Scientific and shamanic perspectives mark 2

The study of religious or heroic legends and tales. One constant rule of mythology is that whatever happens amongst the gods or other mythical beings was in one sense or another a reflection of events on earth. Recorded myths and legends, perhaps preserved in literature or folklore, have an immediate interest to archaeology in trying to unravel the nature and meaning of ancient events and traditions.

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Scientific and shamanic perspectives mark 2

Postby Ishtar » Sat Jun 28, 2008 2:58 am

War Arrow has suggested that in our new spirit of detente and co-operation, we might have a go at this again.

But please note that I’ve called the thread Scientific and shamanic perspectives, not Scientific versus shamanic perspectives, as I felt painted into corner before with the latter title. I thought it was a false premise. As the monk replied when asked the way to the temple: “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.”

So this is War Arrow’s quote that is sparking off this debate again:


I only get tetchy when I think something that patently isn't science (ie - verifiable under conditions of blah blah blah) is being passed off as absolute truth, or at least objective rather than subjective truth, if you see what I mean.

For example, the shamanism thing (uh oh) I'd argue that visions / hallucinations etc can be part of an entirely valid experience within the context of a belief system (and after all a belief system is simply a subjective frame of reference for the world at large) and therefore doesn't NEED to be understood as 'glimpses of parallel reality' (in objective rather than subjective terms) or whatever....

I think part of the problems we've had may (I hope) be down to language.


And I want to start from here:

I think it depends on your definition of science. As I understand it the word is the Latinised form of the Greek ‘gnosis’ which means ‘knowledge’. But the ‘gnosis’ of the Greeks philosophers, like Plato and Philo of Alexandria, didn’t just mean knowledge of the empirical, objective kind, as science has become today. It was more holistic kind, including the subjective and metaphysical side of nature – and therein lay the problem.

Over time, as religions took over from the more shamanic/gnostic way of communing with the gods/spirits, the metaphysical side gradually got lost in a plethora of over-complicated codes, rules, dogmas and so on. The meanings of the mythological symbols got forgotten, or came to be misunderstood as literal, and the rules became more important than the experience (the experience of communing with gods/spirits) and thus the experience disappeared. And that’s why we ended up, in the Middle Ages, with a ‘science’ shot through with superstition and mumbo jumbo, and no real gods/God in sight.

It’s difficult to put any dates on when this happened. But it seems that the rot probably set in with the beginning of agriculture. Whereas at one time, people had their own experience of gods/spirits and therefore didn’t need any rules to tell them what to do – now religious types were saying stuff like:

“Listen you don’t need to bother your heads about all that mystical stuff. That’s what we’re here for, to take care of all the spiritual bit of life. You just need to concentrate on getting that field dug over and planted – otherwise we won’t have any food this winter.”

And as this went on, the priesthood gained in power, more and more, until they felt they could say:

“Listen, you lot of peasants, what do you know about gods/God? I’m in daily contact with them/Him and you’re not. And can tell you, he’s not very pleased with all that sleeping around you’re doing with each other because it distracting you from what's most important.”

“Oh, and what is 'most important',” pipes up the peasant.

“Why,” says the priest, “what is most important is working hard and worshipping God on the one day off we give you, out of the kindness of our hearts.”

So obviously the power of knowledge had to, at some stage, be wrested from the hands of these tyrants and so post-Enlightenment thinking and Darwinism (when the break with religion really took place) to that intents and purpose, is A GOOD THING.

However, what about the older, pre-religion, gnosis/shamanism/metaphyscal holistic model, when man knew what he needed to do and thus needed no-one to tell him, because he had his own contact and contract with the gods/God? Because I think a holistic approach would be an EVEN BETTER THING. And it would also get us away from this old hierarchical model of always being at the bottom of the knowledge pyramid and having to be told what’s best for us – first by the priests, and now by scientists in the pay of governments.

This is my starting point, War Arrow.
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Postby War Arrow » Sat Jun 28, 2008 7:48 am

Uh... okay, but I'm going to need to nip outside for a fag and think about this as I've just got in from work. In the meantime, as some of the points that either you touch on, or I'm about to touch on, are {ahem} touched upon in the mini-essay I posted on the old Early Religion as Archaic Science thread, here it is again just for the record and for anyone who didn't see it. Lazy I know, but I will be back soon.

Okay, here it is. Pardon the occasionally pompous tone, it's because despite my best efforts, I am actually quite pompous. Also this was written nearly ten years ago now so some of the phraseology makes me wince:

Although never having been particularly theologically inclined, it is not a disposition I would necessarily scorn. Often there is much to admire in the person who holds with genuine faith. Unfortunately for my own purposes, having digested the writings of Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Andy Martin, there can be no going back. It is unlikely that I will ever subscribe to thoughts of genial white-bearded gentlemen sitting upon clouds, any more than I am likely to start believing in fairies, flying saucers, or the ill-conceived theories of Erich Von Däniken
In spite of which, religion and the nature of belief remain fascinating areas of study. Particularly with regard to what D.H. Lawrence termed pre-moral faith, meaning those earlier theologies which offer description rather than prescription:

"...by the time of Christ all religion and all thought seemed to turn from the old worship and study of vitality, potency, power, to the study of death and death-rewards, death-penalties, and morals. All religion, instead of being religion of life, here and now, became religion of postponed destiny, death, and reward afterwards..."
- Apocalypse D.H. Lawrence, 1931

So how did we first come by religion?
By investigating the world around us and drawing upon conclusions that are at least satisfactory within the context of time, place and culture. It is an entirely scientific approach. The only significant difference between religion then and science now is that having learnt from our mistakes, we are today more scrupulous in how we choose to define what constitutes satisfactory explanation. The current schism between science and theology arises entirely from the fact of the latter relying on criteria that no longer work within the context of present time, place and culture. Contemporary religion for the most part fails to address the schism, or employs get-out clauses - moving the goal posts and mumbling 'you wouldn't understand.'
Let us briefly employ a trivial analogy. Anyone with an interest in the musical avant-garde should recall Can, an adventurous German group of the 1970s still renowned for their experimental approach to sound composition. Can are remembered as significantly influential in pushing back the boundaries of what one might choose to define as music. A lesser known group emerged in England during the early 1990s producing records strongly reminiscent of those early Can experiments. In interview they proclaimed themselves to be very much at the forefront of musical endeavour, despite their albums sounding rather similar to something from twenty years earlier. In essence, their reasoning seemed to be 'Can were avant-garde. By our faithful reproduction of their sound, we too are avant-garde.' It would surely be an insult to the reader's intelligence were I to spell out the basic flaw of such an argument.
Much contemporary religion seems caught in a similar position: reiterating claims and maxims rendered meaningless through being stripped of their original context. This is the inevitable problem of a system which sets itself up as having all of the answers, and having them in perpetuity. Sooner or later there occurs a juxtaposition of eggs and faces.
Similar criticism is often made of science as though it presents some arrogant and inflexible monolith that will brook no argument. 'Science does not have all of the answers,' they say. A more accurate statement would be that science does not know all of the answers, although it tends towards the belief that answers exist. The sentiment stems from a misconception of science as logistics-based dogma, yet the very foundation stone of the discipline is its ability to adapt.
Science strives to explain, and one glance at its history will show that acceptable explanations must not only work, but continue to work. Once a theory is superseded by something more elegant, more consistent with observed detail, that theory is lost - relegated from a fact of the physical world to one of history: no more than a signpost on the road that has brought us to our present understanding:
Religion, or at least pre-moral religion by D.H. Lawrence's definition, seems to have evolved largely through observation of the pre-technological world. Its language of Gods and spirits is no more than that which made most sense at the time: if effect appears to occur without cause, then it must simply be that the cause is invisible to the naked eye. In a stone-age context it would be less easy to envisage static electricity or plate tectonics than an intangible cause which in some way resembles one's self.
Human perception operates within a world of symbols. There is no such thing as an object which can be understood purely as itself once a human observer enters the equation. A chair is a symbol for sitting down; comfort; taking the weight off one's feet. A cloud is a symbol for sky; rain; healthy crops; and by extension the continuation of one's existence. Symbols are only the meanings we apply to the world, so a God may be no less a symbol than is a chair. The difference lies only in the underlying structure upon which we build our model of reality. We see a chair and know its name and function. By the same logic we may observe the action of wind and - lacking knowledge of atmospheric pressure differentials or convection currents - deduce the symbol of a God, there being no better explanation available at the time.
I would therefore temporarily redefine Lawrence's pre-moral belief systems as archaic science. Contemporary religion generally deals with challenges to its basic precepts by ignoring them. Archaic sciences endure whilst the means of making an effective challenge is beyond the scope of the culture at large, and when new circumstances present awkward questions, it tends to adapt and compensate (*1). Contemporary religion therefore comprises the ossified legacy of earlier belief systems which, when forced by progress to make a choice between evolution or extinction, instead took up a defensive stance in the hope that the problem might eventually go away. Which has not happened, so the faithful either keep themselves to themselves, or shoot first. Thus a "worship and study of vitality" has petrified into mumbled discussion about what really happened in the Garden of Eden and gun-toting fanaticism.

Archaic science (if the reader will forgive my continued use of the term) and contemporary faith are therefore differentiated as much by adaptive (or otherwise) properties, as moral perspectives. It would be wrong to suggest that earlier religions are necessarily amoral, but the balance between description and prescription is very different. Judaeo-Christian systems tend to emphasise ideals of right and wrong, providing adherents with an elaborate set of codes by which to live. Whilst many of these codes may be indisputably noble, some - perhaps reluctantly maintained in the name of consistency - should be considered dubious or even offensive by most right-thinking people. Although not without a moral dimension, Nahua theology contains little in the way of judgement (*2) beyond a few warnings against overindulgence.
Let us briefly qualify this assertion. A great many religions frown upon adultery (defined as sexual liaisons taking place outside the bonded pair, or group in a few eccentric and polygamous cases) and it would be hard to deny that some logic informs this disposition. For all its immediate pleasures, adulterous behaviour has a tendency to precipitate extremes of psychological distress for those involved. On the other hand, where later religions (particularly monotheistic and patriarchal variants) are rife with arbitrary pronouncements on sexuality, ethnicity, and the strength of one's faith - such edicts are rare within the archaic science model. And for good reason: what observed effect could possibly lead a logical mind to conclude that one sex is superior to the other, or that homosexuality and atheism signify inherent evil?
Archaic science attempts to describe what is, rather than what it thinks should be. Moral issues are left to the individual (who is credited with the good sense to decide for him or her self) or else perceived as belonging to the unknowable province of the sacred world - in either case, ethical matters are not innate to the metaphysical fabric.

Returning to the theme of Gods as symbols, this is manifestly so with Nahua theology, and any discussion of the same must take this into account. A particularly vivid example is found in Xipe Totec whom we might broadly characterise as a fertility God associated with the ripening of the maize plant. He is invariably depicted as a man encased in the flayed hide of a sacrificial victim and during the Veintena festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli, holy men would impersonate the God by likewise donning the flesh of those recently slain. Having been attired in this grisly fashion for twenty days, the priests would remove the hide (in the event of its not having fallen apart through a natural process of decay) to be revealed once again as healthy and living (although possibly somewhat aromatic) human beings.
This action represents a ritualised echo of the maize husk as it slowly desiccates before finally exposing the wholesome yellow cob within. At a deeper level it provides allegories for the cycle of life and death (that each is born from the other); and the aphorism that nothing worthwhile comes without a degree of suffering.
Whether or not one accepts Xipe Totec as a Deity in the sense of being some disembodied supernatural entity is irrelevant. The salient points are those expressed by the symbols. One may choose either belief or disbelief in the existence of an omnipotent white-bearded creator, but a symbol, being founded upon intellectual comprehension rather than physical substance is a different matter. The question of whether or not one believes in a symbol is as meaningless as that of whether or not one believes in adjectives. Therefore, in all senses that count, Xipe Totec is real.
This accounts, in part, for my enduring fascination with the Nahua universe. Whilst its literal fabric has long been superceded (*3) by the contemporary scientific model (Darwinian theory, for example, sadly invalidates the rather pleasing idea of canine ancestry leading back to a human couple whose heads were relocated to their hindquarters by an enraged Deity), the symbols remain predominantly valid. And of the principal concepts communicated through Nahua symbolism: that one cannot take from nature without giving something back; that conflicting forces may sometimes induce progress; that life is defined by death; and that change is the only historical constant -. for better or worse, these persist and with wider import than any vacuous maxim prescribing obedience to one God, or altruism enforced, not for its own sake, but on penalty of everlasting torment.

The subject of religious conviction hardly lends itself to discussion in the same objective terms as chemistry or biology, and the degree to which the above assertions concord with the substance of the matter may be open to debate. It might be argued, for instance, that Christianity is likewise a purely symbolic construct, and with no meaningful claims towards description of physical reality (although this certainly does not seem to be the belief of its many fundamentalist adherents). Despite the occasional grain of truth that might support such a hypothesis, corroborative evidence seems greatly outweighed by prohibitive.
Nahua theology on the other hand contains much that would appear to justify the reading given here, and without the need to look too hard or render one's interpretation with too colourful a flourish. We find this exemplified in the fluid character of the Gods and Goddesses.
Mexican Deities tend to blend and fuse with one another; personalities shift to the extent that even gender is not always a constant. This much is evident from surviving codices which are replete with supernatural figures bearing signifiers of more than one Deity. These, it could be argued, represent powerful entities who for reasons beyond our comprehension, choose to merge with one another. More likely is that the individuals depicted bear no distinction in their own right beyond serving as carriers of conceptual information - specifically the fundamental symbols which, lacking discrete physicality, may combinate in whatever configuration serves best to illustrate the point being made.
Further to this theme, the concept of religious heresy (as applied to those believing in something other than one's own 'true' faith) was unknown in Mexico prior to its importation by Conquistadores in 1521. Indeed, the populace of western Mexico were so eclectic as to welcome Jesus Christ into their extended pantheon many years prior to the imposition of Christian monotheism which came when the Spaniards eventually turned their attention to that part of the country.
Such magnanimity is entirely consistent within a belief system that recognises its components as symbolic, but not within one that claims a literal and concrete reality of its cast and tenets. After all, if a creed is upheld as empiric historical fact - the 'one truth' built upon foundations as tangible as those of the physical world - how then does it compensate for unexpected challenges to its omniscience? With absolute denial, as the history of Judaeo-Christianity is testimony, which is hardly the adaptive behaviour of a faith that values message over messenger.
In 1519 the Conquistadores introduced the indigenous population of Mexico to objects and concepts for which no local frame of reference existed - a new set of unfamiliar symbols, if you will. As is consistent with a science (rather than an orthodoxy), this intrusion of the alien prompted not denial, but questions, self-examination, and assimilation. Thus the regional theology of western Mexico adopted Jesus Christ as their God of cows, metal and money: an anthropomorphic persona for new symbols which had arrived more or less concurrently from the East. Mesoamerican belief systems are therefore adaptive, explaining or proposing meaning rather than enforcing it - a feature more characteristic of a science than any contemporary theology.

At this juncture one might rightly question the thesis. Nahua theology, it could be argued, derives surely from fanciful conjecture and credulity, whereas contemporary science is grounded in observation and the continual revision of its own findings. Only a fool would deny that assumption and superstition account for some elements of Nahua belief, but it is certainly also true that nascent forms of the scientific criteria listed above occupy an equal and perhaps even dominant role.
For one example, in The Natural History of the Soul in Ancient Mexico Jill Furst eloquently illustrates how the complex Nahua conception of a tripartite soul may be informed by direct observation of changes that occur to the human body immediately after death; notably those which may explain why, in Nahua thought, one element of the soul is often likened to a butterfly.
Furst notes that when a fresh corpse is lain flat upon its back, blood will tend to settle causing lividity - a pronounced red tinge to the skin of the lower areas: the back of the arms, legs and torso. However, those parts of the epidermis (around the buttocks and shoulder blades) in contact with the surface upon which the corpse rests, through being compressed by the weight of the body above, will commonly remain unaffected, even somewhat bleached as gravity squeezes blood from the capillaries. Thus, once rigor mortis has set in, the back of the corpse bears a roseate staining that contrasts to a conspicuously pallid area given the shape of a butterfly by the template of the shoulder blades.
It therefore requires no wild leap of imagination to link the significant details: that whatever animated the body is no longer present, and that something in the shape of a butterfly appears also to have taken its leave of the corpse. If hardly a satisfactory interpretation by the standards of modern medical practice, this nevertheless shows an application of dextrous reasoning within its own cultural framework.

However, science is not informed solely by observation and conclusion. It must also practice the continuing reappraisal of its own findings: sceptical enquiry, the spirit of which is likewise present in our strain of archaic science. Surviving remnants of pre-Hispanic Nahuatl poetry(*4) contain much written in this vein, pondering upon the true nature of the universe: whether it comprises Gods, heavens, and an afterlife, or only that which is revealed to the human eye:

"Where shall I go?
Where shall I go?
Which is the path to the God of duality?
Perchance, is Your home in the place of the dead?
In the innermost of heaven?
Or is the place of the dead only here on earth?"

- Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 35,v.

By the same token, amongst the chronicles of Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún we find native accounts describing the clear distinctions made between holy man and common sorcerer. To us this may seem a little incongruous within the context of such an elaborate and extraordinary belief system. Nevertheless, it is a system which differentiates between reasoned thought and quackery:

"The false wise man, like an ignorant physician, a man without understanding, claims to know about God. He has his own traditions and keeps them secretly. He is a boaster, vanity is his. He makes things complicated; he brags and exaggerates. He is a river, a rocky hill (a dangerous man). A lover of darkness and corners, a mysterious wizard, a magician, a witch doctor, a public thief, he takes things. A sorcerer, a destroyer of faces. He leads the people astray."
- Códice Matritense de la Real Academia, VIII, fol. 188,v.

Perhaps the term archaic science is misleading, its value being reliant more on interpretation than incontrovertible fact. If it gives an impression of the Nahua world as a Spartan haven of logic and reason, then it should probably only be so in relation to the outmoded (and insulting) portrait of hopelessly superstitious primitives who roll their eyes and wave hands in terror of the angry volcano God. Whilst the archaic science model should not be confused with science itself, Nahua theology contains too much incisive detail to justify relegation to realms purely of imagination and fantasy.

Richard Dawkins writes extensively in articulate defence of science, particularly regarding the 'sense of wonder' it presents. Theologically inclined critics often deny the existence of this sense of wonder, describing science as reductionist; lacking in poetry. Religious faith, they insist, is the sole fount of the sublime and inspirational.
Yet in Christian terminology at least, it is rare to find any expression of wonder made purely by its own merits. No iridescent hummingbird or fragrant bloom is eulogised without mention of God's philanthropic glory, and even this limited form of praise is conditional. The fact that God's divine creation is seldom exemplified by frogs, lizards or snakes suggests an extraordinarily myopic perspective. If contemporary religion affords a sense of wonder, it is one filtered through the lens of its own jealous tenets, concerned not so much with the purported object of its focus as demonstration of the observer's piety. Where science seeks only to explain, contemporary religion lays claim to being the very substance of the universe - its testimony is therefore no more reliable than that of a restaurateur called upon to pen reviews of his own eating establishment.
Science describes the world.
Symbols describe human experience of the world.
One should therefore take care to avoid any symbolic language riddled with inherent prejudice and bias. Whilst that of Nahua theology is certainly colourful, its power of poetic description excels without any sacrifice of objectivity.

*1: One might speculate upon the role of the written word in defining a belief system's ability to adapt. Whilst Central Mexico maintained a means of recording information in pictographic form, it was not well suited to the description of abstract ideas of motive or relative moral value. It is logical that the invention of written phonetic script (which may record all aspects of spoken word) tends to pin language down by creating a standard template which reaches future generations in more or less unaltered form (unlike a purely oral tradition). This might also be true of the ideas expressed by that language. Perhaps then it is the written word which contributed to the ossification of the Judaeo-Christian faiths, by setting in 'stone' tenets that might have otherwise remained fluid and adaptive.

*2: Further to this point, the closest Nahuatl analogy we have for the word 'evil' is ahmocualli implying negative qualities and literally translated as 'something not good'.

*3: This said, it is interesting to note that a number of fanciful Mesoamerican myths accounting for the nature of the universe come somewhat closer to established scientific theory than Judaeo-Christian equivalents. The models of prehistory as a series of cataclysmic mass extinctions, and apes representing an earlier form of humanity being two examples. Whilst I am unwilling to attribute this to anything more than coincidence, it might be suggested that Mesoamerican belief systems seem at least conducive to 'thinking along the right lines' in certain cases. Perhaps this might result from their foundations lying in observation of the natural world (as opposed to politically motivated tribalism) which must surely make for a degree of clear thinking.

*4: The texts referred to here were set down in alphabetic script during the early years of Hispanic rule and are reputed to record, in part, older oral traditions which in pre-conquest Mexico would have been beyond the scope of the extant pictographic writing. Although some of these narratives refer to Christian symbolism, their concerns remain firmly m the thematic tradition of pre-Colombian Nahua thought.
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Postby Ishtar » Sat Jun 28, 2008 8:04 am

Outside? Won't Mrs War Arrow let you smoke in the house? :cry:

Thanks for this. I did read it all the way through a few months ago. And I also read it through again this morning, before posting, to try to make sure I was addressing where you're coming from.

Mostly I thought when I read it again how close we are in our thinking, and I wondered whether, if you'd widened your research across other cultures, that we might not be even closer.

To illustrate, this is one of your notes:

This said, it is interesting to note that a number of fanciful Mesoamerican myths accounting for the nature of the universe come somewhat closer to established scientific theory than Judaeo-Christian equivalents. The models of prehistory as a series of cataclysmic mass extinctions, and apes representing an earlier form of humanity being two examples. Whilst I am unwilling to attribute this to anything more than coincidence, it might be suggested that Mesoamerican belief systems seem at least conducive to 'thinking along the right lines' in certain cases. Perhaps this might result from their foundations lying in observation of the natural world (as opposed to politically motivated tribalism) which must surely make for a degree of clear thinking.


And it takes us back to the point of where do shamanism and science meet, if they do.

What you have found with your studies on the mythology and theology of the Nahua, and are referring to here in your note, I have found across many cultures but more specifically the Vedic and the Sumerian/Babylonian.

The Vedics knew the circumference of the earth, the speed of light, the distance between the earth and the sun.....there's a whole long list.

I believe much of what we think we've discovered in recent centuries are in fact rediscoveries....but I expect you've heard me make that point before.
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Re: Scientific and shamanic perspectives mark 2

Postby War Arrow » Sat Jun 28, 2008 8:46 am

Okay, let's do this.
Ishtar wrote:I think it depends on your definition of science. As I understand it the word is the Latinised form of the Greek ‘gnosis’ which means ‘knowledge’. But the ‘gnosis’ of the Greeks philosophers, like Plato and Philo of Alexandria, didn’t just mean knowledge of the empirical, objective kind, as science has become today. It was more holistic kind, including the subjective and metaphysical side of nature – and therein lay the problem.

Over time, as religions took over from the more shamanic/gnostic way of communing with the gods/spirits, the metaphysical side gradually got lost in a plethora of over-complicated codes, rules, dogmas and so on. The meanings of the mythological symbols got forgotten, or came to be misunderstood as literal, and the rules became more important than the experience (the experience of communing with gods/spirits) and thus the experience disappeared. And that’s why we ended up, in the Middle Ages, with a ‘science’ shot through with superstition and mumbo jumbo, and no real gods/God in sight.

Absolutely agree with most of this, almost violently so with the part I've italicised. Though a couple of questions occur:
1) My understanding of a God or spirit would be that it is simply a means of understanding some aspect of the world and (in many cases) how it relates to oneself, and the language of this understanding (ie - how elabourate or colourful that entity may appear to be) is just the 'poetry' of the description - that is, it's the understanding that matters rather than the name you've given it. This is where I think Abrahamic faiths so often go wrong, becoming essentially personality cults which revere the teacher over the teachings. Is this what you mean by "real gods/Gods" - real gods/Gods presumably being those wherein the understanding is of more significance than the name attatched?
2) "science shot through with superstition and mumbo jumbo" - for example?
Ishtar wrote:It’s difficult to put any dates on when this happened. But it seems that the rot probably set in with the beginning of agriculture. Whereas at one time, people had their own experience of gods/spirits and therefore didn’t need any rules to tell them what to do – now religious types were saying stuff like:

“Listen you don’t need to bother your heads about all that mystical stuff. That’s what we’re here for, to take care of all the spiritual bit of life. You just need to concentrate on getting that field dug over and planted – otherwise we won’t have any food this winter.”


I'd argue that it begins with the written word rather than agriculture, if anything. Once ideas can be set down they cease to be subject to change and are more easily employed as dogma for political gain. Also, I think there might be an important distinction made between the (political)demands of a growing state and to what extent religion has an influence. Specifically, has this hypothetical state come about as a direct result of the religion or is the religion simply a convenient tool? As usual, my examples are Mexican, but the Nahuatl religion (the one with Quetzalcoatl and chums) seems to have remained fluid, adaptive, and investigative (in other words, archaic science) even whilst it served to justify the behaviour of said state (war, sacrifice etc) - that is, the Mexican state tapped into existing theological thought and acted in accordance with the ideas set forth therein (sacrifice as a means of sustaining the world etc) and whilst there's no doubt that the ruling classes were quite happy to benefit from this arrangement, there is little evidence of any significant difference (barring the names) between theological thought in Tenochtitlan at its most militaristic and the most rural backwaters. That is, whilst a Tenochtitlan priest was evidently in it up to his armpits, and maybe a rustic peasant was not, any hierarchy here is more to do with class and society than religion, or even restricted access to religion. And when it comes down to it, what I mean by religion is, in this instance, basically an understanding of how the world works, at least couched in terms that made sense at the time.
Ishtar wrote:So obviously the power of knowledge had to, at some stage, be wrested from the hands of these tyrants and so post-Enlightenment thinking and Darwinism (when the break with religion really took place) to that intents and purpose, is A GOOD THING.

Yes, because that's when we got back to the idea of understanding things rather than just {ahem} sucking the metaphorical chopper of the dude who's dishing out the recieved wisdom on why homosexuals cause milk to turn sour (etc).
Ishtar wrote:However, what about the older, pre-religion, gnosis/shamanism/metaphyscal holistic model, when man knew what he needed to do and thus needed no-one to tell him, because he had his own contact and contract with the gods/God? Because I think a holistic approach would be an EVEN BETTER THING. And it would also get us away from this old hierarchical model of always being at the bottom of the knowledge pyramid and having to be told what’s best for us – first by the priests, and now by scientists in the pay of governments.

I hear you, but I think I disagree with some of this, probably, except I think I might be having difficulty with some of the terms here - if we're talking about Gods/spirits as methods of understanding. I'll try and describe the shape of my incomprehension by posing a few questions/points suggested by this passage.

Does Holistic not suggest an approach where everything is given equal validity?
If so, it seems a dubious approach given that some ideas work better in certain circumstances than others, and furthermore, a degree of healthy scepticism (which is after all only a way of asking questions) would hopefully rule out the less useful ideas. Playing devil's advocate here, if my boiler's up the swanee, I'm going to cash in on that plumber and client hierarchy in order to get it fixed.

Uh... hope some of that makes sense. :)
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Postby War Arrow » Sat Jun 28, 2008 9:06 am

Ishtar wrote:Outside? Won't Mrs War Arrow let you smoke in the house? :cry:

No, but I don't mind at the moment. Sort of trying to pack it in anyway.
Ishtar wrote:Mostly I thought when I read it again how close we are in our thinking, and I wondered whether, if you'd widened your research across other cultures, that we might not be even closer.

Very probably. I've chosen to be quite blinkered/focussed for several reasons:
1) Want to see how far I can get in one direction so to speak.
2) There's only so many hours in the day.
3) Brand loyalty, don't want to spread myself too thin.
4) This will sound weird maybe, but I distrust the human tendency to see patterns (ie - parallels and coincidences) and wish to avoid cluttering my brain up with too many "Egyptian Quetzalcoatls" (or whatever), being as I'm not convinced such things would have any direct bearing upon whatever I'm studying. In other words, distractions. Further to this, the stuff that interests me is largely in Mexico after a certain time, so theories of older influences from afar don't really impact upon my area in any tangible way, so far as I am able to tell.
5) Basic prejudice against non-Mexican cultures (taking piss out of myself here, at least I think I am), just don't find them so absorbing, though that's just me I know.
Ishtar wrote:And it takes us back to the point of where do shamanism and science meet, if they do.

I'd say yes at some point, though keep in mind that my idea of what constitutes shamanism may be somewhat closer to something you'd see on The Simpsons than your own better informed perspective.

By the way, I should probably point out that my available posting time is presently limited so future replies may appear on a purely daily basis.
See you tomorrow, I guess. :)
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Postby kbs2244 » Sat Jun 28, 2008 10:04 am

For sure I think there is / was a meeting point.
The Astronomy / Astrology thing is a classic example.
Science observed and fable explained.
Until more observations explained better.
But still, many of the great scientists have died while still being amazed at how much was out there and “unexplained.”
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Postby Ishtar » Sat Jun 28, 2008 1:24 pm

The shaman journeys into other dimensions to meet with the spirits who give him advice, information or guidance about a problem being experienced by his tribe or community.

These spirits do not have bodies – and thus don’t have names, bodies or personalities. They are just pure energy. However, a human being cannot communicate with pure energy. There’s no suitable interface. So in order for a communication to happen between them and the shaman, the spirits appear to the shaman in the form of a human or animal - or even sometimes a bird, depending upon the nature of the shaman’s enquiry.

And to keep things simple, certain spirits always relate to the shaman over certain specific types of enquiries and would always take on the same form whenever they appeared to their shaman.

So each shaman, and thus his tribe, would have a regular spirit guide, called a tutelary or totem spirit, who is the main one that he deals with, with other specialist spirits being called in wherever needed. The Vedics main tutelary spirit took the form of the storm spirit (Indra). In fact, it’s amazing how many cultures have the storm god as their main tutelary or totem spirit.

At some stage, the term ‘spirit’ and ‘god’ became interchangeable, I don’t know when.

All the spirits/ gods support various aspects of nature in their pure, invisible energetic form. They all have their jobs to do in keeping the whole thing from spinning out of control. Of course, you can’t see them – in the same way that you can’t see dark energy. That’s why I always say that dark energy is nothing new. It’s just that it used to be known as ‘the gods’.

I’m not making this up as I go along. Everything I’m saying is attested in work carried out by late 19th century anthropologists who have studied and interviewed shamans from all over the world — from India to Australia and Tibet to Siberia and North and South America to China. The late Mircea Eliade, then professor of religious history at Harvard, was the first to bring all their reports together in his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, and he found an amazing number of identical practises and beliefs about the spirits/gods between all these diverse and far-flung cultures – far too many and far too specific to be coincidences.

To answer your second question, a classic example of science shot through with superstition and mumbo jumbo was that the earth is the centre of the universe and thus the sun must orbit the earth. Copernicus got his arse kicked over that one. However, the Vedics knew 3,000 years before that the earth orbited the sun:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolaus_Copernicus

Although Greek, Indian and Muslim savants had published heliocentric hypotheses centuries before Copernicus, his publication of a scientific theory of heliocentrism, demonstrating that the motions of celestial objects can be explained without putting the Earth at rest in the center of the universe, stimulated further scientific investigations, and became a landmark in the history of modern science that is known as the Copernican Revolution.


I agree with you that the written word changed everything. I just think it started roughly around the same time as agriculture took over from hunter gathering which, in itself, was a long and staggered process.

But I would go further. It was also when man moved away from using hieroglyphics (picture language) that we began to lose our means of contact with the spirits. The reason for this is the spirits mainly (but not always) communicate with shamans via metaphor (picture language). And I’m a little shaky on the science here, but I think the two different means of communication come from different parts of the brain – picture from the right, and writing from the left. An over reliance on any one side of the brain causes an imbalance. I believe it also causes a completely different way of thinking.

On to the Nahuatl religion and practise of human sacrifice and the pyramids.

I’ve explored the idea of sacrifice in two threads: the Horse Sacrifice
and in the Zoroastrian thread. I think it would be helpful if you could read them both.

http://archaeologica.boardbot.com/viewtopic.php?t=1749

http://archaeologica.boardbot.com/viewt ... 3&start=75


And now I’m getting tired and my RSI’s playing up, so I’ll just copy this post of mine from the Lost Pyramid thread, and hopefully you’ll see the connection when you read it:

I don’ t believe that the [Egyptian] pyramids were just tombs - and not just because of what we know about Neolithic burial customs.

The very word, pyramids, has 'pyr' at this root, as does pyromaniac or pyrotechnic. So it's to do with fire. My recent research and growing understanding about how the horse sacrfice developed, as a means of preventing the end of the world, is leading me to think that the pyramid was a structural metaphor for a volcano. And possibly with a previous extinction event still in the forefront of their minds, the Egyptian maithuna was a sacrificial ritual that took place in the highest part of the pyramid, under the cap made of silver, gold and bronze. The maithuna is a later (circa 3,000 BC) development of the horse sacrifice, which is as old as dirt, and it was where the king has sex with a sacred prostitute as a means of placating the sun god (Ra or Re in Egyptian) as they regarded a volcanic explosion, because of the resulting fireball, as his doing - or that of his female consort, the Eye of Hathor.

So imo War Arrow, the purpose of sacrifice (whether Egyptian or Nahuat) was to stop the sky falling on Chicken Little’s head.

Finally, you ask whether holistic suggests an approach where everything is given equal validity:

Holistic is a complementary blending of different aspects of the same thing. If you look at DNA, which I’m sure you must know a lot about, you’ll know that it and its duplication mechanisms are the same for all living creatures. It consists of the same four letters (A, G, C and T) and 20 proteins and the only thing that changes from one species to another is the order of the letters, the genes, and the proteins. So this suggests a flexible and holistic blending of different components according to the need.

Or here’s another example. Here’s the DNA double helix, showing two complementary halves working as one:

Image

Now here is the caduceus, or wand of the Egyptian god Hermes, which used to top the rods carried by the ancient physicians. The earliest one dates to Gudea's green steatite libation vase of c. 2144-24 BCE from Lagash.

Image

I’m not going to join up the dots for you here ... not even to say ‘winged or feathered serpent’ ... . I’m talking to you in picture language....and I think I’m going to have to stop now.
:D
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Postby john » Sat Jun 28, 2008 7:33 pm

Alright -

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnosis


In my opinion, between these two words,

We have the whole argument, the whole animus,

Whether cast in religious, scientific, political, or everyday

Terms, jick, jack and joker.

I have some more to say, but I want to set

The hills and valleys of

This essential cognitive landscape

First.


Have at.



hoka hey


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Postby rich » Sat Jun 28, 2008 7:44 pm

Yup - but let's not forget :

Agnosticism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic

Afterall - shouldn't this be included?
i'm not lookin' for who or what made the earth - just who got me dizzy by makin it spin
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Postby kbs2244 » Sat Jun 28, 2008 8:16 pm

Agnosticism is just another way of saying “I will believe it when I see it.”
And of course they will never see it because it is invisible in the limited human light spectrum.
It is becoming less popular among the technical population as things like IR night vision glasses, FLIR flight systems, even old fashioned WWII Radar becomes common.
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Postby rich » Sat Jun 28, 2008 8:28 pm

What they say is you can neither prove nor disprove it - which is not the same thing.
i'm not lookin' for who or what made the earth - just who got me dizzy by makin it spin
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Postby john » Sat Jun 28, 2008 11:01 pm

rich wrote:What they say is you can neither prove nor disprove it - which is not the same thing.



.......which is absolutely indisputable whether

You choose the one road or the tother.

Prevarication is anathema to me.

You are prevaricating.

hoka hey


john
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Postby Ishtar » Sun Jun 29, 2008 3:28 am

Ishtar wrote:Everything I’m saying is attested in work carried out by late 19th century anthropologists who have studied and interviewed shamans from all over the world — from India to Australia and Tibet to Siberia and North and South America to China. The late Mircea Eliade, then professor of religious history at Harvard, was the first to bring all their reports together in his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, and he found an amazing number of identical practises and beliefs about the spirits/gods between all these diverse and far-flung cultures – far too many and far too specific to be coincidences.


John, I appreciate you setting the landscape.

But before we go on, I want to provide supporting material for the above point, which will also flesh out the detail of it. This is from Mircea Eliade:

Following E B Tylor, Thalbitzer, A I Hallowell, and others, Robert Lowie has noted a number of resemblances between the Lapps [Scandinavian] and the American tribes, especially those of the Northeast. In particular, the drawings on the Lapp drum are astonishingly reminiscent of the pictographic style of the Eskimo and the eastern Algonkin.

The same scholar has drawn attention to the resemblance between the Lapp shaman’s song, inspired by an animal and more especially a bird, and the North American shamans’ songs of the same origin. We should add, however, that the same phenomena is found in South America — which, in our view, excludes a recent Eurasiatic influence. Lowie also notes resemblances between the theory of soul loss among the North Americans and the Siberians, shamanic playing with fire (common to North Asia and a number of North American tribes, such as the Fox and Menomini), the shaking of the ceremonial hut and the ventriloquism among the Chukchee and the Cree, the Saulteaux and the Cheyenne, and finally certain common features of the initiatory steam bath in North America and North Europe — all of which would lead to supposing not only a Siberian-Western American cultural solidarity but also American-Scandinavian relations.

We should note, however, that all these cultural elements are found not only in South America (search for the soul, movement of the shamanic hut, ventriloquism, steam bath, insensibility to fire) but that the most distinctive among them (playing with fire, steam bath, shaking of the ceremonial hut, search for the soul) are also attested in many other places (Africa, Australia, Oceania, Asia) and precisely in relation with the most archaic forms of magic in general and especially with shamanism.

Of particular importance, in our view, is the role of fire or heat in South American shamanism. Such fire and mystical heat are always connected with access to a certain ecstatic state — and the same connection is observed in the most archaic strata of magic and universal religion. Mastery over fire, insensibility to heat and, hence, the mystical heat that renders both cold and temperature of burning coals supportable, is a magico-mystical virtue that, accompanied by no less marvellous qualities (ascent, magical flight etc) translates into sensible terms the fact that the shaman has passed beyond the human condition and already shares the condition of the spirits. [also found in the Indian fakir fire walkers].
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Postby War Arrow » Sun Jun 29, 2008 4:38 am

Morning all.
Right uhm...

Ishtar wrote:The shaman journeys into other dimensions to meet with the spirits who give him advice, information or guidance about a problem being experienced by his tribe or community.

These spirits do not have bodies – and thus don’t have names, bodies or personalities. They are just pure energy. However, a human being cannot communicate with pure energy. There’s no suitable interface. So in order for a communication to happen between them and the shaman, the spirits appear to the shaman in the form of a human or animal - or even sometimes a bird, depending upon the nature of the shaman’s enquiry.

And to keep things simple, certain spirits always relate to the shaman over certain specific types of enquiries and would always take on the same form whenever they appeared to their shaman.

So each shaman, and thus his tribe, would have a regular spirit guide, called a tutelary or totem spirit, who is the main one that he deals with, with other specialist spirits being called in wherever needed. The Vedics main tutelary spirit took the form of the storm spirit (Indra). In fact, it’s amazing how many cultures have the storm god as their main tutelary or totem spirit.


Storm God - check. I would imagine this would relate to the considerable significance of agriculture (and hence rainfall), or at least humanity being "at the mercy of the weather". Anyway, this is where I've tended to find myself becoming heated in previous threads - claims of visiting other dimensions and such like. I accept this as an entirely valid claim within a shamanic (and I would suggest subjective) context, but as soon as folks start murmuring along the lines of "science doesn't know everything" (did it ever claim to?) oppositions are created, which I would argue is unneccessary. I think.

I understand the above passage in terms of events which an individual may believe they have experienced. To a great extent much of the world around us (including any accounts of objective reality) occurs as a purely subjective environment. There's a favourite author of mine (Lawrence Miles) who has come up with a mythos in which the highest science is sometimes indistinguishable from ritual (we all know the Arthur C. Clarke quote) thus yeilding (for example) a bomb which destroys a building by erasing its meaning whilst leaving the physical structure intact, the concept of the noosphere - a higher dimensional field comprising cultural information about a planet and its history (essentially a planet's DNA), and so on and so forth. The point of this apparent digression is an illustration of meaning as a substance (energy if you like). That is, I am unable to look around me and see anything which is entirely physical and thus without any level of meaning. An object like my computer might, in subjective terms, be considered to comprise more of meaning and less of physical components, given that from my perspective what it does and how this impacts on my life is of far greater significance than what it is made of (the physical form upon which we should both be agreed): the semiotic mass is greater than the physical mass.

Therefore, with one's environment defined in terms of meaning, I can see the validity of experiences you would describe as shamanic seeing as these are surely just new writings in the language of one's sense of reality. That these experiences may originate in the subconscious (or wherever) is surely of no more contextual relevance than doomed attempts to prove that they actually derive from the same objective reality which science has cited as the domain of pulsars, quasars, Elvis, and everything else. Surely, in some senses, the attempt to marry the shamanic with an objective reality is like trying to prove that a song can occur in nature, all it took was for some person to turn up and pluck it from the aether and bingo - Jailhouse Rock.

Okay - so in daring to suggest that spirits or Gods inhabit only the interpreted world (rather than the objective mutually experienced one, generally speaking) my point is only to clarify a distinction, not necessarily to diminish any validity that may be carried by the shamanic experience. If the language of an experienced reality is consistent, then the words of a talking bird (pardon the flippancy, but its just a pleasing image) may be no less valid (irrespective of objective source) within that reality - because here I'm assuming that our shaman is no fool and is not going to do something purely on the say-so of (excuse me) "voices in his or her head", rather said "voices" are seen simply as another extension of his or her environment and may therefore be treated accordingly, either as something worth considering, or something to be ignored.

Hope I'm making myself clear here. I'm simply trying to present the subject as I understand it (though not being a philosophy graduate, it ain't easy) in order to see what you think here, whether we are describing the same elephant (so to speak) from different angles, or whether I'm in a different room and I've actually got an anteater in there with me.

Ishtar wrote:At some stage, the term ‘spirit’ and ‘god’ became interchangeable, I don’t know when.


Yes, they can be very misleading terms, generally. Various Mexica also noted this at the time of the conquest.

Ishtar wrote:All the spirits/ gods support various aspects of nature in their pure, invisible energetic form. They all have their jobs to do in keeping the whole thing from spinning out of control. Of course, you can’t see them – in the same way that you can’t see dark energy. That’s why I always say that dark energy is nothing new. It’s just that it used to be known as ‘the gods’.


Ooooh... I'd tend to think of this as two seperate things, both of which happen to be rather elusive.

Ishtar wrote:I’m not making this up as I go along. Everything I’m saying is attested in work carried out by late 19th century anthropologists who have studied and interviewed shamans from all over the world — from India to Australia and Tibet to Siberia and North and South America to China. The late Mircea Eliade, then professor of religious history at Harvard, was the first to bring all their reports together in his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, and he found an amazing number of identical practises and beliefs about the spirits/gods between all these diverse and far-flung cultures – far too many and far too specific to be coincidences.


You've read this book and I haven't, and I don't think you're making any of this up by the way, though again I think we may diverge in the small print. I'm very sceptical of claims for things which are too similar to allow for the agency of coincidence, and I would argue that such and such usually isn't a coincidence simply because we're all human and we work by very similar means. Otherwise one is left with claims of occurences within objective reality which do not seem consistent with the laws of that objective reality.

Ishtar wrote:To answer your second question, a classic example of science shot through with superstition and mumbo jumbo was that the earth is the centre of the universe and thus the sun must orbit the earth. Copernicus got his arse kicked over that one. However, the Vedics knew 3,000 years before that the earth orbited the sun:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolaus_Copernicus

Although Greek, Indian and Muslim savants had published heliocentric hypotheses centuries before Copernicus, his publication of a scientific theory of heliocentrism, demonstrating that the motions of celestial objects can be explained without putting the Earth at rest in the center of the universe, stimulated further scientific investigations, and became a landmark in the history of modern science that is known as the Copernican Revolution.



Gotcha, though surely all science (or understanding) is in some senses progressive, that is adequate models (Earth is a vast peach) are replaced by better models (Earth is at the center of the universe) which are replaced by even better models (Earth isn't at the center of the universe) and that a later model (Copernican) should be crapper than an earlier one is, I hesitantly suggest, of dubious significance given the different cultural origins of each model. I'm well aware that Arabic (roughly speaking) mathematics and astronomy were superior to the European for a great many years. But surely simply because one culture possesses a much better model / more productive mode of thought, it does not necessarily follow that said culture will be otherwise the more admirable / superior in all ways.

Ishtar wrote:I agree with you that the written word changed everything. I just think it started roughly around the same time as agriculture took over from hunter gathering which, in itself, was a long and staggered process.

But I would go further. It was also when man moved away from using hieroglyphics (picture language) that we began to lose our means of contact with the spirits. The reason for this is the spirits mainly (but not always) communicate with shamans via metaphor (picture language). And I’m a little shaky on the science here, but I think the two different means of communication come from different parts of the brain – picture from the right, and writing from the left. An over reliance on any one side of the brain causes an imbalance. I believe it also causes a completely different way of thinking.

Roughly speaking, I agree. One or two very good points here.

Sacrifice: no argument from me, and this is a subject I've boned up on. Mexica (etc) sacrifice was conducted specifically as a means of keeping the world turning (figuratively): the forces (Gods) that sustained the world sacrificed of themselves in order to produce humanity, life, food, animation and so on, and in doing so, became mortal - thus the relationship between humanity and the sacred forces is a contract wherein each supports the existence of the other through sacrifice - all very ecological and very sensible. For what it's worth I have a pet theory that the greatly increased Mexica thirst for sacrifice, aside from the politics, represented an attempt to swing the balance and place the Gods in dept to the Mexica - a sort of theological potlach and an attempt to rule the universe by symbolic means.

Ishtar wrote:
Finally, you ask whether holistic suggests an approach where everything is given equal validity:

Holistic is a complementary blending of different aspects of the same thing. If you look at DNA, which I’m sure you must know a lot about, you’ll know that it and its duplication mechanisms are the same for all living creatures. It consists of the same four letters (A, G, C and T) and 20 proteins and the only thing that changes from one species to another is the order of the letters, the genes, and the proteins. So this suggests a flexible and holistic blending of different components according to the need.

Or here’s another example. Here’s the DNA double helix, showing two complementary halves working as one:

Image

Now here is the caduceus, or wand of the Egyptian god Hermes, which used to top the rods carried by the ancient physicians. The earliest one dates to Gudea's green steatite libation vase of c. 2144-24 BCE from Lagash.

Image

I’m not going to join up the dots for you here ... not even to say ‘winged or feathered serpent’ ... . I’m talking to you in picture language....and I think I’m going to have to stop now.
:D


Hmm though I'd argue that shamanism and science are not different aspects of the same thing (if that's the point you are making), they are different methods of viewing (often different aspects of) the same thing. If that's what I mean. With regard to the DNA / Hermes' stick thing, I must once again state that I am sceptical of being seduced by coincidence.

Hope the RSI improves. LB :)
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Postby War Arrow » Sun Jun 29, 2008 4:53 am

A duality of opposing forces of heat and cold is certainly a significant theme within Nahua theology.

However, for what it's worth (and no disrespect is intended) but some elements of this seem to be heading towards ideas of the ancient spread of a global culture. I'm afraid this is not something upon which I have strong feelings or any great interest (although I have had strong feelings of wanting to put on my boots and braces when Marduk virtually tried to bully me into being interested) so I would rather leave that element of the debate to others. Just because I like B and C, doesn't mean I have to like A, if you see what I mean.
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