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Eco: Kircher’s Egyptology

kircher_008

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece to Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, Rome, Scheus, 1646. Compendium Naturalis says that this allegorical engraving was executed on copper by Petrus Miotte Burgundus. Multiple copies are posted on the internet, including an eBook courtesy of GoogleBooks, one at the Max Planck Institute, one at the Herzog August Bibliothek, and one at Brigham Young University among many others. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“When Kircher set out to decipher hieroglyphics in the seventeenth century, there was no Rosetta stone to guide him. This helps explain his initial, mistaken, assumption that every hieroglyph was an ideogram.

Understandable as it may have been, this was an assumption which doomed his enterprise at the outset. Notwithstanding its eventual failure, however, Kircher is still the father of Egyptology, though in the same way that Ptolemy is the father of astronomy, in spite of the fact that his main hypothesis was wrong.

In a vain attempt to demonstrate his hypothesis, Kircher amassed observational material and transcribed documents, turning the attention of the scientific world to the problem of hieroglyphs. Kircher did not base his work on Horapollo’s fantastic bestiary; instead, he studied and made copies of the royal hieroglyphic inscriptions.

His reconstructions, reproduced in sumptuous tables, have an artistic fascination all of their own. Into these reconstructions Kircher poured elements of his own fantasy, frequently reportraying the stylized hieroglyphs in curvaceous baroque forms.

Lacking the opportunity for direct observation, even Champollion used Kircher’s reconstructions for his study of the obelisk standing in Rome’s Piazza Navona, and although he complained of the lack of precision of many of the reproductions, he was still able to draw from them interesting and exact conclusions.

Already in 1636, in his Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus (to which was added, in 1643, a Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta), Kircher had come to understand the relation between the Coptic language and, on the one hand, Egyptian, and, on the other, Greek.

It was here that he first broached the possibility that all religions, even those of the Far East, were nothing more than more or less degenerated versions of the original Hermetic mysteries.

There were more than a dozen obelisks scattered about Rome, and restoration work on some of them had taken place from as early as the time of Sixtus V. In 1644, Innocent X was elected pope. His Pamphili family palace was in Piazza Navona, and the pope commissioned Bernini to execute for him the vast fountain of the four rivers, which remains there today.

On top of this fountain was to be placed the obelisk of Domitian, whose restoration Kircher was invited to superintend.

As the crowning achievement of this restoration, Kircher published, in 1650, his Obeliscus Pamphilius, followed, in 1652-4, by the four volumes of his Oedipus Aegyptiacus. This latter was an all-inclusive study of the history, religion, art, politics, grammar, mathematics, mechanics, medicine, alchemy, magic and theology of ancient Egypt, compared with all other eastern cultures, from Chinese ideograms to the Hebrew kabbala to the language of the brahmins of India.

The volumes are a typographical tour de force that demanded the cutting of new characters for the printing of the numerous exotic, oriental alphabets. It opened with, among other things, a series of dedications to the emperor in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Hungarian, Czech, Illirian, Turkish, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Chaldean, Samaritan, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Persian, Indian and Chinese.

Still, the conclusions were the same as those of the earlier book (and would still be the same in the Obelisci Aegyptiaci nuper inter Isaei Romani rudera effosii interpretatio hieroglyphica of 1666 and in the Sphinx mystagoga of 1676).

At times, Kircher seemed to approach the intuition that certain of the hieroglyphs had a phonetic value. He even constructed a rather fanciful alphabet of 21 hieroglyphs, from whose forms he derives, through progressive abstractions, the letters of the Greek alphabet.

Kircher, for example, took the figure of the ibis bending its head until it rests between its two feet as the prototype of the capitalized Greek alpha, A. He arrived at this conclusion by reflecting on the fact that the meaning of the hieroglyphic for the ibis was “Bonus Daemon;” this, in Greek, would have been Agathos Daimon.

But the hieroglyph had passed into Greek through the mediation of Coptic, thanks to which the first sounds of a given word were progressively identified with the form of the original hieroglyph.

At the same time, the legs of the ibis, spread apart and resting on the ground, expressed the sea, or, more precisely, the only form in which the ancient Egyptians were acquainted with the sea–the Nile.

The word delta has remained unaltered in its passage into Greek, and this is why the Greek letter delta (Δ) has retained the form of a triangle.

It was this conviction that, in the end, hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world that prevented Kircher from ever finding the right track. He thought that only later civilizations established that short-circuit between image and sound, which on the contrary characterized hieroglyphic writing from its early stages.

He was unable, finally, to keep the distinction between a sound and the corresponding alphabetic letter; thus his initial intuitions served to explain the generation of later phonetic alphabets, rather than to understand the phonetical nature of hieroglyphs.

Behind these errors, however, lies the fact that, for Kircher, the decipherment of hieroglyphs was conceived as merely the introduction to the much greater task–an explanation of their mystic significance.

Kircher never doubted that hieroglyphs had originated with Hermes Trismegistus–even though several decades before, Isaac Casaubon had proved that the entire Corpus Hermeticum could not be earlier than the first centuries of the common era.

Kircher, whose learning was truly exceptional, must have known about this. Yet he deliberately ignored the argument, preferring rather to exhibit a blind faith in his Hermetic axioms, or at least to continue to indulge his taste for all that was strange or prodigious.

Out of this passion for the occult came those attempts at decipherment which now amuse Egyptologists. On page 557 of his Obeliscus Pamphylius, figures 20-4 reproduce the images of a cartouche to which Kircher gives the following reading: “the originator of all fecundity and vegetation is Osiris whose generative power bears from heaven to his kingdom the Sacred Mophtha.”

This same image was deciphered by Champollion (Lettre à Dacier, 29), who used Kircher’s own reproductions, as “ΑΟΤΚΡΤΛ (Autocrat or Emperor) sun of the son and sovereign of the crown, ΚΗΣΡΣ ΤΜΗΤΕΝΣ ΣΒΣΤΣ (Caesar Domitian Augustus).”

The difference is, to say the least, notable, especially as regards the mysterious Mophtha, figured as a lion, over which Kircher expended pages and pages of mystic exegesis listing its numerous properties, while for Champollion the lion simply stands for the Greek letter lambda.

In the same way, on page 187 of the third volume of the Oedipus there is a long analysis of a cartouche that appeared on the Lateran obelisk. Kircher reads here a long argument concerning the necessity of attracting the benefits of the divine Osiris and of the Nile by means of sacred ceremonies activating the Chain of Genies, tied to the signs of the zodiac.

Egyptologists today read it as simply the name of the pharaoh Apries.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 154-8.

Eco: The Etymological Furor, 2

tower-to-the-moon

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Turris Babel, Amsterdam, 1679. The illustrations in Turris Babel were engraved by C. Decker. This copy is held by the University of St. Andrews, under call number 417f BS1238.B2K5. The librarian at St. Andrews, who signed himself simply as “DG,” quoted from a narrative posted on the site of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, recounting Genesis 10-11, in which Nimrod attempted to build a tower that reached the heavens. The Museum observes, “This model illustrates Kircher’s proof that Nimrod’s ambition was intrinsically flawed: in order to reach the nearest heavenly body; the Moon, the tower would have to be 178,672 miles high, comprised of over three million tons of matter. The uneven distribution of the Earth’s mass would tip the balance of the planet and move it from its position at the center of the universe, resulting in a cataclysmic disruption in the order of nature.” This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“The thousand or so pages of Guichard are really little more than an extensive raiding expedition in which languages, dead and living, are pillaged for their treasures. More or less by chance, Guichard sometimes manages to hit upon a real etymological connection; but there is little scientific method in his madness.

Still, the early attempts by authors such as Duret and Guichard to prove the monogenetic hypothesis did lead to a conception of Hebrew as less “magical,” and this eventually helped clear the way for a more modern conception of comparative linguistics (cf. Simone 1990: 328-9).

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fantasy and science remained inextricably entangled. In 1667, Mercurius van Helmont published an Alphabeti veri naturalis Hebraici brevissima delineatio, which proposed to examine methods for the teaching to speak of deaf-mutes.

This was the sort of project which, during the Enlightenment in the following century, might have been the occasion for valuable reflections upon the nature of language. For van Helmont, however, science was subordinated to his own monogenetic fantasies.

He started with the presumption that there must be a primitive language, easy to learn, even for those who had never learned to speak a language at all, and that it could not be but Hebrew.

Then van Helmont proceeded to demonstrate that the sounds of Hebrew were the ones most easily produced by the human vocal organs. Then, with the assistance of thirty-three woodcuts, he showed how, in making the sounds of Hebrew, the movements of tongue, palate, uvula and glottis reproduced the shapes of the corresponding Hebrew letters.

The result was a radical version of the mimological theory: not only did the Hebrew sounds reflect the inherent nature of things themselves, but the very mud from which the human vocal organs were formed had been especially sculpted to emit a perfect language that God pressed on Adam in not only its spoken but evidently its written form as well (see figure 5.1).

wls0041_enlarge

Baron Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (1614-98), Alphabet verè Naturalis Hebraici brevissima delineation, A Brief Delineation of the True Nature of the Hebrew Alphabet, Sulzbach: Abraham Lichtenthaler, 1667. Held in the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress under call number 041.00.00. Reproduced as Figure 5.1 in Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 84. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.   

In Turris Babel of 1679, Kircher presented a synthesis of the various positions which we have been reviewing. After an examination of the history of the world from the Creation to the Flood, and, from there, to the confusion of Babel, Kircher traced its subsequent historical and anthropological development through an analysis of various languages.

Kircher never questioned Hebrew’s priority as the lingua sancta; this had been explicitly revealed in the Bible. He held it as self-evident that Adam, knowing the nature of each and every beast, had named them accordingly, adding that “sometimes conjoining, sometimes separating, sometimes permutating the letters of the divers names, he recombined them according to the nature and properties of the various animals” (III, 1, 8).

Since this idea is based on a citation from the kabbalistic writings of the Rabbi R. Becchai, we can infer that Kircher was thinking of Adam defining the properties of the various animals by permutating the letters of their names.

To be precise, first the names themselves mimic some property of the animals to which they refer: lion, for example, is written ARYH in Hebrew; and Kircher takes the letters AHY as miming the heavy sound of a lion panting.

After naming the lion “ARYH,” Adam rearranged these letters according to the kabbalist technique of temurah. Nor did he limit himself to anagrams: by interpolating letters, he constructed entire sentences in which every word contained one or more of the letters of the Hebrew word.

Thus Kircher was able to generate a sentence which showed that the lion was monstrans, that is, able to strike terror by his sole glance; that he was luminous as if a light were shining from his face, which, among other things, resembled a mirror . . . We see here Kircher playing with etymological techniques already suggested in Plato’s Cratylus (which he, in fact, cites, p. 145) to twist names to express a more or less traditional lore about people and animals.

At this point, Kircher took the story up to the present. He told how, after the confusion, five dialects arose out of Hebrew: Chaldean, Samaritan (the ancestor of Phoenician), Syriac, Arabic and Ethiopic.

From these five he deduced, by various etymological means, the birth of various other languages (explaining the successive stages by which the alphabet developed along the way) until he reached the European languages of his own time.

As the story approaches the present, the argument becomes more plausible: linguistic change is seen as caused by the separation and mixture of peoples. These, in turn, are caused by the rise and fall of empires, migrations due to war and pestilence, colonialization and climatic variation.

He is also able to identify the process of creolization which can occur when two languages are put into contact with one another. Out of the multiplication of languages, moreover, are born the various idolatrous religions, and the multiplication of the names of the gods (III, I, 2).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 82-5.

Sargon and the Observations of Bel

“We know that Sargon’s patronage of science produced the great standard Babylonian work on astronomy and astrology, in seventy-two books, which went under the name of the Observations of Bel. It was translated into Greek by the Chaldean historian Bêrôssos, and large portions of it, including a table of contents, are among the tablets found on the site of the library of Kouyunjik.

This illustration is from a page on Babylonian astronomy hosted by the science faculty of the Mathematical Institute of Utrecht University.  http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl_fixedstars.htm A dedicated work assessing the influences of Chaldean astrology on later Greek and Roman knowledge can be found in Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans, 1912.  Full text available for download at several locations on the net, including: http://theosnet.net/dzyan/miscpubs/Astrology_and_Religion.pdf

This illustration is from a page on Babylonian astronomy hosted by the science faculty of the Mathematical Institute of Utrecht University.
http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl_fixedstars.htm
A dedicated work assessing the influences of Chaldean astrology on later Greek and Roman knowledge can be found in Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans, 1912.
Full text available for download at several locations on the net, including:
http://theosnet.net/dzyan/miscpubs/Astrology_and_Religion.pdf

In the course of centuries it had undergone a large amount of interpolation and addition; marginal glosses had crept into the text, and new paragraphs had been inserted recording the observations that had been made by the astronomers and astrologers of Babylonia during the whole length of the historical period.

In the form, therefore, in which it was edited for the library of Nineveh, it was very different from the original work that had been composed by the orders of Sargon. Old and new matter had been mixed up in it, and the enlargements introduced into it had probably nearly doubled its original size.

In the Fifth Tablet of the Creation Series (l. 2) the Signs of the Zodiac are called Lumashi 12  , but unfortunately no list of their names is given in the context. Now these are supplied by the little tablet (No. 77,821) of the Persian Period of which a reproduction is here given. It has been referred to and discussed by various scholars, and its importance is very great.  The transcript of the text, which is now published (see p. 68) for the first time, will be acceptable to the students of the history of the Zodiac. Egyptian, Greek, Syriac and Arabic astrological and astronomical texts all associate with the Signs of the Zodiac twelve groups, each containing three stars, which are commonly known as the "Thirty-six Dekans."   The text of line 4 of the Fifth Tablet of the Creation Series proves that the Babylonians were acquainted with these groups of stars, for we read that Marduk "set up for the twelve "months of the year three stars apiece." In the List of Signs of the Zodiac here given, it will be seen that each Sign is associated with a particular month. http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/blc/blc07.htm http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/blc/img/015.png

In the Fifth Tablet of the Creation Series (l. 2) the Signs of the Zodiac are called Lumashi 12 , but unfortunately no list of their names is given in the context. Now these are supplied by the little tablet (No. 77,821) of the Persian Period of which a reproduction is here given. It has been referred to and discussed by various scholars, and its importance is very great.
The transcript of the text, which is now published (see p. 68) for the first time, will be acceptable to the students of the history of the Zodiac. Egyptian, Greek, Syriac and Arabic astrological and astronomical texts all associate with the Signs of the Zodiac twelve groups, each containing three stars, which are commonly known as the “Thirty-six Dekans.”
The text of line 4 of the Fifth Tablet of the Creation Series proves that the Babylonians were acquainted with these groups of stars, for we read that Marduk “set up for the twelve “months of the year three stars apiece.” In the List of Signs of the Zodiac here given, it will be seen that each Sign is associated with a particular month.
http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/blc/blc07.htm
http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/blc/img/015.png

But the original work was itself a compilation of records and observations that had been made during an untold number of previous years. These records and observations had for the most part been written in Accadian; the result being that, although the astronomy of the Chaldeans, as we know it, is purely Semitic in form and character, many of its technical terms are non-Semitic, as well as the names of the celestial bodies.

Hence it is that we find a remarkable inconsistency between certain facts reported by the astronomical tablets and the astronomical system which they set before us. This astronomical system is based upon the assumption that the sun enters the first point of the constellation Aries at the time of the vernal equinox.

http://doormann.tripod.com/asssky.htm Assyrian star map from Nineveh (K 8538). Counterclockwise from bottom: Sirius (Arrow), Pegasus + Andromeda (Field + Plough), [Aries], the Pleiades, Gemini, Hydra + Corvus + Virgo, Libra. Drawing by L.W.King with corrections by J.Koch. Neue Untersuchungen zur Topographie des Babilonischen Fixsternhimmels (Wiesbaden 1989), p. 56ff.

http://doormann.tripod.com/asssky.htm
Assyrian star map from Nineveh (K 8538). Counterclockwise from bottom: Sirius (Arrow), Pegasus + Andromeda (Field + Plough), [Aries], the Pleiades, Gemini, Hydra + Corvus + Virgo, Libra. Drawing by L.W.King with corrections by J.Koch. Neue Untersuchungen zur Topographie des Babilonischen Fixsternhimmels (Wiesbaden 1989), p. 56ff.

The system must therefore have come into existence later than the 26th century before the Christian era, when Aries first became the starting-point of the Zodiacal signs. But the signs themselves were named, and the path of the sun through them was mapped out, when the vernal equinox still coincided with the sun’s entrance, not into Aries, but into Taurus.

The whole pre-Semitic nomenclature of the Zodiacal signs, and the months of the year that correspond to them, rests on the supposition that the Zodiacal bull ushers in the vernal year. Its Accadian name was “the directing Bull,” the bull that directs the course of the year; and the sign which faced it, the Scorpion of a later age, was correspondingly termed the star “that is opposite to the foundation” of the year.

We can now understand why the Sun-god Merodach, whom even the astronomers of the historical period continued to identify with the typical constellations of the twelve months of the year, should have been entitled “the Bull of Light” in the primitive astronomical records.

He was, in fact, the celestial bull who ploughed the great furrow of the sky, and from whom the first sign of the Zodiac borrowed its name. We may see in him the prototype of that famous bull of later legend whom Anu created in order to avenge upon Gisdhubar the slight offered by the latter to Istar.

The Sun-god eventually became the monster slain by a solar hero. Such are the results of time working upon the half-forgotten beliefs and tales of an earlier age.

Whiie in some instances the old totemistic conceptions were evaded by the degeneration of a god into a mere animal, in others the reverse process took place, the bestial element being eliminated from the nature of the god.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 291-3.

Ibn Wayshiyya and Magic

“Magic has always had a role to play in Islamic society. Its use has often been condemned by religious scholars, yet the efficacy of magic has never been contested; the early tenth-century religious scholar al-Ash’arī (d. 324/936), to take but one example, wrote in his dogmatical work Ibána (p. 19): «(…) and we belíeve that there are magicians and magic in this world, and that magic is an existing entity in this world».

During the Middle Ages magic always kept this role not only among common people but also among the learned. In the tenth century the Brethren of Purity wrote extensively on magic in their Rasā’il (esp. IV:283- 335) and magical elements can easily be detected from a variety of sources, including the biography of the prophet Muhammad.

One of the learned authors who was very much interested in magic and esoterica was the early tenth-century Abū Bakr Ibn Wahshiyya (alive in 318/930), the author or translator of many «Nabatean» books, among them the famous al-Filāha an-Nabatiyya, «the Nabatean Agriculture>.

The Nabatean books (also called the Nabatean corpus in the following) of Ibn Wahshiyya claim to be translations from «ancient Syriac». Both the author and his book, mainly Filāha, have been controversial since the nineteenth century, when the corpus was first enthusiatically received in Europe as deriving from the ancient Babylonians, though subsequently exposed as a forgery.

There is no need to cover once again the history of the controversy, and it is enough to draw attention to the present situation. The majority of scholars have more or less ignored both Ibn Wahshiyya and his works, whereas a few, especially Toufic Fahd, have courageously but not always coherently defended the authenticity of Filāha, not as a remnant of ancient Babylonian literature but as an authentic Arabic translation of a fourth/fifth century AD pseudepigraphic Aramic text.

The other works of Ibn Wahshiyya have received extremely scant attention, despite their obvious importance as a source for the almost unknown rural and parochial life in Iraq.

Hiéroglyphe reproduits par Ibn Wahshiyyah, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Arabe 6805 folios 92b. ff http://www.esoblogs.net/6946/ibn-wahshiyya-et-la-magie-2/

Hiéroglyphe reproduits par Ibn Wahshiyyah, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Arabe 6805 folios 92b. ff
http://www.esoblogs.net/6946/ibn-wahshiyya-et-la-magie-2/

In the final analysis the question of the texts’ exact provenence must still be left open, though the lack of any signs of translation in the texts as well as the absence of similar genuine texts in Aramaic argues against their authenticity.

Nevertheless, we must make a difference between the works and their material. Whether the works of the Nabatean corpus are authentic or not, that is whether they indeed derive from complete books written in Syriac or some other form of Aramaic or not, there are features that speak in favour of the authenticity of (some of) the material in these books.

First, there are several prayers in Aramaic, in Arabic script, in, eg., Sumūm, which clearly sound Aramaic; their present corruption is most probably due to later copyists. Ibn Wahshiyya himself could hardly have composed these prayers, so they must have come to him in either written or oral form.

Second, the local setting is given accurately, which proves that Ibn Wahshiyya did know the area he was speaking about and thus there is nothing ínherently improbable in presuming that he had access to local traditions.

Third, and most importantly, much of the material has to be genuine as parallels can be found in Babylonian and Assyrian sources—I am referring to the Tammūz/Dumuzi description in particular—which proves that it cannot be a product of Muslim fiction but a report of practices in semipagan rural areas.

Some of these descriptions are more detailed and accurate in the works of Ibn Wahshiyya than in any of the other extant Muslim sources, which makes it improbable that Ibn Wahshiyya could have found them in the Arabic literature at his disposal.

Thus they must stem from a living tradition—although obviously an already dying one.”

Jaakko Hāmeem-Anttila, “Ibn Wahshiyya and Magic,” Anaquel de Estudios Árabes X, 1999, pp. 39-41.

On Nectanebus, the Last Native King of Egypt, BC 318

“But of all the Egyptians who were skilled in working magic, Nectanebus, the last native king of Egypt, about B.C. 318, was the chief, if we may believe Greek tradition.

According to Pseudo-Callisthenes, and the versions of his works which were translated into Pehlevi, Arabic, Syriac, and a score of other languages and dialects, this king was famous as a magician and a sage, and he was deeply learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.

He knew what was in the depths of the Nile and of heaven, he was skilled in reading the stars, in interpreting omens, in casting nativities, in telling fortunes, and in predicting the future of the unborn child, and in working magic of every kind, as we shall see; he was said to be the lord of the earth, and to rule all kings by means of his magical powers.

Whenever he was threatened with invasion by sea or by land he succeeded in destroying the power of his enemies, and in driving them from his coasts or frontiers; and this he did by the following means.

If the enemy came against him by sea, instead of sending out his sailors to fight them, he retired into a certain chamber, and having brought forth a bowl which he kept for the purpose, he filled it with water, and then, having made wax figures of the ships and men of the enemy, and also of his own men and ships, he set them upon the water in the bowl, his men on one side, and those of the enemy on the other.

He then came out, and having put on the cloak of an Egyptian prophet and taken an ebony rod in his hand, he returned into the chamber, and uttering words of power he invoked the gods who help men to work magic, and the winds, and the subterranean demons, which straightway came to his aid.

By their means the figures of the men in wax sprang into life and began to fight, and the ships of wax began to move about likewise; but the figures which represented his own men vanquished those which represented the enemy, and as the figures of the ships and men of the hostile fleet sank through the water to the bottom of the bowl, even so did the real ships and men sink through the waters to the bottom of the sea.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 91-2.

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