Goddess Worship: Theoretical Perspectives

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Theories about goddess worship have been advanced ever since the emergence of the social sciences disciplines in the nineteenth century. Religion specialists in the fields of anthropology, sociology, folklore, psychology, and comparative mythology have contributed numerous theories to explain the phenomenon of goddess worship. The topic has been revived in recent years, particularly by specialists in the area of women's studies. The following survey of theoretical issues in the study of goddess worship reflects controversies that have raged over broader issues concerning the more general interpretation of religion.

Early Perspectives on Goddess Worship

Nineteenth-century European social scientists and specialists in comparative religion were fascinated by what they conceived to be universal themes of human experience. Because they relied heavily on the accounts of missionaries, traders, and other travelers to different cultures rather than firsthand fieldwork, many of their speculative theories are discredited today. These writers were concerned with the origins of human institutions such as marriage, law, and religion. Contemporary scholars tend to be more cautious than these early writers about the origins of religion, believing that it is just as dangerous to speculate about the past as it is to develop theories about other cultures without firsthand field observation.

One of the most influential theories in the study of goddess worship was advanced by the nineteenth-century Swiss jurist and historian of Roman law J. J. Bachofen (18151887), who linked goddess worship with a more general theory of social development. He asserted that the first human societies were matriarchal and characterized by widespread promiscuity, which was reflected in the worship of female deities. While this theory has been discredited by contemporary anthropologists, early social theorists such as Lewis Henry Morgan, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels praised it. Sir James Frazer set himself the task of completing Bachofen's assemblage of evidence for matriarchy among world cultures. Even Sigmund Freud thought that goddess worship was linked to an earlier stage of matriarchy. For Bachofen and his followers, "mother right" marked a fixed and predetermined stage in the evolution of human cultures. This stage in human evolution, according to Bachofen, can be confirmed by myths about goddess worship, which are living expressions "of the stages in a people's development, and for the skillfull observer, a faithful reflection of all the periods in the life of that people" (Bachofen, p. 75). The matriarchal period of human history was one of sublime grandeur, when women inspired chivalry, chastity, and poetry in men. Although men had superior strength, women strove for peace, justice, and religious consecrationguiding the men's "wild, lawless masculinity." This early phase of cultural evolution was displaced, in Bachofen's view, by a later period of conquest and patriarchy.

As early as 1851 proponents of the matriarchy theory were embroiled in a controversy set off by the famous jurist Sir Henry Maine, who insisted that the patriarchal family was the original social unit. This was the same year in which Bachofen was preparing his work Das Mutterrecht, asserting exactly the opposite thesis. Over thirty years later, anthropologist and folklorist J. F. McLennan (1886) reasserted the matriarchal theory, citing new anthropological evidence. Again in 1891 the matriarchy concept was discredited by Edward A. Westermarck, who was disturbed by Bachofen's idea that myths and legends preserve the "collective memory" of a people. Westermarck's argument attempted to reestablish Maine's patriarchal theory of human origins.

The issue flamed into controversy once again in 1927 with the publication of Robert Briffault's encyclopedic work The Mothers. Arguing against Maine and Westermarck, Briffault reasserted the existence of a primitive matriarchy that universally preceded patriarchy. However, unlike Bachofen, who defined matriarchy as a period of mother rule and inheritance through the female line, Briffault conceived matriarchy to be a period when women were socially rather than politically dominant. Briffault speculated that the "male instinct" created the original social herd and that the "female instinct" was responsible for the establishment of the family. Much of Briffault's evidence was derived from the study of religion; he thought that the widespread existence of lunar deities among primitive peoples was proof of the early social dominance of women, because women were the first hierophants of lunar cults. Briffault's evolutionary theory was not the last of its kind. As recently as the 1930s Wilhelm Schmidt advanced a theory for the origin of religion employing a multilinear rather than unilinear model of cultural evolution. Schmidt assumed the existence of three types of "primary cultures"matrilineal, patrilineal, and patriarchal. According to Schmidt, women were involved in the earliest cultivation of plants. Consequently their social importance increased, giving rise to widespread goddess worship.

Few psychologists have contributed theories about goddess worship. Freud thought devotion to female deities represented an infantile desire to be reunited with the mother. According to Freud, goddess worship represents universal unconscious fantasies characteristic of a stage in early psychic development in which the mother seems to be all-powerful to the child. C. G. Jung placed the religious impulse in a more central position than did Freud. He postulated a set of innate universal archetypes operative in the human psyche, one of which was the feminine principle. Jung utilized symbolism from primitive, archaic, and contemporary religions to shed light on the operation of these archetypes.

The Jungian perspective has been most fully developed in a classic work by Erich Neumann entitled The Great Mother (1955). This massive volume explores the phenomenon of goddess worship from a number of psychological perspectives. Unlike social theorists who traced the development of goddess worship in social time and space, Neumann analyzes the phenomenon purely in terms of inner psychic images. Although he repudiates Bachofen's sociological analysis of matriarchy, he praises him for having made lasting discoveries about the elementary character of the feminine. In Neumann's words, "early mankind and the matriarchal stage are not archaeological or historical entities, but psychological realities whose fateful power is still alive in the psychic depths of present-day man." Neumann posits a matriarchal stage sequentially preceding patriarchy at the psychic level. This stage in the evolution of the human psyche is represented by belief in the Great Goddess. A strange contradiction permeates Neumann's work; on one hand he discounts Bachofen's sociological argument for matriarchy, but at the same time he praises Briffault for having "discovered the fact (which is still insufficiently recognized) that early culture is in very high degree the product of the female group" (p. 281). At the methodological level, Neumann admits to removing documents and images of goddess worship from their cultural contexts. He rationalizes this methodology by asserting that psychohistory (a set of stages in the development of the human psyche) does not necessarily parallel historical events in a linear way. Despite such methodological curiosities, Neumann's work represents one of the most comprehensive treatments of goddess worship ever assembled by a Western scholar. Not only does he demonstrate the great variety of forms manifested in the phenomenon of goddess worship, he reveals the "transformative" nature of this religious impulse. He sketches out four manifestations of the Great Mother archetype: (1) the Good Mother (associated with childbearing, vegetation mysteries, and rebirth); (2) the Terrible Mother (linked to death, dismemberment, sickness, and extinction); (3) the Positive Transformative Goddess (related to wisdom, vision, ecstasy, and inspiration mysteries); and (4) the Negative Transformative Goddess (connected to rejection, deprivation, madness, and impotence). Any female deity can be classified as one of these four functions of the archetype; some goddesses can be placed in more than one of these categories.

There has been no major work on the topic by a single author since Neumann's classic treatment of goddess worship in the mid-1950s. There are several reasons for this. First, the works of Neumann and Briffault, who wrote in the twentieth century, reflect the nineteenth-century approach to comparative religions, which relished the fabrication of elaborate and ambitious theoretical frameworks for the study of complex phenomena. Also significant is the emergence of scientific anthropology, which, until recently, has stressed the analysis of single, manageable cultural entities through direct fieldwork. Armchair speculation went out of style with the emergence of the Boasian school in anthropology during the early twentieth century. Few psychologists, excepting Freud and the Jungians, have studied religious topics. Contemporary psychologists have focused on discrete measurable phenomena, such as the religious content of dreams and the relationship of psychedelic drugs to altered states of consciousness. Within the mainstream of American psychological thought virtually nothing has been written on the subject of goddess worship.

Other than anthropologists and psychologists, some religion scholars have approached goddess worship from a phenomenological perspective. Joseph Campbell for instance, in his monumental four-volume work The Masks of God takes a Jungian approach to goddess worship. While he sometimes uses caution in connecting goddess worship with a matriarchal stage in cultural evolution, at other times he perpetuates the nineteenth-century hypotheses of primitive matriarchy. E. O. James (1959) vacillates between a purely historical description of different goddesses in their cultural contexts and generalizations that border on a universal psychic unity approach, much like Erich Neumann's.

Contemporary Issues in the Study of Goddess Worship

After nearly thirty years without a major work on goddess worship, there has been a revival of interest in the topic from three quartersanthropology, religious studies, and feminist scholarship. Several new books have been published on goddess worship in the early 1980s. The work Mother Worship: Theme and Variations (1982), edited by the author of this article, utilizes current data generated by anthropologists to address the topic. Another volume, The Book of the Goddess: Past and Present (1983), edited by Carl Olson, is a collection of articles by historians of religion and feminist scholars. Goddess worship is a central theme in the Autumn 1983 issue of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, which is devoted to the study of women and religion. This recent revival of interest in goddess worship is due to three main factors: (1) a new interest in the old matriarchy controversy, (2) an active discussion among feminists about goddess symbolism, and (3) the emergence of a new comparative religions.

The matriarchy controversy

The issue of primitive matriarchy, which once plagued the study of goddess worship, has not disappeared. Some modern writers continue to assume there was an early historical phase when females dominated males. They cling to the notion that goddess worship is a remnant of that earlier period. The controversy continues to stir lively debate among popular writers, though many scholars think the issue is a dead one.

Most contemporary historians of religion accept the anthropological view that a stage of matriarchy never existed. However, a few scholars of eminent stature like Joseph Campbell (in Bachofen, 1967, p. lv) continue to support Bachofen's idea of an age of "mother right" that preceded patriarchy. They insist that this has been "confirmed irrefutably" by archaeological evidence. Although most feminist scholars today agree with the anthropological position, there remain a few articulate feminist authors who continue to perpetuate the idea of an original matriarchal stage. An example of this genre is Starhawk's The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (1979), in which the author discusses a rediscovery of the ancient "matrifocal civilizations" and the "falsehoods of patriarchal history." According to Sally R. Binford (1981, pp. 150151) the belief in early matriarchies has taken a religious form for some feminists; mother-goddess worshipers in Los Angeles, for instance, have become organized into a church with a temple and priestesses. They believe that the archaeological data that refute their position reflect a conspiracy against women among professional archaeologists. Binford calls this movement a "New Feminist Fundamentalism."

The only other scholars to take primitive matriarchy seriously in recent decades were Soviets, who espoused Friedrich Engels's outdated nineteenth-century notions. Alexander Marshack (1972, pp. 338339) cites Soviet archaeologists who interpreted Upper Paleolithic mother-goddess figurines as confirmation of the existence of early matriarchal hunting societies organized around totemic clans controlled by women. According to Marshack, this view is simplistic, a distorted interpretation of complex data. He insists that the goddess images from the Upper Paleolithic era are evidence for symbolic processes "extremely variable in meaning and use and that they played a number of specialized and generalized roles across the complex, integrated, time-factored culture. These facts do not confirm a matriarchy." Marshack adds one final but crucial note to his argument: the era was also marked by a separate, specialized masculine imagery and complex animal mythology, and the female figurines must be considered in this context. Thus, Upper Paleolithic society was neither matriarchal nor patriarchal, despite Marxist claims to the contrary.

There is no anthropologist today who would argue for a stage of matriarchy associated with goddess worship. It has been refuted on many occasions by anthropologists of all theoretical persuasions, including Marxists and feminists. In a brilliant argument against the matriarchy theory, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (1979, p. 343) notes three errors committed by scholars who insist on perpetuating this myth: They mistakenly assume that (1) the presence of female deities is evidence of matriarchy, (2) matrilineal societies are survivals of an era of matriarchy, and (3) matrilineality and matriarchy are related to each other. According to Binford (1981, pp. 152153) all these ideas are false and misleading. In fact the myth of matriarchy is damaging to the cause of feminists. Women are not freed by perpetuating the myth. The idea that the type of complex social organization required for matriarchy could be found among prehistoric societies is so patently ridiculous as to be a source of embarrassment for serious scholars pursuing the study of religion.

Even scholars who reject the existence of a historical stage of matriarchy sometimes insist that the symbolism of goddess worship can provide information about the history of female social roles. Some feminists argue, for instance, that the absence of female sacred imagery in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is due to the repression of women in Western societies. This attempt to draw a parallel between the gender of sacred images and women's roles is misguided. Occasionally the two may parallel each other, but the social role of women may directly contradict or differ significantly from that suggested by a religion's sacred imagery. A study of Hindu goddess worship does not allow us, for instance, to predict with any certainty the relationship of women to men in Indian society. This same point is made by the historian and women's studies specialist Judith Ochshorn (in Olson, 1983, p. 18) in her 1982 study of the Middle Eastern goddess Ishtar. According to this scholar, the Near Eastern deities were heavily anthropomorphized. Sometimes they reflected the reality of social roles in the Middle East, but more often they represented a different concept of communityas exemplified by the frequent instances of incest among the deities, a totally foreign idea in the social reality of that period.

Today most scholars of comparative religions, including feminists, would agree that primitive matriarchy is a myth. This does not preclude continued research on male and female roles in prehistoric societies. Because fieldwork has not confirmed the existence of even a single matriarchal society, the matriarchy controversy is a quasi-religious issue that has no place in the serious study of goddess worship. Far more important is the contemporary scholarship of feminists who seek to deepen the understanding of the relationship of human nature to religion without invoking dubious nineteenth-century issues like primitive matriarchy. In much of this work women are searching for a new focus of identity in the modern world. Goddess worship has been intimately linked to this quest.

The feminist revival of goddess worship

One reason for the increasing popularity of goddess worship as a subject of inquiry is the expanding influence and scholarly development of women's studies. According to Carol Christ (in Olson, 1983, p. 235) feminist writings about the gender of deities reflect two distinct types of argumentation: (1) religions that stress the maleness of the supreme being deify the masculine principle and see it as the only source of legitimate authority; (2) the attribution of male qualities to deities reflects distorted concepts derived from alienated male experience in Western societies. Feminists who use the first argument stress the need to eliminate masculine pronouns and gender-specific titles from Jewish and Christian scriptures and liturgy to restore authority to women. Feminists who assert the second argument oppose this simple solution because in their eyes the distorted male image of divinity in Western religions cannot be removed by merely changing gender-specific language. They argue that the symbolism will remain biased because of the dualistic, conquest-oriented, patriarchal, and hierarchical infrastructure that underlies these male-oriented religions.

Carol Christ (in Olson, 1983, pp. 238248) presents a schematic view of feminist solutions to the problem of gender in the worship of deities. According to this scholar, there are four approaches advanced by feminist theologians to resolve the problem of male symbolism of God: (1) male symbols of God can be reinterpreted in nonoppressive ways; (2) language used to refer to God can be made androgynous; (3) female symbolism for the Supreme Being must be introduced in order to create an imagery that reflects dual gender; (4) male symbolism must be deemphasized to provide an opportunity for the Great Goddess, whose existence has been obscured by this symbolism, to reclaim her ascendancy. Western feminists are experimenting with many different ways to introduce female sacred imagery into Judaism and Christianity.

Those feminists who believe sexism to be an integral part of Western religions want no part in saving them from what they see as built-in sexist biases; instead, they advocate a reemergent goddess worship as a focus of religiosity appropriate to complex modern life. These feminists are actively developing extensive experimental liturgies for raising consciousness about goddess worship, both as it existed in antiquity and in religions outside of Western civilization. Thus, goddess worship and imagery are considered to be the focus of a new power for women rooted in the women's liberation movement and grounded in a new symbol system. The Spiral Dance by Starhawk is a recipe for the rebirth of an "ancient religion of the Great Goddess." It reflects the conviction among some feminists that goddess worship is a source of strength and creativity for women, and also provides an antidote to the regrettable patriarchal "conquest of nature" theme that characterizes Western thought.

The debate among feminists about these social and theological issues has been a healthy source of revitalization not only in terms of the reawakening of the study of goddess worship but also in terms of scholarly inquiry into assumptions about human nature that lie at the heart of Western religions. The growing literature in this field promises to shed new light on the role of goddess worship in the contemporary world. Consequently, one can expect a steadily increasing growth in the amount of research on the veneration of female deities, deriving particularly from the work of those contemporary feminists who are intentionally constructing new myths to transform traditional patterns of goddess worship into forms that give women a stronger sense of their own identity, power, and meaning in the modern world. Thus, the feminist movement is a major contributing factor in the revitalization of goddess worship as a topic of inquiry among popular writers and scholars in different disciplines.

The new comparative religions

A significant new direction is developing in the social sciences after the long siege of behaviorism in psychology and historical particularism in anthropology. The revolt against the errors of nineteenth-century armchair theoreticians has come to an end. This is reflected in a new comparative religions, which focuses once again on the main themes of human religious experience. Instead of working from a dubious, in fact erroneous, data base, the new comparative religionists are treating these universal themes with the benefit of more than fifty years of extensive field work conducted in various cultures by cautious social scientists. Since the mid-1970s social scientists and religion specialists have been working together more closely. The result is the publication of numerous volumes devoted to the main themes of religion, such as sacrifice, death, rebirth, rites of passage, the evil eye, pilgrimage, and goddess worship. These new works are neither too speculative nor overly cautious about exploring panhuman dimensions of religious experience.

One of the most widely publicized and heavily attended sessions at the American Anthropological Association meetings in San Francisco during 1975 was entitled "Anthropological Inquiries into Mother Worship." This session resulted eventually in an edited volume on the topic (Preston, 1982).

The mid-1970s marked a watershed in the anthropological study of religion. Since that time some anthropologists have been about the business of synthesizing a vast amount of data accumulated over the years on various dimensions of religion. Much of this new information was isolated previously in the contexts of specific ethnographies devoted to the elaboration of particular cultural descriptions. The large numbers of people who attended the session on goddess worship in San Francisco were not attracted by any "star quality" scholars making their usual erudite presentations, but rather the time was ripe for introducing once again a topic that had remained more or less dormant for several decades. An extensive amount of data had been gathered on goddess worship in many different cultural contexts, and no one knew what to do with it. Scholars were seeking a new frame of reference. Historians of religion had been synthesizing the work of anthropologists for years. It was now time for anthropologists to return to their original task of making sense of a topic like goddess worship by placing it in a comparative framework.

The new approach to goddess worship, though cautious, strives to retain a delicate balance between cultural context and the broader panhuman issues that continue to be vital in the comparative study of religion. Despite the early years of ambitious speculation and the later period of overcautious skepticism, many questions about goddess worship remain unanswered. More knowledge about the relationship between male and female deities is needed. Why in some religions are female sacred images almost totally absent? What about the role of goddess worship in the development of complex forms of social organization? Why do female sacred images continue to thrive, even in Communist countries where religion is not officially sanctioned? How do the personal religious experiences of devotees who turn to goddesses differ from those who turn to male gods for answers to their prayers? Why is goddess worship associated with such great antiquity? How does the worship of female deities fit into the postindustrial world? The new comparative religions, with its balanced perspective that incorporates questions of panhuman and culturally specific levels of analysis, has been another stimulus for the revitalization of major themes of religious significance shared by human beings the world over.

No single theory is adequate to explain the multifaceted phenomenon of goddess worship. What deeply felt impulse is there that continuously kindles the veneration of female sacred images for thousands of years among human populations? Are Victor Turner and Edith Turner (1978, p. 236) correct when they ask whether the resurgent interest in female sacred images during the modern era is an index of discontent with male iconoclasm, technology, progress, and bureaucratization? Elsewhere this author has written (Preston, 1982, pp. 340341) that the loneliness of urban life, the contemporary emphasis on independence, the fast pace of technological society, and the radical severing of humankind's relationship with the earth have left people in postindustrial societies with a deep sense of disenchantment that is perceived to have the potential to be healed by a return to sacred qualities, which are often considered to be best expressed through a divine mother image. Even if one does not agree with the Jungian idea of a feminine archetype, all humans understand the mother-infant bond and recognize the related universal symbol of the womb as mother of life. The worship of female sacred images is deeply entwined with a panhuman experience of this primary bond. While not every incidence of goddess worship is an expression of the attempt by humans to return to the primary bond of origin, there can be no doubt this theme underlies the strong continuity of goddess worship expressed in so many different forms and in such great profusion throughout the world.

See Also

Archetypes; Women's Studies in Religion.


Bachofen, J. J. Myth, Religion, and Mother Right. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Princeton, 1967. A selection of writings translated from Bachofen's Mutterrecht und Urreligion. Here Bachofen elaborates on his controversial but dated theory asserting a predetermined universal stage of matriarchy associated with goddess worship.

Binford, Sally R. "Myths and Matriarchies." Anthropology 81/82 1 (1981): 150153. A brief but excellent critique of the current matriarchy controversy. The author is critical of the branch of feminists who cannot accept the fact that there is no evidence for matriarchy. An important source for illustrating the error of predicting sex roles through analysis of sacred images.

Briffault, Robert. The Mothers (1927). Abridged by Gordon R. Taylor. New York, 1977. A classic last attempt to argue for the nineteenth-century idea linking goddess worship with matriarchy. This voluminous work is outdated. It no longer represents the thinking of contemporary social theorists on the topic.

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God, vol. 1, Primitive Mythology. New York, 1959. This work explores the early Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic roots of goddess worship. It represents the Jungian orientation toward a universal Great Goddess. Somewhat dated but useful as a secondary source if read critically.

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God, vol. 2, Oriental Mythology. New York, 1962. This work is encyclopedic in scope and refers frequently to goddess worship in Eastern religious traditions. Much Jungian generalization here, but still useful.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. "A Marxist Reappraisal of the Matriarchate." Current Anthropology 20 (June 1979): 341360. An excellent discussion of current anthropological thinking on the matriarchate with implications for goddess worship. Particularly important is the author's attack on the idea that goddess worship represents an epoch of mother-rule in human history.

James, E. O. The Cult of the Mother Goddess. New York, 1959. A thorough discussion of goddess worship derived from archaeological and documentary evidence for the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean, and India. An excellent source although some of the interpretation is dated.

Marshack, Alexander. The Roots of Civilization. New York, 1972. An outstanding analysis of Upper Paleolithic data on goddess worship, suggesting the phenomenon is part of a complex notational system rather than merely fertility symbolism. While Marshack's thesis may be controversial, the volume is a rich source of information and remains a major scholarly contribution.

Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. 2d ed. Princeton, N.J., 1963. This is one of the most comprehensive discussions of goddess worship ever written. It represents the most thorough treatment of the subject from a Jungian psychological perspective. While some of the interpretation is overly speculative, it is still a valuable resource.

Olson, Carl, ed. The Book of the Goddess, Past and Present: An Introduction to Her Religion. New York, 1983. This is one of the most recent volumes dedicated to the study of female deities. The contributions to this book represent a wide variety of studies of goddess worship written by historians of religion and feminists. The articles are uneven; some are excellent, others poor. The editor does not supply an overall synthesis or index.

Preston, James J., ed. Mother Worship: Theme and Variations. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982. This volume is the most comprehensive and up-to-date collection of data about goddess worship in the field of anthropology. Particularly useful as a source of primary data from firsthand fieldwork on the phenomenon with a comprehensive introduction and conclusion discussing contemporary issues in the study of female sacred images.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco, 1979. The author attempts to revitalize goddess worship as a focus of worship for feminists. Though erroneous assumptions are made here, the basic thrust of attempting to develop new forms of religious expression is important.

Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. New York, 1978. An excellent treatment of various Marian shrines within the context of pilgrimage. One of the few anthropological studies of Christianity.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York, 1976. An excellent study of Marianism attacking the erroneous idea the female sacred images and women's roles are equivalent.

Wasson, R. Gordon, Carl A. P. Ruck, and Albert Hofmann. The Road to Eleusis. New York, 1978. A controversial and provocative discussion of the Greek mystery religion suggesting the possible use of psychotropic drugs.

New Sources

Beckman, Gary. "Goddess Worship: Ancient and Modern." In A Wise and Discerning Mind: Essays in Honor of Burke O. Long. Edited by Saul M. Olyan and Robert C. Cully, pp. 1123. Providence, 2000.

King, Karen L., ed. Women and Goddess Traditions: In Antiquity and Today. Minneapolis, 1997.

Mor, Barbara, and Monica Sjöö. The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth. San Francisco, 1987.

Orr, Leslie C. "Recent Studies of Hindu Goddesses." Religious Studies Review 25, no. l (1999): 239246.

James J. Preston (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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