Tag Archives: theology

My Polytheism Must Be Political

My polytheism is political, not because I believe the Gods have firm opinions on who my state senators ought to be, but because my polytheism is based on a large web of interdependent relationships. My relationships with the gods and ancestors and spirits are connected intimately with my relationships with other beings–humans, and all the other embodied beings of the world.

I cannot honor Dionysos if I do not stand up for the rights and lives of those whose passions and transformations are oppressed by the mainstream/conservative movements in our culture. I cannot honor my ancestors without acting to fix the damage caused by their misdeeds while living, and thereby make a better world for their descendants. I cannot honor the spirits of the land if I don’t act to protect the land from those humans who would treat it as a thing rather than a being.

To my mind, doing right by the victims of injustice is doing right by the gods, ancestors, and spirits. I live among humans, I worship with humans, I act to maintain the connections between the powers and humanity. This necessitates political involvement, because politics is, at base, how one organizes a body of people who don’t always agree to get things done.

Black and brown people are being gunned down by what passes for the law in this nation. The genocide of native cultures is ongoing. A good chunk of the country wants to elect an orange bully to oversee our collective collapse.

I cannot pray loudly enough to stop myself from hearing this.

I cannot stand before my powers with heart and life divided for the sake of some ideological purity.

I am small, limited, mortal. My influence and understanding only reach so far. So I need the assistance and guidance of my gods. I need to stand firmly on the shoulders of my ancestors. I need to be in some semblance of harmony with the land I live on. And, critically, I need my community to stand with, unified in work for justice for all beings.

So my polytheism is political. Because it will take all of us, the embodied and the invisible, together, to make our collective world what if should be instead of what it is.

A Prayer for the End of Equinox

Over on Kina’ani Tess Dawson has written A Prayer for the End of Equinox, calling for the renewal of the worship of the gods, laying foundations for the future.

John Beckett, over on Patheos, has a similar (if somewhat more pessimistic) sentiment in his essay, Something Bad Isn’t Coming, It’s Here. He speaks of the decline of American empire and the transformation of the “industrialized west” into something very different than what it was in the last century, and the need to lay foundations and traditions for the future.

I can get behind both of these thoughts. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that what I do now helps shape it. We we owe a debt to the ancestors, and we repay it to posterity.

Fate, Free Will, and the Gods

In a conversation with Thenea about the Gods, free will, and consent, she suggested I (possibly, challenged me to) write a post about free will in ancient Greek thought. She may have a somewhat inflated idea of my scholarship, but I’m willing to give it a try. As you read, keep in mind that this isn’t a polished article by a classics scholar, so much as a gathering of a simple polytheist’s recollections and speculations in an attempt to arrive at a thesis. So, having made my excuses, on to the topic.

My general impression is that the attitude towards freedom, fate, and the gods expressed in the myths and folklore is one of a people beset by forces beyond their control. The world is one in which, for no apparent reason, one may fail despite one’s best efforts, or even be assailed by implacable foes for crimes committed by others generations before ones own birth. The most diligent farmer’s crops may fail because of unexpected drought, the greatest warrior may lose his final battle because of a broken sandal-strap.

In this world, the gods are described as capricious beings of fantastic power, their relationships with mortals turning on whims and passions that are seemingly beyond their control. They are sometimes even powerless to save their favorites, even trapped into the position of killing their beloved mortals despite their love for them. As when Semele, mortal mother of Dionysos, convinced Zeus to grant her a request. He agreed, and then she told him what she wanted. Bound by his word, Zeus revealed himself to her in all his divine power, and the sight burned her to a crisp. Zeus did not want her to die; if he could have spared her, he would have, but he was not able to go back on his word.

I seem to recall reading somewhere–I wish I’d written it down, rather than trusting myself to remember–that the Greeks spoke of passions not as something that originated within a person, but as outside forces acting on a person. When one falls suddenly, rapturously in love/lust (for example), that’s not something within, that’s Eros striking you with his arrow. Herakles murdered his family in a rage, but that rage came from Hera, not his own inner frustrations and fears.

Oedipus did not know he was killing his father and marrying his mother, but his ignorance did not prevent his doom. Odysseus did not plan to spend years stranded on various islands, all he could do was make the best of the situation.

And, of course, the Fates decide the time of one’s birth, the length of one’s life, and the moment of one’s death, and not even the Olympian Gods can change this decree. If one is going to die, one dies. While one can attain apotheosis, or be granted a happy afterlife by divine favor, death itself is unavoidable.

In short, a human in the world is at the mercy of forces beyond their control, sometimes even beyond their knowledge. These forces are also constrained by other forces, and by the necessities of their own function. Frequently, there’s nothing one can do about it. And no one here gets out alive.

One result of this is a heroic ideal of facing death bravely, and going out fighting. If one can’t avoid dying, then one should leave behind a life to be sung of. I can get behind this one; my greatest fear about death is not that I might die horribly, but that I might die and be forgotten.

Another result, one I am less supportive of, is the thought that this rule of greater forces do what they will and mortals do what they can is applied to human behavior. To quote Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” While Thucydides lived long after the initial tellings of the myths, and was not always regarded as a good moral example, those words do seem to sum up a good deal of the behavior we see in the stories.

Personally, I feel that while this may be true in the absolute sense, the world is better when the strong act justly and fairly, with mercy and an eye toward the common good. I also understand that one strong person cannot long stand against a many weaker people incensed by what an asshole the strong person has been. And, of course, strength comes in many forms beyond that of brute force and base cunning. Satire comes to mind, as does organized labor. But I digress…

The basic understandings I take from all this into my own practice–aside from that I need to spend more time reading and taking better notes–are:

First, though very powerful, the Gods are not all powerful. They may love us, but they can’t always help us. Sometimes, they can’t help but harm us. Which leads to…

Second, the Gods are constrained to do what they must do in order to fulfill their own functions. The God in charge of your local weather may not want to get you wet, but they can’t make a hole in the rain just for you. This also means that courting a God of madness and drunken ecstasy is probably not good for your sanity and sobriety, even if it is a net gain for your life as a whole.

Third, both of these things are just as true for mortals as they are for Gods. I suspect, but don’t have a strong argument to support, that what we lack in phenomenal cosmic power, we make up for in greater (but not absolute) freedom of thought and action.

Fourth, in addition to limited power and freedom, we also get death! While we may choose to live as if it weren’t so, our lives are limited by the fact that they will end some day–barring the Singularity making us all immortal machine intelligences, of course. Whatever it is one decides one wants to do in life, one only has so much time in which to do it, so try not to waste time Hamleting on about it.

Finally, if we want to live in a good world, and not a vast wasteland of worldsuck, we all–mortals and Gods alike–have to work together to make it good, and to keep it that way. The Gods can’t make the world good without us, or at least, they can’t do it if we’re so wrapped up in shortsightedness and fear that we fight their efforts. And we can’t do it without them, however we understand them.

Honoring the Spirits of Here

On the one hand, I think it’s a good idea to honor the deities of the place one lives. Otherwise, it would be like living in someone’s home, eating their food, using their bandwidth, but not talking to them or helping with the rent.

On the other… I live in America. My first (European) ancestors came here almost 300 years ago, but they settled on the other side of the country from where I am. Most of my family’s dead are buried in Kentucky and Tennessee. And, they were Christians, a faith also not native to this land.

So, do I try to find a way to worship the gods of the Natives those ancestors displaced? Or the gods of the Africans they enslaved? Or the gods of the Natives who were displaced by the Europeans who settled the state I now live in?

It’s a mess, no doubt.

What I actually do is this: I make a practice of honoring the spirits of the land where I live, of the San Francisco Bay, of the Pacific coast. I honor the ancestors not only of my blood, but of all those who lived here before me, and left this world to me. To all these dead, I owe many debts. To preserve what they did that was good, and to fix what they did that was not. And I pay these debts to posterity.

How could I not? If I lived in their domains without giving them honor, would that not make me a thief?

In Support of Theologically Diverse Community

I just finished reading this article by IanC over on Into the Mound. Ian is giving his general take on Atheist Paganism (yes, it is a thing), and I pretty much agree with him. Hop on over and read his article for details on his view; I’m going to talk about mine here.

Also, thanks to Morpheus Ravenna for the link to IanC’s article.

I’m not overly concerned with what you believe in your heart of hearts. What matters to me is whether or not we can find a way to practice together, should we care to do so, without either one of us feeling preached-at or hypocritical. If you want to debate theology, fine, I love that sort of thing. Meet me in the bar after the ritual. From my point of view, it’s disrespectful of our honored guests (you know, the gods) to squabble about unprovables when we’re supposed to be hosting. Your point of view may differ, but I think in practice we can agree that it harshes everyone’s mellow to use ritual as an opportunity to weaponize our theology.

This does bring up the question of why we might want to do so. For me, it’s bout maintaining the diversity of the larger Pagan community. We could swear off dealing with people whose metaphysics are incompatable with our own, and I certainly see many good reasons for having at least some part of our practice be reserved for worshiping with people who do believe as we do. But to circle only with same-minded folks, aside from enhancing any echo chambers, invites a certain social distance, and strengthens the us/them feelings that polarize communities.

A diverse community is a resilient community. A diverse community is capable of coming at the same problem from multiple angles, and is not restricted to a limited tool set when dealing with issues that arise. Many of my personal realizations about my own practice come from comparing it to the practices of others. Not in a “whose is better/more authentic/more theologically correct” way, but using the comparison to understand my own practice from angles I might not have thought of without the contrasting example.

When we can come together in common ritual practice, in a way that leaves no one feeling pushed aside for believing or not believing a certain way, we reinforce the awareness that, while we are not identical with one another, we do have common ground and common interests. We have things to share with each other. Hell, if we can find something useful in historical and religious scholarship by non-Pagan atheists (not to mention scholars writing from within one of the dominant Abrahamic religions), surely we can find something to share with those who are part of our larger Pagan culture, despite our theological disagreements.

There have been atheists, as near as I can tell, since long before the dominance of the Abrahamic religions. So it seems that Athiest Pagans are on good historical ground, at least insofar as the idea that one can have a Pagan practice and yet not honor (or even believe in) any gods. These ancient atheists were part of their communities, just like everyone else. I don’t see why modern Pagans and Polytheists can’t accept Atheist Pagans in the same way.

Wrath Management

How does your tradition handle wrathful, savage and destructive divinities?

Are there any other kind? Perhaps there are, but even Jesus would snap a whip and flip a table, on occasion. Just look at my lord Dionysos: He’s been known to strike entire cities mad, and on occasion inspire mothers to dismember their sons.

And his extended extended family… These are powers who will curse you, your children, your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren if they think you’ve dissed them. If they aren’t trying to rape someone, they’re turning them into a spider or a tree or what-have-you, or inspiring them to go to war. These beings have quick tempers, long memories, and wicked imaginations.

And those are the ones who are on our side.

I’m not saying this is a good thing, or that it’s the way I would have designed the world. I’m saying that it simply is. When an earthquake hits, there’s no use charging up to the fault line and demanding the Earth pay for repairs to your house. Shouting at the rain won’t keep you dry.

If you live long enough, everyone you love will die.

But while we’re here, life can be glorious. We can fill our world with as much life and love as we can. We can live lives that people will remember when we’re gone. We can leave this world a better place than it was when we came into it, and, with luck, our descendants will have a slightly easier time of it than we did.

If there are gods, and they are like I believe them to be (I could always be wrong about this), then part of living glorious, love-filled, memorable lives is living in harmony with them. And to do this, we must always remember:

The gods are not moral exemplars. They are not there to demonstrate how humans should live human lives.

So the first answer I have for the question is:

Don’t emulate them.
Really, Zeus may decide to strike someone with lightning because he doesn’t like their taste in hats, but it’s not like the police are going to haul him in for it. You or I, on the other hand, not only risk prosecution, but (unless one of us is practiced in throwing punches) will possibly hurt ourselves in the process. An ugly hat just isn’t worth the pain and legal fees.

Our ancestors came to know the gods by observing the world. They noticed that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and that seaside cliffs will crumble under your feet regardless of how much you give to charity. They did not believe that these events were random, but they were certainly willing to believe they were arbitrary or capricious. Well, maybe, which brings me to my second answer:

Don’t give them an excuse.
Don’t tempt fate, in other words. The gods can be touchy and easily offended, whether you meant it or not. They’re also very big, and very strong, and not always worried about collateral damage. They’re wise (most of them, except the ones who aren’t), but that doesn’t mean they don’t make hasty choices or ill-considered plans. They’re also bound by fate, perhaps more than mortals, and they can’t always fix what they’ve broken. Not tempting fate generally comes down to two things:

Stay right with the gods.
I’m not saying you can buy your way out of trouble with good deeds. At least, not easily–remember the horseshit Heracles had to deal with? However, chances are that your gods (whoever they are) have expressed some idea of how mortals should relate to them. At the very least, mythology can be instructive as to what not to do.

Our relationship with the gods is reciprocal, but not necessarily quid pro quo. Some gods like haggling and favor-trading, others do not (consult your manual or local expert for details), but basically the idea is to give to them that they may give to us, and to refrain from offending them that they may refrain from harming us. It’s not a guarantee, but it can’t hurt. See the bold text, above. Sometimes, a god (or other power, like the land you live on or the spirits of your ancestors and so on) will be offended by some little thing you didn’t know you did. If you’re on the good side of the rest of them, though, they might be inclined to intervene on your behalf. Which isn’t to say you’ll never have problems, but things should usually even out, over the long haul.

Stay right with everyone else, too.
Gods play favorites. Maybe you’re the favorite of one or more gods. If so, good for you. Remember, though, it works the same for other people, too. The gods that favor them will sometimes punish those who wrong their favorites; more often, they’ll give their favorites what seems to you to be an unfair advantage. So be good to your friends and family, be fair to strangers, and be cautious with enemies. Take responsibility for your actions, and their effects. Don’t leave others to clean up your messes.

You know, Don’t be a dick.

As with staying right with the gods, there are no guarantees, and you’ll never make friends with everyone or get through life without offending someone. Still, if most of the people you interact with come away with a good impression, you will probably have more friends (mortal and otherwise) than you know. That’s never a bad thing.

Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.
Face it, we’re mortal. There’s a lot we can’t do, and there are a lot of forces in the world we can’t do anything about. Above all else, cultivate an attitude of being grateful for your good fortune, and grateful that your bad fortune wasn’t worse. Move on, as best you can, and get help when you need to.

Bad things happen. It doesn’t help to give up and wallow in the horseshit.

My lover Ember and I have decided to go through Galina Krasskova’s Devotional Polytheist Meme questions together, over the next several months. We encourage our friends to follow along, and welcome links to other people’s answers in our comments, as well as your thoughts on our answers. Ember’s answer can be found at her blog, Embervoices.

There is No Natural Justice

Last night, the grand jury in Ferguson returned its decision to not prosecute Ferguson officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown. Justice is not served.

I’m not really surprised. Justice hasn’t been served in this since long before Officer Wilson shot Mr. Brown. Long, long before. Better historians than I have traced the roots of current racism and back to slavery and reconstruction, and wiser commenters than I have discussed how the current troubles are at least as much about white anger at progress as they are about black anger about racism.

When I first heard the decision, I wasn’t surprised, but I was very angry. I still am, and will be for a long time to come, but at first it was the kind of anger that involves questioning the power and justice of the gods. That questioning led me to revisit the understanding that there is no natural justice.

We cannot expect the gods to give us justice. Oh, there are gods of justice. Among the Olympians, Dike is the goddess of justice. Her father is Zeus, one of whose responsibilities is law and order, and her mother is the titaness Themis, who is said to have first taught law to mortals. Other cultures and pantheons have their own deities of justice.

Yet we still cannot expect the gods to give us justice. If we could, the prosecutor arguing before the grand jury would not have been a man who raised money for the defense of the accused. If the gods could just give us justice, then Darren Wilson would have gone to trial, and either incarceration or exoneration, months ago.

The gods cannot give us justice, not in a way we would like. Myth is full of tales of gods punishing injustice, but there are few stories of the gods preventing injustice. When the gods do step in, the results are painful and messy, and collateral damage seems to be quite high. The gods don’t get directly involved until the situation is so far gone that whatever they do can’t make things worse.

Justice, on a human scale and human terms, is what happens when we mortals make it happen. The gods may assist and advise, but in this (as in so much, it seems) their powers are limited. We have to make room for them to enter the world, when and where we want them to enter, to be the vehicles by which divine justice can manifest.

I’m not suggesting anyone should take revenge in the name of the gods, or that people should feel that any expression of rage or violence against the perceived enemy is a holy act. Dike is not Nemesis, and the Horai (Dike and her sisters Eunomia, good order, and Eirene, peace) are not the Erinyes.

Justice is not revenge, or at least, not retribution alone. Justice is re-balancing the scales, giving comfort and redress to the victims as well as punishment to the perpetrators. Focusing just on the survivors of Michael Brown and on Darrin Wilson and those who helped him evade justice is not enough, however, because the current injustice is bigger than that. Justice here means also working to dismantle the system that perpetuates, encourages, and rewards this kind of crime. Justice here means also working to give aid, voice, and comfort to all who suffer under that system.

We cannot expect the gods to simply give us true justice. We must make justice through our own actions, in harmony with the gods and with their blessings on our actions.

We must make this right. No one else will.

I Think I See What the Fuss is About

Recently, I was interviewed on the This Week in Heresy podcast. (You can listen here) The first few of comments to the interview are in, and they’re enlightening.

To sum up some of my points in the interview, I said that we can have a solid spiritual communtiy dispite differing theologies if we can communicate clearly and without judgment about our spiritual expereinces. Key to this is having defined terms with which to do this communicating. Polytheism means the worship of many gods, duotheism means the worship of two gods, and monism means the worship of a single divine entity, experienced (perhaps) one small part at a time. None of these are better or worse than the others (if the gods want to reveal themselves to me as many and to someone else as one, I’m not going to tell them to do otherwise), but they are different, and we can’t respect those differences or work with them without being able to name them and talk about them.

The first comment, however, is that the commenter sees no reason to distinguish between polytheism and monism. Which might indicate that I didn’t make my point clearly, so I try again. I describe my own experiences of the gods very generally, which description the commenter quotes back, says matches their own, and then says that they don’t see that having that experience means they aren’t a polytheist.

Which is odd, given that I described that expereince to explain what I meant when I said I am a poltheist. At any rate, I’m skipping details for the sake of brevity. If you really want to get into it, you can read the comment thread (but listen to the interview first).

Reflecting on it, what I think I’m seeing here, and in a good many other discussions of polytheism as distinct from other Pagan expereinces on line and off, is a confusion between the definitions of the terms and the emotional connotations of the terms.

People who use a very broad (including monism, duotheism, and so on) definition of polytheism seem to be less interested in the details and differences of various Pagan spiritual experiences and practices, and more in defining their positions as not monotheism. Monotheism is what they left behind or rejected upon becoming Pagan. Monotheism is the belief of Abrahamic sects; and so Polytheism is anything not those, which is to say, Pagan.

This ignores the fact that there are non-Abrahamic monotheisms, such as the Sikhs, but we’re talking about gut reactions here, not technical definitions.

What I’m seeing is that there is a fundamental dualism in practice, where defining Pagan as “not Abrahamic monotheism” is equated on an almost unconscious level with Pagan=Polytheist vs. Abrahamic=Monist. So when someone who’s using polytheism to distinguish a particualr variety of Pagan practice and experience tries to explain the difference, what’s being reacted to on an emotional level is not, “What you’re describing isn’t polytheism, it’s some other kind of Paganism,” but “You aren’t really Pagan.”

This leads to a reaction like, “I am too polytheist! You can’t invalidate my Paganism!” Which was, of course, never the intention.

Which, in turn, leads to a massive derail as we argue about just what “polytheism” means and whether or not someone making the distinction is a disruptive splitter.

I’m not sure what can be done to avoid triggering this gut reaction. Possibly, the problem will age out as folks who never identified as part of an Abrahamic faith (and thus are not invested in defining themselves as not-Abrahamic) become the majority in the community. For the moment, I’m just going to keep patiently explaining what I actually meant, and how that’s different from what someone may have felt I meant.

The Interview is Live

I’m interviewed by Rev. Gina Pond on her podcast, This Week in Heresy. We spent an hour talking about polytheism, theology, and the value of a shared human experience.

I think it came out rather well, for the most part. There are some odd pauses and I make far too many huffing sounds. Sorry about that, it’s what happens when my brain is moving faster than my mouth.

The direct link to the interview is here. Check out the rest of the episodes, it’s a good ‘cast. Gina talks to a diverse lot of people about the edges and margins of spiritual life, the places where people live and have their spiritual lives away from the mainstream of American religion.

S#!t May Have Been Real All Along

Last week, I read Morpheus Ravenna’s post, Theurgic Binding, or “S#!t Just Got Real”, and it got me thinking. It got a bunch of other people thinking, too.

In brief, Morpheus was talking about how she sees an injury that forced her off her feet for months as a way her goddess has corralled her into finishing a book about that goddess. From there, she went on to talk about how one should expect the gods to intervene in one’s life if one makes a habit of hanging around with them. I’m not doing it justice, of course. Go read it, if you haven’t yet. I’ll wait.

Here’s the thing: Every time I hear one of these stories, I have a flash of envy. I want things to be that solid, that real, that undeniable. For all that I feel I know when my mind is calm and my heart is light, there are so many other days when I feel alone. When I feel that I’m talking to dumb statues and wasting my time. At times like that, I think to myself, “a broken leg would suck, but it would be proof that you’re there.”

And, no, no one needs to break my leg to make me feel better. Thanks, though.

At other times, I have resented the gods, and been angry with them in ways that one just can’t be without believing that the target of one’s anger is actually there. I have been oracle and reader for others, I have had my mouth grabbed by a power and made to speak to someone else–but for myself, dull echoes. This isn’t strictly true, of course. I’ve talked to Dionysos through another person’s mediumship, and in my own meditations, and in that place where I’m halfway to sleep at end of day. But the feeling of reality fades, like a dream slipping from memory.

Reflecting on Morpheus’ post, it occurred to me that my broken leg might be more subtle.

I live with serious depression, kind of like bipolar without the manic phase, and a serious anxiety disorder. These days, I don’t get out of the house unless it’s to buy groceries or go to work, or to spend one night at my lover’s house. I don’t get out to other people’s parties or events much at all, and it’s been getting steadily worse over the last few years. So, thinking about how the gods might be using pain to shape me, I tried a polytheistic re-frame:

What if my depression and anxiety and house-bound-ness were getting worse because I wasn’t keeping up my end of the bargain? I do worship a god who strikes people mad, after all.

I don’t mean that in a punitive sense. More in a sense of becoming lost in the dark woods because I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the direction in which my guide was pointing. There have been so many crises in my life over the past few years–deaths, unemployment, the end of a twenty-year relationship and the rebuilding of my life after, illness and lack of insurance–that I got knocked off the horse and haven’t managed to get back on and stay on.

I do know that I feel better when I’m doing prayers and libations regularly, and I haven’t been. It could be that I have the causality backwards, I suppose, and that the rituals and offerings are more frequent when I’m up because I’m up, but I want to try the re-frame and see if it helps.

See, I realized that I wanted the dramatic smack upside the head because I thought it would be easier to have the gods reach down and change me the hard way than it would be to do the work of meeting them halfway. I have been hurting and worn out, sometimes not having the energy or the will to bathe or get dressed for the day. And I’ve been feeling that I didn’t have the energy to pray, or to pour out wine for the God, or to even spend time sitting quietly before the altar.

I came to this realization three days ago. Over the last three nights, I’ve had strange dreams. The first two nights were full of anxiety dreams, allegories about feeling that I’ve let people down, that I’m taking up too much space, that I’m hurting people who depend on me. Some people’s nightmares are full of monsters, in mine, I’m the monster, if a rather banal one. But last night, the dreams were equally strange, but more upbeat. They were about growing a friendship by being active in the community, and returning to a tight-knit group who thought I’d been lost or left behind.

I’m choosing to see these dreams as evidence that I’ve made the right choice.

As I was writing this, I was listening to a music stream on the internet. During one song (The New Deal by Leggo Beast), there was an edited sample from a talk by Ian Mackenzie, a Canadian media activist:

I’ve been searching the Gods all my life and now I know them, the Gods inside of us. Or I feel I do…When you find the Gods inside yourself, you’ll find the God of War…You have to freeze him in his own private Hell, and make your positive Gods the Gods that take you over.

And by ‘the Gods that take you over’ I mean you have to find those passions that are so much more powerful than you, than anything you’ve been allowed to express in your life, and making those things the things you work on.

What was I just saying about wanting more direct signs?

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