went in both male and female of all flesh. It infringeth the benediction of God concerning multiplication.17 God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth: And again,18 Bring forth with thee every living thing, that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth: which terms are not appliable unto the Phœnix, whereof there is but one in the world, and no more now living then at the first benediction. For the production of one, being the destruction of another, although they produce and generate, they encrease not; and must not be said to multiply, who do not transcend an unity.

As for longævity, that it liveth a thousand years or more; beside that from imperfect observations and rarity of appearance, no confirmation can be made; there may be probable a mistake in the compute. For the tradition being very ancient and probably Egyptian, the Greeks who dispersed the Fable, might summ up the account by their own numeration of years; whereas the conceit might have its original in times of shorter compute. For if we suppose our present calculation, the Phœnix now in nature will be the sixth from the Creation, but in the middle of its years; and if the Rabbins Prophecie succeed,19 shall conclude its days not in his own but the last and general flames, without all hope of Reviviction.

Concerning its generation, that without all conjunction it begets and reseminates it self, hereby we introduce a vegetable production in Animals, and unto sensible natures, transfer the propriety of Plants; that is, to multiply within themselves, according to the Law of the Creation,20 Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed is in it self. Which is indeed the natural way of Plants, who having no distinction of sex, and the power of the species contained in every individuum, beget and propagate themselves without commixtion; and therefore their fruits proceeding from simpler roots, are not so unlike, or distinguishable from each other, as are the off-springs of sensible creatures and prolifications descending from double originals. But Animal generation is accomplished by more, and the concurrence of two sexes is required to the constitution of one. And therefore such as have no distinction of sex, engender not at all, as Aristotle conceives of Eels,[21] and testaceous animals. And though Plant-animals[22] do multiply, they do it not by copulation, but in a way analogous unto Plants. So Hermaphrodites although they include the parts of both sexes, and may be sufficiently potent in either; yet unto a conception require a separated sex, and cannot impregnate themselves. And so also though Adam included all humane nature, or was (as some opinion) an Hermaphrodite,[23] yet had he no power to propagate himself; and therefore God said,[24] It is not good that man should be alone, let us make him an help meet for him; that is, an help unto generation; for as for any other help, it had been fitter to have made another man.

Now whereas some affirm that from one Phœnix there doth not immediately proceed another, but the first corrupteth into a worm,[25] which after becometh a Phœnix, it will not make probable this production. For hereby they confound the generation of perfect animals with imperfect, sanguineous with exanguineous,[26] vermiparous with oviparous, and erect Anomalies,27 disturbing the laws of Nature. Nor will this corruptive production be easily made out in most imperfect generations: for although we deny not that many animals are vermiparous, begetting themselves at a distance, and as it were at the second hand (as generally Insects, and more remarkably Butter-flies and Silk-worms) yet proceeds not this generation from a corruption of themselves, but rather a specifical and seminal diffusion, retaining still the Idea of themselves, though it act that part a while in other shapes. And this will also hold in generations equivocal, and such as are not begotten from Parents like themselves; so from Frogs corrupting, proceed not Frogs again; so if there be anatiferous[28] Trees, whose corruption breaks forth into Bernacles, yet if they corrupt, they generate into Maggots, which produce not them again. For this were a confusion of corruptive and seminal production, and a frustration of that seminal power committed to animals at the Creation. The problem might have been spared,[29] Why we love not our lice as well as our children? Noahs Ark had been needless, the graves of Animals would be the fruitful'st wombs; for death would not destroy, but empeople the world again.

Since therefore we have so slender grounds to confirm the existence of the Phœnix, since there is no ocular witness of it, since as we have declared, by Authors from whom the story is derived, it rather stands rejected; since they who have seriously discoursed hereof, have delivered themselves negatively, diversly, or contrarily; since many others cannot be drawn into Argument, as writing Poetically, Rhetorically, Enigmatically, Hieroglyphically; since holy Scripture alledged for it duly perpended, doth not advantage it; and lastly, since so strange a generation, unity and long life, hath neither experience nor reason to confirm it, how far to rely on this tradition, we refer unto consideration.

But surely they were not well-wishers unto parable Physick,[30] or remedies easily acquired, who derived medicines from the Phœnix; as some have done, and are justly condemned by Pliny:[31] Irridere est, vitæ remedia post millesimum annum redditura monstrare; It is a folly to find out remedies that are not recoverable under a thousand years; or propose the prolonging of life by that which the twentieth generation may never behold. More veniable is a dependance upon the Philosophers stone, potable gold, or any of those Arcana's whereby Paracelsus that died himself at forty seven, gloried that he could make other men immortal.[32] Which, although extreamly difficult, and tantum non infesible,[33] yet are they not impossible, nor do they (rightly understood) impose any violence on Nature. And therefore if strictly taken for the Phœnix, very strange is that which is delivered by Plutarch,34 That the brain is a pleasant bit, but that it causeth head-ach. Which notwithstanding the luxurious Emperour35 could never taste, though he had at his Table many a Phœnicopterus, yet had he not one Phœnix; for though he expected and attempted it, we read not in Lampridius that he performed it; and considering the unity thereof, it was a vain design, that is, to destroy any species, or mutilate the great accomplishment of six days. And although some conceive, and it may seem true, that there is in man a natural possibility to destroy the world in one generation, that is, by a general conspire to know no woman themselves, and disable all others also: yet will this never be effected. And therefore Cain after he had killed Abel, were there no other woman living, could not have also destroyed Eve: which although he had a natural power to effect, yet the execution thereof, the providence of God would have resisted; for that would have imposed another creation upon him, and to have animated a second Rib of Adam.


* [My or others' notes are in square brackets]; Browne's marginalia is unmarked; {passages or notes from unpublished material by Browne is in curly braces}. Ross defends the phoenix, as well as the manucodiata and the semenda, at great and confused length, Arcana Microcosmi, Book II, Chap. 21.

1 [Cyril, Catechesis, XVIII, 8, uses the story as a proof of the resurrection, quoting as authority Clement (1st Epistle to the Corinthians, Chap. XXV); Epiphanius, Ancoratus; Ambrose, Hexameron, V.xxiii197-198; Tertullian, De Iudicio Domini (possibly spurious), in English, and De resurrectione carnis (or mortuum), Chap. XIII, in English; Job "21", (thus all editions, sc. 29; and for Psalm 31, read 92): 18: "Then I said, I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the sand." The (standard) Vulgate has "sicut palma". In his (1657) Exposition on chapters 27-29 of the Book of Job (pp. 567-568), Joseph Caryl notes:

Others read, I said I shall multiply my dayes as the Phœnix. Tertullian in his book of the resurrection, translates that (Psal: 92, 11.) of the Phœnix, The righteous shall grow up as the Phœnix. In the Greeke tongue, one word signifyes both a Phœnix and a Palme tree. And as the Palme tree, so the Phœnix is put symbolically to note a long life. Some ascribing five hundred, some six hundred, some a thousand, yea some fourteene hundred yeares to the life of the Phœnix. And as the Phœnix lives very long, so the Phœnix (as some report) dying in her nest, riseth up out of her ashes, which is conceived to be the reason why some of the Ancients (as I shall touch further in the close of this context) translate here, I shall multiply my dayes as the Phœnix; as if Job had sayd, I shall dye in my nest, and rising from thence as the Phœnix I shall multiply my dayes. But I shall not stay upon eyther of these readings; For though the Palme tree among the trees of the earth, and the Phœnix among the birds of the ayre are long-lived, and so both translations accommodate and illustrate the generall sence and scope of the text, yet neyther of them have any alliance, that I can find, with the Originall word of the text, by us properly translated sand. And therefore I shall insist only upon our owne reading.

I shall multiply my dayes as the sand.

Which as it clearely expresseth the Hebrew word ["chowl", חול], so the matter of it is more expressive of Jobs meaning then eyther of the two former: For what's the number of the yeares of a Palme tree or of the Phœnix to the number of the sands of the Sea, which are (as to man) stupendiously innumerable. So that, This is the highest proverbiall of the three.


2 [Because, says Herodotus, "Euterpe", II.73, the bird only visits Egypt once every five hundred years, adding, as Browne is about to note, that the story is scarcely credible. Read also the interesting note on this chapter.]

3 [Tacitus, Annals VI, 28.]

4 [This argument, added in the third (1658) edition, because the usual text of Pliny here reads "sed quem falsum esse nemo dubitabit" (this is the reading Dalechamps prefers, but he notes the alternate "quae falsa" found, among other editions, in the Brescia edition of 1496, and quoted by Aldrovandus). See Pliny x(5) (englished by Holland, who follows the "quem falsum" reading). The preferred reading would leave us with the notion that the particular exemplar was false, but not necessaily the phoenix story itself; but the clear trend of the passage is that the entire story is fabulous.]

5 [Herodotus, in the place cited, says that the phoenix builds its pyre, and egg, of myrrh; on the great birds (not the phoenix) who are used in the production of cinnamon, see III.111. Aristotle, History of Animals IX, part 13. "Cinnamolgus", from Pliny HN x(97) (englished) for the Greek "cinamomon". See also Aelian, lib. 2 cap. 34, "de cinnamomo ave Indica": "Eorum, quae nunc adferentur, fides, sive merentur eam, sive minus, penes Indos esto, quibus auctoribus haec ad nos fama dimanavit. quamquam et Nicomachi filius cinamomi avis, suavissimo illi aromati cognominis, meminit, hanc Indi ad se eodem vocatum nomine cinamomum aroma adferre ajunt; ubi vero, aut quomodo id proveniat, hominum nosse neminem."]

6 [Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes, 1020E-F. In the North translation (edition of 1676, p. 794): "In Persia there is a little Bird, of which all the Parts are excellent good to eat, and are full of fat within [and with no excrement in its guts]; so that it is thought it liveth by Air and Dew, and in the Persian Tongue they call it Ryntaces. Parysatis, as Ctesias saith, took one of these Birds, and cut it in the middest with a little Knife, the which was poysoned onely on one of the sides, and gave that half which was poysoned unto Statira." Parysatis was punished for the death in the gruesome manner which Plutarch assures us was customary for poisoners in Persia.]

7 [Lactantius, Phœnix 9-14. Wren, in a somewhat captious mood, points out: "The combustion of Phaeton was but in Italy only, and Deucalion's flood only in Attick: both farr inoughe from Arabia or Ægypt; soe that the phoenix, yf any were, might live secure inoughe from those 2 mischeefs."]

8 [Ovid, Amores II, VI, 54 (which poem may also have entered into the "Utopia" comment of the previous paragraph),Metamorposes XV, 391 ff.; Baptist Mantuan,Alfonsus; pro rege Hispaniae de uictoria Granate; Lactantius (perhaps), Phœnix; Claudian, Phœnix, as well as in de raptu Proserpinae, II 135-139 (a bad poem); "others": among many, Shakespeare, The Phœnix and the Turtle; the Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, The Phœnix; numbers of "Emblem Book" poemettes; Vicar's translation of an epigram of John Owen (1619; no. 185):

The Phœnix, Dying doth her yong Regaine ;
The Vipers brood doth breed her forced - bane .

Henry Lawes, "A description of Chloris", verse 3 (from Ayres, and dialogues, for one, two and three voyces. The third book. (1658); p. 25):

Have you e're smelt what Chymick skill
From Rose or Amber doth distill?
Have you been near that sacrifice
The Phœnix makes before she dies?
Then you can tell (I do presume)
My Chloris is the worlds perfume.

Timothy Kendall, "To a frend", (from Flowers of Epigrams (1577):

WHEN fishes shun the siluer streames:
When darknes yeldes bright Titans beames.
When as the bird that Phœnix hight,
Shall haue ten thousand mates in sight.
When Ioue in Limbo low shall lye,
And Pluto shall be plast on hye:
Then I will thee forsake my deere,
And not before, as shall appeare.

And so on, practically ad infinitum.]

9 [De Azoth, xi; and here and there in his works, although Paracelsus usually uses the example of the Halcyon or Kingfisher where we might expect to find the Phœnix (who participates, oddly, of the air rather than of the fire). Others, including Salmon in his comments on Hermes (II.x.236): "and in these Philosophick Ashes is the Phœnix hidden, and out of them will it arise with glory and splendour; at first weak like a Worm, which in success of time will become a Bird, even the most glorious Phœnix."]

10 [Pierius, lib. xx; his authorities are Pliny, Tertullian, Aelian. Also Horapollo, 49, 111 (in the Italian edition on line, 37 and 38).]

11 [29:18, as above]

12 [92:12; 91:13 in the Vulgate, which has "palma".]

13 Consent of names. [1672 has "games".]

14 [1672 has "Pœnix".]

15 [Pliny, HN xiii(42) (in Holland's English, XIII Chap. III.]

16 Gen. 7

17 Gen. 1.

18 Chap. 8.

19 That the World should last but six thousand years. [See VI.i on this assertion.]

20 Gen. 1.

21 [Wren notes: "Aristotel's conceyte of eeles was not unlike that other of his, of the galaxia and of comets, whereof the knowledge then was small. But in the end of April, 1654, and after some firce storms, which they say make eeles wander, a large one was brought out of which wee tooke neer (50) young eeles alive each above 1 inche and a halfe long, of the bignes of a bristle, which moved as quick as the old one. From whence it appeares manifestly that they doe engender and become viviparous, contrary to the opinion of the world hitherto. Soe that now wee may conclude that the eele, as well as the viper, is vermiparous and viviparous, and not only (as the natrix) oviparous. And in the Severne they finde clots of young lampreys, which they call elvers, a finger's length, white, as big as a wheete straw, 40 or more in a cluster, which I have found of a very pleasant taste, and are accompted daintyes. That which deceaved the world hitherto was, that the brood of the eele comes to life sooner then the spawne of any fish, bycause, being never severed from the matrix, till itt have life, it is of soden growth, in which time the damm never ranges, and as soon as they are formed, are layd in bankes, or beds of mud, undiscernable."]

22 [I.e., things like sponges and sea-urchins]

23 [Further dealt with in Book III, Chapter XVII.]

24 [Gen. 2:18, although the suggestion at the end of the paragraph — a suggestion a modern would no doubt refer to, in our rebarbative jargon, as "sexist" — is Browne's alone.]

25 [Thus Pliny, HN x(4) "vermiculum". (Holland's English). The Old English Phœnix elaborates on the worm version.]

26 [Exsanguineous, or bloodless. In previous editions, and in occurrences in the rest of 1672 (for instance, III.27), Browne prefers "exanguious". Robbins notes in his 1981 edition (205.7, p. 829): "Though the ne could have been inserted by the printer of 72, and Browne elsewhere ... retains exanguious through all editions, using it also for an edition in 72 [in chapter 20 of Book III], the longer form not only accords with the parallel sounds of the preceding and succeeding phrases, but was used (spelt — more properly — exsanguineous) by his disciple, Henry Power, Experimental Philosophy" (1664, p. 58). The (posthumous) 1686 edition of the complete works reverts to "exanguious".]

27 Irregularities. [Or, as the Oxford dictionary has it, "deviations from the natural order".]

28 ["Goose-bearing", further elaborated by Browne in the next clause; the anatiferous tree is placed among the list of items worthy of high skepticism, Chap. 28, and see the note by Wilkin on the sexual habits of the bernacle. The bernacle was alleged to be the young of the barnacle goose.]

29 [Problemata, iv.]

30 ἔθποριστα. [= "parable" of the text, from the Latin: easy to procure. 1646 here reads "But surely they were not wel-wishers unto ἔθποριστα, or remedies easily acquired ...". The principle, found in ancient medical works, is well enunciated in specific form by Pliny, and translated by Browne.]

31 [Pliny, HN xxix(29).]

32 [Paracelsus frequently and vehemently states in his works that such a cure is available, and implies (or says) that those who cannot find it are fools or worse. Hence the sometimes startling violence, or glee, with which people remark on his own early demise. Wren: "This is noe wonder in them that convert soules; but to make bodyes immortall argues him either of folly or falsehood, that yf he could, would not make demonstration upon himselfe of such an admirable skill, as would have advanced him to sitt next the greatest monarchs of the world. But itt seemes that bragg descended from him to all his disciples (the chymicks) among whom, scarce one of a 1000, but dyes a beggar." The contemporary (to us) equivalents are the health-food and exercise gurus: Jim Fixx and Adele Davis, for instance.]

33 [tantum non = "only not" = just this side of not, very nearly, etc.]

34 De sanitate tuenda. [As Wilkin points out, this particular passage has tripped up critics through the centuries; they ignore the qualification "if the term be taken strictly" and proceed merrily to bash the learned doctor for mistaking Plutarch's meaning. Holland translates the passage in question in Precepts of Health (page 662.30, Moralia, edition of 1603):

To reason, argue, and discourse at the table upon points of learning; causeth the meat to corrupt within the stomacke, and breedeth head-ach, or heavinesse of the braine: we may indeed feare somewhat; if we will needs (while we be at our repast) fall to resolve such a sophisticall argument, as the Logicians call Indos: or if wee be disposed to reason and dispute about the masterfull sophisme named Kyritton: It is said, that the crowne or upmost tuft growing upon the date tree, called the braine thereof, is exceeding sweet and pleasant to the taste, howbeit, hurtfull to the head: howbeit, these prickie and intricate disputations in Logicke at supper time; are no pleasant banketting dishes, but offensive to the braine, tedious, and irksome, nothing more."

To which Holland adds the marginal note: "Which some interpret, the braines of the bird Phœnix: but this bird being so rare, as that it is thought for a fabulous thing, I see not how this propertie should be observed in the braines thereof." Rather the date itself.]

35 Heliogabalus [23.]

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