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Main threads:

The Royal Art
The Great Work
Coiners & Goldmakers
Lilly's Judgement
Further Reading
The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus

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1. In truth, certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing.

2. Just as all things proceed from One alone by meditation on One alone, so also they are born from this one thing by adaptation.

3. Its father is the Sun and its mother is the Moon. The wind has borne it in its body. Its nurse is the earth.

4. It is the father of every miraculous work in the whole world.

5. Its power is perfect if it is converted into earth.

6. Separate the earth from the fire and the subtle from the gross, softly and with great prudence.

7. It rises from earth to heaven and comes down again from heaven to earth, and thus acquires the power of the realities above and the realities below, in this way you will acquire the glory of the whole world, and all darkness will leave you.

8. This is the power of all powers, for it conquers everything subtle and penetrates everything solid.

9. Thus the little world is created according to the prototype of the great world.

10. From this and in this way, marvelous applications are made.

11. For this reason I am called HermesTrismegistos, for I possess the three parts of wisdom of the whole world.

12. Perfect is what I have said of the Work of the Sun.

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Lilly and the Alchemist by David Plant

In the famous dialogue between King Khalid of Arabia and the philosopher Marianus, it is told how the King asked the Sage where one could find the Philosopher's Stone which has the power to transmute base metal into precious gold. At this, Marianus fell silent and it was only after much hesitation that he replied: 'O King, I declare the truth to you, that God in His mercy has created this extraordinary thing in yourself. Wherever you may be, it is always in you and cannot be separated from you...'

On 27th May 1647, a student of alchemy made his way to the corner-house on the Strand for a consultation with London's leading astrologer William Lilly. Maybe some setback in his experiments had dented his self-confidence; at any rate the question he intended to put to Lilly should decide once and for all whether he would ever attain the alchemists' dream - knowledge of the mysterious Philosopher's Stone, or 'that Elixir by which such wonders are performed'.

This judgement stands almost in a class of its own amongst the example horaries in Christian Astrology. Mostly they deal with the kind of down-to-earth, practical situations that horary astrologers thrive on to this day. Of course we make allowances for different social conditions - a modern horary practitioner is unlikely to be asked to find the whereabouts of a runaway servant for example - but, on the whole, questions which deal with relationships, buying and selling property, finding lost items, etc., all translate directly into modern terms and suggest that the day-to-day concerns of people living in Lilly's time were not so very different from our own. It is difficult, however, to think of a modern equivalent to a question like 'Will I attain the Philosopher's Stone?' It is a sharp reminder that Lilly's world was not like our own in every respect. It moves beyond everyday certainties into a shadowy subculture where astrologers rubbed shoulders with alchemists and magicians.

The Royal Art

The roots of alchemy lie deep within the mysteries of ancient Egypt. Amongst many other accomplishments, the Egyptians were adept in working metals and minerals. The monumental grandeur of the Pyramids and the exquisite workmanship of the golden mask of Tutankhamen are among the supreme cultural icons of the ancient world. On a less spectacular scale, the Egyptians were skilled in the preparation of dyes, the production of artificial precious stones and the making of coloured glass. Living in a materialistic age we may regard these as fairly mundane accomplishments, but to the Egyptians they were secret processes by which subtle essences from naturally-occurring materials were extracted, manipulated and transmuted into another form - the spiritual ancestor of alchemy. The secret arts of the Egyptians were passed orally from one generation to the next. No attempt was made to write them down before the fusion of the Egyptian and Greek civilisations that occurred when the Greeks colonised Egypt after its conquest by Alexander the Great. The archetypal figure of Hermes Trismegistos - 'thrice-great Hermes', the patron of alchemy and other hermetic arts and sciences - combines the attributes of the Egyptian god Thoth with those of Hermes, his nearest Greek equivalent. On the Mediterranean coast of Africa near the Nile delta, the Graeco-Egyptian city of Alexandria grew to become the cultural hub of the Hellenistic world, the centre of many branches of learning and the meeting-place of eastern, western and old Egyptian creeds and practices. It was here that Euclid devised the axioms of geometry, that Hipparchus discovered the precession of the equinoxes and that Ptolemy wrote the Almagest and Tetrabiblos. It is also from Alexandria that the oldest known alchemical documents originate.

From Alexandria, the history of alchemy runs exactly parallel to that of astrology. It was enthusiastically adopted and refined by the Arabians after Egypt was absorbed into the Islamic Empire in the 8th century AD. According to one version of its etymology, our word 'alchemy' comes from the Arabic al-kimiya, which in turn is said to be derived from the ancient Egyptian kême - a reference both to the fertile 'black earth' of the Nile valley and to the dark, primal matter which the alchemist sought to bring to perfection. Like astrology, knowledge of alchemy filtered into medieval Europe through Moorish centres of learning in Spain. The dialogue between King Khalid and the sage Marianus quoted above comes from one of the first alchemical treatises to be translated from Arabic into Latin.

During the 13th century, European adepts began writing original alchemical works instead of merely adapting Arabic and Greek texts. The great names of medieval alchemy include Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), Roger Bacon (1214-92), Arnald of Villanova (1235-1311) and Raymond Lully (1232-1315), all of whom were prominent figures in the Catholic Church. These philosophers brought a broader view of nature to medieval Church doctrine by combining alchemical experiment with ancient natural philosophy and reconciling these with Christian theology. Shadowy, half-mythical figures also haunt the annals of alchemy, like the alchemist-monk Basil Valentine who is said to have secretly tested the toxic effects of antimony on his fellow Benedictines - hence the popular derivation of antimony from 'anti-moine' or anti-monk. Despite this unethical behaviour, the Twelve Keys attributed to Basil Valentine became one of the most influential and frequently reprinted alchemical treatises. Tales of wonder-working alchemists abound. Nicholas Flamel, for instance, was a poor scrivener of Paris who one day chanced to find a book written by 'Abraham the Jew, Prince, Priest, Levite, Astrologer and Philosopher'. With the aid of his 'mystical sister' Perenelle, Flamel eventually succeeded in unlocking the secrets of the Book of Abraham and transmuted eight ounces of mercury into pure gold at 5 o'clock in the afternoon of 25th April 1382. Flamel and Perenelle devoted the fruits of their alchemical goldmaking to charitable works, helping widows and orphans and building hospitals, chapels and churches. They had copies of the mysterious images from the Book of Abraham painted onto an arch in the Churchyard of the Holy Innocents in Paris, which remained until the middle of the 18th century.

While we dutifully take such alchemical legends with a pinch of salt, there can be no doubt that they were taken extremely seriously in Lilly's time. The 16th and 17th centuries witnessed the final flowering of alchemy before Robert Boyle's Sceptical Chymist (1661) laid the foundations of modern chemistry and precipitated alchemy's abrupt decline. In Elizabethan and early Stuart England, however, it was still a flourishing philosophical pursuit, attracting devotees of the calibre of Doctor Dee, Robert Fludd and Sir Walter Raleigh. Alchemical symbolism permeates several of Shakespeare's plays; King Lear in particular has been interpreted as an allegory of alchemical transmutation. Elias Ashmole, the great friend of Lilly's later years, published a collection of English alchemical texts dating back to the 14th century in Chemicum Theatrum Britannicum, and his interest was certainly more than academic. In his journal for 13th May 1653, Ashmole joyfully records that William Backhouse 'lying sick in Fleet Street... and not knowing whether he would live or die, about 11 o'clock told me in syllables the true matter of the Philosopher's Stone, which he bequeathed to me as a legacy.' Even Sir Isaac Newton spent more time poring over alchemical texts than working on the revolutionary physics and maths for which we remember him today. So what attracted these great scholars, scientists and philosophers to what others derisively called the 'smoke-seller's art'?

The Great Work

The central theme of alchemy is the search for the secret of transmutation, by means of which low-grade materials may be transformed into precious gold or silver. There were two interdependent avenues of approach to this mystery. On the one hand, alchemy is regarded as a precursor of the modern science of chemistry. Alchemists believed that the transmutation of metals was physically possible and they strived to bring this about in their laboratories. As historians of science grudgingly admit, many useful chemical processes came to light through these experiments. But this 'primitive chemistry' was also a sophisticated hermetic philosophy. The chemical reactions and processes that took place in the vessels and retorts of the alchemist's laboratory were a microcosmic mirror of the subtle workings of nature in the greater universe or macrocosm. In this sense, alchemy may truly be considered a 'spiritual science'.

Alchemy shares the philosophy of classical astrology. The configurations of the seven planets revealed to the astrologer the reflection of celestial processes played out in the terrestrial microcosm, the 'little world' of humankind. The alchemist observed these same cosmic processes at work in the subterranean world of metals and minerals. In alchemy there is no concept of 'inorganic matter'. The 'divine breath' or quintessence flows through all levels of existence; even rocks and stones partake of this vital, animating spirit. Hermes Trismegistos is 'thrice great' because he possesses 'three parts of wisdom of the whole world' - the celestial, terrestrial and subterranean.

Alchemy's theoretical foundation rests upon the doctrines of Aristotle who taught that the basis of the material world is a prima materia, or prime, chaotic matter without form, from which all the limitless varieties of life arise and into which they can all again be dissolved. qualities & elementsThe simplest distinguishing forms are the four qualities: heat, dryness, moisture and cold. From paired combinations of these qualities arise the four elements: earth (cold and dry), water (cold and moist), air (hot and moist) and fire (hot and dry). And from the blending in certain proportions of the four elements, all the specific substances of the material world are created. It seemed self-evident that the elements were interchangeable through the agency of the four qualities. When water is heated it becomes steam; thus when the quality of heat replaces the cold quality in elemental water it turns into elemental air. By manipulating their elemental composition and proportions, it was thought possible to transmute one type of substance into another - ultimately by removing the dull, saturnine 'form' of lead and replacing it with the bright, solar form of gold.

Aristotle also had a theory to explain the difference between metals and minerals. Although both are composed of the four elements, their immediate constituents were two 'exhalations' found beneath the surface of the earth: an 'earthy smoke' and a 'watery vapour'. The earthy smoke consisted of small particles of earth on their way to becoming fire, while the watery vapour contained particles of water in the process of becoming air. Stones and minerals were formed from the earthy smoke and therefore could not melt or liquefy. Metals were formed from the watery vapour, which explained why they were malleable. Alchemists developed Aristotle's theory and suggested that the two exhalations were ideal forms of mercury and sulphur.These were not the common substances you could buy in an apothecary's shop, but rather two complementary 'principles' or forces which combined in different proportions and degrees of purity to form the various minerals and metals - a concept analogous to the binary principles of yin and yang in Taoism. 'Our mercury' is associated with the moist, vaporous, volatile, spiritual, feminine aspects of matter; 'our sulphur' with the solid, combustible, fixed, masculine aspects.

Alchemical illustration of the faire white woman married to the ruddy manThe English alchemist Thomas Norton described the mercury and sulphur in metals as 'the faire White Woman married to the Ruddy Man' and this conjunction of lunar and solar principles is a key to the rich imagery of alchemical symbolism. While modern chemistry sets out chemical reactions and processes in dry scientific formulae, the alchemists used the emotive language of love and hate, life and death. Metals and minerals had bodies, souls, needs and emotions. They were born, grew, copulated, gave birth and died. When vapours rose from a heated liquid (distillation) or corroded solid (sublimation), the alchemist saw spirit rising liberated from imprisonment in dense matter. The volatile vapours (Latin: volatilis = 'winged' or 'flying') represent the divine breath as it flows back towards the celestial realm where all earthly things originate. Constrained and cooled within the microcosmic vessel, this essence might condense back into physical manifestation, but miraculously purified and changed into another form. The Emerald Tablet, which alchemists regarded as a revelation direct from Hermes Trismegistos, declares: 'It rises from earth to heaven and comes down again from heaven to earth, and thus acquires the power of the realities above and the realities below.'

Symbolic representation of the Philosopher's Stone
Symbolic representation of the Philosopher's Stone. The dragon of Nature straddles the globe of the Earth. Its twin, intertwined heads represent the perfect balancing and harmonisation of the alchemical principles sulphur and mercury, represented by the Sun and Moon. From Elias Ashmole's Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum (1652).

The enlightened alchemist was engaged upon a work of redemption - healing the perceived chaos and corruption of primitive matter and assisting in its natural evolution towards a state of perfection. In the subterranean world, gold was the perfect metal. All other metals were regarded as lesser manifestations which nevertheless could, by patient refinement and purification, eventually be brought to this sublime state: 'what remains uncompleted by Nature may be completed by Art'. The Great Work of alchemy was to create a chemical agent in which the elements and principles were so perfectly balanced that contact with it would heal the imperfections of unevolved base matter and bring it to the purity and perfection of gold. This 'universal medicine' or elixir was the Philosopher's Stone. And of course 'philosophical gold' or 'our gold' is not the same as common gold. It is not so much a physical substance as a condition of harmony and incorruptibility that corresponds in the celestial world to the Sun and in the terrestrial world to the philosopher enlightened by solar consciousness. While alchemy is usually derided as the pursuit of an impossible dream, its attitude of working with nature to enhance and accelerate what were seen as naturally-occurring evolutionary processes is surely a valuable lesson as we all begin to reap the consequences of humanity's irresponsible urge to dominate and control the natural world.

Like astrology, the symbolism of alchemy has in modern times been scrutinised in the light of Jungian psychology. Here the various stages of the quest for the Philosopher's Stone are interpreted as metaphors for the evolution of consciousness towards psychological wholeness. Jung suggested that in studying the material world symbolically, the alchemists were also symbolising their own psychological processes and projecting them into the dense imagery of the 'chemical theatre'. The compelling, dreamlike quality of alchemical symbolism, with its kings and queens, heraldic beasts and strange hermaphrodite beings, is drawn from the same archetypal pool as the myths, legends and folk tales that live on in our unconscious minds.

Coiners & Goldmakers

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the lure of alchemy was often its promise of easy money. The possibility of transmuting cheap materials into gold or silver was an irresistible proposition; many alchemists and their patrons pursued fabulous wealth rather than spiritual enlightenment. And of course a working knowledge of the properties of metals could easily lend itself to deception and fraud. Copper could be whitened to resemble silver, gold could be 'multiplied' by mixing it with copper and silver. Numerous civil laws and statutes enacted against 'multipliers of metals', debasers of coins and similar shady characters suggest that this form of alchemy was a profitable medieval equivalent of money-laundering and financial fraud.

An entertaining description of how an enterprising 'alchemist' could dupe the gullible or greedy is given in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Scholars have suggested that Chaucer was himself cheated by a rogue alchemist so wrote from bitter experience. This would certainly explain the dim view he took of alchemists and their art. In the Canon's Yeoman's Tale, the yeoman describes how his former master the canon tricked a gullible priest into buying the recipe for a marvellous powder or 'tincture' which transmuted a quantity of mercury into silver before his very eyes. The fire was heated, the crucible filled with mercury and the tincture cast upon it. Coals were then heaped around the crucible, but while tending the fire the canon craftily placed above the crucible a special coal, one that had been hollowed out, filled with silver filings and stopped with wax. The coal burns, the wax melts, the silver filings flow into the crucible and - presto! - mercury is transmuted into silver. After a couple of similar tricks the recipe for the miraculous powder was sold for £40 and the canon made himself scarce, leaving the priest to ponder at leisure as to why he could never get the tincture to work again.

Lilly's Judgement

What kind of alchemist then was Lilly's querent? Was he engaged upon the ultimate spiritual quest or was he a mere 'goldmaker'? Lilly was well aware that magic, alchemy and astrology attract their fair share of quacks, charlatans and misguided souls. In his autobiography he described his experiences with Master Evans of Gunpowder Alley, the saturnine Welsh magician who first instructed him in the rudiments of astrology. Lilly wrote admiringly of several of Evans' magical operations, but he also made it very plain that he had nothing more to do with him when he discovered Evans giving one of his horary clients the answer she wanted to hear rather than an honest judgement. ('Had he not so judged to please the woman she would have given him nothing, and he had a wife and family to provide for' was the pragmatic response to Lilly's indignant protests.) Lilly's integrity seems beyond reproach; it is unlikely that he would have considered this question at all if he had suspected that the alchemist was anything less than sincere in framing it.

Lilly was also aware of the problem of silly querents who ask futile or unrealistic questions. He devoted a large section of his autobiography to the exploits of Simon Forman, a famous Elizabethan magician and astrologer. As with Master Evans, Lilly found much to marvel at in Forman's magical prowess and astrological skill, but he also recognised that one of Forman's greatest failings was his habit of asking idle and inappropriate horary questions about his own prospects. On one occasion, Forman wondered whether he would ever be a lord, earl or knight of the realm. The horary he set seemed to promise that, yes, this would come about within two years. At least we can admire Forman's honesty in recording the outcome of his prediction: when the two years were expired he found himself in Newgate prison rather than the House of Lords. Forman also practised alchemy, for Lilly found amongst his papers several horaries asking whether he would ever attain the Philosopher's Stone. 'The figures,' wrote Lilly, 'According to his straining, did seem to signify as much; and then he tugs upon the aspects and configurations and elected a fit time to begin his operation.' But, alas, 'all came to nothing upon the malignant aspects of Saturn and Mars.'

Lilly indicates his own attitude to the likelihood of anyone attaining such exalted knowledge. Yes, he believes, there is such a thing as the Philosopher's Stone and he is confident that it can be found. It is, however, 'a blessing beyond all blessings upon earth... given to but very few, and to those few rather by revelation of the good angels of God than the proper industry of man'. This shows that Lilly was conscious of the spiritual dimension to the Great Work of alchemy, but it is the attitude of the querent that is important to the outcome of the question. Is he on the same wavelength? What is he really asking? Lilly shifts responsibility onto the shoulders of the alchemist: 'The question must admit of this manner of proposal: whether the knowledge of the querent is so able, or he so cunning, as to produce to effect by his art what he desires?'

Lilly's crafty re-working of the question has two important effects upon the judgement. Firstly, it allows him to sidestep his own perceptions and adopt a completely neutral stance. It may be that the alchemist's idea of what the quest for the Philosopher's Stone actually means is entirely different to Lilly's. By turning the question back upon the querent, however, Lilly has no need to engage in a philosophical debate. It is now a matter of deciding whether the alchemist's abilities are equal to his aspirations, whatever they may be. Following on from this, the location of the quesited becomes clear. The outcome will be decided by the alchemist's skill and knowledge of his art. This makes it a 9th house matter.

10:45 a.m, 27 May 1647 OS, London
Jupiter day, Mercury hour

from sextile of Mercury
to conjunction of Jupiter

[ Click here to view Lilly's original text and chart ]

With Virgo rising, Mercury rules the ascendant. The question was asked in the hour of Mercury at a moment when Mercury was culminating. Mercurius - the spirit of alchemy - seems to co-operate in resolving the question by standing as significator for the querent. The alchemical theme continues with Mars ruling the 9th house. Alchemists, along with surgeons, soldiers, butchers and blacksmiths, were regarded as 'children of Mars', the association presumably coming about through the importance of heat in powering the alchemical athanor or furnace. With the planetary representatives of the primary alchemical agents mercury and sulphur as significators, the chart comes marvellously to life. Lilly uses their movements through the heavens to tell the story.

He observes that Mercury has recently passed retrograde over the square of Mars and has now turned direct to apply to another square. Retrograde motion and an obstructive aspect between the significators confirm that 'the querent had formerly spent much time in search of this admirable jewel the Elixir, but in vain and to no purpose'. Mercury's change to direct motion and application to another square shows 'a stronger desire, greater hopes and resolution to endeavour once more the attaining of the Philosopher's Stone' but Mercury is moving very slowly; the square to Mars does not perfect until both planets have changed signs (computer-generated ephemerides confirm that Mercury square Mars occurred nine days after the question was asked across 1°30' Gemini-Virgo). Mercury is then in his own sign and terms to indicate the alchemist's high hopes, but Mars has no dignity in the early degrees of Gemini so a perfection by square would be doubtful, and in any case Mars evades the perfection by changing signs before Mercury can complete it.

The configuration of Mercury with Saturn in the 9th house is revealing. Saturn in the 9th (the Joy of the Sun) conveys the alchemical dream of transmuting base metal into spiritual gold, but here Saturn 'corrupts' the querent's significator by its close conjunction in earthy Taurus. The alchemist is 'working upon things terrene or of too gross or heavy a substance'. Lilly considers Mercury in its natural role as significator of the mind and finds that for this alchemist, 'the fancy or imaginative part is imbecile'. Furthermore Mars, lord of the work itself, is poorly placed in the 12th house and afflicted by the square of Saturn: 'the groundwork... of the principal part of the operation is defective'. Lilly informs the alchemist that he is on the wrong track; he has gone astray in his experiments by working with the wrong components. There is also the implication that, weighed down by gross materialism, he has misunderstood the true significance of the quest for the Philosopher's Stone.

Lilly has noticed something else about the chart. Ascendant-ruler Mercury represents the querent's physical body and is afflicted by Saturn, which here rules the 6th house of disease. The noxious fumes of an alchemist's kitchen could induce strange visions and altered states of consciousness, but could also seriously damage health. Alchemical treatises frequently warned of the hazards of working with sulphurous exhalations and volatile chemicals. In one contemporaneous text, the Work itself acquires human voice and warns its aspirants: 'I give them a blow in the face that is a wound which makes them toothless and brings about many infirmities through the smoke'. It must have been clear to Lilly that the alchemist was suffering the early stages of consumption (tuberculosis); Mercury conjunct Saturn confirms that something is wrong. Saturn and Mars are the natural malefics; ominously, the querent's significator separates from a conjunction with one infortune and applies by square to the other. Rather than continue pursuing a hopeless cause, Lilly advises him to desist from his 'scrutiny of this laborinth' and pay more attention to his physical health, which he has clearly been neglecting.

It would be nice to think that the anonymous alchemist learned something from his encounter with William Lilly. The commentary suggests that he has been labouring under a delusion, mistaking the allure of alchemical gold for the inner gold of the Sun. But notice how the Moon, the querent's co-significator, next applies to a conjunction with Jupiter, which as ruler of the 7th house represents the astrologer answering the question. Like Marianus in his dialogue with the King of Arabia, Lilly adjusts the imbalance and declares the truth, '... that God in His mercy has created this extraordinary thing in yourself... it is always in you and cannot be separated from you.'

Further Reading:

  Two good factual accounts of the history and development of alchemy are Alchemy by E.J. Holmyard (Penguin 1952) and The Alchemists by F. Sherwood-Taylor (Paladin 1976). Both follow the 'alchemy-as-primitive-chemistry' line and tend to dismiss its esoteric dimension, yet provide fascinating information on the nitty-gritty of alchemical experiment.  
  For a modern perspective on ancient alchemical ideas, Nick Kollerstrom's Astrochemistry (available through Ascella Publications) and The Planet-Metal Relationship (Borderland Sciences Research Foundation 1993) are highly recommended. See also his work on planets and metals available on this website at  
  For a readable introduction to alchemy's esoteric and spiritual aspects, see Alchemy by Titus Burckhardt (Element Books 1987).  
  The Jungian approach is exhaustively covered in Alchemy: the Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art by Johannes Fabricius (Aquarian Press 1989), which is particularly valuable for its clear reproductions of complete sequences of alchemical illustrations.  
  Alchemy has also inspired some excellent novels. For a good read with imaginative alchemical themes, try The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke (Picador 1989) and The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd (Penguin 1993).  
  Digital reproductions of classic alchemical texts are available online. See:
Elias Ashmole's Theatricum Chemicum Brittanicum (1652)
Robert Boyle's Sceptical chymist (1661)
Basil Valentine's Twelve Keys
  A great deal of information on alchemy in all its facets is available on the Alchemy Website.  

David Plant is a respected scholar of the history and traditional practice of astrology. He is also an expert on the English Civil War period and the life and work of the 17th century astrologer William Lilly. He runs two very informative websites: the English Merlin site, which is devoted to all aspects of the life and times of William Lilly and his contemporaries; and the British Civil Wars and Commonwealth site, which explores the turmoil of the Civil Wars and Interregnum, and the constitutional experiments of the Commonwealth and Protectorate period of the 1650s.
Both sites are leading points of reference for their fields.

© David Plant. No reproduction without recourse to the author.

This article was published in The Traditional Astrologer magazine, issue 13, January 1997, pp.10-15.

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