“The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, looked like something out of an alien hallucination—a swirling collage of warped metallic forms that appeared to have been propped up against one another in an almost random way. Stretching into the distance, the chaotic mass of shapes was draped in more than thirty thousand titanium tiles that glinted like fish scales and gave the structure a simultaneously organic and extraterrestrial feel, as if some futuristic leviathan had crawled out of the water to sun herself on the riverbank. When the building was first unveiled in 1997, The New Yorker hailed its architect, Frank O. Gehry, as having designed ‚a fantastic dream ship of undulating form in a cloak of titanium,‘ while other critics around the world gushed, ‘The greatest building of our time!‘ ‘Mercurial brilliance! ‘ ‘An astonishing architectural feat!‘
Dan Brown, “Origin”
Despite Dan Brown‘s proneness to exaggeration and hyperbole, my impression of the Guggenheim Museum was a similar mixture of shock and awe. The building has an organic feel and yet it is obviously artificial and futuristic, the combination which I do not normally go for. Having admired it in various times of the day, I noticed it looked different each time. The blinding light of the day morphed into soothing sepia towards the evening. It seems to shimmer and float – it seems ungraspable, uncanny. Yet the combination of sinuous and vertical lines is not disconcerting at all. Unlike the majority of modern architecture, this building seems harmonious and comforting. The titanium tiles look very natural. Maybe because O. Gehry had them laid in a pattern used in traditional roofing instead of going for a futuristic design. He referred to them as “the skin oft he building“ to complete the ubiquitous organic metaphor.
The story oft he museum’s creation is quite inspiring. In the 1980s Bilbao was in deep crisis due to a major industrial collapse. The previously life-giving estuary oft he river had been abandoned due tot he collapse of shipyard industry. The city’s council thought of a non-Orthodox solution. To revive the desolate river bank. It may be said indeed that the building was born out of the water and that it breathed new life into the gloomy city. As a result, Bilbao was completely renewed and transformed so much so that it is now one of the wealthiest in the whole country. The construction started in 1993 and the museum was opened in 1997.
In order to enter the museum, one needs to go downstairs. This is unique and made me think of going into the belly of the whale. It seemed like a natural movement towards the unconscious. Inside the structure there is almost complete freedom of movement. The atrium forms a nexus with no assigned linear order of visiting any rooms. This reminded me of a medieval plaza, from where various streets radiated. Each visitor can choose the order according to what beckons them at a given moment. The visit was thus very relaxing and not overwhelming, as is the case with many museums.
The art inside and outside is quite unique. My imagination was mostly captured by Maman outside, the giant walk-in sculpture The Matter of Time inside, the sculpture How Profound is the Air, and last but not least, by a precious few paintings by Anselm Kiefer, who is one of my favourite artists. You can view the works by following the links below:
In the north of Spain lies a mysterious Basque country with its language Euskera, which has no relation to any other language in the world. The people of that region are descendants of the oldest indigenous population of Europe. Some researchers claim they were related to Etruscans and Cretans. The main deity of this ancient folk was Mari – the mother goddess. Because it is such an old matriarchal culture, it is not surprising that the region has not less than three Black Madonnas! After all, they do tend to appear in places of ancient goddess worship, especially the chthonic goddess. In this connection I recommend reading the following article dedicated to the pivotal role of witchcraft in Basque culture: https://vamzzz.com/blog/basques-witch-cult/
An old legend speaks of seven black virgins, who left the hermitage of San Sebastián de Ataun to settle in other hermitages in Gipuzkoa (a region of the Basque Country with the capital in San Sebastian). Four of these Virgins are no longer in the area but three of them are to be found in churches along Camino del Norte, which is the coastal way of St James leading from Irun to Santiago de Compostela.
In Irun we encounter the first Virgin called the Juncal – Lady of the reeds. She was found by the river and placed at the main altar of the city’s basilica. I suspect her image has been whitened but she used to be black originally. My original impression upon seeing her – without any previous knowledge – was a feeling of surprise that she is not black. The image is Romanesque and Spanish sources confirm her original blackness. You can view more images here: http://www.cofradia-anaka.com/Cofradia/Historia/Virgen/NSJuncal.htm
The second Black Virgin is to be found in the vicinity of Hondarribia in the Sanctuary of Guadalupe. Her altar is flanked by two ships. Here is more information about her: http://interfaithmary.net/blog/fuenterrabia
Her sanctuary is located on a steep hill overlooking the city. The chapel is dark, the only source of light being the Black Madonna herself. It is indeed a supernatural apparition. At the back of the chapel there is an image of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe.
The third Black Madonna is a patroness of San Sebastian. She is to be found in Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro (St Mary of the Choir). It is a tiny figure placed in the centre of an elaborate altar. Her robes are silver. It is said that previously there was a primitive church there, dedicated to the Virgin Beltza (Black Virgin), located at the foot of Mount Urgull, which is a hill that overlooks the city.
All the photos were taken by me. On the symbolism of the Black Madonna, please check numerous other previous posts on my blog (use the search function).
Pablo Neruda, “Epithalamium”, translated by Donald D. Walsh
I love to stroll around old cities encompassed by walls. There is a feeling of womblike safety attached to it. Border walls, however, which are currently proliferating worldwide, seem more ominous. Symbolism of walls oscillates between the themes of separation and protection. In his Dictionary of Symbols, Cirlot cites the Song of Songs, in which Shulamite says of herself: “I am a wall.” But even the mother’s protection can feel stifling and oppressive.
In an interesting book on the history of walls, which I have read recently and which spurred me to write this, the author asserts emphatically that without the walls no civilizations could have been created. Walls made it possible to dedicate human lives to higher, spiritual goals as opposed to the constant fight for survival in the face of external threat:
“The creators of the first civilizations descended from generations of wall builders.” (1)
Cirlot refers us to the rich symbolism of Egyptian hieroglyphs, in which the wall is a sign connected with “rising above the common level” towards transcendence.
The clash between wall builders and those who chose the free existence outside it has shaped civilization. For example, Spartans, who built no walls, expressed disrespect towards those safely ensconced within city walls:
“Yet the walls also stygmatized the builders on the eyes of the warriors, who questioned the courage and manliness of those who chose to live in cages. Over time, the gulf between those who would build walls and those who would roam freely across a world without boundaries only grew wider. The coexistence of workers and warriors was never peaceful.” (2)
Franz Kafka wrote a story called “The Great Wall of China,” whose narrator is an unnamed inhabitant of a Southeast Chinese province, situated close to Tibet. The story asks fundamental questions about humankind’s relationship with the law, symbolized here by the great wall. Kafka seems to be saying that we cannot function outside the wall/the law, though its the impermeability is an illusion, as there are many gaps in it:
“In fact, there are said to be gaps which have never been built in at all, although that’s merely an assertion which probably belongs among the many legends which have arisen about the structure and which, for individual people at least, are impossible to prove with their own eyes and according to their own standards, because the structure is so immense.”
Yet Kafka has no doubt that walls may stand in direct contradiction to the chaos of human nature, and impermanence is their fundamental feature:
“Human nature, which is fundamentally careless and by nature like the whirling dust, endures no restraint. If it restricts itself, it will soon begin to shake the restraints madly and tear up walls, chains, and even itself all over the place.”
(1) David Frye, Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick
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Whose form is beauteous as that of the rising sun,
And Thy face as that of the full moon;
Thy body is like that of a serpent
Thou givest victory in battle;
… O Kali! O Kali! O Mahakali!
Thou art called Durga by all because Thou savest men from difficulty.
Whether in dangerous lands or sinking in the great ocean,
Thou art the sole refuge of men.
When assailed by robbers, when crossing streams and seas,
Those who remember Thee, O Mahadevi! are never lost.”
John Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon), Hymns to the Goddess and Hymn to Kali; fragment of Hymn to Durga (from Mahabharata, Virata Parvan)
“We bow down to her who is at once most gentle and most fierce.”
From Devi Mahatmya
Durga, the Divine Mother Goddess, Mahadevi (the great goddess, from Sanskrit “deva” – to shine), whose name means “fortress” and “invincible,” is believed to manifest in the darkest hour of great need. In a myth of her creation, Indian male gods were not able to rid the world of demonic forces. Thus they brought Durga into manifestation “out of the fiery rays of their anger” (1):
“Her face was formed by Shiva; her hair came from Yama, the god of death; her arms were given by Vishnu. Shiva gave her his trident, Vishnu his discus, Vayu—the wind god—offered his bow and arrow. The mountain god, Himalaya, gave her the lion for her mount.“ (2)
She defeated the buffalo demon Mahisha, who could only have been vanquished by female power. She embodies the qualities of strength and protection; her role is to restore Dharma threatened by demonic forces of chaos. She guides us through times of upheaval, especially protecting “powerful leaders who take groups of people through a crisis or a war.“ (3)
Durga is often depicted with eight arms and the following attributes; eight being the number of cosmic harmony:
1) chakra (wheel) – symbolizing dharma
2) the conch – standing for water, gestation, fertility and preservation of life; also the primal sound om
3) the sword – war, liberation, discernment, discrimination, the mind; destruction of darkness and ignorance
4) bow and arrow – power, spiritual warfare, virtue, sublimation
5) lotus – creation, manifestation, death and rebirth, spiritual fulfillment (rising from darkness), cosmic harmony (eight-petaled lotus)
6) club (mace) – protection, conformity to universal law, the destructive power of time (Kali), devotion (as the weapon of Hanuman)
7) trident – the attribute of Shiva; creation, preservation, destruction; the three gunas; past, present and future
8) hand in a gesture (mudra) of forgiveness and blessing
(symbolism deepened with the help of The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier)
As the universal goddess, Durga has both benevolent and terrifying qualities. She may have many names but she is one universal great mother. The three great goddesses – Saraswati, Lakshmi and Kali are all her manifestations. As Saraswati, she brings creativity, wisdom, arts, learning, speech and music; as Lakshmi she is the life-sustaining goddess of abundance; as Kali she brings death, rebirth and empowerment. Durga can call on the power of various shaktis when she needs them.
Like Demeter in Greece, Durga is intimately connected with vegetation cults and the agricultural cycle of death, decay and rebirth:
“She is that mysterious power that transforms apparently lifeless seeds into life-giving food when they are sowed.“ (4)
The annual Durga Puja, a ten-day harvest festival held in her honour, is the biggest goddess celebration in the world. It starts on the dark moon around the Autumn Equinox with the first three days dedicated to Saraswati, the next three to Lakshmi and the final three to Kali. Day ten is the day of Durga’s victory when the seeds planted at the dark moon begin to sprout.
In his Patterns of Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade referred to Durga as “the manifestation of cosmic life in constant and violent regeneration.” In the current dark historical moment of violence and destruction, it is sometimes hard to find the strength to hope for rebirth. But we must believe that the wrathful and compassionate Durga is steering us towards a new cosmic order that will rise from the ashes.
(1) Laura Amazzone, Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power
(2) Sally Kempton, Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga
(4) Vanamali, Shakti: Realm of the Divine Mother
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“Verily, verily, I say unto you, еxcept a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”(John 12: 24)
Out of the numberless reasons why we are all so moved by the war in Ukraine, one has a symbolic source. It is wheat and what it evokes in our unconscious mind. I read these words today:
“Ukraine is the land of bread and wheat. Even in Egypt, bread and cakes are baked using Ukrainian flour. It’s the time of year to prepare the fields for sowing, but this work is not being done. The soil of the wheat fields is full of metal – fragments of shells, pieces of blown-up tanks and cars, the remains of downed planes and helicopters. And it’s all covered in blood. The blood of Russian soldiers who do not understand what they are fighting for, and the blood of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who know that if they do not fight, Ukraine will no longer exist. In its place there will be a cemetery with a caretaker’s hut and some kind of governor general sent from Russia will sit and guard it.”https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/13/ukraine-russia-war-putin-crimes-justice
Historically, the colours of Ukrainian flag were not conceived as “the blue sky over a field of wheat” but this association has taken strong root in people’s hearts.
As “the basic and primordial” foodstuff, “wheat symbolizes the gift of life.” (1) As such, it has also been
associated with immortality. In the most climactic moment of Eleusinian Mysteries, the greatest religious festival of the Ancient Greece dedicated to Demeter and Persephone, a single grain of wheat was displayed to the crowd to be contemplated in complete silence. This “conjured up the eternal
cycle of the seasons” as well as evoked death and rebirth from the womb of Earth Mother. (2) The planted (buried) grain will come back as an ear of wheat with a multiple of grains.
Can we hope that the grain will sprout despite all that senseless death and destruction?
(1) Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols
We have now reached the fifth Sermon to the Dead, which you will find in the third section of The Red Book called Scrutinies.
At the dawn of civilization Greece was inhabited by Pelasgians, who are viewed as the indigenous, pre-Hellenic population of Greece. The Greeks called them their ancestors. In his Greek Myths, Robert Graves attempted to reconstruct the creation myth of those ancient people. Stephan A. Hoeller draws our attention to the analogy of that myth to the content of the fifth and sixth Sermon to the Dead. (1) This is the myth as told by Graves:
“In the beginning, Eurynome, The Goddess of All Things, rose naked from Chaos, but found nothing substantial for her feet to rest upon, and therefore divided the sea from the sky, dancing lonely upon its waves. She danced towards the south, and the wind set in motion behind her seemed something new and apart with which to begin a work of creation. Wheeling about, she caught hold of this north wind, rubbed it between her hands, and behold! the great serpent Ophion. Eurynome danced to warm herself, wildly and more wildly, until Ophion, grown lustful, coiled about those divine limbs and was moved to couple with her. … So Eurynome was … got with child.
Next, she assumed the form of a dove, brooding on the waves and in due process of time laid the Universal Egg. At her bidding, Ophion coiled seven times about this egg, until it hatched and split in two. Out tumbled all things that exist, her children: sun, moon, planets, stars, the earth with its mountains and rivers, its trees, herbs, and living creatures.
Eurynome and Ophion made their home upon Mount Olympus, where he vexed her by claiming to be the author of the Universe. Forthwith she bruised his head with her heel, kicked out his teeth, and banished him to the dark caves below the earth.
Next, the goddess created the seven planetary powers, setting a Titaness and a Titan over each. Theia and Hyperion for the Sun; Phoebe and Atlas for the Moon; Dione and Crius for the planet Mars; Metis and Coeus for the planet Mercury; Themis and Eurymedon for the planet Jupiter; Tethys and Oceanus for Venus; Rhea and Cronus for the planet Saturn.”
This primordial vision stands in contradiction to later creation stories. Here the celestial mother is the active, creating agent. Moreover, the seven classical planets are presided over by feminine and masculine deities as equals.
In the fascinating and profound Sermo V the feminine and masculine mysteries come to light. As Hoeller emphasizes, “one finds that the ideas presented here are far more complex and esoteric than the popularized version that found its way into the standard literature of analytical psychology.” We are far from the crude distinctions into Eros-driven women and Logos-driven men. Consider these opening lines:
“The world of the Gods is made manifest in spirituality and in sexuality. The celestial ones appear in spirituality, the earthly in sexuality.”
Spirituality (German Geistigkeit) is as divine as sexuality (German Geschlechtlichkeit). The latter word in the original German does not only mean what we understand as sexual activity but refers to gender (German Geschlecht) affiliation.
Philemon continues the sermon:
“Spirituality conceives and embraces. It is womanlike and therefore we call it MATER COELESTIS, the celestial mother. Sexuality engenders and creates. It is manlike, and therefore we call it PHALLOS, the earthly father.
The sexuality of man is more earthly, that of woman is more spiritual.
The spirituality of man is more heavenly, it moves toward the greater.
The spirituality of woman is more earthly, it moves toward the smaller.
The sexuality of man goes toward the earthly, the sexuality of woman goes toward the spiritual.”
Hoeller states that these two principles – the feminine logos, the Heavenly mother, who “comprehends” all as Sophia/Wisdom on the one hand, and the masculine Eros, the engendering Phallos on the other – are present in both men and women. All individuals partake in these qualities. He writes:
“Logos governs the spiritual in man and the sexual in woman, while Eros in turn governs the spiritual in woman and the sexual in man.
The phallic god, being unconscious, is perceived by man only by projection. Thus men project their dark, erotic side onto women, whom they then fear and desire at the same time, precisely because they fear and desire their own unconscious Eros.
One might say with but a slight exaggeration that feminine sexuality has its eyes wide-open to meaning, while masculine sexuality is blind.”
The unconscious feminine Logos, in turn, makes the woman intuitive, insightful and more spiritually aware while it also frees her from the traps of rationalization, so typical of the conscious masculine Logos.
In the sermon Philemon warns against identifying either with spirituality or sexuality by virtue of them being daimons, i.e. forces above and beyond our humanity:
“Spirituality and sexuality are not your qualities, not things you possess and encompass. Rather, they possess and encompass you, since they are powerful daimons, manifestations of the Gods, and hence reach beyond you, existing in themselves.”
We must not rigidly identify with either of these energies but rather be a vessel for both to intertwine. Only in this way will the cosmic egg hatch into being.
The last theme of the sermon refers to individuality (“singleness”) as opposed to community. As usual, Jung advocates right measure in everything:
“Community is depth, singleness is height.
Right measure in community purifies and preserves.
Right measure in singleness purifies and increases.
Community gives us warmth, singleness gives us light.”
I find the wisdom contained in the Seven Sermons timeless. At the present moment, when the world is horrified by the Russian aggression against Ukraine, India is about to celebrate the annual Maha Shivaratri, the sacred night of Lord Shiva. It is also an auspicious festival that celebrates the union of Shiva and Shakti. This seems to be a very potent moment when things are poised on the edge of the knife and we are all hoping that the worst will not happen. At the same time there has also been a true feeling of oneness, solidarity and community palpable here in Europe.
Hoping against hope, I found this quote in Vanamali’s book on Shiva:
“He has two natures—one wild and fierce, the other calm and peaceful. Of all the deities, he is the one most easily propitiated. Moreover, in compassion there is none to compare with him. He is the friend of the unfortunates…
He has a blue neck because he drank deadly poison in order to protect the world from it, keeping it in his throat rather than swallowing it, and it made his neck turn blue. … He is Chandrachuda (wearer of the moon), for he wears the crescent moon as an adornment for his hair. Like the waxing and waning of the moon, he is in tune with the rise and fall of the cosmic rhythm. He is Krittivasa, wearer of animal hides. His upper body is covered with the skin of the black antelope, the elephant hide covers his loins, and the tiger skin is his seat. By wearing the male kundala (a man’s earring) in his right ear and the female tatanka (a woman’s earring) in his left, he reveals his androgynous nature.” (2)
The androgynous nature of Shiva himself as well as the deity called Ardhanarisvara, who is depicted as half-male and half-female to symbolize the union of Shiva with Parvati, point both to a reality beyond dualism, beyond conflict, where opposites are united. The coat of arms of Ukraine is a blue shield with a gold trident; the trident being also one of the most important attributes of Lord Shiva. It can only be touched by him or Shakti. It is solely used to restore peace and divinity in the universe.
(1) Stephan A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and The Seven Sermons to the Dead
(2) Vanamali, Shiva: Stories and Teachings from the Shiva Mahapurana
Frida Kahlo stands today for much more than art; she is a symbol and an icon of feminism, a heroine of the disability rights movement, anti-racism movements and LGBT communities. Her boundless creativity drew no lines between life and art; she succeeded in transforming herself into a living work of art. But at the same time her humanity was reflected in the anguished gaze of her self-portraits. Her colourful Tehuana dresses covered her crippled right leg, magnificent shawls and Byzantine jewellery concealed her physical impairments while the corsets supported her shattered spine. Life accompanied by pain was frequently the theme of her art as was its mirror image – life-relishing defiance. The earthy, bodily and feminine dimension of her art stands in juxtaposition with its preoccupation with death and suffering.
André Breton, the co-founder of surrealism, famously said that her painting was like “a ribbon around a bomb.” Hayden Herrera, author of the most well-known biography of Frida, wrote that each of her painting was like “a smothered cry, a nugget of emotion so dense that one felt it might explode.” There was indeed a smouldering intensity in Frida, all-consuming inner fire and superhuman strength burning in a feeble, sick body of hers. Yet weak as she was, there was an undeniable carnal fire that jumps at the viewer of her self-portraits or photographs. The details of her biography are widely known. The mainstream narrative chooses to focus on her tempestuous lifelong relationship with Diego Rivera, whom she married twice. It is common knowledge that he was serially unfaithful and at the same time violently jealous of her also numerous romances – with both men and women. This post does not dwell on these facts.
At the age of six Frida Kahlo contracted polio; a disease which crippled her right leg and gave her a limp. Also, it turned her into an introverted girl. She was “forced into the position of otherness” for the first time in her life. (1) To avoid looking weak, Frida took up soccer, boxing, wrestling, swimming and biking. In her childhood she was very close with her father Guillermo, who had come to Mexico as an immigrant from Germany. Hence Frida’s German sounding name, derived from the German word for peace. Together with her father they would spend hours developing photographs and walking in nearby parks, where she would collect “pebbles, insects, and rare plants along the river’s edge.” (2)
When she was eighteen, the most fateful event of her life occurred. On September 17, 1925 the bus she was on collided with a streetcar in Mexico City. Herrera quotes Frida’s then boyfriend, who thus remembered the accident:
“Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her they cried, ’La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer.”
And these were the horrific medical facts as related by Herrera:
“Her spinal column was broken in three places in the lumbar region. Her collarbone was broken, and her third and fourth ribs. Her right leg had eleven fractures and her right foot was dislocated and crushed. Her left shoulder was out of joint, her pelvis broken in three places. The steel handrail had literally skewered her body at the level of the abdomen; entering on the left side, it had come out through the vagina.”
She never fully recovered. The accident prevented her from having children, resulting in a number of miscarriages and abortions as well as numerous surgeries throughout her relatively short life. For a month following the accident she had to lie flat on her back, “enclosed in a box-like structure that looked like a sarcophagus.” (3)
In 1926 she painted her first self-portrait, in which she poses in a velvet dress against a dark background – the ocean and a night sky. Her fragile and vibrant beauty has here a somber air. At the back of the painting she wrote in German – Heute ist immer noch (Today still goes on, as Herrera translates it). There is a blossoming quality about her despite the sadness. Her signature unibrow, compared to “the wings of a blackbird” by Diego Rivera, features prominently in the painting as does a shade of a moustache. Art historian Parker Lesley once wrote aptly about Frida’s peculiar “combination of barbarism and elegance.” (4) Even before she started wearing the famous Tehuana dresses, Frida here looks striking with her magnetic, arresting gaze. Frida once said about herself that her facial features were masculine; yet without a doubt she is an epitome of resplendent femininity. She is also celebrated as a fashion icon, though she did not follow the trends of her time, one of which was the thin, epilated brow. Her sense of what is beautiful was timeless.
Her signature Tehuana dresses and rebozos (shawls), which she started to wear consistently after meeting Diego Rivera, were inspired by those of the women from the city of Tehuantepec in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It is said to be a culture of confident, strong, intelligent women. Their traditional costumes, which consisted of an embroidered blouse, a long skirt and a large headdress worn on special occasions, was adopted by many educated Mexican women contemporary to Frida. Even her mother was photographed wearing such a costume.
The ritual of getting dressed for the day was a serious matter to Frida, says Herrera:
“People who watched the ritual of her dressing recall the time and care she took, her perfectionism and precision. Frequently she tinkered with a needle before donning a blouse, adding lace here, a ribbon there. … To go with the exotic costumes, Frida arranged her hair in various styles, some typical of certain regions of Mexico, some her own invention. She would sweep it upward, sometimes pulling it so tightly at the temples that it hurt, and then braid into it bright woolen ribbons and decorate it with bows, clips, combs, or fresh bougainvillea blossoms. One friend observed that when she placed a comb in her hair, she pressed its prongs into her scalp with a ‘coquettish masochism.’”
Much has also been written about her outstanding collection of jewellery. She did not mind the physical discomfort and would wear heavy rings on each finger, large earrings and sizeable necklaces. “She clanked like a knight in armour,” commented once Parker Lesley. Together with Diego Rivera she collected pre-Columbian art. For her necklaces she would use stone beads from archeological Maya sites. She received a pair of unique earrings from Picasso, an admirer of her art, who once wrote to Diego Rivera:
“Neither Derain, nor I, nor you are capable of painting a head like those of Frida Kahlo.” (5)
Most of the jewellery is now missing, as it was stolen immediately after Frida’s death:
“So desperate were people to have a memento of her that even as her body moved towards the crematorium fire, onlookers pulled at her rings.” (6)
Folk art not only informed her dress but also her art, which is often reminiscent of the so-called retablos. These are votive (devotional) paintings, sometimes in the form of ex-votos (“from a vow”), which show a life-threatening event such as an illness that a person survived thanks to an intervention of Mary, Jesus or a saint. Frida collected Mexican ex-votos art. Her paintings are a few symbolic levels higher than “ordinary” retablos but nevertheless they share their emotional genuineness in relating her physical distress.
One of Frida’s earliest self-portraits steeped in the Catholic tradition is undoubtedly “The Broken Column.” This is Herrera’s description of it:
“Anguish is made vivid by nails driven into her naked body. A gap resembling an earthquake fissure splits her torso, the two sides of which are held together by the steel orthopedic corset … Inside her torso we see a cracked ionic column in the place of her own deteriorating spinal column; life is thus replaced by a crumbling ruin. With her hips wrapped in a cloth suggestive of Christ’s winding sheet, Frida displays her wounds like a Christian martyr; a Mexican Saint Sebastian…”
According to Herrera, one of Frida’s paintings that especially resembled a retablo is “Tree of Hope, Remain Strong” (1946). In it, the sick Frida is accompanied by the guardian Frida, who acts as her own miracle worker. The blood that drips from her wounds is echoed by the red dress, which symbolizes strength and the will to live. Like the Holy Priestess of the Tarot with the Moon shining above her, the Tehuana Frida brings her soothing emotional presence, her unconscious lunar power to the exposed, vulnerable body of the sick Frida that lies in the desert under the relentless beams of the sun.
The theme of fertility runs through the entirety of Frida’s oeuvre. She said once that her painting partly stems from an unfulfilled desire to be a mother. Not being able to bear children, she gave birth to the whole resplendent colourful world around her – the magnificent blue house (Casa Azul), which now serves as her museum, its garden, numerous pets (monkeys, a deer, dogs, parrots, doves and others) as well as her passion for cooking. The theme of roots is also vital, alluding to her desire to connect to the earth and also to honour her Mexican heritage. She was especially proud to have been nourished by an indigenous wet nurse as a baby.
“My Birth” is famously owned by the singer Madonna. It was painted in the year when Frida’s mother died (1932). A large infant’s head (Frida’s) emerges from the mother’s womb. In Herrera’s words:
“We see the infant’s large head emerging between the mother’s spread legs from the doctor’s vantage point. Heavy, joined eyebrows identify the child as Frida. Blood covers the inert, drooping head and skinny neck. The baby looks dead. A sheet covering the woman’s head and chest, as if she had died in childbirth, emphasizes the total exposure of delivery. As a substitute for the mother’s head, on the wall directly above her is a painting of another grieving mother, the Virgin of Sorrows pierced by swords, bleeding and weeping.”
For me, this is a shattering image that shows how closely death and life were intertwined in Frida’s consciousness. Blood seems to have been such a crucial motif of her art and life. Even in her personal letters she spoke of it a lot. She once wrote to her great love, photographer Nickolas Muray, “To you, my loveliest Nick, all my heart, blood and all my being.”
The paintings that I am personally most attached to are “My Nurse and I” (1937) and “Roots” (1943). To me they are both indicative of Frida’s celebration of her connectedness with the fertility of the earth. In the former, as Herrera describes:
“The ducts and glands of the lactating breasts are revealed in a plant-like pattern on the breasts’ surface. … milk-like veins in a huge leaf in the background are engorged. The raindrops in the sky are ‘milk from the Virgin’ – as her nurse had explained to her. The virgin’s milk, the praying mantis and the caterpillar that are camouflaged against the stems and leaves of plants stand for the interconnectedness of every aspect of the natural world and in her own participation in the world.”
Similarly, in “Roots” Frida’s body is planted in the earth. As Herrera puts it, her dream of fertility is realized here as it is she who gives birth to a vine.
Frida’s very last painting was a still life depicting watermelons. She painted them at the age of 47, in 1954, shortly before she died. Herrera writes:
“It is as if Frida had gathered and focused what was left of her vitality in order to paint this final statement of alegría. Sliced and chopped, the pieces of fruit acknowledge the imminence of death, but their luscious red flesh celebrates the fullness of life. Eight days before she died, when her hours were darkened by calamity, Frida Kahlo dipped her brush in blood-red paint and inscribed her name plus the date and the place of execution, Coyoacán, Mexico, across the crimson pulp of the foremost slice. Then, in large capital letters, she wrote her final salute to life: VIVA LA VIDA.”
Frida Kahlo’s art cannot be classified as belonging to any art movements of her time. Surrealists celebrated her and tried to claim her but she said once:
“They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
The symbolism of her art is firmly rooted in the earth. Of her many passions life was perhaps the greatest.
(1) Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, by Claire Wilcox (Editor), published 2018 by Victoria & Albert Museum
(2) Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo
(4) Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, by Claire Wilcox (Editor), published 2018 by Victoria & Albert Museum
(5) Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo
(6) Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, by Claire Wilcox (Editor), published 2018 by Victoria & Albert Museum
“One, two, three, but where, my dear Timaeus, is the fourth?”
We have now reached the fourth Sermon to the Dead, in which the dead demand of Philemon:
“Speak to us about Gods and devils, accursed one.”
The Seven Sermons may be viewed as an attempt on the part of Jung/Philemon to illuminate the deficiencies of official Christianity, which undertook to repress the feminine and the body:
“I have argued that Christianity was born out of a dichotomized worldview in which the cosmos is split between the celestial realm of pure, quiescent, undisturbed beauty and grace, and the lower fallen, material world which Christian doctrine teaches was God’ beautiful handiwork but was ruined, corrupted by human sin. … Human nature is … split in Christianity mirroring the dichotomy between the higher spiritual part and the powerful drives of the sinful flesh below. … One – spirit – is to be cultivated throughout life, the other – flesh – is to be overcome, risen above, even despised …
A dichotomized consciousness that repressed the shadow was the result. An intractable enmity against the flesh and its master, the Devil, the Lord of This World (Aeon) became institutionalized.” (1)
Sharon L. Coggan illuminates in her book how the Greek God Pan evolved into the Christian Devil. Half-man, half-goat, he symbolized the melding of bestial, “primal, animalistic elements” with human, civilized qualities. (2) He thus embodied the Jungian conjunction of opposites. His horns stood for his “vital masculine, phallic essence … virility and lust.” (3) Interestingly, the Indo-European root of the word “horn” itself is related to both “crown” and “corn,” which in turn connects Pan with fertility and majesty. Etymologically, the name of the god is also connected to shepherding, watching, nourishing and fattening. (4) Arcadia, where Pan resided, was the land of the shadows, a rugged terrain in the north where the river Styx had its source. This was a terrain where the reign of civilization ended; it was the shadow and liminal land. (5) It seems that with the advent of Christianity, these vital, nourishing roots symbolized by Pan have been ripped out and cast away:
“Animal instinct was eschewed in favour of the vaunted reason and intellect – and the distorted result is the dulled instincts of the modern human and overreliance on the mind.” (6)
Moreover, the name Pan is naturally connected to the Greek word for “all.” This might have meant, as Macrobius saw it, that Pan was “the ruler of the universal material substance;” but Coggan sees the “all” as encompassing the whole psyche – also the unconscious, wild terrain. She features the Heiroglyphical Representation of Jupiter or Pan from Athanasius Kircher’s Œdipus Ægyptiacus, featured below:
Already in the Old Testament the goat served as a fitting canvas for projection of evil content. In the ancient scapegoating ritual (Leviticus 16) two goats were chosen by drawing lots. One was subsequently sacrificed to God, the other to the demon Azazel. The latter goat absorbed all the sins of Israel in a ritual performed by the High Priest. Why were goats such a fitting symbol for evil? One of the reasons, muses Coggan, might have been their inherent wildness and disobedience. How extraordinary that both “ornery” and “horny” are related to the word “horn”! (7) Rebellion was also what brought on the Satan’s fall.
Coggan’s book ends on a hopeful note.
“As the shadowed energies carried by the Devil are reincorporated into the new Christian spirituality, the heavy visage of the Devil will be lifted off to reveal the Goat God underneath. Pan will be liberated and allowed to return into our collective consciousness as a holy form, representing the powerful and lively energies of the earth, pure lust … and the unfettered beauty and horror of the natural world … When Pan can rise again … we can reinfuse our earth, our bodies, our instincts, our native disobedience, and our sexuality with a new holiness.”
She includes a beautiful Greek sculpture depicting Aphrodite, Pan and Eros, dated back to 100 BCE:
In sermo IV Jung does not speak of Pan but he invokes “two devil Gods.” He calls the first one the Burning One and the other One the Growing One:
“The burning one is EROS, in the form of a flame. It shines by consuming.
The growing one is the TREE OF LIFE. It greens by heaping up growing living matter.
Eros flames up and dies. But the tree of life grows with slow and constant increase through measureless periods of time.”
In Plato’s Symposium Diotima famously tells Socrates about Eros being “a mighty daimon,” that is a spirit that acts as an intermediary between humans and gods. In the fourth sermon Eros stands for the love and passion that “binds two together.” But Eros’s flame is consuming and volatile. In him good and evil are united, says Philemon. The meaning of the Burning One and the Growing One is thus interpreted by Stephan A. Hoeller:
“The Greeks declared that two world spirits dwell in the fabric of cosmic and human life and that they stand in mortal combat one with another. This combat is of such power and magnitude that we can by no means foretell its outcome. The growing spirit is the spirit of civilization; it ever seeks to create forms wherein life may expand, may build, and make itself more secure. The burning one, on the other hand, seeks life in movement, change, adventure, battle, and at times even in conflict and violence. The growing one is peaceful, the burning one is warlike; civilization is conserving and often conservative, while the opposing dynamism is revolutionary. Both forces are part of the natural order … War and peace, conservation and destruction, constructive evolution and destructive revolution are all part of nature. To identify nature with peace and serenity to the exclusion of war and fierceness is contrary to the evidence of observation. Is the peaceful sunset more natural than the erupting volcano? Is the nightingale more natural than the hawk?” (8)
It seems that Hoeller equates Eros with violent, unstable emotions of both love and war. He seems to stand for change that is spurred on by love or hate.
This fourth sermon, perhaps the most complicated and obscure of all of them, focuses on the symbolism of number four. Philemon says:
“Four is the devil, for he opens all that is closed.”
Quaternio was one of the most important concepts in Jungian psychology. Jung postulated enriching the Christian Trinity with the fourth missing element – the feminine, the earth, the shadow/devil. Four was also the number of incarnation and structure. It made the mandala complete and thus allowed the cycle to return to the beginning, standing as such for both creation and destruction.
Alfred Ribi thus analyzes the symbolism of number four and its relation to the Devil:
“Evidently, there is a gap between three and four. The missing fourth thing is something more than merely an additional unity. It poses a difficulty: it exists both in opposition to the three, the trinity, and yet is also as the one that encompasses and completes it. As the fourth function of consciousness, this is the one least accommodated or integrated; it is heavily contaminated by the unconscious and thus retains a degree of autonomy from consciousness. It often goes its own way to an astounding degree; because of the attachment to the unconscious, has about it something of the beyond, something ghostly. In the Christian trinity, the fourth is either the devil or the female.” (9)
Here he is referring to Jung’s theory of the four functions of consciousness – thinking, feeling, intuition and sensation. Jung posited that in each individual psyche one of these functions remains undeveloped, unconscious. It is the task of a lifetime to integrate it and make it conscious lest it erupts in its uncontrollable wildness.
The Fourth Sermon to the Dead is also an affirmation of polytheism, as Philemon states:
“The number of Gods and devils is as innumerable as the host of stars.
But woe unto you, who replace this incompatible multiplicity with a single God.”
The numerous pagan gods encompassed the richness of the human psyche much better than the monotheistic religions. Pan was only one of the many gods demoted to the status of dark demons by the triumphant Christianity.
At the end of the sermon Philemon bends down to kiss the earth and says: “Mother, may your son be strong.” He thus expresses his reverence for the fourth element repressed by mainstream religion – the dark gods and goddesses of the earth.
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(1) Sharon L. Coggan, Sacred Disobedience: A Jungian Analysis of the Saga of Pan and the Devil, Lexington Books 2020, pp. 198-199
(2) Ibid., p. 9
(3) Ibid., p. 26
(4) Ibid., p. 41
(5) Ibid., pp. 42-43
(6) Ibid., p. 211
(7) Ibid., p. 165
(8) Stephan A Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and The Seven Sermons to the Dead
(9) Alfred Ribi, The Search for Roots: C.G. Jung and the Tradition of Gnosis
“There is a grave aura about many of the Black Virgins, an expression of utter solitude so intense that the child on her knees or in the embrace of her left arm seems strangely appended. She sits, solitary, weighted, at the crossing-over place, the place where we fall, face down, and do obeisance. Rooted in her own aboriginal darkness, her eyes are opaque, blank, veiled in the deepest interiority. She sits deeply, a curtained container, a tabernacle, the eternally bloody cave of birth, disintegration, and rebirth. Sedes sapientiae. Seat of Wisdom.”
Meinrad Craighead, “Lodestone,” in The Moonlit Path: Reflections on the Dark Feminine, edited by Fred Gustafson, 2003, p. 79
Apophatic or negative theology teaches that the divine is ultimately unknowable and inexpressible in words. Standing face to face with the Black Madonna is an experience beyond words. What follows is perhaps a futile attempt to grasp at that mystery, which, I have come to realize, has become my personal Holy Grail.
The dark feminine is the divine face for our times. Her darkness needs to be juxtaposed with our deluded age of Enlightenment. We can see her as the angry Mother Nature and we can feel her fury as she emerges from the shadows determined not to take any more abuse. She stands firmly on the side of the excluded and the forgotten. Our Lady Aparecida, the Black Virgin patroness of Brazil, appeared to poor fishermen who found her in her nets. According to a legend, she was white before she fell into the river:
“Legend holds that the river turned the Virgin black. In the river she lay broken, on the bottom, like the people whom the Portuguese had enslaved and colonized, until the fishermen found her and made her their own.”
China Galland, “Raise up Those Held Down: A Pilgrimage to the Black Madonna, Mother of the Excluded, Aparecida, Brazil, in: The Moonlit Path: Reflections on the Dark Feminine, edited by Fred Gustafson, 2003, p. 216
Some Black Madonna lore tells of the statue changing the colour gradually from white to black, but most icons have been black since the beginning. This speaks to the Dark Virgin’s power of instigating the alchemical process – she presides over the nigredo, during which the inessential and the insubstantial falls off, rots, putrefies. She is the Queen of Transmutation:
“From the perspective of the ego, they are lethal forces. But without yielding to this composting and transcendent energy, no transformation is possible and therefore no renewal of life-force. As archetypal energies within the psyche, what these personages accomplish is the breaking down and transmutation of toxic substances, thereby fueling soul growth.”
Cedrus N. Monte, “At the Threshold of Psycho-Genesis/The Mournful Face of God”, in: The Moonlit Path: Reflections on the Dark Feminine, edited by Fred Gustafson, 2003, p. 16
From this heap of compost new life force arises. What has been lost in the long age of patriarchy is returning. A new balance of forces is hopefully emerging. A world where the default human is not only a white male. The Black Madonna is at the symbolic centre of these changes. Arguably, she is the most ecumenical figure in Christianity. She may be able to bring together all faiths of the past and present. So much has been projected on her – she is the dark pagan goddess, she is Isis, the Throne of Wisdom, she is the dark Demeter, Artemis of Ephesus, Cybele, she is Mary – mother of God, she is Mary Magdalene – a female apostle and consort of Jesus Christ, she is “the black but beautiful” Shulamite from the Songs of Songs, she is the Queen Sheba, she is The Holy Grail and the Ark of Covenant sought by the Knights Templar in the Holy Land, she is the primordial African mother of the whole human race. She is the dark meteorite and the black Kaaba Stone from Mecca. She is Kali and the Black Tara.
The mystery of her blackness has been explained by a plethora of extraordinary researchers. Is her blackness symbolic, as Jungian researchers insist, or is she black because she is the dark African mother, the primordial mother goddess such as Isis? The latter theory has been proposed by Chiavola Birnbaum. The former always revolves around the idea of blackness as the void, the primordial matter and earth that is both the fertile womb and the ultimate tomb. We come from her and we return to her. Like Kali, whose name is connected with Time, she is both the origin and the end. Like the colour black, she assimilates all into herself. I especially resonated with these words of Ella Rozett, the curator of the ultimate online resource on the Black Madonna:
“Shortly after I was asked for the first time to give a talk on the black Madonnas I was able to go to Loreto, Italy before the black Mother in the darkness of her little brick house. There I asked her directly about the meaning of her blackness. Listening with an empty, open mind and with my whole being, I felt that she was covering me with the darkness of her cloak as in a dark ‘cloud of unknowing’. In that darkness beyond words we communed. She did not give me any words then, but afterwards I felt assured that she reveals her secrets to those who love her. Those who dare enter the darkness of the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ and the ‘dark night of the soul’ (St. John of the Cross) she draws into herself, like a ‘black hole’ draws in matter, and there, in that darkness, she teaches them. It’s like being in the womb of God: you know you are safely held and nourished. You grow without needing to understand how. Ever since then, I see Black Madonnas as a symbol for the womb of God.”
The same Ella Rozett writes this about the image of the famous Madonna of Guadalupe:
“The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe reveals her dark and light side in two ways: one, she radiates with the light of the sun, while standing on a dark moon, and two, a straight line runs down the middle of her dress, dividing it into a light and a dark side.”
Thus she brings wholeness to the one-sided world, restoring a much needed balance. In a mysterious way she does not obliterate diversity but affirms it. Everyone and everything is covered by her mantle: she is the mother who does not exclude. In her black unity she lovingly contains all divisions. She makes our western idea of divinity full by enriching it with everything that we have cut off. Jung spoke of the civilized one-sidedness in his essay “A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity”:
“The Platonic freedom of the spirit does not make a whole judgment possible: it wrenches the light half of the picture away from the dark half. This freedom is to a large extent a phenomenon of civilization, the lofty preoccupation of that fortunate Athenian whose lot it was not to be born a slave. We can only rise above nature if somebody else carries the weight of the earth for us. … But civilized man can live without the winter, for he can protect himself against the cold; without dirt, for he can wash; without sin, for he can prudently cut himself off from his fellows and thereby avoid many an occasion for evil. He can deem himself good and pure, because hard necessity does not teach him anything better. … The dark weight of the earth must enter the picture of the whole.” (CW 11, par. 264)
She takes us down to the world of chaos, where rigid control has to be renounced. She obliterates all rational signposts, all defense mechanisms designed to get rid of our fear and doubt. In her essay Cedrus N. Monte also said that “the inner shrine of darkness” is where the Dark Feminine abides to teach us that there is no spiritual path which will enable us to “get it right,” or “put an end to suffering, to existential chaos.” Rather, as Father Bede Griffiths wrote:
“The chaos is in God. Creation is chaos. … God is in the darkness, in the womb, in the Mother. … and yet the whole order of the universe is coming out of that chaos. I think that enlightenment is the union of this divine reality with the chaos of life, of nature, of matter, of the world.”
Father Bede Griffiths, “The Stroke – Discovering the Feminine,” in: The Moonlit Path: Reflections on the Dark Feminine, edited by Fred Gustafson, 2003, p. 245
There is no understanding without embracing confusion. Let the mystery of the Black Madonna remain unsolvable.
We are still focusing on The Seven Sermons to the Dead, which are part of Scrutinies, the final section of The Red Book. In my previous posts, I looked at sermons one and two while this one is dedicated to the third sermon and Philemon’s commentaries.
Sermo III is a close encounter with the “terrible” Abraxas, whom we already met in Sermo II. Here we learn that Abraxas’ power is “greatest, because man does not see it.” He is the union of the good that comes from the Sun and the bad that comes from the devil. Unlike the Christian God, who personifies the summum bonum (the highest good), Abraxas draws his power both from good and evil.
Jung was not happy with what he saw as characteristic of our Western mentality which is split between two “antagonistic personifications: God and the Devil.” (1) In Sermo III we read:
“What the Sun God speaks is life, what the devil speaks is death. But Abraxas speaks that hallowed and accursed word that is at once life and death.”
What follows in the sermon is an enumeration of paradoxical qualities of Abraxas – “the hermaphrodite of the earliest beginning,” who is “the fullness that seeks union with emptiness.” In him unite the brightest light and the blackest darkness. And further:
“He is the life of creation. He is the effect of differentiation. He is the love of man. He is the speech of man. He is the appearance and the shadow of man.”
When the sermon is finished Jung, in utter confusion, speaks to Philemon. He complains he cannot fathom the cruel contradictory nature of Abraxas. But Philemon tells him that this terrible God is not to be understood – he is just to be known. And, as it was said in the sermon, it is wise to fear him and redemption belongs to the one who does not resist him.
Alfred Ribi compares Abraxas to nature, which is amoral, relentless and full of riddles. He also posits similarities between Abraxas and the alchemical Mercurius, who also united the opposites being both material and spiritual (2). In CW 13 (par. 284) Jung said this of Mercurius:
“(4) He is the devil, a redeeming psychopomp, an evasive trickster, and God’s reflection in physical nature. (5) He is also the reflection of a mystical experience of the artifex that coincides with the opus alchymicum.”
From the point of view of Stephan A. Hoeller, Abraxas embodies “the principle of irresistible activity.” He is the sheer psychic energy of “titanic magnitude.” (3) This deity has a human body, head of a rooster and serpents for legs. His chariot is drawn by four white horses. The rooster symbolizes “vigilant wakefulness” and is related to the sun, whose rising it announces at dawn. The cry of the rooster dispels the night’s demons and “sounds things into existence or awareness.” (4) The cock, the alternative word for the rooster, alludes to its phallic and fecundating power. Interestingly, Hermes, who was born at dawn, would sometimes take the form of a rooster when guiding souls to the underworld. (5) The serpent legs of Abraxas refer to his dark, chthonic and instinctual wisdom. Altogether Abraxas signifies “an equilibrated state of dynamic union.” In the figure of Abraxas opposites are united “without the terrors of moral judgment and fearful opposition.” He reconciles light and darkness by transcending both. He brings together the lower world of the instincts (evoked in the sermon by the figures of Pan and Priapos) with the spiritual heights. Poised between the two, he relentlessly generates Life.
The numerical value of the name Abraxas totals 365 both in Hebrew and Greek. 365 is emblematic of the totality of time, over which Abraxas rules. Hoeller says that Abraxas both makes and unmakes time. He entangles and disentangles the temporal knots of necessity. But he also signifies the timeless moment, “the eternal one” positioned outside of “time both in its linear and its cyclic aspects.” Because his name is composed of seven letters, it also stands for the powers of the seven classical planets, which simultaneously restrict us with their fateful knots and also act as creative stepping stones of ascension and spiritual liberation from material constraints.
Hoeller thus concludes his analysis:
“Between the two opposites, God and Devil, betwixt and between the night and the day, at the very crack of the dawn, stands the majestic chanticleer, the rooster-headed god of cosmic and psychic energy, drawing his strength from both the night and the day and preparing to race with his chariot drawn by the white steeds of the dawn to a world beyond earth and stars, out of time and out of mind.”
(1) C.G. Jung, A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity, CW 11, par. 791
(2) Alfred Ribi, The Search for Roots: C.G. Jung and the Tradition of Gnosis
(3) Stephan A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and The Seven Sermons to the Dead. All the subsequent quotes come from this book, unless otherwise indicated.
(4) (10) The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, ARAS, edited by Ami Ronnberg, p. 328
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