COSMIC DANCE. CORRELATIONS BETWEEN DANCE AND COSMOS-RELATED IDEAS ACROSS ANCIENT CULTURES
COSMIC DANCE. CORRELATIONS BETWEEN DANCE AND COSMOS-RELATED IDEAS ACROSS ANCIENT CULTURES
Humanity’s integration into the cosmos is fundamentally shaped by the perception of structured celestial movements: the rotation of the celestial sphere and the various regu-lar paths of celestial bodies. Participating in these cosmic regularities has been an objec-tive of human cultures since ancient times. Reproducing their structures may serve to participate in their power and to manipulate or to stabilize their effects.
Dance as a rhythmic pattern of movement is a cultural expression especially prone to re-enacting the structured cosmic movements. Hence, ancient traditions have considered manifold rela-tions between dance and ideas about the cosmos. Cultural traditions reporting “cosmic” aspects of dances refer to: (1) the dances of
celestial bodies themselves, whose interpreta-tions are based on concrete observations such as the apparent looping of the planets; (2) human dances which are in some sense related to celestial bodies or celestial events, e.g. by costumes which equip a dancer with celestial symbols; and (3) the creation of the cos-mos, ascribed by some myths to dance, and the repeated ritual renewal, reassurance, and stabilization of the primordial cosmic order through dance.
This article on the one hand considers the definition of “dance” and the elements which make dance a “cosmic dance”. On the other hand it considers which astronomical phenomena might particularly fuel the idea of a cosmic “dance”. Examples from different cultures worldwide serve as illustrations.
Since ancient time, humans watch the sky and perceive the structured, rhythmic movements of the celestial sphere and the celestial bodies. Many cultures have con-nected these notions with the idea of danc-ing. They have interpreted the celestial movements as dances, and they have tried to reproduce these movements in their own dances.
Dances are omnipresent in ethnograph-ical literature. But the descriptions often are either sparse and very generalizing, or they get lost in details. Thus, maybe astro-nomical or - generally spoken - cosmos-related aspects of dances often are hard to identify (for the general problems of re-porting and analyzing dances, see Kurath, 1960). Hence, it is the primary aim of this article to describe some basic categories which allow one to term a dance a “cos-mic” dance. This will be done by reference to a few selected examples. It is explicitly mentioned here that the enormous material from Classical and early Christian Antiqui-ty is not the focus of this article, as it has been elaborately treated in the work of Mil-ler (1986). Therefore, this article will give preference to lesser-known examples from other cultures wherever they are available.
Before going into details, the use of the term “dance” in the context of this article has to be clarified. What is “dance”? A waltz or a rock ’n’ roll will be generally agreed to be a dance, but what about a cer-emonious circumambulation: can it be a “dance”, too? Is music an essential element of dance? Definitions of dance are heavily struggling with such questions. A univer-sally valid definition of dance has not yet been found (Woitas, 1998: 229). There are attempts to fix at least some essential as-pects of dance. These stress three basic pa-rameters, that is to say the body, the space
and the time. Dance is essentially charac-terised by a deliberate shaping of these three parameters (Woitas, 1998: 230; Kaep-pler, 2001: 362): (1) the body with its pos-ture, its movements and its dressing; (2) the space – the space which is created and tak-en up by the dance, but also the space where a dance takes place, be it a ballroom or a temple; and (3) the time, which is gen-erated by the metre and the rhythm and by the transitory character of movements. But the temporally and spatially organized rhythmic patterns of bodily movements that characterize dance are not specific for dance alone but are also shared by rituals, ceremonies, games or sports (Kaeppler, 2001: 362). Here an indistinct transition be-tween different kinds of bodily movement becomes evident. These difficulties in dif-ferentiating dance from other forms of structured body movement will inevitably be reflected in the examples chosen for this article.
The three elements – body, space and time – which are the basic parameters of dance also describe important characteris-tics of celestial movements: celestial movements are performed by celestial bod-ies; they are restricted to a given space as it is; for instance, the zodiac describing the running way of the planets; and they are structured and rhythmic, defining a con-crete time. This parallelism between char-acteristics of dance and characteristics of celestial movements provides the first indi-cations of how astronomical – or, generally, spoken: cosmic - elements can be integrat-ed in and expressed by dance.
Looking for cosmic aspects of dances, a first distinction can be recognized: The cul-tural traditions refer to (1) the dances of celestial bodies themselves and (2) human dances which are in some sense related to celestial bodies or celestial events.
1. COSMIC DANCES OF CELESTIAL BODIES THEMSELVES
Descriptions of “dancing” celestial bod-ies bring up the question of which concrete observations might have inspired the idea that these bodies are “dancing”. Hence, this passage pays attention to the different ce-lestial bodies and to the specifics which might fuel the impression of their “dance”.
1.1. The dance of the stars and of celestial bodies in general
The idea that the celestial bodies are per-forming a cosmic dance is well-documented, e.g. in classical antiquity (Mil-ler, 1986). The vault of the sky was labelled as the dance floor of the stars (Gundel, 1968: 79) and many authors, when general-izing, referred to the rotation of the celes-tial sphere as a dance, e.g. Euripides (5th century BCE): “… Zeus’ star-eyed sky has begun its choral dance …” (Euripides, Ion, cited in Miller, 1986: 34).
Plato (428-348 BCE) emphasized the uniqueness of this dance: “… the stars … dance the fairest and most magnificent procession and choral dance of all the choruses in the world and accomplish whatever is needed for all liv-ing creatures” (Epinomis 982e, cited in Mil-ler, 1986: 41). While in such generalizing examples it is not evident whether the idea of “dancing” stars referred only to the movement of the circumpolar stars or was also inspired by the
regular and structured movements of the stars in general, Apulei-us (2nd century CE) explicitly labelled the rising and setting of stars as a dance: “one choral dance of stars arising from their di-verse risings and
settings” (Apuleius, De mundo XXIX.335, cited in Miller, 1986: 89). Other authors referred not only to the stars but to the different celestial bodies and their interactions, e.g. changing their posi-tions relative to each other: “the choral dance of the stars ..., the interweaving of the planets with the fixed stars, their rhythmic partnership and well-ordered harmony ...” (Lucian of Samosata, The Pan-tomime 7, cited in Miller, 1986, 188). “The eye looked up to the region of the ether and beheld the sun and moon and the planets and fixed stars …; then it saw their risings and settings, their harmonious cho-ral dances ..., their conjunctions at periodic intervals, their eclipses, their reappearances …” (Philo, The Special Laws III 187-8, cited in Miller, 1986: 60)
The most prominent “dancing” celestial body is the sun, looked upon as the leader of the dance in the choral dance of the ce-lestial bodies (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio teologica II XXIX; Or 28.29, cited in Miller, 1986: 353). For the South American Desana, the sun itself took on the role of a dancing teacher who shows “how the dances should be done ...“ (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1974: 36).
A special dance is performed by the sun, according to traditions widespread across Europe: the sun dances close to the time of the summer- or winter-solstice, on Shrove Tuesday, Easter or Pentecost (Vaiskunas, 2003: 37; Kuhn, 1859: 411f.; Rohmann, 2013: 539). Vaiskunas (2003: 35) reports on such dances related to the summer-solstice: “The sun dances … on 29 June and jumps back …, and the days get shorter”. The apparent standstill of the sun at the solstice and its setting in motion anew may give a plausi-ble background to the idea of a “dance” of the sun. This impression may have been intensified by the fact that in northern lati-tudes the angle of the rising sun to the horizon is narrower than it is in latitudes closer to the equator. Hence disturbances of the atmosphere may
longer influence the visibility of the rising sun, its altitude and its azimuth. Dependent on weather condi-tions an observer may get the impression that the rising sun does not “stand still” at the solstices for a few days, but is slightly dancing (Vaiskunas, 2003: 36). The connec-tion of the dancing sun with June 15, St. Vitus’ day, may also be explained by the solstice: Due to the inadequate leap year rules of the Julian calendar, the
observation of the solstices gradually shifted for several days, and for some time in the medieval era the solstice was observed on St. Vitus’ day (Rohmann, 2013: 538). The sun is also said to dance on dates like Easter or Shrove Tuesday. In these cases the solstices are in-eligible as an explanation for the idea of a dancing sun. Many reports suggest that the alleged dance of the sun at Easter has a symbolic meaning to the effect that the sun is happy about the resurrection of Christ and therefore dances for joy (Kuhn, 1859: 412; Rohmann, 2013: 179). But sometimes instructions are provided for how to watch
the phenomenon of the “dancing” sun. A number of simple tools for ensuring safe observation are mentioned: watching the sun’s reflection on the calm surface of a fountain or on the surface of a water-filled bowl, using paper which has been pierced by needles (Kuhn, 1859: 411f.), or watching “through a silk scarf …” (Vaiskunas, 2003: 37). These instructions suggest that the dance of the sun at a date other than the solstices was not only meant allegorically, but was related to a concrete natural phe-nomenon, maybe some special weather conditions. Another “dance” of the sun may be easily explicable by such a factor: Some German weather lore says that severe cold will follow if you see the sun “danc-ing” in winter (Stegemann, 2005: 46) Most probably, special weather conditions, such as scintillation of the air, underlie this im-pression of a “dancing” sun.
As matters stand, examples of the “danc-ing” moon are only found in texts from classical Antiquity. Apuleius briefly men-tioned the Moon as a member of the danc-ing celestial chorus (Apuleis, Peri kosmou VI, 399a, cited in Miller, 1986: 254). Euripi-des says: “… Zeus’ star-eyed sky has begun its choral dance. And the moon is dancing ...” (Euripides, Ion, cited in Miller, 1986: 34) While the idea of the dancing sun is wide-spread and explicitly expressed, the idea of the dancing Moon seems to be strikingly rare, a fact which I cannot explain at this stage and which will perhaps change in the course of further investigation of ethno-graphic literature.
The planets are often mentioned in a generalised way: Philo e.g. refers to “… the choral dances of the planets …” (On the Creation 70, cited in Miller, 1986: 56). Pla-to’s (428-348 BCE) famous remarks point-ing to the complex paths of the planets, in-cluding apparent looping, are much more informative for the origin of the idea that the planets are dancing: “To describe the choral dance of these same gods ..., their juxtapositions and their retrogradations and their progressions, or to say which of these gods meet in conjunction and which in opposition ...” (Timaios 40d, cited in Mil-ler, 1986: 19). Following in the steps of Pla-to, Proclus (412-484 AD) dedicated elabo-rate thoughts to the dance of the planets in his commentary on Plato’s “Timaeos”. He interpreted the different velocities of the planets and the apparent looping and spi-ralling of their paths as the complex pattern of a dance (Miller, 1986: 453-465).
1.5. Dancing constellations
Among the constellations, the Pleiades have repeatedly been associated with dance. Many North American myths de-scribe the Pleiades as a group of dancing girls or boys who rise to the sky (Lankford, 2007: 166-181). Their rising to the sky and dancing is closely related to the seasons, for instance in an example from the North American Caddo natives: Seven brothers were scolded by their mother for playing all day and avoiding work. Angrily the boys danced into the sky and became
the Seven Stars. This aetiological story explains why the Pleiades can be seen during the winter, while these “lazy boys” disappear at the beginning of spring, when the period of intense work starts again (Lankford, 2007: 173). In this case the seasonal visibil-ity of the constellation has apparently in-spired the idea of a dance. The same may be true for the belt and scabbard stars of Orion, which were interpreted as dancers by the Australian Boorong (Morieson, 2004: 5) The constellation Corona Borealis, how-ever, viewed in the traditions of Shawnee natives as a group of dancing maidens, probably was associated with dance be-cause of its shape, which may evoke the impression of a round dance (Olcott, 1911: 151).
1.6. Aurora borealis as dancers
It is hardly surprising that the moving Aurora borealis has, by Northern people, repeatedly been interpreted as a dance, be it the dance of human or animal spirits or the dance of gods (Solheim, 2005: 170f.). Very profanely, in parts of Sweden the
Northern light “was simply called ‘polka’” (Solheim, 2005: 170ff.). The idea that celestial bodies dance is therefore due to different observable fac-tors: the rotation of the celestial sphere, the rising and setting of stars, the apparent looping of the planets, weather conditions, the seasonal visibility of constellations, the shape of constellations, etc.
2. COSMIC DANCES OF HUMANS
a) Dance figures may imitate movements of celestial bodies, e.g. the rotation of the celes-tial sphere or the movement of the sun. Such imitations may vary between relative-ly concrete or very stylized forms. The Me-dieval theologian Honorius Augus-todunensis (1080-1137) reported the following about dances of the “pagans”: “… through the circling, they understood the revolution of the firmament; through the joining of hands, the interconnection of the elements; through the gestures of bodies, the motions of the signs or planets; through the melodies of singers, the harmonies of the planets ...” (Hon. Augustod. Gemma animae I,139) The practice of labyrinth-dances has been transmitted from medieval times and has been argued to have astronomical con-notations. Many Gothic cathedrals had floor labyrinths of the so-called “Chartres”-type, a “unicursal maze of circular or less frequently octagonal shape” (Eisenberg, 2009).
Medieval documents report rituals or dances performed in these labyrinths. The hypothesised astronomical meaning of these dances has on the one hand been de-duced from the alleged similarity of the maze’s shape and the path of celestial bod-ies: either the path of the moon (Ferré, cited by Eisenberg, 2009), the path of the planets (refuted by Kern, 41999: 32, 40f.), or the path of the sun (e.g. Wirth, 1936: 240, refut-ed by Kern, 41999: 32, 41). Kern (41999: 32, 40f.) has convincingly pointed out the defi-ciencies of these different ascriptions.
The hypothesised astronomical meaning of some labyrinth dances has not only been based on the shape of the labyrinth but also on a special version of these dances, the so-called pilota celebration. This liturgical rite was performed in the cathedral of Auxerre over a floor labyrinth on Easter Monday. Clerics performed a ritualized dance while tossing a ball, the pilota, and singing. The exact details of the performance are not transmitted, leaving room for various in-terpretations. While the discussion con-cerning astronomical meanings of medie-val Church labyrinth-dances is very con-troversial (Kern, 41999; Wright, 2004; Ei-senberg, 2009), a text from the 4th century AD definitely ascribed astronomical as-pects to the labyrinth-like dance Geranos, a dance in ancient
traditions connected with the Greek hero Theseus and his compan-ions. Marius Victorinus, a Roman author, had interpreted that dance as an imitation of celestial movements: “first they danced a step to the right, as the sky turns to the right from East to West; then they danced back to the left, as the sun, the Moon and the other wandering stars speed leftwards from West to East; third they were chanting while standing, because the Earth being orbited by the sky stands immovably in the midst of the cosmos“ (Marius Victorinus, 4th c. AD, Ars grammatica 1,16). At least this text gives evidence that some heavenly movements were understood to be very generalized models of earthly maze dances.
© University of the Aegean, 2014, Mediterranean Archaeology & Archaeometry, 14, 3 (2014) 307-317 de la Nuit” of Jean-Baptiste Lully, the French king Louis XIV (1638-1715) took the part of the sun and the other dancers re-volved around him like the planets. The immovable object at the centre of the dance was not any more the Earth, as in the text of Marius Victorinus, but the sun, hereby illustrating the change in the worldview.
Cosmic dances might not only imitate the rotation of the celestial sphere and the paths of the planets around a centre, but also mime constellations. Based on detailed argumentation it has been suggested that the three dancing maidens of the acanthus column at Delphi can be identified as the constellation Hyades (Ferrari, 2008: 127-150), closely
“related to the seasonal movements of Apollo” and thus character-ising the column as “the representation of a cosmic landmark” (Ferrari, 2008: 146). In Chinese Daoism the Big Dipper is in the focus of an at least 2000-year-old practice called “The pacing of the Big Dipper” (An-dersen, 1989-1990). The stars of the constel-lation Big Dipper are connected in a pat-tern of steps. These steps may be re-enacted either purely mentally or as a kind of dance. It is the purpose of this practice to activate the correlation of body and soul with the cosmic power and harmony which,
according to Daoism, are manifest-ed in the Big Dipper. The correct realiza-tion of the steps originally required astro-nomical observations. The actual position of the Dipper had to be ascertained to cal-culate the correct date and time for the rit-ual, which would guarantee the optimal concordance between “the forces of man and heaven” (Andersen, 1989-1990: 37). Hence this ritual is also an example for the next point, that:
b) dances may be related to a special date, e. g. the solstices, the equinoxes or special positions of certain constellations. Bulgari-an dance tradition provides another good example: In Bulgaria dances are transmit-ted which reproduce the “visible move-ment of the sun”. Around the winter sol-stice the sun’s course is re-enacted “with the quicksteps, leaps, and change of direc-tion … while in the spring … (the) steps are calm and broad.” (Koleva, 2003: 42f.)
c) Similar to special dates, the spatial ori-entation of dancing may essentially con-tribute to a cosmic meaning of a dance. In old China dances were performed to em-body the Nine Provinces of the World and the eight cardinal directions (Granet, 1980: 219). The Okipa ceremony of the North American Mandan was shaped by a com-plex temporal and spatial cosmic symbol-ism: it was performed around the summer-solstice, the house for the ritual represented the universe, the participants of the ritual arranged themselves with reference to the cardinal directions, and dances had a close relation to the cardinal points as well as to special times of the day etc. (Müller, 1970: 309-315).
d) Requisites may provide a dance with a cosmic meaning, e.g. the costume of a dancer, or some accessories or objects which are used in the course of the dance. For example, during the just mentioned ritual of the Mandan natives, dancers who were qualified by their body-painting as personifications of Day and Night entered the stage (Müller, 1970: 313 fig. 52). In a similar way dancers from Java are marked as sun and Moon by their costumes (Wosien, 1974: 103 fig. 14).
Drums often accompany a dance, and their decorations may underline its cosmic meaning: Sham-an’s drums, decorated with the world-tree that connects the different levels of the cosmos and with the symbols of sun and Moon, draw on cosmic symbolism (Rap-penglück, 1999: 261-264). Another wide-spread requisite is a pole around which a dance is performed. Many traditions inter-pret the circumpolar stars to be animals tied to the pole by long ropes (Rap-penglück, 2003: 89). Often the dancers are likewise connected to the pole by ropes and circle around this axis like the stars around the celestial pole. A somewhat different cosmic meaning of performances around an axis is identifiable in detail in the tradi-tional Voladores dances still practised in Mexico.
Fig. 2 Voladores (Mexico). Photo: Frank C. Müller (Wikimedia Commons). A pole is erected with a small revolving platform fitted to the top, and four ropes are wound around the pole from top to bottom. A musician with a flute and a drum stands on the platform while four men, dressed as eagles, enter the platform and tie the ropes around themselves. They then jump down from the platform, un-winding the ropes as they fall. “Tradition-ally each makes thirteen revolutions around the pole, their total flights symbol-izing the four epochs of thirteen years each which made up the ancient Aztec time cy-cle of fifty-two-years” (Waters, 1975: 196).
Human dances get a cosmic meaning by different elements: the – mostly very gen-eralized – imitation of the movements of celestial bodies, the performance of dances at astronomical significant dates, and spa-tial arrangements of dances according to important astronomical spatial elements. Being structured this way, the three basic parameters of dance – body, space and time – are deliberately shaped to refer to relevant astronomical factors. Together with appropriate requisites of dance, which have a cosmic symbolism, they can be used and organized in such a way that a dance gets a cosmic meaning. In addition to the cosmic dances of celes-tial bodies and human beings, a third fun-damental category of “cosmic dances” be-came obvious in the course of research:
3. CREATION AND RENEWAL OF THE PRIMORDIAL COSMIC ORDER BY DANCE
According to ancient myths dance has a creative power: Australian Aborigines from Queensland ascribe the origin of the Milky Way to a combination of music and dance. They say that stars induced by the music of an Orpheus-like musician started to dance, and arranged themselves as the Milky Way (Haynes, 1990: 202). Other tra-ditions accredit the creation of the whole cosmos to the power of dance. In Iroquois mythology Sky Woman dances on
the back of a turtle that is swimming in the primeval ocean and has mud from the seafloor on its back. Through the singing and dancing of Sky Woman both the mud and the turtle expand and become the Earth (Venables, 2010: 25). The Californian Gabrielino-Tongva natives also ascribe creative power to dancing and singing: In the Beginning a primeval force without form and gender created Sky Father by singing and dancing. In the same manner the primeval force and Sky Father together then called Earth Mother into existence. Grandfather sun, Grandmother Moon, the goddess of the sea etc. were then created by the singing and dancing of all gods already existing at the time (RayBourn, 2010, 66).
The most prominent “cosmic dancer” is the Hindu god Shiva in its manifestation as Shiva Nataraja, the “Lord of Dance” (Keil-hauer, 1983: 144). In Hindu cosmovision the world is subject to cycles of destruction and renewal. Shiva’s dance transmits the power of transformation between the disin-tegration of the world and its new emer-gence.
His postures, gestures and attributes symbolize the phases of creation, preserva-tion and destruction of the world. From Shiva’s drum the creation arises: his shape symbolizes the preservation of the world; the fire in his upper left hand signifies de-struction; the gnomish demon under Shiva’s feet symbolizes the clinging to nega-tive features which prevent living beings to escape from the circle of reincarnation; the corona of flames represents spiritual salva-tion (Keilhauer, 1983: 144).
A “cosmic dancer” is also known in Western philosophy. Plotin (205-270 AD), a prominent proponent of the Neoplatonic tradition, in his work Enneads (4.4.33) “compared the cosmos to a dancer; modifi-cations in the structure of the cosmos to changes in the arrangement of a dancer’s body; and configurations of stars to partic-ular gestures of the dancer” (Copenhaver, 1986: 364). Such ideas were even adapted in the Renaissance period. Marsilius Ficino (1433-1499), who had a deep interest in magic, when commenting on Plotin con-sidered the insight into the regularities of the cosmic dance as an essential source of magic power (Copenhaver, 1986: 364-367).
The participation in cosmic forces and the renewal, reassurance and stabilization of the primordial cosmic order is an objec-tive of many rituals worldwide (Eliade, 1986: 447-470), and dances have an im-portant significance in such contexts. The already mentioned Okipa ceremony of the Mandan is a relevant illustration. Tibetan ritual dances present another impressive example: “The preparatory action or ritual dance initiates what we could call a tempo-rary ‘place-creation’ in terms of a recreation of the cosmological spheres at a particular site” (Schrempf, 1999: 199). Movements and gestures in combination with music and ritual objects address the different di-rections and spheres of the cosmos (for the very complex details (see Schrempf, 1999). In this way a protected microcosmos is cre-ated which ensures a secure realization of the rituals that follow.
Human concepts of “cosmic“ dances have on the one hand been triggered by concrete astronomical and physical obser-vations: the rotation of the stars around the pole, the course of the sun, the apparent looping of the planets, the seasonal visibil-ity and invisibility of constellations, the shape of constellations, or atmospheric conditions. The observation of these cosmic regularities has inspired the idea of heav-enly bodies and phenomena as celestial dancers.
On the other hand ideas of ancient cul-tures concerning close relations between the human body and the cosmos have sub-stantially contributed to the idea of “cos-mic” dances: According to these ideas parts of the human body and celestial bodies or celestial phenomena correspond to each other, and correlations exist between bodi-ly and celestial rhythms. Based on this, it was consistent to interpret the regular movements of the
celestial bodies as danc-es and to become convinced that humans can imitate and even participate in this cosmic dance. The bodily and spiritual well-being of humans as individuals and also as a social community was interpreted as depending on the undisturbed participa-tion in the cosmic regularities. Such linkag-es have been expressed, for example by the German polymath Agrippa von Nettes-heim (1486-1535): “Someone who is ill is no longer in accordance with the universe. But he can recover the harmony and his health, if he brings his movements into accord
with the celestial bodies” (cited [in Ger-man; translated into English by B. Rap-penglück] in Wosien, 1988: 48). Hence, re-producing the cosmic structures could serve to activate their power and to ma-nipulate or to stabilize their effects. Dance as a temporally and spatially organized, rhythmic pattern of bodily movement is a cultural expression especially prone to re-enact the structured cosmic movements.
The forces activated by dance are so highly esteemed by some traditions that they even perceive dance to be the funda-mental action of creation. Renewal, reas-surance and stabilization of the primordial cosmic order is addressed in many dances which refer to the cardinal directions, the world-axis and/or essential seasonal markers.
Even nowadays the comparison of fun-damental processes in the universe with dance is still used. In 2013 the news web-site “Science Daily” headlined: “Dance of the Atoms: Clustering of Atoms Observed” (Vienna University of Technology, 2013). Maybe the Roman emperor Julian Apostata (331-363) was right with his remark: “… the dance … came into existence along with the universe and sprang from the same great and primordial source as the heaven“ (Julian, Oratio LXIV.12, cited in Miller, 1986: 303).
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