Pausanias as novelist: a micro-sample

2018.07.20 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In this post, dated 2018.07.20, I have put together a working retranslation of the sad story of Komaithο, priestess in love, as retold by Pausanias at 7.18.8–7.20.2. Some essential parts of this story have already been paraphrased at §1 in the post for 2018.07.13, but now I need to look at the whole story. And, for that, I need to share my working translation, which is also available in the larger context of A Pausanias Reader in Progress. Also, in the post here, I will add to my translation some comments highlighting what I argue are novelistic aspects of the story. For my argumentation, I will be using such words as novelistic, novel, and even novelist, having in mind some remarkable similarities I see between the micro-narrative I have selected from the writings of Pausanias the traveler on the one hand and, on the other, the kinds of macro-narratives that have shaped the genre known to Classicists as the ancient Greek erotic novel.

§1. General comment

§1a. In selecting and then translating the narrative sequence of Pausanias at 7.18.8–7.20.2, which I describe here as a novelistic micro-narrative, I include as a sub-set of that sequence, within the beginning at 7.18.8–7.18.13, a gruesome account of a remarkably cruel practice that our traveler says he actually witnessed while attending a festival of the goddess Artemis in the city of Patrai (to which place I will hereafter refer in its Modern Greek form, Patras, throughout my comments; throughout my actual translation, however, I will continue to spell the name in its ancient Greek form, Patrai). What Pausanias says in this sub-set of the overall narrative sequence, as we will see in the translation that follows, is that the climactic event of the festival in Patras—a festival that was celebrated by them every year—was a spectacular fire that they would set at the altar of Artemis. There they would sacrifice wild animals by burning them alive in the flames of the fire. To read an eyewitness account of such extreme cruelty, I argue, is to experience a novelistic frame for the embedded story of the passionate love affair experienced once upon a time in Patras by the priestess Komaitho with her lover Melanippos. The intensity of the cruel behavior in the ritual matches here the intensity of passionate love in myth—as encoded in the embedded story retold by Pausanias. And it is relevant here, as I will argue, that the name Kom-aithō means, literally, ‘whose head-of-hair is flaming-red’. I already had this meaning in mind when I selected as the cover picture for this post a fanciful image of the apocryphal Lilith.


“Lady Lilith” (finished 1873). Dante Gabriel Rossetti (English, 1828–1882). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1b. The matching goes deeper. The extreme cruelty it would take to perform this animal sacrifice in ritual sets the narrative frame for the extreme cruelty of human sacrifice in myth. The ritual of a yearly animal sacrifice for Artemis needs to be understood in the context of the myth, retold by Pausanias in the text I am about to quote, about a yearly human sacrifice for Artemis. It is as if the cruelty in the myth could somehow become an aetiology for the cruelty in the ritual. In myth, of course, the goddess demands such a horrific yearly practice of human sacrifice as compensation for the primal desecration of her sacred space by that doomed pair of young lovers, Melanippos and the priestess Komaitho, who figure as the very first couple to be sacrificed. And, given that the name of the mythical priestess Komaitho means ‘whose head-of-hair is flaming-red’, I am now ready to consider the possibility of a further horror: it may just be that the myth about this original human sacrifice actually pictured Komaitho and her ardent lover at the climactic moment of being burned to death alive. Such a horrific climax would correspond to the comparably horrific climax of the cruel animal sacrifice witnessed by Pausanias.

§1c. In any case, the matching goes even deeper. The extreme cruelty that is highlighted in the myth about yearly human sacrifice as punishment for illicit sex fueled by passionate love is matched, as I will elaborate when I get to my specific comments at §3, by the likewise extreme cruelty of passionate love itself, which causes young lovers to suffer mightily for their experiences with erōs. The programmatic Greek expression for such experiences, as we learn from Pausanias at 7.19.3, is pathēmata, which means ‘sufferings, emotions’—and which refers both to the emotions of lovers experiencing passionate love or erōs and to the sufferings caused by these emotions. Immediately comparable is the term erōtika pathēmataas used in the introduction to—and in the title of—a prose work by Parthenius of Nicaea, who lived in an era that straddled the first centuries BCE and CE. The use of this term erōtika pathēmata by Parthenius, who collected a wide range of love stories originating from localized myths of the Greek-speaking world, is most relevant to my argumentation here, since the form of the stories retold by Parthenius, as shown most convincingly in a book by Jane Lightfoot (1999), is closely related to the form or genre that we recognize as the ancient Greek erotic novel. On the basis of such relatedness between the novel on the one hand, and, on the other, erōtika pathēmata as the emotional experiences of passionate love, I find it justifiable to describe as novelistic the analogous story of Melanippos and the red-headed priestess Komiatho as retold by Pausanias. And it is on this same basis that I also justify my description of Pausanias himself as an occasional novelist in his own role as a faithful reteller of such a story. In a similarly novelistic spirit, even before I proceed to my working translation of the story retold by Pausanias, I insert here a gallery of pictures featuring red-headed femmes fatales who seem to me comparable to Komaitho in their looks, if not in their own stories.

“Lady Lilith” (finished 1873). Dante Gabriel Rossetti (English, 1828–1882).
“Lady Lilith” (finished 1873). Dante Gabriel Rossetti (English, 1828–1882). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


“Lilith” (1892). John Collier (English, 1850–1934).
“Lilith” (1892). John Collier (English, 1850–1934). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Action figure (2010) depicting Scarlett Johansson in the role of Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff in Iron Man 2.
Action figure (2010) depicting Scarlett Johansson in the role of Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff in Iron Man 2. Image via Flickr.


“César et Cléopâtre” (before 1866). Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824–1904).
“César et Cléopâtre” (before 1866). Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824–1904). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Painting from Herculaneum of a woman with features resembling those of Cleopatra (1st century CE).
Painting from Herculaneum of a woman with features resembling those of Cleopatra (1st century CE). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§2. A working translation of the relevant text

{7.18.8} On their acropolis the people of Patrai have a sanctuary [hieron] of Artemis Laphria. The name [onoma] of the goddess [theos (feminine)] Laphria is not-native [xenikon], and her statue [agalma] was brought in likewise from elsewhere. Here is why I say this. After Calydon along with the rest of Aetolia had been depopulated by Augustus the basileus [‘king’] so that the Aetolian people might be incorporated [sunoikizesthai] into Nikopolis near Actium, the people of Patrai in this way got to have the statue [agalma] of Laphria.

{7.18.9} Most of the statues [agalmata] originating from Aetolia and from Acarnania were brought [komizesthai] by order of Augustus to Nikopolis, but to Patrai he gave, along with other confiscated-things [laphura] from Calydon, the statue [agalma] of Laphria, which even in my time was still receiving honors [tīmai] on the acropolis of Patrai. It is said that the goddess [theos (feminine)] got the surname [epiklēsis] Laphria after a man from Phokis, because the ancient statue [agalma] of Artemis had been set up [hidrusasthai] at Calydon by Laphrios, the son of Kastalios, the son of Delphos.

{7.18.10} Others say that the anger [mēnīma] of Artemis against Oineus, as time went on, weighed more lightly [elaphroteron] on the Calydonians, and they wishfully-think [ethelein] that this was the reason [aitiā] for the surname [epiklēsis] of the goddess [theos (feminine)]. The pose [skhēma] of the statue [agalma] is a Huntress [thēreuousa]; it is made [poieîn] of ivory and gold. Those who worked on it were Menaikhmos and Soidas, both from Naupaktos, and both of these two, it is inferred-from-the-evidence [tekmairesthai], lived not much later than Kanakhos of Sikyon and Kallon of Aegina.

{7.18.11} The people-of-Patrai [Patreîs] celebrate every year a festival [heortē] called Laphria, which is likewise intended for their [special kind of] Artemis, and, at this festival, there is a [special] way [tropos] of sacrificing [thusiā] that is peculiar-to-the-locale [epikhōrios]. Around the altar [bōmos] in a circle [kuklos] they set logs-of-wood [xula] still green [khlōra], each of them sixteen cubits in length. On the altar [bōmos] within the circle [kuklos] are placed the driest of the logs [xula]. Just before the right-time [kairos] of the festival [heortē] they create a smooth ascent [anodos = an-hodos] to the altar [bōmos], piling earth upon the ascending-steps [anabasmoi] [to form a ramp].

{7.18.12} The first thing that happens is the processing-of-a-procession [pompēn pompeuein]—a most magnificent [megaloprepestatē] procession—for Artemis, and the girl [parthénos] who officiates-as-priestess [hierâsthai], coming up last in [the sequence of] the procession [pompē], rides [okheîtai] in a chariot [harma] yoked to deer. It is, however, not till the next day—yes, this is the day—when they do [drân] the [special] things that they have-the-custom [nomizein] of doing for the sacrifice [thusiā]—both the city [polis], by-way-of-its-public-support [dēmosiāi], and no less so the people, each-one-of-them-as-private-individuals [idiōtai], being-ambitiously-aware-of-the-honor [philotīmōs ekhein] with regard to the festival [heortē]. Here is what I mean. The people throw alive upon the altar [bōmos] edible birds and all kinds of sacrificial-animals [hiereîa] as well; there are wild boars, deer, and gazelles; some even bring wolf-cubs or bear-cubs, others bring the full-grown beasts. They also place upon the altar [bōmos] fruit [karpos] of cultivated trees.

{7.18.13} Next they set fire to the logs [xula]. At this point I saw [theâsthai] some of the animals, including a bear, trying to force-their-way [biazesthai] out, at the first rush of the fire—some of them actually escaping by brute force. But those who threw them in would drag them back again to the pyre [purā]. It is not remembered that anybody has ever been wounded by the animals.

{7.19.1} Between the temple [nāos] of [Artemis] Laphria and the altar [bōmos] has been built the tomb [mnēma] of Eurypylos. Before my narrative [logos] about who he was and for what reason [aitiā] he came to this land I will first tell about the existing state of affairs at the time of his arrival. The Ionians who inhabited [oikeîn] Aroe, Antheia, and Mesatis had in-common [en koinōi] a precinct [temenos] and a temple [nāos] of Artemis with the surname [epiklēsis] Triklaria, and for her the Ionians used to celebrate [agein] every year a festival [heortē] and an all-night-festivity [pannukhis]. The sacred-title-of-priest(ess) [hierōsunē] of the goddess [theos (feminine)] was to be held by someone who was to be a virgin [parthénos] until the time came for her to be sent to a husband.

{7.19.2} Now they say that once upon a time it happened that the one who was serving-as-priestess [hierâsthai] for the goddess was Komaitho, a most-beautiful [kallistē] virgin [parthénos]. Melanippos—that was his name—was-passionately-in-love [erân] with her. He was far better in good looks than others of his age. When Melanippos led the girl [parthénos] to a degree of passionate-love [erōs] that reached the point of being equal to his own [es tò ison], he approached her father, seeking-permission-to-marry [mnâsthai] her. Somehow old age has a way of opposing the young in very many things, and, most of all, it has a way of being insensitive-to-the-pain [an-algēton] with regard to those who are-passionately-in-love [erân]. That is how it was for Melanippos. Even though Komaitho was ready and willing to get married off just as he was ready and willing to marry her, the response he got even from his own parents, not only from the parents of Komaitho, was anything but gentle [hēmeron].

{7.19.3} The passionate-experiences [pathēmata] of Melanippos, like those of many others, gave-proof [epi-deixai] that passionate-love [erōs] has a way of confusing [sun-kheai] the customary-laws [nomima] of humans [anthrōpoi] and of turning-upside-down [ana-trepsai] the acts-of-honor [tīmai] that are due to the gods [theoi]. That is what happened back then in this case as well. Right inside the sanctuary [hieron] of Artemis, Komaitho and Melanippos had their fill of passionate-love [erōs] in full swing. And, after that, they even got into the habit of using the sanctuary [hieron] as a bridal-chamber [thalamos]. In due time, the anger [mēnīma] of Artemis began to destroy the humans [anthrōpoi]. The earth yielded no harvest [karpos], and there were diseases [nosoi] quite out of the ordinary, since they resulted in an unaccountable number of deaths.

{7.19.4} The people appealed to the oracle [khrēstērion] at Delphi, and the Pythian-priestess [Puthia] accused Melanippos and Komaitho. The oracular-pronouncement [manteuma], reaching the people, ordered that they must sacrifice [thuein] those two [= Melanippos and Komaitho] to Artemis, and that every year [thereafter] they must sacrifice [thuein] to the goddess [theos (feminine)] whoever was the most beautiful girl [parthénos] and boy [pais]. Because of this sacrifice [thusiā], the river flowing by the sanctuary [hieron] of [Artemis] Triklaria was named Ameilikhos [‘not-benign’]. Previously it had no name.

{7.19.5} None of the boys [paides] and girls [parthénoi] who perished because of Melanippos and Komaitho had done anything wrong against the goddesss [theos (feminine)], and yet they still suffered [paskhein] in a most pitiful way, as did also those who were near-and-dear [pros-(h)ēkontes] to them, but those two [= Melanippos and Komaitho], I propose, escaped from misfortune [sumphorā]. I say this because the only thing there is for a human [anthrōpos] that is worth one’s own life in exchange is this: achieving-success [katorthōsai] in loving-passionately [erân].

{7.19.6} It is said that their practice of sacrificing [thuein] humans [anthrōpoi] was put to an end for them [= the people of Patrai] in the following way. Before all this, there-had-been-an-oracular-pronouncement [khrēsthai] for them from Delphi, saying that a king [basileus] who is alien [xenos] will come to the land, bringing with him a superhuman-power [daimōn] who is likewise alien [xenikos], and that this king will put an end to the things having to do with the sacrifice [thusiā] to [Artemis] Triklaria. When Troy [Ilion] was captured, and the Greeks divided the spoils, Eurypylos the son of Euaimon got a chest [larnax]. In the chest was a statue [agalma] of Dionysus, the work [ergon], so they say, of Hephaistos, and given as a gift by Zeus to Dardanos.

{7.19.7} But there are two other narratives [logoi] with regard to this [= the chest]. One is that this chest [larnax] was left behind by Aeneas when he fled [from Troy]; the other, that it was thrown away by Cassandra to become a misfortune [sumphorā] for the one among the Greeks who finds it. Be that as it may, Eurypylos opened the chest [larnax], saw the statue [agalma], and, right after the vision [théā], he went out-of-his-mind [ek-phrōn]. He went on being-in-a-mental state [mainesthai] for the greater part of the time, though occasionally he would get back inside himself. Being in this state, he did not proceed on his sea voyage to Thessaly, but headed for Kirrha and the gulf there. Going uphill to Delphi, he consulted-the-oracle [khrâsthai] about his illness [nosos].

{7.19.8} They say that an oracular-pronouncement [manteuma] was given to him: at whatever place he finds humans [anthrōpoi] who are-sacrificing [thuein] a sacrifice [thusiā] that is alien [xenē], at that place he should set down the chest [larnax] and be-at-home [oikeîn]. Now the ships of Eurypylos were carried down by the wind to the sea off Aroe. On landing he came across a boy [pais] and a girl [parthénos] who had just been brought to the altar [bōmos] of [Artemis] Triklaria. So Eurypylos found it easy to understand the things having to do with the sacrifice [thusiā], while the local-people [epikhōrioi] got themselves back to a remembrance [mnēmē] of the oracular pronouncement [khrēsmos] now that they saw a king [basileus] whom they had never seen before. And they suspected [hupo-noeîn] that the chest [larnax] had some god [theos] inside it.

{7.19.9} So it was, then, that the illness [nosos] of Eurypylos and the things having to do with the sacrifice [thusiā] practiced by these humans [anthrōpoi] came to an end. Also, the river was now given its present name Meilikhos [‘benign’]. Some have written, concerning the things I have just said, that these things happened not to the Thessalian Eurypylos but to Eurypylos the son of Dexamenos who was king in Olenos. They want to have it the following way: that this one [= the other Eurypylos] joined Hēraklēs in his campaign against Troy [Ilion] and received the chest [larnax] from Hēraklēs. The rest of what they say corresponds to what I have said.

{7.19.10} The thing is, though, that I cannot be persuaded to believe that Hēraklēs did not know the things to be known about the chest, if these things really were such as they were said to be, nor, if he was aware of them, do I think that he would ever have given it to an ally as a gift. Further, the people of Patrai have in their memory [mnēmē] no Eurypylos other than the son of Euaimon, and to him every year they make-sacrifice [enagizein] [as to a hero] when they celebrate [agein] the festival [heortē] in honor of Dionysus.

{7.20.1} The surname [epiklēsis] of the god [theos] inside the chest [larnax] is Aisymnetes [‘apportioner’], and his chief attendants [therapeuontes] are nine men, elected by the people [dēmos] on the basis of their reputation [axiōma], and there are also [attendants who are] women, equal in number to the men. On one night of the festival [heortē] the priest [hiereus] carries-in-procession [pherein] the chest [larnax], heading outside. Now this is a special privilege [geras] assigned to this night. Going-down [kata-bainein] to the river Meilikhos are a certain number of the local [epikhōrioi] boys-and-girls [paides], garlanded [stephanoûsthai] with garlands of wheat-ears [astakhues] on their heads. It was in this way that they used to adorn [kosmeîn] in the old times those whom they were leading [agein] [in procession] so as to sacrifice [thuein] them to Artemis.

{7.20.2} As for our own era, they lay-aside [apo-tithenai] garlands [stephanoi] of wheat-ears [astakhues] next to the goddess [theos (feminine)], and, after bathing in the river and putting on garlands [stephanoi] all over again, this time made of ivy [kissos], they go to the sanctuary [hieron] of the Aisymnetes [= Dionysus]. This then is the established way for them to-do-the-ritual [drân], and within the enclosure [peribolos] of Laphria is a temple [nāos] of Athena having the surname [epiklēsisPan-akhaiïs. The statue [agalma] is of ivory and gold.

§3. Specific comments on the text

{comment on 7.18.8} The epithet of Artemis here, Laphria, is noted by Pausanias already at 4.31.7. This epithet of the goddess is distinct from the epithet Triklaria, which is applied to her at a later point of the narrative, starting at 7.19.1. As I will argue, the overall role of the goddess in Patras supersedes the inherited roles that are built into her two epithets.

{comment on 7.18.9} The epithet Laphria, as noted here, originates from Calydon. This point of origin is noted by Pausanias already at 4.31.7.

{comment on 7.18.10} The skhēma ‘pose’ of the statue corresponds to the role of the goddess as thēreuousa ‘huntress of wild beasts’.

{comment on 7.18.11} Already here, Pausanias is drawing attention to the unusual nature of the sacrifice that we is about to witness. It is as if he were already distancing himself from the extreme cruelty that awaits his viewing.

{comment on 7.18.12} The procession that leads up to the sacrifice features most prominently a priestess of Artemis. I argue that this contemporary priestess, as she figures in the ritual connected with Artems Laphria, matches the archetypal priestess who figures in the myth connected with Artemis Triklaria, which will be narrated later, starting at 7.19.1. In terms of such a match, I argue further that the overall role of the goddess supersedes her special roles as indicated by the epithets Laphria and Triklaria.

{comment on 7.18.13} The extreme cruelty of this spectacle at Patras, where sacrificial animals are forcibly burned alive, seems to shock Pausanias. I ask myself whether he may have had in mind here the kind of cruelty that was ordinarily linked with spectacles organized for the entertainment of romanized populations. I have in mind here the kinds of spectacles that focused on the killing of wild beasts. It may be relevant that Pausanias at 7.18.7 observes that the population of Patras had been in fact thoroughly romanized by the Emperor Augustus, and this observation immediately precedes the narrative that I am analyzing here, which starts at 7.18.8.

{comment on 7.19.1} The hero-shrine of Eurypylos, the location of which is linked by Pausanias here with the altar of Artemis Laphria, is thus thereby linked also with the rituals centering on the goddess in her role as indicated by the epithet Laphria. But now, from here on, this cult hero Eurypylos will be a bridge between Artemis in her role as Laphria and Artemis in her role as Triklaria. That is because this hero, as we will see in the narrative that follows at a later point, at 7.19.6, introduces for the people of Patras the worship of Dionysus, and this practice of worshipping that god, as we will also see later, will frame the myths and the rituals centering on Artemis in her role as indicated by the epithet Triklaria. What Artemis Laphria and Artemis Triklaria seem to have in common is the priestess of the goddess. Previously, at 7.18.12, we have seen the priestess in her role as a center of attention in ritual, that is, in the procession that leads to the sacrifice for Artemis Laphria. But now, from here on, we will see the priestess in her role as a center of attention in myth, that is, in the love story of a girl named Komaitho.

{comment on 7.19.2} Here commences the love story about Komaitho the young priestess of Artemis and his young seducer Melanippos. The reaction of the disapproving parents of the young couple is evocative here of comparable situations found in love stories as retold in the work of Parthenius—and, more generally, in erotic novels.

{comment on 7.19.3} On illicit sexual activity inside the sanctuary of Artemis, I cross-refer to my commentary in the post for 2018.07.13.

{comment on 7.19.4} On the yearly human sacrifice to Artemis in myth, which I argue functions as an aetiology for the yearly animal sacrifice in ritual, I refer to my commentary in the post for 2018.07.13. As for the etymology, already noted, of Komaithō as ‘whose head-of-hair is flaming-red’, I draw attention to further discussion by Lightfoot 1999:179: she focuses there on another mythological figure who is likewise named Komaitho.

{comment on 7.19.5} Here is where the role of Pausanias as an occasional novelist becomes most overt. He is now ostentatiously claiming that the original human sacrifice of Komaitho and Melanippos was not a total misfortune for them, unlike the yearly human sacrifices of couples who experienced the same form of death—because at least the original couple were passionately in love with each other, whereas the couples who were put to death year after year thereafter were not paired as lovers. To have the good fortune of experiencing passionate love is worth all the suffering, as Pausanias concludes before he leaves behind his temporary role as the all-understanding narrator.

{comment on 7.19.6–7.20.2} Picking up from where Pausanias left off at 7.19.1, which is where he had first signaled the story of the cult hero Eurypylos and how this hero had introduced in Patras the worship of Dionysus, our traveler now proceeds at 7.19.6 to tell that story, the content of which provides a Dionysiac outer frame for the previous telling of an inner story—how, once upon a time, the priestess Komaitho was seduced by her lover Melanippos. Similarly in the case of the so-called Cologne Epode as analyzed in the post for 2018.07.06, I have posited a Dionysiac outer frame for the telling of another inner story—how, once upon a time, the daughters of Lykambes were seduced, or so it was claimed, by Archilochus.

{comment on 7.20.1} The details given here about the procession of paides, here referring to both boys and girls, are most telling. The collocation of the verb pherein in the sense of ‘carry [a sacred object] in procession’ with the verb agein in the sense of ‘lead [someone] in procession’ is comparable to other contexts where Pausanias is describing a procession, as at 1.27.3. I comment on that related text of Pausanias in the posting for 2018.04.05. As for the text here at 7.20.1, the ritual of a procession where the priest of Dionysus ‘carries’ a sacred object, indicated by the verb pherein, is a re-enactment of the myth of human sacrifice to Artemis, which would have featured a primal procession where the people ‘lead’, as expressed by the verb agein, a boy and a girl who are destined to become the annual sacrifical victims. The set of boys and girls who participate in re-enacting the myth in the yearly ritual are likewise being ‘led’ in procession. We see here a merger in identifying Artemis Laphria/Triklaria as the recipient of sacrifice. At 7.18.11, the recipient was called Laphria, but here at 7.20.1 the recipient is called Triklaria.

{comment on 7.20.2} Now the narrative of Pausanias loops back to Artemis in her role as Laphria, as first mentioned at 7.18.8. His reference here at 7.20.2 to the peribolos ‘enclosure’ of Artemis Laphria shows that the myths and rituals linked with Artemis Triklaria have been contained all along, ever since 7.18.8, by the overall enclosure of Artemis Laphria. The role of Artemis Triklaria is I think older than the role of Artemis Laphria. The epithet Triklāriā refers to an old tripartion, before the unification of Patras, and this tripartition represented the communities of Mesatis, Antheia, and Aroe—as we read at 7.18.2–7.18.4. The Dionysiac framework for these communities is symbolized by the assignment of the following three epithets to the god Dionysus: Mesateus, Antheus, and Aroeus—as we read at 7.21.6 (Brelich 1969:368).



Brelich, A. 1969. Paides e Parthenoi. Inculabula Graeca 36. Rome. (New edition 2013, produced by A. Alessandri and C. Cremonesi.)

Lightfoot, J. L. 1999. Parthenius of Nicaea: The poetical fragments and the Erotica Pathemata. Oxford.


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