The Fall of Phaethon


Quel del sol, che suiando, fu combusto

Per l' orazion della terra devota

Quando fu Giove arcanamente giusto


DANTE, Purg. XXIX. 118


THE GREAT AND OFFICIAL myth concerning the Galaxy is Phaethon's transgression and the searing of the sky in his mad course. Manilius tells it in his astrological Poem [n1 1.730-49. Anonymous translation (T.C.) London, 1697; reprinted 1953 by National Astrological Library, Washington, D.C., p, 44­.]:


…this was once the path

Where Phoebus drove; and that in length of Years

The heated track took Fire and burnt the Stars.

The Colour changed, the Ashes strewed the Way

And still preserve the marks of the Decay:


Besides, Fame tells, by Age Fame reverend grown

That Phoebus gave his Chariot to his Son,

And whilst the Youngster from the Path declines

Admiring the strange Beauty of the Signs,

Proud of his Charge, He drove the fiery horse,

And would outdo his Father in his Course.

The North grew warm, and the unusual Fire

Dissolv'd its Snow, and made the Bears retire;

Nor was the Earth secure, each Contrey mourn'd

The Common Fate, and in its City's burn'd.

Then from the scatter'd Chariot Lightning came,




And the whole Skies were one continued Flame.

The World took Fire, and in new kindled Stars

The bright remembrance of its Fate it bears.


The myth of Phaethon has been told broadly and with magnificent fantasy by Ovid (Met. 1.747-2.400) and by Nonnos (Dionysiaka Book 38). Gibbon in his old age, commemorating his own adolescence, speaks of his rapt discovery of the beauty of Latin poetry as he read Ovid's description of the tragic: venture of Phaethon. The story goes on that Helios, taking his oath by the waters of Styx, promised to fulfill any wish of his rash young son Phaethon, who was visiting him for the first time. The boy had only one desire, to drive the Sun's chariot once, and the most desperate requests of his father could not move him to change his mind. Although knowing well that nothing could prevent the fatal ending of this adventure, Helios did his best to teach Phaethon all the dangers lurking at every step of the way—a welcome occasion for both poets to elaborate the paternal admonitions into some kind of "introduction to astronomy." As the father feared, Phaethon was incapable of managing the horses and came off the proper path; Ovid has it that the boy dropped the reins at the sight of Scorpius. Unbelievable confusion results; no constellation remains in its place, and the Earth is terribly scorched. In despair "she" cries aloud to Jupiter to make him act immediately: "Look how your heavens blaze from pole to pole—if fire consumes them the very universe will fall to dust. In pain, in worry, Atlas almost fails to balance the world's hot axis on his shoulders."2 And Nonnos states (38.350ff.):


"There was tumult in the sky shaking the joints of the immovable universe; the very axle bent which runs through the rniddle of the revolving heavens. Libyan Atlas could hardly support the self-rolling firmament of stars, as he rested on his knees with bowed back under this greater burden."


Zeus has to intervene and hurls his thunderbolt at the boy. Phaethon falls into the river Eridanus where, according to Apollonios Rhodios, the stench of his half-burned corpse made the Argonauts sick for several days when they came upon it in their travels (4.619-23).


2 Met. 2.194-97: circumspice utrumque:/ fumat uterque polus quos si vitiaverit ignis/atria vestra ruent Atlas en ipse laborat/ vixque suis umeris candentem sustinet axem.




The Phaethon story has often been understood to commemorate some great flashing event in the skies, whether comet or meteor. Everyone rushes by instinct—more accurately, habit—for a so- called natural explanation. But on examination, the case turns out not to be so easy. The narrating of the cataclysm may be fanciful and impressionistic, as if the poets enjoyed an emotional release from the regularity of celestial orbs, but their account also makes technical sense, as anyone would suspect who has read Stegemann's [n3 Astrologie und Universalgeschichte (1930).] solid inquiry into Nonnos as the heir to Dorotheos of Sidon's tight-knit astrology. As for Ovid, his standing as a scholar, by now unchallenged and, in fact, he hints at rigid cosmological formulae with surprising authority. In his description of the "hidden mountains" emerging from the waves, when the seas shrank into sand (2.260ff.), they rise as "new islands." How much better does this image of "mountain peaks" and "islands" illustrate the stars of a constellation rising, one after the other (at vernal equinox), than, for instance, the Icelandic wording of the emerging of "a new earth"!


In any case, an independent confirmation emerges in Plato's version of the crisis, as he gives it in Timaeus 22CE. The Egyptian priest talking with Solon states that the legend of Phaethon "has the air of a fable; but the truth behind it is a deviation [parallaxis] of the bodies that revolve in heaven round the earth, and a destruction, occurring at long intervals, of things on earth by a great conflagration." This is a clear statement, and one in accordance with Ovid and with Nonnos, as it should be, since it has to do with a Pythagorean tradition: Aristotle tells us so [n4 Meteorologica 1.8.345A: "The so-called Pythagoreans give two explanations. Some say that the Milky Way is the path taken by one of the stars at the time of the legendary fall of Phaethon; others say that it is the circle in which the sun once moved. And the region is supposed to have been scorched or affected in some other such way as a result of the passage of these bodies." See also H. Diels, Doxographi, pp. 364f. = Aetius III.I. (In former times when classical authors were not yet eagerly prefixed with as many "pseudos" as possible, this was Plutarch, De placitis 3.I.)].




The Pythagoreans were neither idle storytellers, nor were they even mildly interested in unusual sensational "catastrophes" caused by meteors, and the like. Actually, the Egyptian priest said to Solon, concerning the legend of Phaethon, "the. story current also in your part of the world." Where, then, is the story in Egypt? Since the Egyptian cosmological language was more technical, in the old sense, than that of the Greeks, it will take some time to find out the exact parallel. Anyhow, in Egypt the down-hurled Phaethon would have been termed "the lost eye," or rather one; among the "lost eyes." The eye was "lost" in the so-called "mythical source of the Nile," the source of all waters. So it is surprising that Ovid knew (Met. 2.254ff.) that because of Phaethon's fall, "Nile ran in terror to the end of the earth to hide its head which now is still unseen." [n5 Nilus in extremum fugit perterritus orbem/ occuluitque caput, quod adhuc latet.]. Leaving the Egyptian case for the time being, it is appropriate here to cite two widely separated survivals concerned with the Phaethon theme. They are useful because they come from points far removed from the Greek landscape and consequently cannot be connected with any local catastrophes which are supposed to have made such a tremendous impression on the Greek mind. The Fiote of the African Loango Coast, already mentioned, say: "The Star Way [Galaxy] is the road for a funeral procession of a huge star which, once, shone brighter from the sky than the Sun." [n6 E. Pechuel- Loesche, Volksunde von Loango (1907), p. 135.]. Conveniently short, and no technicalities. The Northwest American version is broader. Because of the absence of chariots in pre-Columbian America [n7 See H. S. Gladwin, Men out of Asia (1947), pp. 356-59, for this "feature."], the Phaethon figure of the Bella Coola Indians, who had come to visit his father Sun by means of an arrow-chain, wants to carry Sun's torches in his stead. Helios agrees, but he warns his son not to make mischief and burn people. "In the morning," he says, "I light one torch, slowly increasing their number until high-noon. In the afternoon I put them out again little by little." The next morning, "Phaethon," climbing the path of the Sun, not only kindled all the torches he had, he did so much too early, so that the earth became red hot: the woods began to




burn, the rocks split, many animals jumped into the waters, but the waters began to boil, too. "Young woman," the mother of the Bella Coola Phaethon, covered men with her coat and succeeded in saving them, But Father Sun hurled his offspring down to earth, telling him: "From now on you shall be the Mink!" 8 [n8 W. Krickeberg, Indianermarchen aus Nordamerika (1924), pp. 224f., 396. cf. E. Seier, Gesammelte Abhandlungen, vol. 5, p. 19. A mere mink might appear to us, today, as insignificant, like the tapir, or as the "Mouse-Apollo"—we fall for mere "words" and "names" only too easily. This particular Mink introduces the tides, steals the fire, fights with the "winds," playing Adapa, Prometheus, Phaethon all at the same time.].


It is necessary to revive some other very ancient idea. lost to our time. That Eridanus was the river Po in northern Italy was a common and simple notion in the Greece of Euripides. In one of his great tragedies (Hippolytus), the Chorus yearns for a flight away from the world of guilt, to mountains and clouds, to lands far off:


Where the waters of Eridanus are clear

And Phaethon's sad sisters by his grave

Weep into the water, and each tear

Gleams, a drop of amber, in the waves.


Any hearer would have understood that Phaethon's sad sisters were the poplars lining the banks of the river, and that the "drop of amber" was an allusion to the riches of the "amber route" which led from the Baltic Sea to the familiar reaches of the Adriatic. So far so good. But what can be made of Strabo, a still later author (5.215) who called Eridanus "nowhere on earth existing " and thus  referred clearly to the constellation Eridanus in heaven, and what does Aratus (360) mean when he talks of "those poor remains of Eridanus” because the river was "burnt up through Phaethon's fall." Is this the very same river, ample and lined with poplars, which runs into the delta of the Po?


Apollonios of Rhodes, in recounting the heroic travels of the Argonauts, carefully preserved the double level of meaning, for the adventures are set in an earthly context, yet they make, geographically speaking, no sense at all.




The explorers do sail up the Po, where they are confronted, as was said, with the stench of Phaethon's remains—but those might be located higher up in a waterfall in the Alps, near the Dammastock, as one distinguished scholar would like to suggest. For the Argo moves from the Po into Lake Geneva and the Rhone, goes down it to the sea again and sails out following the same longitude; then, by a considerable feat of portage crosses the Sahara all the way to the coast of West Africa, and reaches Fernando Po. This is at least how those who understand the text as geography read it without blinking. Surely, it is closer to common sense to treat Eridanus as a feature of the skies, where it is already clearly marked together with Argo; and to treat the other features accordingly will give at least a significant story, although it will not dispel the mystery of the Argonauts.


Thus tradition holds that after the dreadful fall of Phaethon, and when order was re-established, Jupiter "catasterized" Phaethon, that is, placed him among the stars, as Auriga (Greek Heniochos and Erichthonios); and at the same time Eridanus was catasterized. Manilius hinted at this event only with the lines "The world took fire, and in new kindled stars / the bright remembrance of its fate it bears." Nonnos gave a more detailed report (38.424-J I) [n9 See also F. X. Kugler, Sibyllinischer Sternkampf und Phaethon (1927), PP. 44, 49.]:


But father Zeus fixed Phaethon in Olympus, like a charioteer, and bearing that name. As he holds in the radiant Chariot of the heavens with shining arm, he has the shape of a Charioteer starting upon his course, as if even among the stars he longed again for his father's car. The fire-scorched river also came up to the vault of the stars with consent of Zeus, and in the starry circle rolls the meandering stream of burning Eridanus.


Now, in times when myth was still a serious form of thought, objects were not identified in heaven which did not belong there in the first place. The problem which arose later is the one raised by Richard H. Allen, who remarks that "the Milky Way was long known as Eridanus, the Stream of Ocean," [n10 Star Names (1963), p. 474] and by the translator of Nonnos, W. H. D. Rouse, who shortly annotated Eridanus as "the Milky Way."




It takes some nerve to say of the Galaxy that it meanders—actually the Greek text, has it that it moves like a helix (helissetai). But apart from this incongruent image of the "helixing" Milky Way, the myth of Phaethon was meant by the Pythagoreans to tell of the departure of the Sun and planets from their former path, and the enthroning of Eridanus, which together with Auriga was to take over the function of the Milky Way: that is why they were "catasterized" together. Admittedly, one faces a frightening confusion between the rivers in heaven and those on earth, and the names which were given to both kinds of streams, but with patience the threads can be disentangled.


Taking the rivers of our globe first, it was not only the Po that received the name of Eridanus, but the Rhone [n11 For Po and Rhone and the joining of their waters, see A. Dieterich, Nekyia (1893), p. 271 quoting Pliny and Pausanias.], and the Nile and the Ganges. Finally in Higgins' Anacalypsis there is a quote, without the ancient source but reasonably reliable: "Ganges which also is called Po." [n12 (1927 repr.), p. 357: Ganges qui et Padus dicitur. As concerns the general idea of Eridanus being in India, see O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie (1906), p. 394, referring to Ktesias.]. Thus it is not surprising that much later, in medieval times, several redactions of the Alexander Romance show different opinions about the river used by the king to travel to paradise in order to win immortality. In a French prose novel of the 14th century Alexander sails the Nile upstream, whereas in a Latin version of the 12th century, he uses the Ganges: as the Indians had told him, the Ganges had its source in paradise [n13 F. Kampers, Mittelalterliche Sagen vom Paradiese (1897), pp. 72f.]. So have, indeed, all great rivers of myth.


In the sky, the number of candidates for election is three. Besides the Milky Way, Eratosthenes' authoritative Catasterisms called the constellation Eridanus Nile or Ocean [n14 No. 37 (Robert ed. [1878], pp. 176f.).]. But the astrologers Teukros and Valens listed Eridanus among the paranatellonta of Aquarius. Paranatellonta are the constellations that "rise at the same time" as a given one, i.e., in this instance, as Aquarius. That is, they called the gush from the jug of Aquarius Eridanus.




More awkward still, this gush from Aquarius' jar was meant to join our constellation Eridanus below Piscis Austrinus [n15 F. Boll, Sphaera (1903), pp. 135-38.]. Says Manilius (1.438ff.):


Next swims the Southern Fish, which bears a Name

From the South-Wind, and spreads a feeble Flame.

To him the Flouds in spacious windings turn

One fountain flows from cold Aquarius' Urn;

And meets the other where they joyn their Streams

One Chanel keep, and mix the starry Beams.


Eratosthenes' Catasterisms bring one more complication into the picture, but it is one which leads, finally, to the decisive insight. Differing from those of Aratus (360f.) and from Ptolemy, it counts Canopus in the constellation Eridanus, instead of Argo, and thus gives the river a different direction [n16 See L. Ideler, Sternnamen (1809), p. 231; see also E. Maass, Commentariorum in Aratum Reliquiae (1898), p. 259.]. The whole "Gordian knot" of misapprehensions hinges upon the name Eridanus, and one can do nothing better than to follow the good example set by Alexander and "pull out the pole pin." Eridanus, lacking a decent Greek etymology, finds a reasonable derivation from Eridu) as was proposed by Kugler, Eridu being the seat of Enki-Ea, Sumerian mulNUNki = Canopus (alpha Carinae) [n17 B. L. van der Waerden, JNES 8 (1949), p. 13; see also P. F. Gossmann, Planetarium Babylonicum (1950), 306; J. Schaumberger, 3. Erg. (1935), pp. 334f.]. Eridu marked, and meant, the "confluence of the rivers," a topos of highest importance, to which, beginning with Gilgamesh, the great "heroes" go on a pilgrimage trying in vain to gain immortality—including Moses according to the 18th Sura of the Koran. Instead of this unobtainable boon, they gain "the measures," as will be seen. "Eridu" being known as the "confluence of the rivers," Eridanus had to join, by definition so to speak, some "river" somewhere in the South, or it had to flow straightaway into Eridu-Canopus, as the Catasterisms claimed. There have been more drastic "solutions" still.



The first is given by Servius (to Aeneid 6.659) who pretends Eridanus and Phaethon were one and the same [n18 Fabula namque haec est: Eridanus Solis filius fuit. hic a patre inpetrato curru agitare non potuit, et cum eius errore mundus arderet, fulminatus in Italiae fluvium cecidit: et tunc a luce ardoris sui Phaethon appellatus est, et pristinum nomen fluvio dedit: unde mixta haec duo nomina inter Solis filium et fluvium invenimus.]. The second, presented by Michael Scotus [n19 cf. appendix #10, Vainamoinen's Kantele.],

, Vainamoinen's Kantele.], agrees with Servius concerning the entity of Phaethon and Eridanus, but does much more. He places into the "sign" Eridanus the "Figura sonantis Canoni"—consisting of seventeen stars—which he calls Canopus and claims that Canopus touches Argo. And about this enigmatic personage Scotus says that he "hindered the work of the Sun by the tone of his lute, because the horses listened to it, and enraged Jupiter pierced him with the lightning." [n20 See Boll, pp. 273-75, 540-42: Alii dicunt quodcum impediret opis solis sono canoni, quia equi attendebant dulcedini sonorum, iratus Jupiter eum percussit fulmine.].


Eridanus was understood by the astrologers to be the whirlpool (zalos), as has been seen, flowing through the underworld with its many realms, including those from which one sees the celestial

South Pole. Virgil wrote in the Georgics (1.242f.): "One pole is ever high above us, while beneath our feet is seen the other, of black Styx and the shades infernal." But why was Auriga catasterized at the same time as Eridanus, and what is the "function" which these two constellations had to take over from the Milky Way? The Galaxy was and remains the belt connecting North and South, above and below. But in the Golden Age, when the vernal equinox was in Gemini, the autumnal equinox in Sagittarius, the Milky Way had represented a visible equinoctial colure; a rather blurred one, to be true, but the celestial North and South were connected by this uninterrupted broad arch which intersected the ecliptic at its crossroads with the equator. The three great axes were united, the galactic avenue embracing the "three worlds" of the gods, the living and the dead. This "golden" situation was gone, and to Eridanus was bequeathed the galactical function of linking up the "inhabited world" with the abode of the dead in the (partly) invisible South.




Auriga had to take over the northern obligations of the Galaxy, connecting the inhabited world with the region of the gods as well as possible. There was no longer a visible continuous bond fettering together immortals, living and dead: Kronos alone had lived among men in glorious peace.


And here there is a proposition to be made. In order to evaluate it, one has to consider the fact that alpha Aurigae is Capella, the Goat. This remarkable figure was the nurse of infant Zeus in the Dictaean Cave, and out of her skin Hephaistos was later to make the Aegis:


Amaltheia. Capella-Amaltheia's Horn was the Horn of Plenty for the immortals, and the source of Nectar and Ambrosia. Mortals called it "second table," dessert so to speak [n21 See Athenaeus, Deipnosophistai 643a; also 783C, 542a]. But there are two shreds of Orphic tradition which seem to be revealing, both handed down to us by Proclus. The first says that Demeter separated the food of the gods, splitting it up, as it were, into a liquid and a solid "part," that is, into Ambrosia and Nectar [n22 Orphicorum Fragmenta, ed. O. Kern (1963), frg. 189, p. 116 (Proclus in Cratylus 404b, p. 92, 14 Pasqu.); cf. G. Dumézil, Le Festin d'Immortalité (1924), p. 104. See also Roscher, in Roscher s.v. Ambrosia: sitos kai methy, sithos kai oinos, etc.]. The second declares that Rhea became Demeter after she had borne Zeus [n23 Orphicorum Fragmenta, frg. 145, p. 188.]. And Eleusis, for us a mere "place name," was understood by the Greeks as "Advent"—the New Testament uses the word for the Advent of Christ. Demeter, formerly Rhea, wife of Kronos, when she "arrived," split up the two kinds of divine food having its source in alpha Aurigae. In other words, it is possible that these traditions about Demeter refer to the decisive shifting of the equinoctial colure to alpha Aurigae.


But one should also look at some other traditions. Turning to India, which is often helpful in its abundance, it was the Ganges that stood for the Galaxy, almost as a matter of course [24 The same goes for the Jaxartes and Ardvi Sura Anahita of Iranian tradition; see H. S. Nyberg, Die Religionen des Alten Iran (1966), pp. 260f.], but the Mahabharata and the Puranas tell at least how the link was conceived: Ganga was born of the Milky Way. Says the Vishnu Purana [n25 2.8 (Wilson trans., p. 188).




Having the source in the nail of the great toe of Vishnu’s left foot, Dhruva (Polaris) receives her, and sustains her day and night devoutly on his head; and thence the seven Rishis practise the exercise of austerity in her waters, wreathing their braided locks with her waves. The orb of the moon, encompassed by her accumulated current, derives augmented lustre from this contact. Falling from on high, as she issues from the moon, she alights on the summit of Meru (the World Mountain in the North), and thence flows to the four quarters of the earth, for its purification. . . The place whence the river proceeds, for the purification of the three worlds, is the third division of the celestial regions, the seat of Vishnu.


It was, in fact, a colossal event to have "the stream Air-Ganges fall down from Heaven," and its violence was only restrained by Shiva's receiving it in the curls of his hair. One might add that he bore it there "for more than 100 years, to prevent it from falling too suddenly upon the mountain." The Indian imagination is free-wheeling, and cares little for time sequence, but it is clear that the flow is perpetual. Were it not for Shiva's hair acting as a catch­ment, the earth would have been flooded by the Waters Above. They come, as was just quoted, from the third region of the sky, the "path of Vishnu" between Ursa Major and the Pole Star. Wilson stated in 1840: "The situation of the sources of the Ganges in heaven identifies it with the Milky Way." [n26 The Chinese report as given by Gustave Schlegel (L'Uranographie Chinoise [1875; repr. 1967], p. 20) is shorter but it points to the same fanciful conception. "La fleuve céleste se divise en deux bras pres du pole Nord et va de là jusqu'au pole Sud. Un de ses bras passe par l'astérisme Nan-teou (lambda Sagittarii), et l'autre par l'astérisme Toung-tsing (Gemeaux). Le fleuve est l'eau céleste, coulant á travers les cieux et se précipitant sous la terre." Nan-teou is the "Southern Bushel": mu lambda phi sigma tau zeta Sagittarii; the Northern Bushel = the Big Dipper. Although we agree with Phyllis Ackerman's view (in Forgotten Religions [1950], p. 6): "The Nile, however, (like many, if not all sacred rivers Originally-compare the Ganges) is. the earthly continuation of the Milky Way," we maintain that the mere recognition does not help to restore sense and meaning to the myth.].


But if the flow is perpetual, it still had a point of "beginning" and this is found in the Bhagavata Purana (Wilson, p. 138, n. 11): "The river flowed over the great toe of Vishnu's left foot, which had previously, as he lifted it up, made a fissure in the shell of the mundane egg, and thus gave entrance to the heavenly stream." How can the Milky Way pour its waters over Polaris?




And how can it flow to the four quarters of the earth? Indian diagrams remained fanciful, in the same way as Western medieval ones. It takes some time for one who looks at the great tympanon at Vézelay to realize that here is a space-time diagram, as it were, of world history centered on the figure of Christ. The effect is all the greater for the transpositions. It was not wholly absurd, either, for archaic cosmology to have double locations, one, for instance, on the ecliptic and one circumpolar. If Tezcatlipoca drilled fire at the pole to "kindle new stars," if the Chinese Saturn had his seat there too, so could Vishnu's toe have bilocation: one "above" in the third region, the other in beta Orionis-Rigel (the Arabian word for "foot"), the "source" of Eridanus. (And might not Rigel-the-source stand also for Oervandil's Toe, catasterized by Thor?) For Rigel marked the way to Hades in the tradition of the Maori of New Zealand as well as in the Book of Hermes Trismegistos.


Fanciful, assuredly, but neither the real Milky Way nor the terrestrial Ganges offered any basis for the imagery of a river flowing to the four quarters of the earth "for the purification of the three worlds." One cannot get away from the "implex" and it is now necessary to consider the tale of a new skeleton map, alias skambha: the equinoctial colure had shifted to a position where it ran through stars of Auriga and through Rigel. Skambha, as we have said, was the World Tree consisting mostly of celestial coordinates, a kind of wildly imaginative armillary sphere. It all had to shift when one coordinate shifted.


There are stylistic means other than "catasterizations," that is, being promoted to heaven among the constellations, to describe changed circumstances in the sky. Thus, a Babylonian cuneiform tablet states: "The Goat-Star is also called the witch-star; the divine function of Tiamat it holds in its hands." The Goat-Star (mulUZA = enzu), apart from representing Venus, "rises together with Scorpius" and has been identified with Vega [n27 Gossmann, 145; van der Waerden, JNES 8, p. 20.]. If one can rely on this identification, it seems to describe the situation as seen from across the sky: the shifting from Sagittarius to Scorpius, and Vega taking over the northern part of the "function" of the Galaxy.




That Tiamat is the Milky Way, and no "Great Mother" in the Freudian sense, any more than Ganga, Anahita and others, seems by now obvious. And the same is true of Egyptian Nut [n28 The Arabian name of the Galaxy is sufficiently tale-telling: Mother of the Sky" (um as-sama), and in northern Ethiopia it is called "Em-hola," i.e., "Mother of the Bend [Mutter der Kruemmung]." See E. Littmann, "Sternenagen und Astrologisches aus Nordabessinien," ARW II (1908), p.307; Ideler, p.78], but the story has different terms there: Mother Nut is changed into a cow and ordered to "carry Ra." (It is, by the way, a "new" Ra: the older Ra made it quite clear that he wanted to retire for good, going somewhere "where nobody could reach" him) (appendix #21).




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