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Human Body: Myths and Symbolism


One of the great intellectual and spiritual problems throughout human history has been posed by the fact that certain material substances, which are now termed "organic," possess life, while other matter does not. The observation that some things eat, drink, grow, and reproduce for a finite period of time, then cease to do so, prompts fundamental inquiries into the nature of life and death, time and change, meaning and meaninglessness, and also gives rise to speculation about the nature of living substancesspecifically as to what it is that sets them apart from those that are dead and inert. Such speculations, until the very recent past, were hardly confined to technical issues of biochemistry and biophysics. Rather, physiology entailed the study of life, humanity, and the universe; as such, it had always a profoundly religious dimension.

Although there have been countless different systems of religio-physiological speculation that enjoyed currency at one time and place or another, two general patterns are particularly well attested and noteworthy for the pointed way in which they frame the problematic of organic matter. These are the dualism of body and soul (which radically differentiates the life principle from all else) and the homologization of microcosm and macrocosm (which systematically correlates the body with the world outside).

With regard to the first, dualistic physiology posits a radical distinction between base matter and some nonmaterial life principle which inheres only within certain material aggregates for a period of finite duration. The entry of this life principlebe it defined as soul, spirit, breath, warmth, or the likevivifies and energizes the matter in which it resides; when it departs, death is the result. Such a dualism is implicit in the familiar account of the creation of the first human being in Genesis 2:7, where the body is carefully differentiated from the life principle, with only the latter deriving directly from Yahveh himself: "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being."

Such a dualism inevitably connotes a devaluation of the body in relation to the life principle. To a certain extent, the two are contrasted to one another so that soul is to body as sacred is to profane. The logic of this analogy, however, demands a mythology, cosmology, and metaphysics that attempt to resolve the questions of how and why a divine, immaterial life principle can reside within a profane material body, and what the ultimate fate of this life principle may be. Genesis posits an earthly origin for the body of the first man (whose very name, Adam, "clay," underscores this fact) and a divine origin for his life principle, breathed into him by a benevolent creator. The analysis of death in Hebrew scripture follows as a corollary to this, for the body is returned to the dust from which it came, while the life force is breathed back to God with the final (literal) expiration (Eccl. 12:7, Ps. 104:29).

A more emphatically dualistic understanding of the human condition, supported by a much more elaborate mythology and cosmology, is to be found in the Manichaean system. Although the details differ somewhat from one textual source to another, the basic outlines of Mani's views are reasonably consistent throughout. Within Mani's universe, two realms initially stood separate from one another, these being characterized sometimes as the realms of light and darkness, good and evil, God and matter, or the truth and the lie. From the realm of light, it is told there ventured forth a being, a son of God, known as Primeval Man, Ohrmazd, and by other names. This figure took with him his own five sons, who were the beneficent elements of air, wind, light, water, and fire (but note the absence of earth!), and he attached these elements to his body in order that they might serve as armor to protect him. His expedition, however, ended in defeat, and as a result particles of light came to be intermixed with dark, gross, earthly matter. As one Manichaean hymn describes it:

Angry became z ["Desire"],
that evil mother of all demons,
and she made a heavy disturbance
for the sake of helping herself.
And of the dirt of the demons
and of the filth of the she-demons
she made this body,
and she herself entered it.
Then from the five Elements of Light,
the armor of Lord Ohrmazd,
she formed the good soul
and fettered it into the body.
She made it like one blind and deaf,
unconscious and deceived,
that he at first might not know
his true origin and family.
She created the body and prison,
and fettered the grieved soul. (trans. Jes P. Asmussen)

The problem that then faced Manichaeans was how to regain knowledge of the origin and true nature of the light within them, how to separate it from the disgusting bodily matter with which it was now commingled, and how to return italong with as many other light particles as possibleto the celestial realm of light. In pursuit of salvation, the Manichaean elect were called upon to purify themselves through meditation, sexual abstinence, withdrawal from normal labor, and a fascinating set of dietary practices. Above all, their prescribed diet emphasized items that were extremely light in color, such as melons and cucumbers, for these were considered to have within them many particles of light. Proper ingestion was thus understood to be the absorption of light, while defecation was the voiding of dark matter. Over time the elect was expected to modify the mixture of darkness and light within his body in favor of the latter, in preparation for the ascent of this concentrated light to its primordial, heavenly home. Bodily processes thus, ironically, became the mechanism for salvation from the bodily prison. Turning to the second general pattern of religio-physiological speculation, one may take as an example of the homologization of microcosm and macrocosm the general Indo-European system of creation mythology. This system rests upon two elegantly symmetrical myths: a cosmogony, in which is described the creation of the universe from the body of the first man; and an anthropogony, describing the creation of the first man out of parts of the universe. Germanic sources offer excellent examples of both. Consider, for instance, this cosmogonic account:

From Ymir's flesh the earth was made
and from his sweat, the sea;

Mountains from his bones, trees from his hair,
and heaven from his skull.

From his brows built the gentle gods
Midgard for the sons of men;

And from his brain shaped they all the clouds,
Which were hard in mood. (Grímnismál 4041)

Although the following anthropogonic account exhibits a superficial Christianization, having been written in the fifteenth century ce, the bulk of its contents derive from the pre-Christian tradition, as is seen from the way it preserves the same pattern as the pagan cosmogony cited above:

God made the first manthat was Adamfrom eight transformations: his bone from stone, his flesh from earth, his blood from water, his heart from wind, his thoughts from clouds, his sweat from dew, the locks of his hair from grass, and his eyes from the sun. (Code of Emsig)

What is established in texts such as theseIndic, Iranian, Baltic, Slavic, Greek, Roman, and Celtic parallels could also be adducedis the fundamental consubstantiality of the human body and the universe. The intent of these myths is to demonstrate in convincing detail that the cosmos is composed of the very same matter as is the body, and vice versa, the only difference between the two being one of scale. Flesh, for instance, is only the small-scale version of soil, and stone the large-scale version of bones, the two latter being the dense hard matter located within earth and flesh, respectively. A less obvious homology is that between brain and clouds, which seems to rest upon three perceived similarities: location in the upper regions of the body or world, crenellated shape, and quasi insubstantiality (although this last is more appropriate to thoughts than to the brain itself).

Like flesh and earth or bones and stones, brain and clouds were understood to be alloformsalternative incarnationsof one another. In all, nine sets of alloformic homologies, beyond the general one of body/universe, may be confidently reconstructed for the Indo-European system: flesh/earth, bone/stone, hair/grass, blood/water, eyes/sun, mind/moon, brain/cloud, skull/rim of heaven, and breath/wind. These detailed homologies gave concrete expression to a sweeping religious vision in which the unity of humanity and the cosmos, of matter and spirit were resoundingly affirmed; they also provided the basic building blocks for a variety of ritual actions.

Among these rituals, one of the most important was sacrifice. This was no mere gift exchange but a ceremony in which the very cosmos was sustained as matter drawn from the bodily parts of the victim was transformed into its macrocosmic alloform, replenishing and renewing thereby the universe, in repetition of the cosmogony: bones became stones, flesh became earth, and so on. Healing rituals were also based upon knowledge of the homologic relation between body and cosmos. Broken bones might thus be knit by the introduction of matter drawn from stones, flesh injuries healed by application of earth, and loss of hair reversed by rubbing plants into the scalpas is attested in an Indic charm, in which the priest addresses first the plant to be used and then the patient:

You are a goddess, born upon the divine earth, O Plant!
We dig you now, you who stretch downward, in order to make the hairs firm.

Make the old ones firm; cause to be born those which are
still unborn, and make those which have been born grow longer.

That hair of yours which falls out, and that which is
cut off with its roots still attached

This now I sprinkle with the all-healing herb! (Atharvaveda 6.136)

The posited efficacy of this cure rests on the alloformic relation of hair and plants. Plants were taken to be nothing other than an alternative form for the same matter also present in hair, and the knowledgeable priest could ritually transform this matter back into hair when the need arose. Traces of this ideology and ritual persist today in the enduring popularity of herbal shampoos, conditioners, and hair tonics.

The same physiological views that gave rise to such cures for baldness inform more serious questions of life and death, for at death, bodily matter was taken to be transformed into its macrocosmic counterparts, again in repetition of cosmogonic events. Witness this Middle Persian text:

There are five collectors, receptacles of the corporeal substance of those who have died. One is the earth, which is the keeper of flesh and bone and sinew. The second is water, which is the keeper of blood. The third is the plants, preservers of bodily hair and the hair of the head. The fourth is light, the recipient of fire. Last is the wind, which is the life-breath of creatures at the time of the Renovation. (Zadspram 34.37)

The Renovation (Frashokereti) referred to in the last line of this passage is the eschaton, the moment of world renewal and final purification. The reference is a pointed one, for among the culminating events of this end time is the resurrection (Pahl., ristāxēz ) of the dead, a process that reverses that of death, taking matter from its macrocosmic incarnation and restoring it to bodily existence; this is spelled out in another Middle Persian source, which states that in order to accomplish the resurrection "Ohrmazd [the Wise Lord] summons bone from the earth, blood from the water, hair from the plants, and life-breath from the wind" (Pahlavi Rivāyat accompanying Dādistān i dīnīg 48.55).

If death repeats the cosmogony of this system, it is also apparent that resurrection repeats the anthropogony. Bodily incarnation is but one phase of an eternal existence, in which the same material substance moves from body to cosmos to body to cosmos ad infinitum, death and (re)birth being but moments of transition. Knowledge of the body thus amounts to knowledge of the universe, from which it is inseparable and of which it is the counterpart. Moreover, reverence for one amounts to reverence for the other.

In presenting these two systemsbody-soul dualism and homology of microcosm and macrocosmwe have focused on attitudes toward and analyses of the origin, nature, and destiny of the body: on the material body as a topic for speculation. But one must also consider the body as a metaphor and a means of communication, for in addition to its being a topic for thought, the body is also a medium for expression. Highly visible to others, the body is something social as well as material, something that does not simply exist but acts and speaks as well. Displayed, viewed, commented upon, criticized, and interpreted, bodies provide powerful vehicles for the discussion of cultural norms and values.

Among the Navajo of the American Southwest, for example, central cultural values are elegantly summarized within the multiple usages of the term hózhǫ́, the semantic range of which spans social norms and etiquette, health and healing, ethics, religion, and aesthetics. Usually translated "beauty," hózhǫ́ denotes something considerably broader than its English equivalent, referring specifically to a state of order, harmony, dynamic balance, and well-beingin short, all that is desirable and makes life pleasant, stable, interesting, and worthwhile. Yet the translation "beauty" is more a condensation than an oversimplification, for it is possession of these qualities that, according to the Navajo, makes and marks anything as beautiful.

Given such a view, physical beauty is quite naturally highly valued, for it is understood to be the visible form produced by an inner state, specifically by that inner state that makes a person cooperative, dependable, productive, and beneficial to others. Moreover, such beauty is contagious, and can be transmitted from one person to another. That is to say, one who is at peace with himself/herself, possessing a balanced, well-ordered (hózhǫ́ ) mental and emotional state, communicates this to others, leading them to relax and enjoy the same well-being, which they may then transmit to still others. That physical beauty may also be transmitted follows as a natural corollary of this line of thought, and a regular feature of a Navajo woman's initiation ritual is the "molding" of the initiand by an older woman who is recognized as beautiful in the fullest sense of the word. By the pressure of her bodyapplied in strenuous massagesand by the force of her personality, this woman is expected to shape the body and life of the young woman so that she too will enjoy and exhibit hózhǫ́.

Costume and adornment may also carry hózhǫ́ and transmit it, as is most clearly stated regarding silver jewelry. These objects will be beautiful only if they have been made by artisans who are in a state of hózhǫ́, the visible beauty of the objects being the result and expression of their makers' inner beauty. Worn proudly, they communicate balance, rhythm, energy, order, and stability to those who wear them and to any who behold them, transforming their lives and making them more beautiful in the process.

Body decoration is also an important means for communicating cultural values and transforming life experience throughout New Guinea, as is evident, for instance, in the Mount Hagen area, where such practices have been intensively studied by Andrew and Marilyn Strathern (1971). For all important public occasions, Mount Hageners decorate their faces with brilliant painted patterns, and their bodies with oils, shells, plumes, furs, wigs, and fancy aprons. Most of these items are obtained through trade or loan, and involve the wearer in a complex system of socioeconomic bonds, the successful maintenance of which is indispensable in putting together an impressive costume. Moreover, the wearing of such a costume is a public display of one's success in establishing and maintaining the friendship, kinship, marital, and trading relations necessary for costuming and for life. Nor is body decoration merely the proud display of past success in these relations; it is also a means to ensure future success, especially in marriage and trade, for an effective costume is understood to be one that is attractivethat literally attracts future wives and trading partners to the wearer.

It should be stressed that among Mount Hageners, body decoration is not an individualistic display born of personal ambition or vanity. Rather, it is something undertaken by a corporate group, most often a clan, who paint their faces and arrange their ornaments for a given occasion in accordance with a prearranged pattern set by a "Big Man." Within the clan, members compete to produce the finest costume while adhering to the common pattern, but they also compete as a group against other clans for the prestige of having the finest decorations. Success in such competition can come only when the clan has the support of its ancestral spirits, and such support is ensured by two methods. First, sacrifices to the ancestors are offered prior to any occasion of public display, thereby cementing good relations between the living and the dead. Second, good relations among clansmen must also be maintained, for the ancestors are outraged by moral failings and friction within the clan group, and will withhold their support should these be present.

In the Mount Hagen area, then, not only is it true that body decoration is a means for announcing and commenting upon social values, but the set of rituals and beliefs associated with body decoration serves as a buttress for those values. As the Stratherns cogently argue:

The two central values are clan solidarity and prestige, and individual wealth and well-being. This suggests why it is so appropriate that Hageners decorate themselves for it is men and women as persons who remain the points of reference of these values. This is not to deny that the value of group solidarity could be expressed in many other ways, for example by cult buildings or statues. But decorations and dancing provide an excellent mechanism for demonstrating both of the two values together. Moreover, the values are to some extent complementary rather than opposed. Hageners hold, in fact, that in this context the prestige of the clan coincides with that of its members. It is themselves that they decorate, for it is through men's personal achievements that renown is brought to them and their clan alike. (Strathern and Strathern, 1971, pp. 172173)

The Navajo and Mount Hagen examples and others like them are particularly important for showing the rich and varied ways in which the body may be used to articulate and activate complex systems of thought and values. At a more generaland thus, of necessity, more superficiallevel, certain recurrent patterns of symbolic discourse centered on the body have been identified and analyzed, Raymond Firth, for instance, has singled out four general styles of body symbolism, which may be termed the gestural, the membral, the reliquary, and the corporate, although Firth himself does not make use of these (or any other) specific identifying terms.

Gestural symbolism, for its part, involves the use of an individual actor's body in a deliberately chosen stance or motion to express an attitude or idea, as, for instance, when one kneels in prayer or submission as a means of acknowledging the superior power and stature of some other being, while simultaneously showing one's humility in the face of that being. In contrast, membral symbolism is utilized more in speech acts than in bodily action, for it employs reference to a specific bodily part in order to make statements about abstract personal qualities, as in the common metaphors "big-hearted" (generous) or "silver-tongued" (eloquent). Reliquary symbolism is related to both gestural and membral symbolism in certain ways. Like the latter, it makes use of bodily parts rather than bodily wholes, but like the former, it employs a real body rather than an imagined or metaphorical one. In specific, in reliquary symbolism a piece of the body of some revered figurea saint, prophet, ancestor, or lover, to cite a few possibilitiesbecomes the focal object for one's emotional attachment, as with a lock of hair worn around the neck or a saint's enshrined remains.

Most interesting and important, however, is the corporate pattern, in which the entire human body is presented as a model or replica of the social "body," with detailed resemblances between the constituent units of society and the bodily members. Political leaders or others in positions of primacy may thus be described as the "head," "heart," or "backbone" of society, as a means to describe the ways in which they direct, vivify, or support the social grouping. More unusual is the way in which a Roman legend, the so-called Apologue of Menenius Agrippa, employs corporate imagery. The story, as told by Livy and others, is that at a certain moment in Roman history, the lower classes of society (the plebes) withdrew from the city of Rome, outraged at their exploitation by the ruling Patrician class. Unwilling to confront them militarilyfor victory or defeat would be equally disastrousthe Patricians sent an ambassador, one Menenius Agrippa, who recounted the following parable to the rebellious orders:

There was a time when man's bodily parts did not agree in unity, as they do now, but individual limbs had their own opinions and their own powers of speech. Then, the other parts were outraged at having to work for the belly, while the belly rested idly, savoring their delicious gifts. So they plotted that the hands would not take food to the mouth, the mouth wouldn't swallow, and the teeth wouldn't chew. As a result, they starved the belly and all of them wasted away together. It thereby became apparent that the belly is no idler, but just as others feed it, it feeds the rest of the body. (Livy, 2.32.911)

Debate here centers on whether the upper classes are parasitic or not, an issue discussed through body symbolism; the parable asks how the belly shall be understood, but it is evident from the frame-story that the real issue is how society will be ordered.

Often, corporate symbolism is used to charter and legitimate social stratification, as in the celebrated Vedic creation hymn, gveda 10.90 (see especially verses 1112), in which priests are said to have been created from the first man's mouth, warriors and kings from his arms, the class of food producers and merchants from his thighs, and the servant class from his feet. Similar systems are found in Slavic and Greek texts (the Poem on the Dove King and Plato's Timaeus 69d70a and Republic 431ad), although certain details differ. In all cases, however, the position of the dominant social classnumerically smallest but greatest in power and prestigeis justified by comparison to a bodily part (usually the head, sometimes an organ within the head, like the mouth or brain) that is smaller than other bodily parts, representing other social classes, but is placed vertically above them and enjoys some measure of executive control over them. Through this use of corporate imagery, the social order is represented as if it were a natural, thus inviolable, order.

On the horizontal plane, as on the vertical, corporate imagery is also regularly used to represent and reinforce social hierarchies. The polarity of right and left (dextrous and sinister) is here a dominant symbol, by use of which subordination of women to men or of radicals to reactionaries, to cite but two examples, may conveniently be coded. The power of such imagery derives in large measure from the numerous polarities to which right and left are consistently associated, among them light/dark, even/odd, hand used in eating/hand used after defecation, culture/nature, purity/pollution, and sacred/profane.

The distinction between what is inside the body and what is outside is also crucial for countless systems of corporate symbolism that stress the difference between what is self and what is alien, what is contained and what is not, what ordered and what chaotic. Reflections on bodily images of inside and outside, moreover, give rise to the extremely thorny problematic of mediation, for there are certain placesthe bodily orificeswhere inside and outside meet, and certain substancesfood and bodily products of all sorts (urine, feces, tears, sexual fluids, saliva, mucus, pus)which pass from outside to inside or vice versa. Attitudes toward, and proscribed behaviors (taboos) regarding, these interstitial places and products may thus serve as a means for expressing and working out attitudes toward other borderssocial, political, ethnic, taxonomic, or broadly cognitiveas has been forcefully argued by Mary Douglas (1966).

It would be a relatively simple matter to multiply examples almost endlessly for these and other patterns of body symbolism and speculation upon the nature of the body, so widespread have they been. Any thorough study of the religious significance of the body ought to include discussions of systems of physical discipline and the overcoming of fleshly existence, as found in Yoga, among the Jains, and within branches of Christian monasticism; attempts at the winning of bodily immortality as in Daoist and Western alchemy; and systems of bodily ornamentation and expression such as tattooing, scarification, dance, and masquerade. It is important to bear in mind that rich examples may as easily be drawn from one's own culture as from exotic realms, a point delightfully made in Horace Miner's classic essay "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" (1956), in which he describes the cultic significance of such Nacirema (American spelled backward) customs as the brushing of teeth and the use of deodorants. Nor is Miner's point mere satire; the rituals and ideology of European and American bodybuilders, dancers, dieters, joggers, healthcare professionals, and fashion designers might well stand comparison to those of the Manichaeans, Navajo, or Mount Hageners.

See Also

Bodily Marks; Clothing; Eye; Feet; Hair; Hands; Head; Heart; Knees; Nudity; Phallus and Vagina; Postures and Gestures; Relics; Soul; Yoni.


On the general theme of body symbolism and ideas regarding the nature of the body, a number of useful essays are to be found in two volumes: The Body as a Medium of Expression, edited by Jonathan Benthall and Ted Polhemus (New York, 1975), and The Anthropology of the Body, edited by John Blacking (New York, 1977).

On the dualism of body and soul, the fullest study remains Ugo Bianchi's Il dualismo religioso: Saggio storico ed etnologico, 2d ed. (Rome, 1983). Also of value are Bianchi's Prometeo, Orfeo, Adamo (Rome, 1976), Simone Pétrement's Le dualisme chez Platon, les gnostiques, et les manichéens (Paris, 1946), and Ioan P. Culianu's "Demonisation du cosmos et dualisme gnostique," Revue de l'histoire des religions 196 (1979): 340.

On the homology of microcosm and macrocosm, most recently, see my Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction (Cambridge, Mass., 1986); Bai Wen Bian, or the Hundred Questions: A Dialogue between Two Daoists on the Macrocosmic and Microcosmic System of Correspondences, translated by Rolf Homan (Leiden, 1976); and Leonard Barkan's Nature's Work of Art; The Human Body as Image of the World (New Haven, Conn., 1975), the last of which deals with the popularity of this theme in England in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

On the Navajo ideas of beauty, see Gary Witherspoon's Language and Art in the Navajo Universe (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1977) and Louise Lincoln's "Navajo Silver, Navajo Aesthetics," in Southwest Indian Silver from the Doneghy Collection, edited by Louise Lincoln (Austin, 1982). On body ornamentation in New Guinea, see Andrew Strathern and Marilyn Strathern's Self-Decoration in Mount Hagen (London, 1971). More general works on body decoration, such as Robert Brain's The Decorated Body (London, 1979) or André Virel's Decorated Man: The Human Body as Art (New York, 1970), tend to have splendid photos and rather banal texts. On costume, however, The Fabrics of Culture: Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment, edited by Justine Cordwell (The Hague, 1979), contains some excellent essays. The studies of dance, gesture, and facial expression, while still in their infancies, are ably discussed in several of the essays in Benthall and Polhemus's The Body as a Medium of Expression (cited above).

Raymond Firth's discussion of patterns of body symbolism is found in his volume entitled Symbols: Public and Private (Ithaca, N.Y., 1973), in which see especially pages 226230. Vertical stratification along lines suggested by the structure of the human body is discussed in my Myth, Cosmos, and Society (cited above), especially chapter 7. Polarity of left and right is the central theme of the essays in Right and Left: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification, edited by Rodney Needham (Chicago, 1973) and Serge Tcherkézoff's Le roi Nyamwezi, la droit et la gauche (New York, 1983). On bodily margins and orifices, the most important work remains Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London, 1966).

Horace Miner's essay on "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" first appeared in American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 503507 and has frequently been reprinted. Valuable primary data on American ideologies of the body can be found in such popular volumes as Charles Gaines and George Butler's Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding (New York, 1982) or John T. Molloy's Dress for Success (New York, 1975).

Discussions on Manichaean, Jain, yogic, Christian monastic, and Daoist ideas of the body will be found in the works cited in the bibliographies to the relevant articles for each of these traditions. Of special note regarding the last of these, however, is Kristofer Schipper's "The Daoist Body," History of Religions 17 (1978): 355387.

New Sources

Camporesi, Piero. The Incorruptible Flesh: Bodily Mutation and Mortification in Religion and Folklore. Translated by Tania Croft-Murray; Latin texts translated by Helen Elsom. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988.

Coakley, Sarah, ed. Religion and the Body. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1997.

Cooey, Paula M. Religious Imagination and the Body: A Feminist Analysis. New York, 1994.

Eisler, Riane Tennenhaus. Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body. San Francisco, 1995.

Feher, Michel, Ramona Naddaff, and Nadia Tazi, eds. Fragments for a History of the Human Body. New York and Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Law, Jane Marie, ed. Religious Reflections on the Human Body. Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1995.

Martin, Dale B. The Corinthian Body. New Haven, Conn., 1995.

Bruce Lincoln (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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