Initial look at Baco
I’ve been feeling the itch, in no small part I think due to engaging conversations on the Gaulchat Discord, to introduce myself to a boar deity. Feeling a strong pull towards the Pyrenees, I started taking a look along the north side, in Gallia Aquitania and Gallia Narbonensis, to see if any deity wanted my attention.
I found Baco listed on Wikipedia (where I tend to jump off from) as a likely Celtic boar deity, with a possible inscription in Eauze (west of Toulouse, and south east of Bordeaux). I felt an excitement in me, a definite sign I wanted to explore this deity, to see what I could find out about them. I wondered what the inscriptions said, why he was attested as a boar god. As I started to dig in though, no satisfying answer presented itself.
Who really was Baco? Did we think he was a boar god because his name looks like the word bacon? I needed answers.
Going beyond the bacon: where do we get the notion of a boar god?
Baco’s Wikipedia page had two jumping off points listed for attestation as a boar god. One was an abstract of a paper on substratum influence on early English vocabulary, discussing the pig. They present the Gaulish moccus, but take that point right on to Old English picga, which is etymologically chronologically beyond the scope of our investigation.
One was the Recherches archéologiques en Gaule en 1952 (suite) (Période historique), accessible on JSTOR. On page 560, I found the following line about Baco (translated by Google Translate):
Will the god Baco change his name to respond to that of Bagon and become, from a pig god, a warrior god of the Aedui? A hypothesis that would support the quality of the dedicant, a decurion of Ala prima Flaviana.
After an hour of Googling various combinations of “Aedui, warrior god, pig god, boar god, Baco, Bagon,” I’ve come up with nothing except the original inscription from the decurion, which was discovered at Chalon-sur-Saône, and dated to 69 to 96 CE:
Deo Baconi / G(aius!) Lautius I / Sabinus / decurio alae I / Flaviae [Geminae]
While we have the god Bacon, the soldier’s name and rank of decurion, and a clue to his legion in Flaviae Geminae (the combination of Galba’s seventh legion and the Legio I Germanica – more on them later), we do not see a traditional votum solvit libens merito (VSLM) or discharge of the ex-voto to said deity.
This 1952 source, and its cited source (which I could not successfully find) relies too heavily on this query from its author and does not present any evidence, etymological or archaeological that I can find to support Baco as a pig god (or a warrior god).
Besides, we already have attested in Delamarre a Gaulish word for pig or wild boar: moccos, cognate with Old Irish mucc, Welsh moch, and Breton moc’h. Moccus is a theonym known from a single inscription from Langres, which reads:
In h(onorem) d(omus) d(ivinae)
deo Mercur(io) Mocco
L(ucius) Mascl(ius?) Masculus et
mater ex voto
In honour of the divine house,
to Mercury Moccus,
Lucius Mascl(ius?) Masculus
and his mother Sedatia Blandula
[dedicate this] ex-voto.
The second inscription for Baco, from Eauze in southwestern France, is extremely fragmentary.
ISILV […] SIVE BA […] […] CONIS […] […] DMCIXA […] […] EIA ( ?)
The page this inscription is taken from, Encyclopédie de l’Arbre Celtique, takes the view we will explore later on in this article; that Baco is a beech tree deity.
Christian notes of interest: Saint Marcel and Saint Anthony
An interesting twist to Baco’s inscription found in Chalon-sur-Saône is the martyrdom of Saint Marcel in either 177 or 179 AD. In the 1850 publication Mémoires de la Société d’histoire et d’archéologie de Châlon-sur-Saône Volumes 2-4, one of the authors, Marcel Canat, tells of an account of Saint Marcel’s martyrdom where Marcel was taken to a court of the god Decubaconis, which he relates to the original Chalon-sur-Saône inscription citing DEO BACONI; except in subsequently written versions of the martyrdom, we get the god translated as Divionis, Bavonis, and Hamonis as well. Clearly, this suffers from passing from one pen to another in the historical record.
Canat does not have any attributes of this god Baconi or any of his increasingly morphed names. He goes on to say that while the names are all he knows, he will deviate from the truth by giving the god Bacon the attributes of Bacchus, which then leads on to a lovely description of a statue that has the name DEOBEMILVCIOVI on it, and how this statue is very Bacchanalian… and how Bacon should have similar attributes to Bacchus and this particular deity Bemiluciovis (Delamarre suggests a name for this deity meaning “that brings the light”).
This Bemiluciovis statue was found in Cote d’Or. My cited source I could not find in the 1952 source I quoted in the section above is “P. Lebel, Mem. Comm. Antique. Cote d’Or, XXII, 1952, p.467.” and I idly wonder if this Bemiluciovis statue from Cote d’Or was taken by this mysterious Lebel and then subsequently by the Recherches archéologiques en Gaule en 1952 (suite) (Période historique) as a representation of the god Baco.
L. Armand-Calliat also discusses in his 1941 article more associations with Baco and saints. Specifically, he takes a look at the anthroponymy and toponymy of families and localities in around Chalonnais preserving Baco’s name via various iterations of Bacon, and discusses how St. Anthony the Great took over the popularity of the god Bacon, with a day of veneration on January 17th. He heavily emphasizes local pig breeding and pig farming, and how bronze boar statues and wild boar tusk amulets could be considered divine, acknowledging that saying these could relate to the god Bacon only takes one step. He also mentions in the same paragraph that the boar tusks were found in a white marble box containing a statuette of Diana and Roman coins, which to me suggest more of a Diana of the Hunt or of Wild Animals association to me (see: the Calydonian Boar, for example).
Etymological analysis: seeing the forest through the trees
So, where do we get the name Baco from, and what exactly does it mean? Here’s a brief look at a few possibilities.
F. W. Grube, in the 1935 article Meat Foods of the Anglo-Saxons, notes that baco in the Vulgate means ‘salt-pork,’ and in the charter of Denewulf, to King Edward in 905 AD, the word flicca (ham) has become bacones. The Vulgate was written down in the late 300’s AD, past our inscription’s date, though this alone would not necessarily discredit our hunt for relation of Baco to boar.
Joshua Whatmough’s 1954 review of Handbuch der italischen Dialekte: Vol. 1, Texte mit Erklärung, Glossen, Wörterverzeichnis by Emil Vetter notes that “fahe means ‘smoked’ (specifically beechnut) in contrast with toco ‘salt’ (or fat [bacon]). It is for an older bhagio- or bhageio-, Latin fagus, fageus, and- in Gaul deus Bacon DAG 181 (with Remark) and silus Bacenis ib. 221 OHG Buohhunna; in baco(n)-, bh and g have become b and k respectively, but ā has not yet passed into ū, see Kluge, Urg. 33.”
I find it interesting to see both the beech tree and pork contrasted in the same commentary, which could hint at the conflation between a porcine origin and a beech tree related origin for the name Baco that may go further back than currently accessible sources can find. Also of note: the silus Bacenis mentioned by Whatmough is the Silva Bacenis, a large forested mountain range cited by Caesar as separating the Cherusci and Suebi. Etymologically, it is related to the German buche, meaning beech.
Yakov Malkiel’s 1955 review of Etymologische Randbemerkungen zu neueren iberoromanischen Dialektarbeiten und Wörterbüchern”, Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie, LXIX by Max L. Wagner notes that Wagner traces Portuguese and Asturian butcher terms to Arabic, including the Old Spanish baço meaning dark yellow, or spleen, an organ primarily only butchers are interested in. This is not a direct connection to any language we are working within, but butchery is a porcine-related factor with this particular interpretation.
In the late R. L. Trask’s Etymological Dictionary of Basque, he notes that the Latin fagum ‘beech’ appears today in Basque as either bago and pago, but the medieval toponymy shows only bago, while pago is a later development. Given proximity to the Pyrenees of our inscription from Eauze and that Aquitanian is a Proto-Basque language, this cognate from Latin for Basque is compelling for the beech tree interpretation.
The following is from Matasovic’s Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic (2008). (A/N: I know I got this from someone in the Gaulchat Discord server earlier in 2021, however Discord’s search function is not being cooperative in letting me find whomever was so helpful and I did not write down who it was. So thank you, and DM me if you want a shout-out here, please!)
*bakko- ‘hook, (curved) stick, hook’ [Noun]
GOlD: Olr. bacc [0 m] ‘bill-hook, angle, bend’
W: OW bach, MW bach [m and f] ‘hook, peg’
BRET: OBret. bah, MBret. bach ‘hook’, MoBret. bac’h [m] CO: Co. bagh
PIE: *bak- ‘stick’ (JEW: 93)
COGN: Lat. baculum, Gr. Mktron
ETYM: According to DIL, Olr. bacc is used to refer to various hooked or angled tools or other articles, but its primary meaning appears to be ‘angle, corner’ (it also refers to an enclosed corner of the field’). The IE etymology is uncertain: if it is indeed related to Lat. baculum, PCelt. *bakko- must come from PIE *bak-, Because of the word-initial *b- and the vowel *a it contained, this word is suspect of being a Wanderwort, a loan from some unknown source. This is possible if the original meaning was ‘shepherd’s staff vel. sim.
REF: LEIA B-2, DGVB 77, GPC I: 246, Falileyev 13, Deshayes 2003: 85, de Bernardo Stempel 1999: 513.
A billhook is “a hand-held tool, often with a curved blade (sometimes with a second axe like blade at the back) that usually lies in the same plane as the handle that is primarily used for cutting green wood.” One would use a billhook on smaller trees, such as saplings. Some crafts that use a billhook include spar-making (to hold down thatch), besom making, basket making, and hedge laying.
In Gilles Quentel’s 2019 article The Origins of Tree Names in Celtic, they note “Gaulish has the single Celtic type for this word, i.e. bagos. Insular Celtic was borrowed from Latin fāgus, the *bh → f evolution being impossible in Celtic, (Bret. faou, Wel. faw, Irl. feá), all of them from PIE *bʰeh₂ǵos, bhāǵos ”beech”.”
A look into the religious economy in Gallia Aquitania
In his 2017 journal article, Seeing the Silva through the Silva: the Religious Economy of Timber Communities in Aquitania and Gallia Narbonensis, David A. Wallace-Hare looks into votive dedications made to Fagus and Sex Arbores, and how these can help illustrate the exploitation of forest sources in the region of the Convenae, southwest of Toulouse.
Wallace-Hare notes that until the 1930’s, Fagus and Sex Arbores were the two most commonly cited tree deities in the region. A lack of other tree deities discussed was partially due to an existing unfamiliarity with Basque in French scholarship. This created a linguistic gap that affected interpretations or expansions of scholarship regarding Pyrenean tree deities, and overlooked other potential tree deities in neighboring areas.
In 1931, professor, historian, and archaeology enthusiast Raymond Lizop approached the local deities with a linguistic approach that expanded the knowledge of Aquitanian religion. He looked for Basque cognates of theonyms. While his work expanded regional knowledge, his cognates were sometimes potentially mistaken – one Mars synchronized deity, Mars Leherennus, he linked to the Basque word leheren, ‘first,’ yet there are contextual arguments as well now for linking it to the Basque leher, ‘pine.’
While tree deities did not expand much in identification under Lizop’s work, he did link the religion and the economy among the Convenae with the deification of the beech tree. There are toponyms based off the word for beech in places beech trees no longer grow, showing they must have been more geographically dispersed in antiquity. Beech was also the wood of choice in the region for charcoal production and heating.
In the 1960’s, archaeologist Georges Fouet excavated the site of a purported Fagus sanctuary, and concluded Fagus’ jurisdiction could be acorn production, though there is a lack of engagement with Basque or Celtic languages to consolidate this theory.
In 1992, Roman Pyrenean archaeologist Robert Sablayrolles published an article discussing a commercial reading of Fagus and Sex Arbores, that Convenae territory was subjected to increased forest exploitation under the Romans, and these tree gods have no native name left because they became so integrated into the Roman commercial network.
Wallace-Hare does not believe Fagus lives up to a strong commercialized context as presented by Sablayrolles. Fagus’ inscriptions are not near the iron mines which Sablayrolles linked him to via charcoal made from that wood, nor are there any records to say beech wood charcoal was specifically used in bathing complexes in the capital of Lugdunum Covenarum, and nor is there any substantial link to Fagus and river commerce.
Wallace-Hare presents his own examination, looking for theonyms in local languages. Fagus’ name may have been translated into Latin as Aquitanian did not have a separate word for this tree whose acorn production resembled oaks. Basque does not have a native word for beech either, and its word bago is related to either the Celtic bagos or Latin fagus.
In the same region as Fagus and Sex Arbores, one finds a deity called variously Arte, Artahe, or Artehe, related to the Basque root for ‘holm oak.’ South of Fagus’ inscriptions is a deity called Arixo, cognate with the Basque word for the common oak tree, aritz. These deities are all found at the foot of mountains, where a mixed oak and beech forest would be found. A god named Leherennus has twenty-three votive offerings in the area of Fagus’ dedications, which considering the geographic context to these mixed forests, could be related to the Basque word leher, ‘pine.’
The pigs could still exist: rooting for beech nuts and what’s for dinner
All is not lost for Baco’s boar connection though. Wallace-Hare goes on to discuss a potential primary function of Fagus: acorn production.
CIL XIII 33 is an inscription to Fagus that reads: Fago deo/Erdenius/Erdsci f(ilius)/v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito). Translated: To the Beech god/Erdenius/son of Erdescus/fulfilled his vow gladly and rightly.
The root of Erdinius’ name, as well as Erdescus, can be linked to the Pyrenean Basque word for swine, úrde, swineherd being urdain. Pigs and Pyrenean cattle were fed beech mast, or the acorns produced by the beech, to fatten them up. This places the beech tree in a different light, showing its importance in animal care.
Wallace-Hare also notes that we can find evidence for the high status of the beech tree from several Old Irish legal texts from the eighth century C.E., which could provide adjacent context for tree deities and their importance in Gaul and Aquitania.
Within the Brehon Law, written in Ireland between the seventh and ninth centuries C.E., exists the ‘judgments of the neighborhood,’ the Bretha Comaithchesa. This deals in part with damages done to neighboring farmers, and include damages done to trees. The penalties are commiserate with the status of the given tree, which are ranked, and have at the top of the ranking a group of seven trees called the Nobles of the Forest (airig fedo). The oak is at the top of the list.
According to ninth century commentary appended to the law, the oak is at the top of the list for two reasons: firstly, the acorn crop, in relation to pig-farming; and building purposes second. Beech trees are not mentioned specifically because they were introduced later and are not endemic to Ireland; however, beech mast is important to pig-farming for the same reasons as acorns from oaks are.
This cross-cultural contextual examination provides a natural resource management aspect to the veneration of beech trees. Concern is shown across Greco-Roman texts for acorns as well. The Twelve Tables, from the mid-fifth century B.C.E, contains concerns for acorns and the ownership of glandiferous trees. Varro and Pliny both mention Jupiter Fagutalis, ‘Beech Jupiter,’ who had a shrine in a grove of beech trees on the Esquiline Hill. Polybius describes Cisalpine Gaul as a principal pork-producing area in the Roman Empire and an area with votive dedications to two other Gallic oak deities: the Matres Dervonnae ‘the Oak Mothers’ and the Fatae Dervones ‘Oak Fates.’ Given pork’s prevalence on the Roman dinner table, these oak-related deities may serve to illustrate a related importance to pork production from Fagus, Artahe, and Arixo.
Humans also consume acorns, something referred to by Lucretius, Ovid, and Juvenal, and usually attributed to primitive or barbarian populations. Nonetheless, persistent mention does show the preserved memory of consuming acorns, and in the provinces acorn consumption was essential. Strabo mentions that for two-thirds of the year, the mountain peoples of northern Hispania lived off acorn bread, showing this was an important ingredient not only for the pigs, but in a human diet well into the Roman Republic and Early Empire.
Given the presented information above, I am inclined to believe that Baco as originally conceived was not primarily a boar god. There is enough etymological evidence for my satisfaction that shows Gaulish and Basque both borrowed the Latin word for beech, fagus, and it became bagos and bago, respectively. The interpretation or argument for Baco coming from a word for anything related to pork is either too indirect (the Old Spanish coming from Arabic) or too lately attested (from the Vulgate and related texts later in the 900’s AD) for me personally to consider as the primary attribute for this deity in modern Gaulish praxis.
However, seeing as beech nuts were an important food source for pork in the nearby region of Cisalpine Gaul at the same period in time, I don’t believe a modern interpretation needs to sideline the idea of a boar god entirely – just approach this association from a different angle, armed with more discrete information.
Inscriptions: what can we learn?
Looking at our two inscriptions about Baco, the inscription from Eauze is almost fragmentary beyond interpretation. While interesting, and one can parse the name Baconis out from it, the rest remains nebulous, and beyond speculating an interpretation based off the words alone. Its location is of more indicative value in my opinion than its content, Eauze being down near the Pyrenees.
Our more complete inscription from Chalon-sur-Saône, while fully readable, does not give us much context for whom this deity is either, though I have a few (perhaps fanciful) ideas for how Baco’s name may have gotten to that area from the Pyrenees or otherwise.
- Our decurion from the Flavio Geminae legion may have gone into Hispania Tarraconensis (the Spanish side of the Pyrenees) when the legion was moved from Germania Superior, about five years after Vespasian came to power, and then came home and brought a local deity, Baco, with him.
- Our decurion from the Flavio Geminae legion may have been from Hispania Tarraconensis, retired out of the Roman army and moved to Chalon-sur-Saône, where he dutifully set up an inscription to one of his local deities to thank them for watching over his service.
- Our decurion comes from the Flavio Geminae legion, a combination of Galba’s seventh legion and the decimated Legio I Germanica, which was stationed in Germania Inferior before it got almost wiped out. In neighboring Magna Germania, there is a forest called the silus Bacenis, related to the German buche, beech. If it is an old enough name for that forest, our decurion could have been from that part of the world, carrying the name of a local deity, Baco, with him.
Looking upon the reconstruction of this deity now, I find that with both the Basque cognate and Gaulish loan word looking to Latin, and Aquitanian language likely being Proto-Basque, the connection of Baco to the Pyrenees is most relevant to current praxis. However, that is not to discredit any notion that language could have similarly transformed at the same time period over in the Germanias, potentially bringing a variation on the name Baco down from that area instead. Rome was an empire that saw people move around, both in the legions and with their respective retinues, and cultural exchange was rich enough to warrant this possibility also.
While a deity by the probable name of Baconis is recounted in the martyrdom of Saint Marcel, the game of telephone played with subsequent writings to bastardize the precise name of said deity; the brevity of the mention with no identifiable attributes or the purpose of said deity; and the overall historical lack of evidence we could use to flesh out why this deity was called out by name in this martyrdom lead to an enigmatic and unfulfilling importance in Saint Marcel’s story.
The value of this attribution in this account comes in my opinion from its placement in our timeline of Roman Gaul, 177 or 179 AD. If this attribution is of the same deity BACONI from the Chalon-sur-Saône inscription, we now have glimpsed a timeline of cultural awareness of this deity in our historical and archaeological record, potentially from 69-179 AD. While this would not particularly affect praxis today, it is rare to have dates available for when a deity, particularly one with so little information left, was in the cultural consciousness in any way. Personally, as someone who really loves history, I thrive on these kinds of specific information, regardless of their lack of effect on practical applications.
As to the commentary regarding Saint Anthony, that anthroponymy and toponymy showing a preservation of Baco’s name in relation to the importance of pigs in that area does not pan out for me as much as Baco’s name may have been preserved because, as we can see from the silua Bacenis in Magna Germania and from Raymond Lizop’s work in Aquitania, the toponymy of beech trees is something we find preserved to this day, even where beech trees are no longer found. The etymological evidence for this transformation from the Latin fagus into Celtic bagos or Basque bago dates further back than evidence for baco relating to any porcine-related thing. That pigs eat beech-nuts just continues this potential confusion of this relationship as we look back for historical information to Baco’s function, and how that translates into modern day praxis.
I have been asking Baco for guidance regarding what to study about him and reconstructing him since January 2021. However, a commonality has come up upon reviewing my notes: after the first prinni pull to verify my initial impressions, I never set an exact query for any further prinni pull. I stuck with letting him dictate what he wanted me to know.
In normal circumstances for myself, I would have set firmer queries in place to explore specific attributes. However, much of my work this year has been impeded by various health issues, including having COVID-19 and having my gallbladder removed. After the latter, I can now state with hindsight that I was sicker than I knew I was for most of the last few years, especially 2021 (not being able to process an entire macronutrient absolutely sucks). While this methodology is something with hindsight that I’d like to redo, it does leave me with exactly what Baco wanted to tell me, largely without my constraint.
Disclaimer on the unusual methodology out of the way, let’s look at some messages, shall we?
Initial impressions visualization: heartwood, sap running, climbing up into branches of beech leaves; burning (charcoal?)
First prinni pull: Lugion, Matir, Corios, Dubnos, Touta
Interpretation: A skew towards Dubnos prinni. Light themes, like tricks of the light, brightness, hero’s light, and the hearth fire. The subconscious rippling from offerings thrown – the courage to peer into the dark depths of the well after it.
Message: The passage is lit into the dark – within, a being stands strong, waiting for what comes with victory.
Second prinni pull: Albios, Vlatos, Sonnos, Orbion
Interpretation: The hall of the ancestors is bright, and ready for feasting. There is food for the body and the mind here for the taking.
Message: The hall is warm and open – let them in, and let them feast and rest.
Third prinni pull: Iugon, Uros, Epos, Dubnos, Nemetos
Interpretation: Connection to the land, which is interesting considering the lack of Bitus prinni. The sacred bull leans into the plow, the yoke a reminder of the work and the status with which one works. The land he works is consecrated, and underneath his mighty hooves, the ancestors have a gleam in their eyes.
Message: You are already devout, pulling your weight strongly with you – take comfort in these spaces too, as other folk watch you with interest.
Fourth prinni pull: Sera, Vlatos, Lugion, Bitu
Interpretation: We pass plates, full of abundance and health, from hand to hand, breathing in and out in time.
Message: Our exchange leads to a fruitful relationship, where we will work together to heal you.
Fifth prinni pull: Dubnos, Iugon, Matir, Corios
Interpretation: Very Dubnos prinni heavy. Heavier feeling reading than it has been before, consuming. Grounded, ancestral knowledge, weaving fate and knowledge, the altered state of battle.
Message: The ancestors pass the knowledge heavy from hand to hand – weave their words into experience, and ingest it.
Sixth prinni pull: Orbion, Lugion, Epos, Dubnos
Interpretation: Again, there’s a lot of Dubnos prinni energy here. The oracular head of myth is speaking. The votive offering sinks into the depths, where the ancestors reach up to receive it. Lightning courses the World Tree, lighting it up in the darkness. A cloaked figure leans into its bark with a sigh.
Message: Riders on the storm… into this house, we’re born. Embrace it.
Baco comes from the Latin word fagus, meaning beech. It can be seen in, given its proximity to Aquitania, either the Gaulish loan word bagos, or the Basque cognate bago. While the etymological evidence for baco as a word related to porcine activity or involvement of any kind is too late to consider in a reconstruction for Gaulish praxis, the common knowledge that pigs in the Gallo-Roman locations fed on beech nuts as a substantial portion of their diet does allow a boar connection to still stand, albeit framed in a unique perspective.
Given the above, I would like to propose a role in today’s praxis of Baco as a Dêuoi of abundance, nurturing, and roots. He shows a physical presence, via food that nurtures your animals and yourself, branches and saplings for your shelter. He stands with you at the foot of the mountain, and lets you know there is always a feast at home, no matter where you roam. After the mountain climb, he welcomes you back to his hall for rest. He celebrates your resilience, your ability and your need to dig deep to stand tall, and when it is time to rest, he lets you come undone in a known space.
The forest provides, it offers riches to those who would come spend time within it. Among the beech stands, feed your boars of ambition the knowledge of the land, so that when the time comes for the slaughter, what comes forth benefits richly yourself, your family, and your community.
Prinni pull for overall approval of the above: Nemetos, Iugon, Dubnos, Matir.
Interpretation: Dubnos has come up as a prinnos in five of my seven Baco readings. A good prinnos to meditate on perhaps for forming a relationship with Baco; sink your roots into the ground and feel the knowledge of the ancestors nurturing you, the youth of these beliefs (as Iugon, another Dubnos associated prinnos, speaks to the passage of knowledge from the old to the young and the passage of time).
Nemetos and Matir hold a special place in my practice, as they were the prinni I dreamt of before I knew what prinni were – Grannus showed them to me one night very early on in my Gaulish journey. Here, we walk into the sacred grove and on the edges of our torch light, a dark figure stands, his hands extending a mead cup. Accept the drink, the nourishment, and let yourself come undone after the work, in this half-lit grove. Listen to the light breeze in the beech leaves, and know you are safe here – here, you have come home.
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