First Matter?

The origins of the Grail Legend?

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‘The alchemists disagreed on just about every aspect of the Great Work, except one: that it is impossible to succeed without the secret.’
– Patrick Harpur.

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I am reminded of ‘The Riddle of the Elements.’
The Ancient Greek Philosophers would each in turn trumpet the virtues of a particular Element claiming that it alone was primary and the source of the others, all the time, knowing full well that the solution to the riddle lay in sourcing the Four from a Fifth Element of an entirely different and more spiritual realm known as the Quintessence.

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The Alchemists appear to be engaged in a similar process, describing the First Matter in terms of three ‘Spirituous Essences’, though the solution this time may be of a different order –
One in Three rather than Four from One.
They also seem to be describing the various products of a process at each stage of its operation simultaneously, thus for e.g. they might have described the process of evaporating sea-water as… Water… and… Salt… as well as its catalyst…Heat or… Fire…

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Why would they do this?
To widen the scope of a mind mired in linear time?
Possibly, certainly, when one realises that the Fruit is in the Seed and not vice versa, or that the Body is in the Mind… a perspective is instilled, which opens up wide vistas to the Imagination.
Indeed, this technique only seems strange to a mind which habitually regards its own reality as an actuality.

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As magicians for e.g. we might ask, in Tarot,
How is the ‘High Priestess’ ‘The Empress’?
Or, how is ‘The Fool’ ‘The Magus’?
Or indeed, in the case of ‘The Fool’, how does this key equate with any of the other major keys?
But here the equivalencies seem at the very least, much easier to accept, if not actually natural, simply because we work with these energies in an ‘Imaginal Realm’.

What the Alchemists are really doing is describing the lower in terms of the higher and in some cases what we are reading is, as it were, a Fourth Dimensional description of a Three Dimensional event.

The event itself appears to be an internal unification or better; a re-unification of polarised energies or ‘opposites’, or even, as the Alchemists would have it, a marriage, or wedding but what is the product of that wedding?

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THE STONE OF MERCURIOUS

Moon’s Flux
Sun’s Seed
Earth’s Crux
Fire in the Sea
Blood from a Tree

 

A matter of choice…

I never did like doing as I was told.

I might, through necessity, for example, obey the authoritarian order of an autocratic boss, but orders would never inspire me to give of my best. I would do just enough to be obedient within their sphere of influence… and not a sausage more. Both mentally and emotionally, I would be kicking against the bars of the imaginary cage… and although I might be a dutiful underling, I would never be an eager and willing participant.

Ask me, on the other hand, trust me to see a job done, give me a choice and let me take responsibility and I wouldn’t just go the extra mile… I’d run the marathon.

I do not, for one minute, think I am alone in feeling this way. Most people respond with far more enthusiasm to a modicum of trust and will pull out all the proverbial stops to not only meet, but exceed expectations, when they are given a choice and thus accept responsibility for their actions. A good boss knows this and handles their employees accordingly, allowing them to utilise, explore and extend their own strengths, which in turn gives them a sense of self-belief and self-worth… which in the end, is good for everyone… and especially the business.

Oddly, thinking about this put me in mind of a daft sketch I had done over a decade ago. It was the product of a conversation between Running Elk and myself. My memory is not precise about the sequence of events, but at some point during that online exchange, we spoke of Hades’ Ferryman, who carries the souls of the departed across the River Styx. A typo later and the Keeper became the Kipper of the Styx and, a few scribbles after that, the kipper was committed to paper.

I was pondering the liminal Kipper and realised that he is, if nothing else, the guardian of a point of transition, a point of choice and change.

In Greek myth, the river forms the boundary between the Earth, where the living dwell, and the Underworld, which is the realm of the dead. There is always a price to pay for passage across that river and those who do not pay, cannot cross, nor can they return to the lands of men. They do not know where they are going, they know only that the time has come to cross into another phase of existence. They must pay the price and move forward in trust. The only part of that story that worries me is the idea that someone else can pay the Ferryman for your crossing. I don’t think that, in real terms, that is ever possible. Sacrifice, too, must be a choice. It has no spiritual value if it is imposed…it must be a willing contract in order to hold power.

Like the Death card in the Tarot pack, death and the Underworld in symbolic terms, usually refer to a change in the state of being that is not always a physical death. The year I drew that sketch was the year my son was stabbed, leaving him facing change on a monumental scale as he addressed the physical, emotional and intellectual challenges of a sudden and enforced removal of both the popular and his personal concept of normality.  The one thing that remained to him and completely within his control, was choice. He could not choose to return to the normality he had known for twenty-five years; that life was over and there could be no going back. He could not simply choose to be on the other side of the nightmare either. The choice lay in whether or not he chose to make the journey between the two, paying its price or remaining locked into the imposition of disability, like a soul wandering in limbo.

He chose to make that journey, trusting that the undefined goal was the right destination to aim for. He did not know what lay ahead, nor how far he could go. But he went anyway.  At first, he followed what to many seemed to be a false trail, chasing the red herring of complete physical recovery, even whilst he accepted that such was unlikely. The distant, seemingly unattainable goal, was a good one. It demanded a high price, making him push the boundaries of his own expectations and carrying him much further towards that stated goal than anyone could have expected.  It may have been a red herring, but the quest for that recovery taught him a great deal about himself and what really mattered to him.

Then came a point when he began to reassess and exercise his inner choices rather than his muscles,  with the emphasis he chose being less on how to walk and more on how to live. Again, he had to trust that the journey towards impossible goals would take him to where he needed to be… and now, another world of his own making lies open to him, full of adventures.

My son’s situation was unusual, but the choices we each of us have to face are much the same, from the small, everyday moments where we have to trust in the outcome of our decisions, to the life-changing and momentous situations where all we know is that we cannot stand still and must move forward, even if we cannot see where the current will lead.

There is another story in mythology about the Styx. As a baby, the invincible warrior, Achilles, had been dipped in the waters of the river. The only point the water did not touch was his heel… and that was the only point of vulnerability he had. To bathe in the river of choice at a point of transition does render us invulnerable, for, like water, our choices ebb and flow about us all the time, and choosing to embrace, in trust and full awareness, whatever journey lies at our feet gives us a strength that cannot be easily broken. Even those choices that are red herrings will offer us opportunities to learn and teach us things we may never have known without the false trail.

Our choices are not always right, we do not get it right first time very often, but when we listen to the promptings of the inner heart and being,  and choose our way with courage and conviction, the effort of the journey is always worth the price we choose to pay.

The value of fluff…

Any journey has to start somewhere…and the only place you can start is at the beginning. For each of us, the spiritual journey will look very different… but at some point along the way, we all encounter what is known in esoteric circles as fluff.

I was always going to end up what my sons call ‘weird’. I was lucky, being born into a family where the term ‘spiritually eclectic’ was the understatement of the century. I was encouraged to question and learn from a wide extended family and, when the time was right, venture out into the unknown and find my own direction.

Between them, my family seemed to cover most spiritual and religious bases. One set of grandparents were a minister and psychic in the Spiritualist Church who, recognising nascent weirdness, wanted me trained as a medium. My other grandfather was a magician. Not the kind who pulls rabbits out of hats, but one who follows the magical path and learns to live by its tenets. His study, forbidden to most, but a place of delight for his small, curious granddaughter, was, had I but known it, a fully equipped ritual space. To me, it was just a magical place where wonderful things lined the walls. Strange diagrams, Egyptian gods, intriguing symbols… and a black mirror, the surface of which became a portal to a land where the rules of reality were other than those I knew.

It was this magical path that spoke to me. As a teenager, taking my first uninformed and tentative solo steps, I read everything on the subject that I could find. My grandfather’s books, the few rare volumes the local library could provide, odd tomes picked up in dusty shops and anything I could persuade the reference library to disgorge from the deepest, darkest vaults.

You soon learn which writers have something to say and which are simply riding the waves of curiosity. There has always been a market for books on magic; the majority are simply fictional or sensational. Some fictional works, written by those who have lived and worked with the magical systems, use storytelling as a way to explain and illustrate spiritual and magical concepts in action. Most of it, however, is written with little practical knowledge, often with one eye on entertainment and the other on the royalty cheque. Beyond fiction and sensationalism, though, there is a core of writers who genuinely walk the path and whose work may point you in the right direction. Sometimes, that direction is not what you first think it to be.

In any area of study, garnering knowledge via the intellect is an empty pursuit unless it is put to work. Until it is used, there can be no real understanding of its wider implications and true value. You may read as many books on plants and soil types as you wish, but you will not become a gardener or understand the beauty of encouraging a plant to grow, until you put your hands in the soil. For many who begin on the esoteric path, knowledge itself can be a trap. Magical systems and correspondences make a fascinating study and can occupy the whole attention until you forget why you began in the first place.

Looking for practical applications of what I was learning, I realised that, without joining a school… for which I was still too young… there was little I could do.  So, faute de mieux, like many who are drawn to this path, especially as youngsters, it was the readily accessible things… like tarot, palmistry and numerology… with which I started.

And… at least as I first began to use these applications… they were spiritual fluff.

‘Fluff’ is a derogatory term for those things which, although often rooted in something much deeper, are either being glossed over and played with like bright, shiny toys or are being used with neither desire nor intent to delve into their deeper meaning. Many such things are widely known only in their degenerate and superficial forms and, as such, are dismissed as having no value. Even fluff, though, may serve a purpose.

By my mid-teens I was reading palms, working with numbers and reading the cards. It was never about fortune-telling, even then. I had at least grasped that much. For me, they offered windows into human nature, including my own. It did not take long, however, for the gaps in knowledge and understanding to start letting in the light.

Hands have always fascinated me and this extra dimension of observation offered a real insight… but it was also the first area where I learned that the insights you gain may not be what you expect. Mention palmistry, and many will hold out their hands, expecting an instant reading of their future. Offer a character reading and you soon realise that, no matter what you say, people will only hear what they choose. Palmistry was the first to be discarded.

Numerology was another excellent way of beginning to understand character and also the relationships between numbers. It was a good introduction to working with their symbolism and correspondences too. But it did not take long before frustration set in… I wanted to understand why the numbers had their meanings, where they came from and what they had to teach about a life greater than that of one human being. That too was discarded.

When you buy your first Tarot, it usually comes with a little booklet giving basic meanings. Your first ‘spread’ will doubtless ask a fairly predictable question, relating to some current issue. The answers can be surprisingly revealing and helpful, but even here, there was a sense of frustration. I did not believe that I could ‘magically’ choose the cards to give me the ‘right’ answer… nor did they choose themselves. I soon arrived at the conclusion that I was missing something.

And this was where the fluff became useful. Frustrated by the limitations of what I had learned, I sought to understand what value these practices might truly hold…and where they could lead.

Palmistry rehabilitated itself for me, though I never took it up again, when I learned that physicians use hands in diagnosis. In the West, this is limited to things like colour, temperature and anomalies of the nails, but in both China and India, the lines themselves are used. It had also taught me how blinkered we can be regarding our own self-image and how impossible it is to change what we refuse to see.

For me, the Qabalah held the keys to unlocking a deeper use for the Tarot and the beginning of a more profound understanding of numbers. The cards have never been discarded, but I use them for a very different purpose these days, as gateways to the subconscious and their images form part of a map of existence. Numerology I think must be a degenerate form of gematria; both are based upon the fact that in many ancient languages, letters also have a numerical value. But, where numerology skims the surface and holds a mirror up to life, gematria seeks to elucidate those hidden and inner meanings pertaining to Life.

The frustration of fluff and the desire for understanding that it engendered set my feet firmly on a path that continues to evolve.  Looking back at my inexperienced self, I would shake my head in despair, except for one thing… fluff served me well. Without its limitations, my journey would have been much poorer and my spiritual landscape would look very different.

Some of the things we encounter are, undoubtedly, no more than fluff… far too light and insubstantial to hold meaning in and of themselves. Even so, we should not dismiss them as being of no value. For some, they may represent the first step to climb a personal Everest and a journey that will last a whole life long.

 

Rites of Passage: Changes…

On the morning of the workshop, long before our companions were due to arrive, two small figures faced a mass of stone and a fair degree of uncertainty. Having scaled the rocky heights, we were agreed… we would have to change the plan. We could not impose that climb on anyone else; we needed to find another way.

It was not that we didn’t know the landscape; we know it well, but fear can cloud judgement and blur lines that should be clear. So, in our usual fashion, unsuitably shod and… in my case at least… with flowing skirts tucked childlike into waistbands, we had gone out early to check over the ground… and, having done so, descended to seek another site. As always, the land provided.

There are some things you just cannot leave to chance… and double or triple checking the lay of the land is an important part of any workshop.

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear was never going to be an easy workshop, even without any miscalculations on our part; ‘fear’ is not something many people would want to spend a weekend exploring, at least, not beyond the safe confines of a staged murder mystery or a popcorn-fuelled marathon of horror movies. We prefer more intimate groups, though, where we can spend time with those who attend, sharing ideas. These weekend workshops attract people from many paths and there is always something to learn from each other and discover together.

For this particular workshop, we were going to take the group through a number of landscapes, each with their own story, from one of collective horror to a light-hearted custom whose origins date back beyond living memory.

Our first visit would plunge the group into the shadow of a nightmare scenario, from which threads of light would have to be teased.  Over the next two days, we would walk through prehistoric burial grounds, visit stone circles and approach the core of many human fears.

In the Tarot, the one card guaranteed to get a reaction when it appears is Death. Most packs show a skeleton, often wielding sickle or scythe, reaping life and limb from crowned head to common folk. While it can represent a physical death, in most readings it signifies no more than change… another common fear, especially when that change is unlooked-for and unwelcome.

In an esoteric reading, though, there is another interpretation of the Death card… that of spiritual transformation and increased awareness. From time immemorial, initiation rituals have contained a symbolic ‘death’, bringing the candidate face to face with their own mortality, that they might learn to value the finite nature of physical existence and see beyond it to a greater reality.

There is a case to be made that the apparent death of Lazarus in the biblical tale was an initiatory rite. Even today, the investiture of a knight is made with the touch of a sword and the rites of baptism and initiation alike signify a rebirth into a new life.

But the journey through our darkest fears need not be walked alone. There may be companions on the way with whom we can share experience, or those who have passed that way before to guide us and sometimes, the gift of seeing a wider landscape than our own fears… and a way to make them serve a greater purpose.

As the church bells of Tideswell chimed, we made our way to our first rendezvous….

‘Magic Lady’ – a glimpse of beauty

On Friday, we gathered from far and wide to say a final farewell to our friend. Funerals are never happy occasions, but they can hold more beauty than our grief may allow us to see. It would have been impossible to miss the beauty in the tribute paid to Sheila as the chapel filled to overflowing with those who loved her and whose lives she had graced. They are also a time when we may catch a glimpse of those we have loved through other eyes than our own. Heartfelt eulogies and snippets of conversation capture frozen moments of memory, snapshots of a many-faceted life that sparkled in areas and decades we did not see and wish we had shared.

At our friend’s request, Steve spoke at her funeral. Others also mentioned how much the Silent Eye and Sheila’s companions on her own path had meant to her over the years. Afterwards, an elderly gentleman approached our  group and asked after our work. He wanted to share something with us and read us part of a poem he had written for our friend, many years ago.

His name was Paul and he had worked with Sheila years before. That was all he told us, though his poem hinted at stories untold. His eyes shone with the same sparkle as those of our friend and the affection in which he held her was obvious. It shines too in his words, published here with his permission, in tribute to a woman much loved.

Magic Lady

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Mystic Sheila, Magic Lady – what do you think our future holds?

Do you know its secrets? Can they now be told?

Listen to our questions, the things we want to know,

Read the cards with insight – what secrets do they show?

Will I be happy? Will I be well?

Will I get married? Will it be hell?

Do you think we’ll be rich? And how can you be sure?

For when we’ve paid the Poll Tax, we all will be poor!

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Tarot cards, silken clad, are there secrets to be had?

Do you hold the key to ancient wisdom, known in days of yore?

Can you really, truly tell us what the future has in store?

Or does empathic Sheila…psychologist and seer…

Kindly tell to every person the things they’d like to hear?

We are all searchers after truth, so keep an open mind,

Life has many mysteries, as all who seek will find.

Mystic Tarot? Magic Sheila? I leave the decision up to you…

I only know that many forecasts have, uncannily, come true!

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Use your Judgement, dear High Priestess, how will the Wheel of Fortune spin?

Will our Cups be overflowing, will our Coins come rolling in?

Or will the Swords of life be cutting, Batons beat us to the ground?

So we retreat then to a Tower, and like a Hermit, we are found.

Now, though we may be Foolish and Juggling with our fate,

Forget Death and the Devil and the Hangman at the gate!

Life is made for Lovers and will ride life’s Chariot high!

And reach out for the Sun and Moon and Stars up in the sky.

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Come now, my lovely Sheila, can’t you see the moon is full,

See the dancing moonbeams, feel their mystic pull!

Come now to the wood, to the oak grove deep and shady,

And I will be the Green Man, and you the Wicca Lady!

For Mother Nature’s calling and when the Goddess plays the tune,

We must dance an ancient ritual, sky-clad beneath the moon

And join the group that’s dancing, neath the ancient mistletoe,

For it still retains its magic, as it did so long ago.

The Chistians tried to steal it, for a silly Christmas game,

If they saw the games that we play, it would make them die of shame!

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Crystal lady, Nature’s healer, soothe away our aches and fears!

There is power in this crystal – in the earth a million years

Absobing magic from the planets mystic power from days of yore,

Forged with Earth and Air and Water, bringing Fire from out earth’s core

Crystal now give forth vibrations, through Sheila’s hands the power will flow,

Retune our body’s shattered patterns – stress and strain and fear must go!

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Libran lady, tawny Sheila, emerald-eyed with silken skin,

Crimson-lipped, a sensual temptress, rule of Venus, hints of sin!

But settle down men, there’s a balance…a philosopher within.

A sensitive and gentle artist, charming company to be in!

High ideals – can be demanding – but not forgetting, life is fun!

Great at parties, Star attraction! We all love you, every one.

Paul, Christmas 1990

Fool’s dawn

dawn 015

I followed the sound of laughter down the hallway to my son’s bedroom, curious as to the cause. “A champion,” read my son out loud, still lying in bed at half past nine with another cup of tea, “is one who gets up when he can.” I’m not entirely certain he was taking that quote the way it was intended, but I couldn’t argue with the facts.

I could, technically at least, lay claim to some such accolade under those terms… but having got up and taken the dog out by half past five myself, I am more inclined to think that makes me more of a madwoman than a champion. Except, perhaps, in the eyes of a certain small dog.

Leaves are piling up, stripped from the trees and in daylight they look like jewels spilled from a treasure chest. Being pitch black out there at that time though and raining to boot, I didn’t take the camera, nor would the silent shadow of an owl that parted the air above us have shown up on a picture. I regretted leaving the camera at home though when the dawn finally came up. The sky was an amazing canvas of pink and gold; a gentle dawn contrasting with the wind and rain overnight and no true herald of the howling gales to come.

I know old countryfolk and seafarers can read the skies and tell what the weather will be, fair or foul. To most of us, that gorgeous dawn would have held the promise of a beautiful day. Certainly it was enough to lift the lowest heart. Sometimes it is the mists that veil the coming of sunshine, sometimes the palette of the angels holds out a hope of beauty that is drowned by the rains. You can’t really tell without that inside knowledge born of intimate association with the skies.

Our own days are like that too in many ways. What seems to be a wonderful occurrence may hold pain, yet a seeming disaster may unfold into beauty. In their own moment, it is impossible to tell where any event may lead or what may come from a single instant’s choice. It is also pretty much impossible to follow every thread and filament that reaches out into the world and its future from an isolated scintilla of time.

I watched a film the other night, The Saragossa Manuscript, that illustrated how closely every story is intertwined and how seemingly unconnected events may, in fact, be the threads that form warp and weft of the same tapestry… each one contributing to a greater picture that can only be seen when observed from a distance. In this case, you had to be the watcher who saw the stories revealed on film. Sometimes we observe the same phenomena as we watch events working themselves out in the lives of friends and families. We itch to tell them what we can see, to make them see, just as we know when the monster will come up behind the next victim in a movie or we know the true feelings of hero for heroine but they seem blind to each other’s hearts. It is easy for the observer to see what is not calling upon their own intimate involvement.

It is much harder to see the patterns in our own lives. We are just one of the threads of the tapestry… a single strand of colour that makes little sense on its own. Yet we do observe ourselves. There is that inner watcher, and inner voice… consciousness and conscience, the other level of awareness that sees and examines our thoughts and motives all the time. We may ignore it, but we know it knows and eventually we will listen and begin to question our observation of ourselves.

That listening process is part of maturing… we tend to listen more as we grow up and grow older. This is also the basis of many techniques, such as mindfulness which has come very much to the fore over recent years. It is also the premise by which the maxim ‘know thyself’ can be applied to everyday life, something that forms a core part of the techniques we share in the Silent Eye. Strangely enough, it is through listening to the inner voice of awareness, becoming, in a way, seemingly more introspective, that we find a way to step back from our own lives and get a better look at the design of the tapestry. And getting a glimpse of that bigger picture brings a new confidence that we can take forward with every step.

Which is why, although the dog may feel I am a champion for taking her out so early, and I may have seen the day begin with a promise of beauty, we were both doomed to disappointment. For me, it was the clouds that rolled in on the gales… for the dog, well, as long as she doesn’t realise that her champion is really a Fool, we’ll be okay.

Ars Geometrica

‘…In the Golden Book of the Golden Game
a Golden Angel wrote my name…’

– Robin Williamson

We wish to speak now of a curious incident in which we were involved and which is not wholly unlike some of the legends so often related in the Alchemical Journals…

In those days of course we were still in a Magical School and also active in a Magical Lodge, albeit a teaching one.

We were just preparing our report…

4‘Herewith the Divination:
Q: What symbol from the Old Year can we take forward into the New…?
Centre: The Hanged Man
Ascendant: The Empress – Sowing
Upper Mid-Heaven: The Lovers – Germination
Descendant: Death – Reaping
Lower Mid-Heaven: Wheel of Fortune – Winnowing
A: The Seed
Not quite as we formulated it at the meeting but I think this is what we were groping towards.
I came across a couple of quotations recently which seemed to be germane…
‘Man has no body distinct from his soul. That which we call ‘body’ is merely the portion of soul discerned by the five senses…’ (William Blake)
In Arabic alchemy, ‘the blackness’ or the ‘shadow of the sun’ is a code name for the impurities of common gold which must be washed away.
With regard to the latter I wondered if the ‘shadow’ might not be what we are seeing when we close our eyes.
I only say this because during meditation this darkness lightens somewhat, along with the colours which habitually shift across the vision. It is also possible to see through this darkness, although at this point I think ‘supra-sensory’ perception kicks in, just prior to this the blackness acquires depth or takes on three dimensionality and sometimes a definite rising sensation can also be discerned.
The ‘Hanged Man’ in this context then, as well as ‘willing sacrifice’ is also the ‘Man of Light’ and depicts the communion of the two seeds sown in both worlds as light on light, which is an awful lot of light…’

*

…When there was some sort of commotion at our front door.
We say commotion but it was more of a ‘thud’ and then a ‘slide’ really.
It was enough to raise us from our studies and significantly portentous in its timing to have us bouncing down the stairwell at a rate of knots and with no little concern.
From approximately half way down the stairs we could discern through the frosted glass panel of the door a slight yet precariously slumped form…
We bounded to the door, opened it and caught the collapsed body as it swooned into the hallway.
Before the deep grey eyes of our visitor closed to consciousness her delicately shaped mouth had uttered a questioning plea which we had by the merest flicker of a nod acknowledged…
“…Great Work?” She had whispered…

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