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Apollonius of Tyana

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Apollonius of Tyana

Apollonius of Tyana
Apollonius of Tyana[1]
Born c. 15 CE
Died c. 100 CE (aged c. 85)
Era Ancient philosophy
Region Anatolia
School Hellenistic philosophy
Main interests
Pythagoreanism, Occultism

Apollonius of Tyana (Ancient Greek: Ἀπολλώνιος ὁ Τυανεύς; c. 15 – c. 100 CE[2]) was a Greek Neopythagorean philosopher from the town of Tyana in the Roman province of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. Little is known about him with certainty. Being a 1st-century orator and philosopher around the time of Christ, he was compared with Jesus of Nazareth by Christians in the 4th century[3] and by various popular writers in modern times.

Life dates

Apollonius was born into a respected and wealthy Greek family,[4][5] his dates however are uncertain. His primary biographer, Philostratus the Elder (c. 170 – 247 CE) places him c. 3 BCE to 97 CE.[6] Others agree that he was roughly a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth. Charles P. Eells[7] states that his date of birth was three years before Jesus, whose date of birth is also uncertain. However, Philostratus, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, places him staying for a while in the court of King Vardanes I of Parthia, who ruled between c. 40 and 47 CE. Apollonius began a five-year silence at about the age of 20, and after the completion of this silence travelled to Mesopotamia and Iran. Philostratus also mentions emperors Nero, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, and Nerva at various points throughout Apollonius’ life. Given this information, a timeline of roughly the years 15–98 CE can be established for his adult life.


By far the most detailed source is the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a lengthy, novelistic biography written by the sophist Philostratus at the request of empress Julia Domna. She died in 217 CE,[8] and he completed it after her death, probably in the 220s or 230s CE. Philostratus’ account shaped the image of Apollonius for posterity and still dominates discussions about him in our times. To some extent it is a valuable source because it contains data from older writings which were available to Philostratus but disappeared later on. Among these works are an excerpt (preserved by Eusebius) from On sacrifices, and certain alleged letters of Apollonius. The sage may really have written some of these works, along with the no-longer extant Biography of Pythagoras.[9] At least two biographical sources that Philostratus used are lost: a book by the imperial secretary Maximus describing Apollonius’ activities in Maximus' home-city of Aegaeae in Cilicia, and a biography by a certain Moiragenes. There also survives, separately from the Life by Philostratus, a collection of letters of Apollonius, but at least some of these seem to be spurious.[10]

One of the essential sources Philostratus claimed to know are the “memoirs” (or “diary”) of [12] Philostratus describes Apollonius as a wandering teacher of philosophy and miracle worker who was mainly active in Greece and Asia Minor but also traveled to Italy, Spain and North Africa and even to Mesopotamia, India, and Ethiopia. In particular, he tells lengthy stories of Apollonius entering the city of Rome in disregard of Emperor Nero’s ban on philosophers, and later on being summoned, as a defendant, to the court of Domitian, where he defied the Emperor in blunt terms. He had allegedly been accused of conspiring against the Emperor, performing human sacrifice, and predicting a plague by means of magic. Philostratus implies that upon his death, Apollonius of Tyana underwent heavenly assumption.[13]

How much of this can be accepted as historical truth depends largely on the extent to which modern scholars trust Philostratus, and in particular on whether they believe in the reality of Damis. Some of these scholars contend that he never came to Western Europe and was virtually unknown there until the 3rd century AD when Empress Julia Domna, who was herself from the province of Syria, decided to popularize him and his teachings in Rome.[14] For that purpose, so these same scholars believe, she commissioned Philostratus to write the biography, where Apollonius is exalted as a fearless sage with supernatural powers, even greater than Pythagoras. This view of Julia Domna's role in the making of the Apollonius-legend gets some support from the fact that her son Caracalla worshiped him,[15] and her grandnephew emperor Severus Alexander may have done so as well.[16]

Apollonius was also a known figure in the medieval Islamic world[17] as described later in this article.

Comparisons with Jesus

Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman relates that in the introduction to his textbook on the New Testament, he describes an important figure from the first century without first revealing he is writing about Apollonius of Tyana:

Even before he was born, it was known that he would be someone special. A supernatural being informed mother the child she was to conceive would not be a mere mortal but would be divine. He was born miraculously, and he became an unusually precocious young man. As an adult he left home and went on an itinerant preaching ministry, urging his listeners to live, not for the material things of this world, but for what is spiritual. He gathered a number of disciples around him, who became convinced that his teachings were divinely inspired, in no small part because he himself was divine. He proved it to them by doing many miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. But at the end of his life he roused opposition, and his enemies delivered him over to the Roman authorities for judgment. Still, after he left this world, he returned to meet his followers in order to convince them that he was not really dead but lived on in the heavenly realm. Later some of his followers wrote books about him.[18]

Ehrman goes on to explain that Apollonius was a real person and that his followers believed Jesus to be a fraud. Sossianus Hierocles argued in the 3rd century that the doctrines and the life of Apollonius were more valuable than those of Christ, a viewpoint reportedly held by both Voltaire and Charles Blount during the Age of Enlightenment.[19] In his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, comparative mythology scholar Joseph Campbell lists both Apollonius and Jesus as examples of individuals who shared similar hero stories, along with Krishna, Buddha and others.[20] Similarly, Robert M. Price in his 2011 The Christ-Myth Theory and its Problems, notes that the ancients often compared Jesus with Apollonius and that they both fit the mythic hero archetype.[21] G.K. Chesterton, however, noted that the unique trial, suffering and death of Christ stand in stark opposition to the stories about Apollonius which he felt were very likely spurious.[22]

Historical facts

With the exception of the Adana Inscription, little can be derived from sources other than Philostratus. As James Francis put it, "the most that can be said ... is that Apollonius appears to have been a wandering ascetic/philosopher/wonderworker of a type common to the eastern part of the early empire."[23] What we can safely assume is that he was indeed a Pythagorean and as such, in conformity with the Pythagorean tradition, opposed animal sacrifice, and lived on a frugal, strictly vegetarian diet.[24] A minimalist view is that he spent his entire life in the cities of his native Asia Minor and of northern Syria, in particular his home town of Tyana, Ephesus, Aegae, and Antioch,[25] though the letters suggest wider travels, and there seems no reason to deny that, like many wandering philosophers, he at least visited Rome. As for his philosophical convictions, we have an interesting, probably authentic fragment of one of his writings (On sacrifices) where he expresses his view that God, who is the most beautiful being, cannot be influenced by prayers or sacrifices and has no wish to be worshipped by humans, but can be reached by a spiritual procedure involving nous (intellect), because he himself is pure nous and nous is also the greatest faculty of humankind.[26]


Philostratus implies on one occasion that Apollonius had extra-sensory perception (Book VIII, Chapter XXVI). When emperor Domitian was murdered on September 18, 96 AD, Apollonius was said to have witnessed the event in Ephesus "about midday" on the day it happened in Rome, and told those present "Take heart, gentlemen, for the tyrant has been slain this day...". Both Philostratus and renowned historian Cassius Dio report this incident, probably on the basis of an oral tradition. Both state that the philosopher welcomed the deed as a praiseworthy tyrannicide.[27]

Journey to India

Philostratus devoted two and a half of the eight books of his Life of Apollonius (1.19–3.58) to the description of a journey of his hero to India. According to Philostratus' Life, en route to the Far East, Apollonius reached Hierapolis Bambyce (Manbij) in Syria (not Nineveh, as some scholars believed), where he met Damis, a native of that city who became his lifelong companion. Pythagoras, whom the Neo-Pythagoreans regarded as an exemplary sage, was believed to have travelled to India. Hence such a feat made Apollonius look like a good Pythagorean who spared no pains in his efforts to discover the sources of oriental piety and wisdom. As some details in Philostratus’ account of the Indian adventure seem incompatible with known facts, modern scholars are inclined to dismiss the whole story as a fanciful fabrication, but not all of them rule out the possibility that the Tyanean actually did visit India.[28]

What seemed to be independent evidence showing that Apollonius was known in India has now been proved to be forged. In two [32]


Several writings and many letters have been ascribed to Apollonius, but some of them are lost; others have only been preserved in parts or fragments of disputed authenticity. Porphyry and Iamblichus refer to a biography of Pythagoras by Apollonius, which has not survived; it is also mentioned in the Suda.[33] Apollonius wrote a treatise On sacrifices, of which only a short, probably authentic fragment has come down to us.[34]

Philostratus' Life and the anthology assembled by [35]

A wandering philosopher, probably represented Apollonius of Tyana, who lived a part of his life in Crete and died there. Found in Gortyn (late 2nd century AD), now in Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete.



In the 2nd century the satirist Lucian of Samosata was a sharp critic of Neo-Pythagoreanism. After 180 AD he wrote a pamphlet where he attacked Alexander of Abonoteichus, a student of one of Apollonius’ students, as a charlatan; and suggested that the whole school was based on fraud.[36] From this we can infer that Apollonius really had students and that his school survived at least until Lucian’s time. One of Philostratus’ foremost aims was to oppose this view. Although he related various miraculous feats of Apollonius, he emphasized at the same time that his hero was not a magician, but a serious philosopher and a champion of traditional Greek values.[37]

When Emperor Aurelian conducted his military campaign against the Palmyrene Empire, he captured Tyana in 272 AD. According to the Historia Augusta he abstained from destroying the city after having a vision of Apollonius admonishing him to spare the innocent citizens.[38]

In Philostratus’ description of Apollonius’ life and deeds there are a number of similarities with the life and especially the claimed miracles of Jesus. Perhaps this parallel was intentional, but the original aim was hardly to present Apollonius as a rival of Jesus. However, in the late 3rd century Porphyry, an anti-Christian Neoplatonic philosopher, claimed in his treatise Against the Christians that the miracles of Jesus were not unique, and mentioned Apollonius as a non-Christian who had accomplished similar achievements. Around 300, Roman authorities used the fame of Apollonius in their struggle to wipe out Christianity. Hierocles, one of the main instigators of the persecution of Christians in 303, wrote a pamphlet where he argued that Apollonius exceeded Christ as a wonder-worker and yet wasn’t worshipped as a god, and that the cultured biographers of Apollonius were more trustworthy than the uneducated apostles. This attempt to make Apollonius a hero of the anti-Christian movement provoked sharp replies from bishop Eusebius of Caesarea and from Lactantius.[39] Eusebius wrote an extant reply to the pamphlet of Hierocles, where he claimed that Philostratus was a fabulist and that Apollonius was a sorcerer in league with demons. This started a debate on the relative merits of Jesus and Apollonius that has gone on in different forms into modern times.

In Late Antiquity talismans made by Apollonius appeared in several cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, as if they were sent from heaven. They were magical figures and columns erected in public places, meant to protect the cities from afflictions. The great popularity of these talismans was a challenge to the Christians. Some Byzantine authors condemned them as sorcery and the work of demons, others admitted that such magic was beneficial; none of them claimed that it didn’t work.[40]

In the Western Roman Empire, Sidonius Apollinaris was a Christian admirer of Apollonius in the 5th century. He produced a Latin translation of Philostratus’ Life, which is lost.[41]

Islamic world and Baha’i

Apollonius was a known figure in the medieval Islamic world. In the Arabic literature he appears as Balīnūs (or Balīnās or Abūlūniyūs). Arabic-speaking occultists dubbed him "Lord of the talismans" (Ṣāḥib aṭ-ṭilasmāt) and related stories about his achievements as a talisman-maker. They appreciated him as a master of alchemy and a transmitter of Hermetic knowledge. Some occult writings circulated under his name; among them were:[17]

  • the Kitāb Sirr al-ḫalīqa (Book on the Secret of Creation), also named Kitāb al-῾ilal (Book of the Causes)
  • the Risāla fī ta'ṯīr ar-rūḥānīyāt fī l-murakkabāt (Treatise on the influence of the spiritual beings on the composite things)
  • al-Mudḫal al-kabīr ilā risālati aṭ-ṭalāsim (Great introduction to the treatise on the talismans)
  • the Kitāb ṭalāsim Balīnās al-akbar (Great book of Balinas’ talismans)
  • the Kitāb Ablūs al-ḥakīm (Book of the sage Ablus)

Medieval alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan's Book of Stones According to the Opinion of Balīnās contains an exposition and analysis of views expressed in Arabic occult works attributed to Apollonius.[42]

There were also medieval Latin and vernacular translations of Arabic books attributed to “Balinus”.[43]

The Tablet of Wisdom written by Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, names "Balinus" (Apollonius) as a great philosopher, who "surpassed everyone else in the diffusion of arts and sciences and soared unto the loftiest heights of humility and supplication." The use of talismans is commonplace in Babi and (to a lesser extent) Baha'Bahá'u'lláh, LAWH-I-HIKMAT (Tablet of Wisdom) in: Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas,[44]

Modern era

Beginning in the early 16th century, there was great interest in Apollonius in Europe, but the traditional ecclesiastical viewpoint prevailed, and until the Age of Enlightenment the Tyanean was usually treated as a demonic magician and a great enemy of the Church who collaborated with the devil and tried to overthrow Christianity.[45]

Comparisons between Apollonius and Jesus became commonplace in the 17th and 18th centuries in the context of polemic about Christianity.[46] Several advocates of Enlightenment, deism and anti-Church positions saw him as an early forerunner of their own ethical and religious ideas, a proponent of a universal, non-denominational religion compatible with Reason. These comparisons continued into the 20th century.

  • In 1680, Charles Blount, a radical English deist, published the first English translation of the first two books of Philostratus' Life with an anti-Church introduction.
  • In Gerald Messadié's The Man Who Became God, Apollonius appeared as a wandering philosopher and magician of about the same age as Jesus; the two of them supposedly met.
  • In his 1965 introduction to a reprint of Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie's 1900 book The Gospel of Apollonius of Tyana (a retelling of Philstraus' biography), Hilton Hotema compared Apollonius to Jesus by noting that there is much historical data surrounding the life of the Tyanean, but that "Jesus is unknown outside of the New Testament. [47]

In fiction

  • In Bengali poet Alaol's translation of Nizami Ganjavi's Iskandernamah, Apollonius (mentioned as Balinas) helps Alexander ward off magic spells of a Zarthustrian fire-worshiper on the way to Ispahan.
  • In Flaubert's The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Apollonius appears as one of the magicians who tempt the main character.
  • Apollonius appears as a fictional character in the 1935 novel The Circus of Dr. Lao and its 1964 film adaptation, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. In these, Apollonius works in the circus as a fortune-teller, who is under a curse — he sees the future, but can only speak the exact truth, thus seeming to be cruel and hateful. In the film version, he is blind and weary after many years of predicting disappointment for his clients.
  • The plot of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's 1948 fantasy novel The Carnelian Cube hinges on a magical artifact passed down by Apollonius.
  • In the 1975 work The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, Apollonius appears in discussion with Abbie Hoffman.
  • Apollonius appears as a fictional character in the 1977 television series The Fantastic Journey in the seventh episode, "Funhouse". In this episode, Apollonius attempts to take possession of the scientist Willaway in a funhouse but is thwarted by Varian, "a man from the future possessing awesome powers".
  • Apollonius appears as a fictional character in the 1996 short story "The Garden of Tantalus" by Brian Stableford, which combines two of the accounts from Life of Apollonius of Tyana and removes the mystical aspects, turning it into a detective story. The narrator, Menippus from the account of Apollonius and the lamia, blames Damis for making Apollonius a magician by elaborating on what little of the story he knew. The story was published in Classical Whodunnits (1996).
  • Apollonius serves as mentor to a main character in Steven Saylor's historical novel Empire for much of the work.
  • In Keats' poem about the lamia myth, he mentions Apollonius' intervention, revealing Lamia's true form to her lover Lycius (commonly called Menippus in the myth).
  • in Friedrich Schiller's gothic novel "The Ghost-Seer", the Sicilian trickster suggests Apollonius as one of the possible identities of the Incomprehensible.
  • Apollonius of Tyana has a major role in the background to Richard Cowper's story "The Custodians". The story assumes that Apollonius discovered a scientific way of "seeing" the future and that his method was re-discovered by a Medieval sage. A succession of "Custodians" at a monastery in South France, using an "Apolloniän Nexus" then saw and wrote down events fifty years in their future, until a final one in the 20th century saw in advance - but could not prevent - a destructive nuclear war.
  • In Ki Longfellow's The Secret Magdalene Apollonius meets Yehoshua the Nazarene (Jesus) in a monastery atop Mount Carmel. While there Apollonius, who was legendarily told he would be overshadowed by a greater man, recognized Yehoshua as that greater man.


  • Philostratus: Apollonius of Tyana. Letters of Apollonius, Ancient Testimonia, Eusebius’s Reply to Hierocles, ed. Christopher P. Jones, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 2006 (Loeb Classical Library no. 458), ISBN 0-674-99617-8 (Greek texts and English translations)
  • Philostratus: The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, ed. Christopher P. Jones, vol. 1 (Books I–IV) and 2 (Books V–VIII), Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 2005 (Loeb Classical Library no. 16 and no. 17), ISBN 0-674-99613-5 and ISBN 0-674-99614-3 (Greek text and English translation)

See also


  1. ^ Steel engraving from August Baumeister, ed. Denkmäler des klassischen Altertums, vol. I. 1885, p. 109, of a 4th-century Roman bronze medallion in the Cabinet des Médailles, Paris; the medallion is illustrated in Jas Elsner, Roman Eyes: Visuality and Subjectivity in Art and Text (Princeton University Press) 2007, p. 227, fig 9.1.
  2. ^ For the chronology see Maria Dzielska: Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History, Rome 1986, pp. 30–38.
  3. ^ Eusebius of Caesarea, Contra Hieroclem discusses the claim.
  4. ^ Haughton, Brian (2009). Hidden History: Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries. ReadHowYouWant. p. 448.  
  5. ^ Abraham, Roshan J (2009). Magic and religious authority in Philostratus' "Life of Apollonius of Tyana". ScholarlyCommons. p. 37.  
  6. ^ Dzielska, 32
  7. ^ Life and Times of Apollonius (1923), p. 3.
  8. ^ Philostratus; Jones, Christopher P. (2005), The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Harvard University Press, p. 2,  
  9. ^ Dzielska pp. 138–146.
  10. ^ For discussion see Bowie, 1676-1678.
  11. ^ Among others, E. L. Bowie, ‘Apollonius of Tyana: Tradition and Reality’(ANRW 2, no. 16, 2 [1978] pp. 1663-1667.
  12. ^ Jaap-Jan Flinterman: Power, Paideia and Pythagoreanism, Amsterdam 1995, pp. 79–88; Dzielska pp. 12–13, 19–49, 141
  13. ^ Philostratus, LIfe of Apollonius 8.30-31.
  14. ^ Dzielska pp. 83–85, 186–192.
  15. ^ Cassius Dio 77.18.4; see on this Dzielska pp. 56, 59–60.
  16. ^ Historia Augusta, Vita Alexandri 29.2; the credibility of this information is doubted by Dzielska p. 174.
  17. ^ a b Martin Plessner: Balinus, in: The Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 1, Leiden 1960, pp. 994-995; Ursula Weisser: Das „Buch über das Geheimnis der Schöpfung“ von Pseudo-Apollonios von Tyana, Berlin 1980, pp. 23-39; Dzielska pp. 112-123.
  18. ^ Bart D. Ehrman Did Jesus Exist?:The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth HarperCollins, USA. 2012. ISBN 978-0-06-220460-8 pp. 208-209
  19. ^ 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2
  20. ^ Clinton Bennett. In Search of Jesus: Insider and Outsider Images Continuum, 2001, p. 206, ISBN 0826449166
  21. ^ Robert M. Price. The Christ-Myth Theory and it's Problems, Atheist Press, 2011, p.20, ISBN 9781578840175
  22. ^ G.K.Chesteron "Everlasting Man"
  23. ^ James A. Francis: "Truthful Fiction: New Questions to Old Answers on Philostratus' Life of Apollonius", in: American Journal of Philology 119 (1998) p. 419.
  24. ^ Johannes Haussleiter: Der Vegetarismus in der Antike, Berlin 1935, pp. 299–312.
  25. ^ Dzielska pp. 51–79.
  26. ^ Dzielska pp. 139–141.
  27. ^ Cassius Dio 67.18; Philostratus, Vita Apollonii 8.26–27. See also Dzielska pp. 30–32, 41.
  28. ^ Graham Anderson: Philostratus, London 1986, pp. 199–215; Flinterman pp. 86–87, 101–106.
  29. ^ Bhattacharya, The Āgamaśātra of Gaudapāda (University of Calcutta Press) 1943 (reprint Delhi 1989).
  30. ^ Bhattacharya (1943) 1989, pp. LXXII–LXXV.
  31. ^ The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, vol. 1, ed. P.E. Easterling/B.M.W. Knox, Cambridge 1985, p. 657; Dzielska p. 29; Anderson p. 173; Flinterman p. 80 n. 113.
  32. ^ Simon Swain: "Apollonius in Wonderland", in: Ethics and Rhetoric, ed. Doreen Innes, Oxford 1995, pp. 251–54.
  33. ^ Flinterman pp. 76–79; Dzielska pp. 130–134.
  34. ^ Dzielska pp. 129–130, 136–141, 145–149.
  35. ^ Flinterman pp. 70-72; Dzielska pp. 38-44, 54, 80-81, 134-135.
  36. ^ Lucian of Samosata: Alexander, or The False Prophet, in: Lucian, vol. 4, ed. A.M. Harmon, Cambridge (Mass.) 1992 (Loeb Classical Library no. 162), pp. 173-253 (Apollonius is mentioned on p. 182).
  37. ^ Flinterman pp. 60-66, 89-106.
  38. ^ Historia Augusta, Vita Aureliani 24.2-9; 25.1.
  39. ^ Dzielska pp. 15, 98-103, 153-157, 162.
  40. ^ Dzielska pp. 99-127, 163-165.
  41. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, Epistolae 8.3; for the interpretation of this passage see André Loyen (ed.), Sidoine Apollinaire, vol. 3: Lettres (Livres VI-IX), Paris 1970, pp. 196-197.
  42. ^ Syed Nomanul Haq: Names, Natures and Things, Dordrecht 1994 (introduction to the Book of Stones with partial edition, translation, and commentary).
  43. ^ Plessner p. 995.
  44. ^ Wilmette 1988, pp. 135-152, §31; Keven Brown, "Hermes Trismegistus and Apollonius of Tyana in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh", in: Revisioning the Sacred: New Perspectives on a Bahá’í Theology, ed. Jack McLean, Los Angeles 1997, pp. 153-187.
  45. ^ Dzielska pp. 193-204.
  46. ^ Dzielska pp. 204-209.
  47. ^ The Gosepl of Apolloinius of Tyana, Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, M.D., 1900, reprinted 1965 with a new introduction by Professor Hilton Hotema, Health Research, Mokelumne Hill, CA


  • Jaap-Jan Flinterman: Power, Paideia and Pythagoreanism, Amsterdam 1995, ISBN 90-5063-236-X
  • Maria Dzielska: Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History, Rome 1986, ISBN 88-7062-599-0
  • Graham Anderson: Philostratus. Biography and Belles Lettres in the Third Century A.D., London 1986, ISBN 0-7099-0575-0
  • James A. Francis: Subversive Virtue. Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World, University Park (PA) 1995, ISBN 0-271-01304-4
  • C.P. Cavafy: "The Collected Poems: If Truly Dead" Translated by Aliki Barnstone, ISBN 0-393-06142-6

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