Achilles (Ancient Greek Ἀχιλλεύς Akhilleús) is a legendary hero of the Trojan War, son of Peleus, king of Phthia in Thessaly, and Thetis, a Nereid (sea nymph). He is frequently called “Peleid” or “Eacid”, epithets that recall his ancestry.
His mother plunged him into the Styx, one of the rivers of the Underworld, so that his body would become invulnerable; his heel, by which Thétis held him, was not soaked and remained that of a mortal, which would later lead him to his death. He was educated by the centaur Chiron who taught him the arts of war, music and medicine. While still a teenager, he chooses a short but glorious life rather than a long but unremarkable one. Hidden by his mother, who wants to prevent him from participating in the Trojan War, at the court of King Lycomedes, the young man is discovered by Odysseus and joins, with his close friend Patroclus, the Greek expedition. During the tenth year of the conflict, a quarrel with Agamemnon pushes him to leave the fight: it is the “anger of Achilles” sung by the Iliad. Aeschylus, in his play The Myrmidons, describes Achilles and Patroclus as lovers; later, Xenophon, in his philosophical dialogue The Banquet, gives a contrary version where they are not lovers. The death of Patroclus pushes him to take up arms again to confront Hector, the best of the Trojans. Achilles died shortly after killing him, hit in the heel by an arrow of Paris guided by the god Apollo.
Achilles is honored as a hero, even as a god by the Greek world. Handsome, valiant, champion of a proud morality of honor, he embodies “the moral ideal of the perfect Homeric knight”.
The name of Achilles is of unknown etymology. The question has indeed arisen since antiquity: the pseudo-Apollodorus thus explains that his name means “who has no lips” (from a privative α- and from χεῖλος kheĩlos, “lip”) “because he had never brought his lips close to a breast”. However, there is no basis for this popular etymology. This does not prevent the Byzantine scholar Archbishop Eustathius (12th century) from pointing out two traditional, i.e. philosophical, etymologies, most probably taken from the philosopher Porphyry: “ACHos tois ILieusin” = pain for the inhabitants of Ilion (the Trojans) or “A CHILos” = without (privative alpha) fodder, since the centaur Chiron had not fed him with plants but only with the marrow of living beings.
One of the most convincing hypotheses gives the hero”s name the meaning of “the one whose army is afflicted”, from ἀχός akhós, “sorrow, affliction”, and from λαός laós, “the army, the crowd of warriors”. Indeed, the figure of Achilles is closely linked to grief: that experienced by the Achaeans when Achilles withdraws from the battle, and then when he dies.
In the epics, Achilles is frequently called “Peleid” (i.e. “son of Peleus”) or “Aeacid” (i.e. “descendant of Aeacus” who is his paternal grandfather). These epithets evoke his ancestry.
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Achilles was born in Larissa. One of the most important facts of his myth comes from the desire of his mother, Thetis, to make him invulnerable. Then, the accounts diverge. According to an ancient tradition, Thetis places all her children in a cauldron of boiling water or in the fire, to check if they are not immortal; Peleus stops her before she can do the same to Achilles. According to others, she rubs them with ambrosia and places them in the fire so that it consumes the mortal part of the children – a similar legend is attached to Demophon of Eleusis.
Finally, the most popular variant shows her dipping her son in the waters of the Styx, the river of the Underworld, holding him by the heel. He thus becomes invulnerable, except for the heel by which his mother had held him, which gave rise to the expression “Achilles” heel”, meaning “vulnerable place, sensitive point”. Nevertheless, the Iliad does not mention any of these traditions related to Achilles” birth, and there is nothing in the epic to suggest that he is insensitive to blows. In the Suite d”Homère by Quintus of Smyrna, he is wounded by the Ethiopian prince Memnon. Moreover, Achilles is not the only Greek hero reputed to be invulnerable: late traditions also grant this privilege to Ajax the Great.
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The prevailing tradition is that, like other heroes such as Jason and Actaeon, Achilles was entrusted by his father to the centaur Chiron, living on Mount Pelion in Thessaly, with the handling of weapons, the art of riding and hunting, as well as music. The literature does not report any particular feat of the young boy, except for his prowess in hunting.
The Iliad does not say much about Chiron, and rather highlights the character of Phoenix who teaches the young boy the art of eloquence and the handling of weapons. In a touching scene of song IX, the old man remembers having held the hero on his knees, cutting his meat and helping him drink his wine. Finally, elsewhere in the poem, Thétis also claims to have raised her son herself.
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The first mobilization in Aulis
The events of the Trojan War that precede those of The Iliad are particularly confusing. In The Iliad, Achilles is sent directly by Peleus, with Patroclus and the Myrmidons, when the Greek leaders gather at Aulis. The Cyprian Songs, an epic of the Trojan Cycle, then tells how, pushed by the winds, the Greek fleet mistakenly lands in Mysia. Believing to have reached Troy, the Achaeans go on the attack and clash with the local king, Télèphe, son of Héraclès. Achilles confronts him and wounds him. The Greek expedition leaves, but a storm carries it to the island of Skyros, where Achilles marries Deidamia, daughter of King Lycomedes. The Cyprian Songs then tell how Telespheus, wounded, goes to Argos to be treated by Achilles in exchange for information on the road to Troy.
The Iliad does not allude to these events, but does not contradict them either. In the 5th century, the gesture of Achilles and Telespheus is known to Pindar, who alludes to it in one of his Isthmics, as well as to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The first ones dedicate to him a tragic cycle (now lost) probably covering the whole story, from the arrival in Mysia to the recovery in Argos. Euripides” Télèphe, also lost, is known by the numerous allusions made by Aristophanes: it focuses on the arrival of Télèphe and his healing by Achilles. Later sources specify that Télèphe, after having killed many Greeks, flees when he meets Achilles. Caught in vines spread by Dionysus, he is wounded by Achilles” spear. Following a frequent magical pattern, only this same spear can then heal him.
The way in which Achilles joins the Greek expedition is the subject of a later variant, which then becomes dominant. An oracle has taught the Achaeans that the young man is indispensable to the capture of Troy. Thetis or Peleus, fearing for his life, disguises him as a woman and hides him among the daughters of Lycomedes, in order to remove him from the pressure of the warriors.
At Lycomède”s, who according to the versions is aware or not of the deception, Achilles bears the name of Pyrrha, “the redhead”. Under his disguise, he seduces or rapes Déidamie, who will give him Néoptolème, also called Pyrrhus, who will prove to be essential to the capture of Troy.
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The second journey to Troy
While the Greek army is preparing to leave for Troy, the anger of Artemis against Agamemnon blocks the fleet at Aulis. An oracle reveals that it is necessary to sacrifice Iphigenia, daughter of the latter; it is by the promise of a marriage with Achilles that the Achaean chiefs attract then the young girl to Aulis.
The fleet leaves soon after and stops on the island of Tenedos, where a feast is organized. Achilles, invited late, gets angry. We know of another occasion when Achilles gets angry during a dinner: in the Odyssey, the aedic poet Demodocos proposes to the court of Alcinoos to sing the dispute between Achilles and Odysseus, a dispute which an oracle of Apollo Delphian would have predicted would be the precursor of the fall of Troy. An allusion of Plutarch to a lost play of Sophocles reports in the same way that Ulysses mocks, during a banquet, the anger of Achilles: he accuses this last one to have taken fear by seeing Troy and Hector, and to seek a pretext to flee. It is not easy to determine whether this is one and the same episode or two distinct angers.
A second incident takes place in Tenedos: the island is governed by Ténès, son of Apollo, who pushes back the Achaeans. Achilles kills him, in spite of the recommendation of his mother not to kill him under penalty of perishing himself from the hands of Apollo. Plutarch tells that Thétis sends a servant to Achilles” side to remind him of the warning; Achilles stays there until he meets the sister of Ténès, who strikes him with her beauty. Ténès interferes to protect his sister and Achilles, forgetting the warning, kills him.
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Early years of the war
When the Greek fleet arrives in front of Troy, Achilles must face Cycnos, son of Poseidon and king of Colone, who prevents them from landing. This one has the particularity to be albino and invulnerable: no weapon can hurt him. Achilles finally manages to kill him by strangling him with the jugular of his helmet or, according to another version, with a stone throw.
The Greeks set up their camp on the beach in front of Troy; an Achaean embassy to claim Hélène failed. Achilles then feels the desire to see the young woman. The Cyprian Songs only indicate that the meeting is arranged by Aphrodite and Thetis, without further details. However, a Hellenistic variant mentions a prediction by Cassandra that Helen would have five husbands – Theseus, Menelaus, Paris, Deiphobus and Achilles. This is obviously not an allusion to Achilles” reign after his death in the Elysian Fields, since the same source makes Medea his post-mortem wife. Perhaps we should conclude that the meeting between Achilles and Helen ended with the union of the two protagonists.
Once the Trojans were entrenched behind their walls, Achilles set about cutting off the city”s supplies. At the head of his ships, he attacks and reduces eleven cities of Anatolia, tributaries of Troy. It is in Lyrnessos, one of these cities, during the tenth year of the siege, that he receives as a share of honor Briseis, while Agamemnon receives Chryseis during the sack of Thebe.
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The anger of Achilles
It is at this moment that the story of the Iliad begins. A plague strikes the Greek camp and Calchas, encouraged by Achilles, reveals that Apollo has punished Agamemnon for having refused to his priest, Chryses, to give him back his daughter Chryséis. Forced to give in, Agamemnon furious demands another share of honor. Achilles protests and Agamemnon, to humiliate him, decides to take Biseis, his captive. In anger, Achilles decides to withdraw to his tent and swears on Agamemnon”s sceptre, a gift from Zeus, not to return to battle. He implores his mother to ask Zeus for the advantage to the Trojans, as long as he will be absent from the battlefield. Zeus grants it to him. This is summarized in the first lines of the Iliad:
“Sing, O goddess, the wrath of the Peleid Achilles, fatal wrath that caused a thousand evils to the AchaeansAnd brought down to Hades so many valiant soulsOf heroes, whose bodies served as food for the dogsAnd for the birds without number: so Zeus had willed it.”
Deprived of his support, the Greeks suffer defeat after defeat, and while the Greeks are cornered and the Trojans threaten to burn their ships, the old wise Nestor, Phénix and Ulysse come in embassy to plead the Achaean cause. Achilles remains firm but Patroclus, moved by the misfortunes of his compatriots, obtains the authorization of Achilles to save the Greeks by carrying his weapons. The maneuver succeeds but Patroclus, in spite of his promise to Achilles, starts the pursuit. He is killed by Hector, who takes Achilles” weapons as booty. Furious and humiliated – deceived by Patroclus, who is dead and therefore beyond punishment, and symbolically defeated by Hector -, Achilles decides to take revenge, despite his mother”s warnings: if he confronts Hector, he will die shortly after. Hephaestus forges new weapons for him, with which he goes out in search of Hector.
Dressed in his divine armor, he engages again in the fight and slaughters a great number of Trojans on his way, so much so that the waters of the Scamander are stained with corpses, the Scamander almost drowns Achilles. Saved by the intervention of Hephaestus, he finally meets Hector, challenges him and kills him with the help of Athena. He drags his body three times around the city with his chariot before bringing it back to the Achaean camp.
Back in his tent, the hero mourns his dead friend. At the moment of burning the body, he cuts his hair as a sign of mourning and sacrifices four horses, nine dogs and twelve young Trojans whose bodies are thrown on the pyre. The next day, he drags again behind his chariot the body of Hector, this time around the tomb of Patroclus.
However, Achilles shows his humanity by letting king Priam, who came to his tent in supplication, take the body of his son to give him a dignified funeral, sent by the gods who were unhappy with the treatment of the hero”s remains.
Achilles kills more warriors than anyone else in the Iliad (72), and thus ranks ahead of Patroclus (54), Teucros son of Telamon (30), Ajax son of Telamon (28), Leitos (20), Diomedes (18), Agamemnon (16), Ajax son of Oileus (14), Idomeneus (13) and Odysseus (12), or even Menelaus.
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Memnon and Pentheles
The Ethiopides, one of the epics of the Trojan Cycle, takes up the story of the Trojan War where the Iliad leaves off. It tells how, after the death of Hector, the city of Priam sees arriving new champions. It is first the Amazonian Pentheles, daughter of Ares. Achilles confronts her in a duel and falls in love with her when he kills her, which excites the mockery of Thersite. Excited, the hero kills him and must then purify himself on the island of Lesbos.
Shortly after, Memnon, son of Éos (the Dawn) and Tithon, and prince of the Ethiopians, arrives. There again, he meets Achilles in single combat and is killed by him.
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Achilles” days are now numbered. Xanthos, one of Achilles” horses, predicted it to the hero, attributing his death to a “strong god”. Similarly, Thetis warned him several times that he would die young, even stating that “Apollo would kill him with his swift arrows when under the walls of the warlike Trojans”. Finally, Hector predicted the death of his opponent, killed by Paris and Apollo, near the Sealed Gates.
Several versions exist as to his death. The Ethiopides specifies that he is killed by Pâris and Apollo, while pursuing the Trojans under the walls of the city. Pindar suggests that the god takes the form of Priam”s son and kills Achilles to delay the taking of Troy, as he does in the Iliad to stop Patroclus in his assault. The Aeneid is the first to indicate explicitly that Paris shoots the murderous arrow, which is guided by Apollo.
At this stage, no text mentions the famous “Achilles” heel”. The motif of the vulnerable spot appears for the first time in Stace, a poet of the second half of the first century; shortly afterwards, Hygin specifically mentions the ankle, which Apollo pierces with his arrow, as his only vulnerable spot. However, four vases from the Archaic and early Classical periods represent either Paris shooting an arrow into Achilles” lower body (thigh, shin or foot), or Achilles dead, with an arrow through his foot, which tends to prove that the tradition of the “Achilles heel” is ancient speak well of the ankle (talus in Latin, σφυρόν sphurón in ancient Greek), but the word talus then changes meaning to give the French “talon”.
Another tradition links Achilles” death to his love for Polyxene, daughter of Priam: the hero is killed while negotiating with the Trojan king for his daughter”s hand in the temple of Apollo Thymbrian. In another version, Achilles falls in love with Polyxene when she accompanies her father who has come to claim Hector”s body; Priam then promises her hand in marriage on condition that he puts an end to the war – in reality, it is an ambush, since Paris is waiting for him, bow in hand, lurking behind a column in the temple.
His funeral is told in the XXIVth song of the Odyssey by the soul of Agamemnon, as well as in the IIIrd book of the Suite of Homer by Quintus of Smyrna. His ashes are mixed with those of Patroclus and Antilochus in a golden urn. He is buried, in the middle of weeping and groaning, on the shore of the Hellespont and thus does not know the final victory of the Greeks.
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After his death
Homer, in the Odyssey, represents him reigning on the meadow of the Asphodel in the Greek Underworld, but little satisfied by his condition of shadow.
In the Ethiopides, Thetis represents him after his death as living the ideal life of a warrior, on the White Island, in the midst of countless battles and eternal feasts, married to Medea, Helen, Iphigenia or Polyxene. Pindar, in his Nemean, evokes a “brilliant” island located in the Pontus-Euxinus. Euripides also uses this version in his Andromache.
Achilles is the subject of a heroic cult in many parts of the Mediterranean. It is difficult to know how the cult took off, as heroic cults usually focus on the hero”s tomb. In this case, the remains of Achilles are supposed to be on the banks of the Hellespont, not far from Troy: in the Iliad, Patroclus is buried there, and his ghost asks Achilles that their ashes be buried in the same place; the Odyssey specifies that a large tumulus, visible from the sea, is raised by the Achaeans. A cult is attested from the 5th century BC and a city, Achilleion, is founded on the site. The Thessalians make an annual pilgrimage there, and the texts mention that the Persian army comes to venerate Achilles during the medieval wars. Alexander the Great will also go there during a visit often commented: he offers a sacrifice on the tomb of Achilles while his friend Héphestion sacrifices on that of Patrocle. Later, it will be Caracalla”s turn to make this pilgrimage.
The American Hellenist Gregory Nagy considers that the Homeric epics are built entirely around a central theme created not by a single poet but by a long-standing poetic tradition. In his book The Best of the Achaeans. La fabrique du héros dans la poésie grecque archaïque, he shows that the Iliad has for theme the excellence of Achilles, who is “the best of the Achaeans” (aristos Akhaiôn). Throughout the epic, Achilles must defend or reaffirm this status, whether during his conflict with Agamemnon or during occasional rivalries, against Odysseus in Canto VIII.
The Italian writer Pietro Citati, in The Shimmering Thought, reflects on the figure of Achilles in the Iliad. Although a descendant of Peleus and Thetis, Achilles is subject to a mortal condition, but Citati considers that Achilles” mènis (his anger) is a divine trait sent by Zeus that distinguishes him from all other heroes. Achilles” mènis is a divine anger, distinct from the mania which is a human anger that strikes the other heroes of the epic. When Agamemnon snatches Briseis from Achilles, the latter is deeply wounded, it seems to him that he loses his heroic honor. From then on, the gifts sent by Agamemnon are of little importance to Achilles : on the contrary, the latter only excites his anger by pretending to appease his divine wrath with simple human objects. Thus, according to Citati, the Achilles of the Iliad is an ambiguous character, because he is free to respect both the codes and rites of the heroes and human morals. This freedom obliges him not to belong to any of the factions, which gives him a special place in Homer”s work.
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Achilles in the Homeric epics
In the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Achilles occupies an important place. He is mainly the hero of the Iliad, which is entirely centered on his anger against Agamemnon and ends with his exploit against the Trojan Hector.
The Odyssey shows Achilles more rarely, since he died during the Trojan War well before the events of Odysseus” return began. Achilles appears only in song XI as a shadow and talks with Odysseus. To Ulysses who congratulates him for reigning among the dead, he answers:
“Do not try to soften my death, O noble Ulysses! I would rather be on earth a peasant”s servant, Even if he were without heritage and almost without resources, Than to reign here among these consumed shadows.”
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Achilles also plays an important role in other ancient Greek epics, starting with the other epics forming the Trojan Cycle, which recounted the Trojan War from its origins to its distant consequences. We can mention the Memnonide and the Ethiopide of Arctinos of Miletus, the first having influenced the second, both relating the victorious battle of Achilles against the hero Memnon to avenge his friend Antilochus, a theme very comparable to the battle against Hector to avenge Patroclus.
In the third century AD, Quintus of Smyrna composed an epic called the Homer Suite covering all the events between the end of the Iliad and the end of the Trojan War, drawing on material from the older epics of the Trojan cycle. The epic thus relates in turn the last exploits of Achilles, his death and his funeral.
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In the second century AD, an Ephemeris of the Trojan War (falsely attributed to one of the Achaean heroes of the Trojan War, Dictys of Crete) was composed, covering all the events of the war in a version that often diverges from that of the Homeric epics. The Latin translation of the text subsequently had an important posterity in the Middle Ages, where it is one of the main sources of medieval authors who recount the exploits and love affairs of Achilles (especially his love with Polyxene): the text influences in particular Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The version of the war told by the Ephemeris is favorable to the Greeks and depicts the Trojans in a negative light. Thus, in this version, Paris kills Achilles not in a duel, but by treachery and in a temple, which constitutes a sacrilege.
Of Sophocles, we know the existence of a tragedy titled The Lovers of Achilles (Achilleos erastai), known by fragments.
An episode that is often depicted and about which little is known outside of vase paintings is the ambush by Achilles of the Trojan warrior Troilus while the latter is watering his horses at a fountain. The earliest attested depiction of the episode dates back to 650 BC with a Proto-Corinthian arybal in the British Museum (Kanellopoulos collection, no. 1319): it shows a chase between Achilles and Troilus (identified by inscriptions on the vase), with Achilles on foot while Troilus flees on horseback and is armed with a spear or sword. The episode also appears on many Attic vases from about 575 BC. The scenes may represent different moments of the battle: Achilles in ambush, Achilles pursuing Troilus, Achilles defeating Troilus, or Achilles beheading the Trojan or killing him near an altar.
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Achilles often plays an important role in the rewritings and epic adaptations of the Trojan cycle after antiquity. In the twelfth century, Benoît de Sainte-Maure composed a Roman de Troie in which he covers all the events of the war, from its very distant origins (he goes back to the expedition of the Argonauts) to the death of Odysseus. His account of the war valorizes the Trojan heroes to the detriment of the Achaeans and in particular Achilles, whom he shows in a contemptible light. Benoît de Sainte-Maure also increases the part of the amorous intrigues; Achilles dies victim of his love for Polyxene. These modifications are in line with the general tendencies of the Trojan War narratives in his time.
In the 17th century, several tragedies were dedicated to Achilles in France: La Mort d”Achille by Hardy (created around 1607, printed in 1625), La Mort d”Achille by Benserade (in 1636), La Mort d”Achille by Thomas Corneille (in 1673). The evocations of Achilles by French poets from the beginning of the 17th century, and his evocations in the theater in the second half of the century, show a growing tendency to represent Achilles as a beautiful, loving and caring hero, in a growing departure from the angry and bellicose character of the Homeric Achilles. This trend is explained by the increasing refinement of morals in French court society at the time, which made readers more critical of Achilles” brutality. Towards the end of the century, in 1674, Achilles was one of the characters in Iphigénie, a famous tragedy by Jean Racine inspired by Euripides” Iphigénie à Aulis. In Racine as in Euripides, Achilles behaves as a faithful lover, but he plays only a secondary role in the plot of the play.
In her 1936 collection Feux, the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar presents several figures from Greek antiquity in prose poems. She features Achilles in two of them: “Achilles or the Lie”, which gives a variant of Achilles” stay in Scyros, and “Patroclus or Fate”, which evokes the duel between the Amazonian Penthelesia and an Achilles obsessed with Patroclus” mourning. In a preface written in 1967 for a reprint, she says about these texts: “Achilles and Patroclus are seen less after Homer than after the poets, painters and sculptors who range between Homeric antiquity and us; these two stories colored here and there colors of the twentieth century lead moreover in a dreamlike world without age.
American writer Madeline Miller”s 2011 novel The Song of Achilles describes the romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus from the heroes” childhood to the events of the Iliad (the novel won the Baileys Women Prize for Fiction the following year).
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Classical music regularly draws on mythological subjects. Achilles thus appears regularly in musical works taking as a subject the Trojan war. In the 17th century, the French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully began to compose a lyrical tragedy Achilles and Polyxena, which took as its subject the love affair between Achilles and the Trojan princess Polyxena. He died leaving the work unfinished, having only had time to compose the prologue and the first act. The rest was finished by his assistant Pascal Collasse. In 1733, the ballad-opera Achilles composed by John Gay, which parodies Achilles” stay in Skyros, was created. In 1774, the German composer Gluck created Iphigénie en Aulide, an opera in three acts freely adapted from Euripides” play Iphigénie à Aulis. Achilles is the loving and faithful fiancé of Iphigénie.
In the 21st century, the artists Pierre et Gilles created a work also entitled La Colère d”Achille (2011), based on a photo of the actor Staiv Gentis. This painting is exhibited at the Musée Saint-Raymond, musée des Antiques de Toulouse as part of the exhibition Age of Classics! Antiquity in Pop Culture.
The hero is also the subject of a reference in astronomy: in the early twentieth century, his name was given to the asteroid (588) Achilles. This celestial body is part of the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter, fifteen of which have been named after Trojan and Greek figures of the Trojan War.
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