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Agimat: Apotropaic Power Totems from the Philippines

Author:

Ian is a visual artist, lay academic and keeps an open mind about unconventional beliefs. He lives with his two dogs and seven cats.

The World of Andong Agimat graphic novel by Arnold Arre, fanart illustration by Marvin del Mundo

The World of Andong Agimat graphic novel by Arnold Arre, fanart illustration by Marvin del Mundo

For the superstitious people, charms and amulets or talismans provide luck, protection and validation to those who wield it. While it's true that the world is a god-awful place full of dangers anywhere we look, man has always been fascinated with the supernatural and long to harness its powers through certain rituals; storing it in an object used in times of need and believed to give superhuman capacity to overcome hostilities both human and non-human.

These come in a variety of appearances (objects, symbols and even live creatures) and span from different religious and cultural backgrounds. They can be seen as our way of seeking to approach the Divine and hold the power of God within a medallion, a small piece of rock, or anything we have at our disposal, creating a powerful connection that gives the wearer god-like qualities.

Talisman is an object believed to have the power to protect its wearer from harm or danger. It must be energized or magnetized by a master in order to be useful. The word talisman comes from the Arabic word tilasm; an alteration of the Greek telasmo which means 'completion in religious rite' -- from the word tello (meaning 'I complete or perform a rite').

A Charm is meant to attract (luck or love), whereas an Amulet is meant to repel (evil or danger for instance). The word comes from the Latin amuletum, meaning 'an object that protects a person from trouble'.

So for the Potterheads out there, sorry to disappoint but the Patronus Charm technically does not count.

philippine-agimat-the-pearl-of-the-orient-seas

Meaning

Ancient Filipinos believed that a special stone, shells or fossils, a tattoo, a part of an animal or some mysterious object with the right mumbo jumbo and rituals will protect from the dangers of battle and plague.

The commonly used word for talisman in the Philippines is Agimat -- which comes from the Malay word azimat and the Arabic ʿazīma of the same meaning. Sometimes referred to as Anting-anting; which means ear pendant in Javanese and a part of a wider Southeast Asian tradition of tribal jewelry such as gantung (meaning "hanging" or "to hang") in Indonesian or Malay.

But it's also called Mutya (a pearl, a lady or denoting something precious) or Birtud in Visayan; borrowed from the Old Spanish virtud or vertud, from the Latin virtūs or virtūtis meaning 'virtue' or the magical or spiritual powers contained in an object or fetish.

Basing from these definitions, an agimat and similar objects of power are precious items, owned by a virtuous individual that wore them like jewelry.

Some propose that the difference between an Agimat and an Anting-Anting is in its making. Agimats are said to be man-made such as jewelry or a piece of clothing, while Anting-anting is something natural. And they believe that talismans provided by nature are the ones more powerful.

The agimat is as an essential component of Filipino folklore and superstition that in our pop culture, heroes owing their powers to such items become a common theme. Usual story goes of young men (sometimes a woman like Darna and her magical stone) seeking hermits and after proving their worth were presented with a highly sought after talisman. Wild stories circulated about where they got it from and how. A person wearing an agimat usually gains superhuman strength, invisibility, heightened senses, self-healing and obtains elemental powers that rivals even that of Stan Lee's very own superheroes.

Darna at Bato by Dan Matutina

Darna at Bato by Dan Matutina

Pagan idols callled Larauan/Tawu-tawu that are believed to contain ancestral land spirits and blessed the living with good health and wellbeing in exchange for rituals and feasts in their honour.

— Fray Pedro Chirino, Spanish historian Relacion de las Islas Filipinas (1604)

Lingling-o

Lingling-o

Pre-colonial Talismans

Animism being our nation's oldest religion reflects the clearest indications of our ancestor’s belief in the powers residing in non-living and mundane things.

Prime examples of these are the Lianito idols discussed in my other article: The Santo Niño de Cebu and its Pagan Origins. These are small wooden statues that resemble the likeness of a man wherein they believe Anitos (spirits) reside, representing dead ancestors and provide blessings and successful harvests. They also serve as protectors and guardians of a place such as the famous Bulul sculptures of the Ifugao people.

Another object from the Ifugaos with similar function is the Ling-ling-o, an accessory in a form of a double-headed pendant or earrings and is said to grant men enhanced virility or boost women's fertility.

Lingling-o carved from jade dating back to the early Metal Age 47,000 years ago is among the many found artifacts discovered by Dr. Robert Fox during the 1960's and 70's near the Tabon caves of Palawan, considered to be the Philippine Cradle of Civilization due to prehistoric items excavated from there. Although specifically found in the Duyong cave --not one of the Tabon Caves, it has the same assemblage of cultural material.

Spanish amulet called Detente Bala

Spanish amulet called Detente Bala

The densely populated spirit world of pre-Hispanic Philippine religion was not swept away by the advent of Christianity. Some Filipino Catholics continued to ask permission from spirits before doing certain things.

— John Leddy Phelan, The Hispanization of the Philippines: Spanish Aim and Filipino Responses

Catholic Influence

The earliest written references to agimat in the Philippines were from the Spanish friars in the early colonial period. Even the controversial 16th-century manuscript Boxer Codex added some intriguing details that these amulets were believed to provide various powers and enhancements such as long life, protection against sickness, and to ward off wild animals. Earlier forms of the agimat were said to contain man-shaped stones, hair of the duwende (elementals similar to gnomes), different herbs, seeds and roots, or tooth of a crocodile.

According to Dennis Santos Villegas, author of “You Shall Be As Gods”, the natives saw the religion brought by the Spanish as something similar to their own. They saw the angels and saints resembling the anitos and diwatas in that they also had a different set of tasks and roles to play – like healing, protection, harvest and so on, and called upon in numerous amount of rituals.

But not only Filipinos were using amulets and talismans. Spanish soldiers from the 19th and 20th centuries wore patches of cloth on their chests as protection with the phrase "Detente bala" (means "stop, bullet"). This devotion is derived by the badges of the Sacred Heart promoted by 17th-century saint Margaret Mary Alacoque against epidemics.

Even Catholic sacramentals—medallions, scapulars, bibles and rosaries and other similar objects are also used as talismans by a lot of Filipinos who relied on them in times of need. The faith is so strong that the Catholic Church emphasizes they have no power of their own. If they have an effect at all, it comes from the faith of the person using them and not the items.

We even see that displayed on the screen today in the form of a person grabbing a crucifix --whether that's a pendant or wall display, whenever there is an evil presence felt.

Nike's limited edition LeBron 14 signature shoe called Agimat

Nike's limited edition LeBron 14 signature shoe called Agimat

The fear of stabbing is still around, but more in the more figurative sense of back-stabbing, as vendors guarantee their amulets’ protecting users from tsismis (gossip) and intrigue.

— Michael L. Tan, Inquirer

Popularity

Today, agimats are usually sold by stall merchants near marketplaces or church courtyards such as Quiapo, Manila. But you can also get them online and have it delivered to you. You'll be surprised by just how expensive they can get. Keep in mind that fake ones are sold too, made mainly for the aesthetics to beguile unwary tourists and amateurs but the prices are usually the same. There are agimats for business and good fortune, for travel, passing exams, easy childbirths and those to protect against physical and supernatural dangers.

The most common and highly commercialized form is in the shape of crosses and pendants inscribed or engraved with unintelligible languages. They can be anything, from the mundane day-to-day objects to the fanciful and nonexistent with all their imagined potency.

Gun bullets are popular forms of agimat with a very specific function: to bring fertility. Perhaps the fertility function derived from the it’s phallic shape, as well as the known usage for projectile force of ammunition.

The Habak is a kind of girdle worn by pregnant mothers to protect them and the unborn child from the Aswang (a supernatural monster that sucks out the fetus from the womb).

For the kids, Kontra-Usug is a kind of juvenile amulet that looks like a bracelet for babies, or small badges pinned to the shirt of a child for protection. It comes from the local common expression puera usug, that's uttered to protect someone from the Evil Eye. Usug means 'moved', which is the imbalance of the chakras and based on the belief that the spirit of a person becomes slightly perpendicular to the body caused by a very strong unseen external force. For the Bisaya like me, we call them Buyag (modern term bulag/buwag which means 'separated from').

But flat pendants of either metal or wood with a sinister-looking eye in the center is probably the most known image of the agimat. It goes back to the eye symbols of the Ancient Egyptians and later allegedly adopted by the Illuminati according to conspiracy theorists. This one is called the Eye of Providence, representing the All-seeing Eye of God who watches everything, and his three forms symbolized by its triangular shape.


Anting-anting is also a system of magic and sorcery in the Philippines that uses the above-mentioned objects. In the Filipino occult tradition, there is usually a corresponding agimat for a particular area in a person's life such as health, protection or love.

An agimat called Pamako which means "to crucify" is meant to paralyze an opponent. A Tagabulag functions like an invisibility cloak while another one called Kabal at Kunat is used to make one invincible to cuts by rendering the skin to become harder and more flexible. A Tagaliwas agimat can deflect bullets but the most sought-after are those used for exorcisms and against sorcery.

Then there are those used as gayuma or love charms to ensnare objects of affections. One of which is the malambot na anting-anting literally means 'soft talismans' — to which is attributed the holder's easy ways in matters of the heart.

Trespicos Roma amulet

Trespicos Roma amulet

Folklore

Many legendary forms of the agimat sprung out from superstition and folk beliefs. One of the more popular is pangil ng kidlat (fang of a lightning) which is some form of fulgurite left after a lightning strike.

They say it is achieved by attaching itself like a magnet to a recently sharpened blade coated with acidic liquids (like wine or vinegar), which will then be covered up right away by a white piece of cloth and concealed. They say it is important to learn the true name of this stone in either Latin, Hebrew or Aramaic, which will then be whispered to the stone; thus empowering it while being held in the right hand. Crazy, right?

It is believed that those who possess this kind of talisman become very temperamental and capable of igniting fires. They are used against witchcraft but not good for business.

Enchanted stones that supposedly came from the sky are pretty common examples of natural talismans, like maybe a piece of meteorite or some other falling object because of the belief that they are gifts from God who dwells in the heavens (the sky).

Another way of achieving an agimat is by standing below a mature banana tree blossom at midnight, religiously waiting for the first mystical dew to drop and catch it with only by the tongue. This one is called mutya ng puso ng saging (the pearl from the heart of a banana tree).

They say only chosen ones are able to get it but they just need to watch out for other supernatural creatures that either usually guard it or competing for it too. It's my personal favorite.

Agimat can also be inherited, handed down by elders in their death beds just like any other heirloom. Some claim that these are passed down according to the eldest next of kin and that if this tradition is ignored, it renders the agimat useless.

Some other ways of obtaining an agimat can get very macabre to just downright insane.

They are usually ingested because of the belief that agimats needed to be absorbed within the body to be more powerful. Like eating a form of enchanted mud from fairies or sustained from regular drinking shots of lambanog (coconut wine) drawn from a large clay container called bañga that's infused with an alcohol-preserved unbaptized aborted human fetus. Think Chinese snake wine, only worse. Yikes!

I get why they would consider people who achieved their talismans through these examples are seen as very powerful because who would have the stomach to do these kinds of things?

Agimat by Boy Mata

Agimat by Boy Mata

Many of these superstitions are survivals of former idolatrous beliefs. The most ignorant classes firmly believe that certain persons are possessed of a diabolical influence called anting-anting, which preserves them from all harm.

— John Foreman, The Philippine Islands(1907)

Esoteric Beliefs

The fusion of the Christian God to the ancient god Bathala formed a brand new deity called Infinito Dios (Infinite God) which has its own mythology and origin. The Infinito Dios is also referred to as Animasola (lonely soul), Waksim (water deity), and Atardar (His warrior or protective aspect).

In this belief system the Nuno (ancestor) or Infinito Dios is the highest and the oldest being from whom everything emanated from. One of these emanations is the Santisima Trinidad (Holy Trinity) to whom the Infinito Dios gave authority to create the world and its inhabitants. Maria (which should not be confused with the Virgin Mary) or the Infinita Dios (the female aspect of the Divine) is said to be the first emanation of the Infinito Dios who sprang forth from his mind.

The sum of all these powers is the Cinco Vocales i.e. the five vowels of the Filipino alphabet: AEIOU. ‘A’ for the Infinito Dios/Nuno, ’E’ for the Infinita Dios/Maria, ‘I’ for God the Father, ‘O’ for God the Son, and ‘U’ for the Holy Spirit. The Cinco Vocales, also known as the Basag (fragments), is said to be the secret names of God that gives power. The antiñgeros (initiates of anting-anting) simplified the complexity of one god in five personas. For them, the Cinco Vocales ranked as the highest deity because it is the complete composition of the five highest gods they call Kadeusan.

The Infinito Dios/Nuno, the Infinita Dios/Maria, and the Santisima Trinidad all share in the equality of their divinity.

While the Infinita Dios is also referred to as Gumamela Celis (Flower of Heaven), Rosa Mundi (Flower of the World), and Dios Ina (God the Mother); she is also identified with the Inang Pilipinas (Mother Philippines) or Inang Bayan (Motherland) celebrated in the writings of the revolutionary Andres Bonifacio titled Tapunan ng Lingap; Katapusang Hibik ng Pilipinas.

A Vest worn by a Filipino Revolutionary during the Philippine Revolution circa late 1890s-early 1900s. Contains Folk-Catholic prayers in  peasant's butchered Latin, and instructional diagrams on when or where the shirt would work.

A Vest worn by a Filipino Revolutionary during the Philippine Revolution circa late 1890s-early 1900s. Contains Folk-Catholic prayers in peasant's butchered Latin, and instructional diagrams on when or where the shirt would work.

Types

Although the agimat exists in different forms, it is a common practice in the
Philippines to combine them for more efficacy and the number of possible combinations are endless.

  • Agimat na Sinusuot - are the wearable talismans such as vests, necklaces and other forms of jewelry or clothing and will bestow its benefits so long as it is worn.


  • Agimat sa Loob - If wearing them just isn't enough because they could get lost or removed from you, some anting-anting are implanted under the skin that are more or less permanent and can only be removed by direct damage to the flesh. As I have mentioned above, it could also be ingested known as "subo" which literally means "to take by the mouth" and swallow. According to folklore, inherited agimat are passed down this way usually occurs close to the moment of death, commonly materializing as a pellet-like mucoid globule, coughed up into the receiver's hands or picked up and immediately taken and swallowed. A delay or hesitation in its ingestion would cause this to just dissolve or vanish into thin air and be lost. Aswang legends commonly told they infect others this way to add more eek value.
philippine-agimat-the-pearl-of-the-orient-seas
  • Agimat sa Oracion - a.k.a. "oraciones or orasyon" which means 'to chant or murmur'. These are spoken verses or short esoteric prayers in a combination of colloquial and pig-Latin languages collected in a libreto (booklet) used to invoke anito spirits, elementals or a divine being asking for power.


  • Agimat sa Sulat - are the ones inscribed on a flat surface whether a shirt,
    handkerchief, wooden or metal surface, paper or even the human skin. It could be a set of verses (oraciones), image or symbol allegedly giving the wearer powers or protection. Damage to the agimat is said to weaken it, thus great care must be exercised.
    The usage of arcane infused tattoos helped with incantations played a big part in a lot of pre-Hispanic Filipino tribes, and most people find the concept of magic tattoos to be interesting.
philippine-agimat-the-pearl-of-the-orient-seas

Breath of Life

Spiderman once said, with great power comes great responsibility. Obtaining an
agimat is one thing, but sustaining its magical properties to be effective is another. How cliche' is that?

As most antingeros will tell you, part of the agimat's mystical qualities involves the user being a virtuous person, and rightful to possess such things. Because it is a form of talisman, it must be spiritually cleansed and recharged to effectively attain its full benefit.

During the season of Lent, Holy Week has always been considered sacred by Filipinos ever since the introduction of Christianity to the country; making it the most opportune time to do a recharging ritual especially at night on Good Friday.

The empowerment rituals consist of offerings or repeatedly chanting whispered or written oraciones while holding the talisman. It is done in cemeteries, churches, around nature, or other special places. But mountain tops like Mount Banahaw in Luzon is a well-known location where most folk healers, shamans, religious cults and Antingeros (talisman aficionados) gather during this time.

After this, some agimat wielders even test and demonstrate their powers and invincibility in public places such as parks among a crowd of awed spectators. Participants would hack themselves with a recently sharpened bolo, showing the bewildered audience that indeed the power of prayer and faith in their talisman of choice prevented any harmful affliction.

But there are also those who chose to keep their possession of agimat incognito, with the belief that flaunting them or even bragging about it to another person could weaken their powers.

According to "experts" in agimat lore, people with such items are called to live an ascetic lifestyle similar to mystics. Self-discipline and spirituality are at the core of their philosophy and to turn away from indulgences and sin. Some say you can't even have sex while carrying it around your person.

Somehow, I think it makes sense because these objects are attributed to be physical manifestations of divine power, and should only be granted to the deserving. Humility, after all is a virtue.

This is Mount Banahaw on a Good Friday

This is Mount Banahaw on a Good Friday

Weapons of War and Faith

Perhaps the most common usage of an agimat or anting-anting throughout the
Philippine history is in the battlefield. From military personnel to policemen, including some government officials --the agimat has been an essential part of the Filipino battle gear, worn with the belief that its spiritual and magical powers will provide invincibility, protection or the edge that would shift the imbalances of power into parity.

Since the days of the revolution against Spain and later against the Japanese and the Americans, some well-respected leaders of the revolution have affirmed their belief in them and such objects were key to people’s participation.

Most Katipuneros (members of the Katipunan, a revolutionary society by anti-Spanish Filipinos in the 1800's) were known to have agimat and were sometimes called men of anting-anting.

So did many national heroes, such as Emilio Aguinaldo (the first president of the republic) who used the anting-anting called 'Santisima Trinidad during the 1896 revolution along with Macario Sakay who wore a vest with religious images and Latin inscriptions to protect him from bullets.

The Katipunan Supremo (General) Andres Bonifacio carried an amulet depicting a saint named Santiago de Galicia (St. James the Great) and Birhen del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar) while General Antonio Luna used the Virgen Madre (virgin mother). Then there is Manuelito, the great tulisan (robber) who repeatedly escaped the sprays of bullets from the Guardia Civil (civil guards).

At the turn of the 20th century, protective objects associated with or provided by anti-colonial leaders are also used to combat the widespread fear caused by the cholera epidemic of 1882-1883. Agimats and Anting-anting also became a means by which revolutionary Visayan religious sects gained adherents.

For protection from the plague and other dangers, Dios-Dios leaders (a sectarian
movement that emerged in Samar Leyte) distributed among other items, flags and
written prayers (oraciones) signed by persons claiming to be medico titulares
(licensed doctors). Recruits were also required to follow strict rituals to maintain the
power of these objects.


To the millenarians of Mount Banahaw and the other societies, brotherhoods and
religious cults, the Infinito Dios (whom they also refer to as Bathala, the ancient Tagalog supreme deity) is the most powerful. The Infinito Dios was used as amulet, drawn on vests worn to deflect the bullets from the invading American forces at the time between 1899-1902.

If a fighter wore an anting-anting upon death, it was attributed to their lack of faith
and that the wearer allowed his fear to overcome his confidence. One American observer noted that groups like the Pulahan (whose name was derived from their wearing of pula (red) colored clothing) were strengthened for their holy warfare by the assurance that those who fell on the battlefield would rise from the dead on the third day.

I know one former chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines who personally told

me he believed in the powers of anting-anting because he saw one of his soldiers hit

by an enemy’s bullets; his uniform was full of holes, but he had no wound at all.

— Jaime T. Licauco, anthropologist and paranormal expert

the current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte allegedly carries an agimat as well

the current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte allegedly carries an agimat as well

Political Uses

In the 1920's came Santiago "Tiagong Akyat" Ronquillo in Cavite, a robin hood
character who looted homes of the rich and helped the poor and possessed a
tagabulag amulet to make him invisible from his pursuers.

Even the tenth president of the Philippines and well-known dictator Ferdinand Marcos claimed he had an amulet he received from Gregorio Aglipay; an ex Catholic priest who became head of the Philippine Independent Church). It was allegedly a wooden charm that would supposedly make him invisible and aided him to become a bar topnotcher and later assisted in his political life. The agimat is said to have been inserted into Marcos' back before his campaign in Bataan in 1942.

But here’s one tragic story about agimats: The massacre of the Lapiang Malaya
(Freedom Movement), a peasant group who fought to overthrow the Marcos
government.

On May 21, 1967, some half a thousand members of the insurgent Lapiang Malaya led by the 86-yr old Bicolano Valentin "Tatang" de los Santos set out for Malacañang Palace demanding reforms from the government. Armed with sacred bolos (machete), "bullet-defying" uniforms and anting-antings and thinking themselves impervious to harm, they marched against soldiers and police with M-16s. A hundred or more were either killed or wounded and survivors were arrested for sedition. Their leader was ruled insane and thrown in the National Center for Mental Health, where he was mauled and later killed.

Between 1960s to early 70's, Leonardo "Nardong Putik" Manicio --a gangster turned amulet-wielding folk hero from Cavite province, credited his ability to survive and escape numerous ambushes and gunfights to his agimat. Putik got that name because he was known to submerge himself in mud paddies, using bamboo or papaya stalks as breathing tubes whenever he had to evade a police or military dragnet. Although putik means mud, Putik amulets also existed that originated from his "accomplishments", composed of a small red stone, a scapular with religious inscriptions or a small ring made of brass.

Nardong Putik's life was made famous in the Philippines in the 1972 and 1984 movies "Nardong Putik: Kilabot ng Cavite" which capitalized on the supposed incredible magic of Putik's anting-anting. The movies depicted his anti-hero ways and was a very popular film in Filipino pop culture. He is often portrayed as capable of shooting or firing lightning through his hands or even generating electricity throughout his body. He is shown to be capable of telekinesis, including stopping a live bullet; having premonitions; possessing the ability to camouflage and blend with the environment. He may also have extreme luck and miracle or curative powers.

Three generations of the Revilla family have played agimat-wielding action heroes in several movies and TV shows

Three generations of the Revilla family have played agimat-wielding action heroes in several movies and TV shows

Do They Work?

The Agimat illustrate our folk beliefs, spirituality and view of the world: they are a fusion of a belief in nature and in a concept of God who is both Animist and Christian. We can see the development of our talismans from simpler natural totems of the pre-colonial past, and later evolved into the elaborate man-made medallions incorporated with Catholic imagery. Even their uses changed as well, depending on our ideas about leadership, power and nationalism.

To answer the question of whether such objects really do work is not so easy. I might be one of those who will scoff when seeing people hacking themselves in public to prove their supposed abilities, thinking they're nothing but deluded arrogant charlatans. But I suppose their effectiveness depends mainly on the belief or faith of the individual wearing such trinkets.

This practice is still at the very core of Philippine life and culture, especially so for the uneducated and marginalized poor in the provinces. People always long to have the illusion of control whenever faced with difficulties in times of crisis like we are facing right now.

Lately I've seen several people claiming to be able to combat the virus with their agimat and anting-anting. Nothing new there but I can't stress enough just how dangerous this is. The Covid pandemic certainly did bring out the hopeful side of humanity, but sadly taken advantage of by some who knew their ways around how desperation works.

It seems that even our modern scientific understanding does not preclude belief in and engagement with older traditions. Whatever our beliefs are, whether it's magic or science, spirits or logic - we should at least try to respect beliefs and opinions apart from our own.

Sources


All About Agimat, thepinoywarrior.com
Into the Pantheon of Amulet Gods, Philippine Amulets, manilenya222.wordpress.com
Agimat, wikipilipinas.org
Charms and Talismans with Unsettling Histories, listverse.com
The Myth, History and Promise of the Anting-Anting by Godofredo U. Stuart, stuartexchange.com
Magic and Sorcery in the Philippines, reddit.com
Do Amulets, Charms and Anting-Anting Work, lifestyle.inquirer.net
The Hidden Myth Behind the Symbolism of the Anting-Anting by Daniel De Guzman, aswangproject.com
Anting-Anting and the Revolution in the Visayas, esquiremag.ph
The Batanes Nephrite Artifacts
Metal Age, nationalmuseum.gov.ph
Bathala, wikipedia.org
Anting-Anting, opinion.inquirer.net

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Comments

Ian Spike (author) from Cebu, Philippines on April 22, 2019:

hope you can visit again soon

Linda Lewark on April 22, 2019:

Performed there after the big earthquake, 1988

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