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part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

The influence of light and darkness on the daily lives of the people was reflected in all of the ancient religions, whence light and darkness acquired a profound symbolism.


Light and darkness


Light and darkness were phenomena of great importance to mankind in ancient times, when people revered the regular succession of day and night as tangible proof of the power of the spirits they believed were in control of their lives and actions. The influence of light and darkness on the daily lives of the people was reflected in all of the ancient religions, whence light and darkness acquired a profound symbolism from time immemorial. Contests between the good and evil principles, symbolised by light and darkness, played an important role in the mythologies of ancient cultures in all ages. As in the ancient mysteries, light and darkness also have an important place in the ceremonials of freemasonry. When appropriate to the ceremonies, candidates in freemasonry are suitably prepared so that the symbolism of light and darkness will have a lasting impression on his mind. For example, a candidate is told during his initiation that he seeks not only material light to remove his physical darkness, but also intellectual illumination that to dispel the darkness his mental and moral ignorance and to implant in his mind the sublime truths of morality and virtue.


Material light is a tangible phenomenon that occupies a unique position in the natural universe, exerting a profound influence upon its evolution and the way in which it functions. We can measure the intensity of light and the speed at which it travels and also can utilise its power. Light is comprised of electromagnetic waves in the visible spectrum, but it also exhibits the properties of the particles that make up the atoms. The fundamental particle, or quantum of light, is called a photon. The speed of light and of all other electromagnetic radiation in a vacuum is about 300,000 kilometres per second. This is the universal constant, called c, used in the equation E = mc² developed by the renowned physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in his theory of relativity, expressing the equivalence of mass and energy. The speed of light is of special significance, because it cannot be exceeded in the natural universe. Light also is a vital element in the development and sustenance of physical life as we know it. Although intellectual illumination cannot be seen in the same way as material light, nevertheless its influence is real and can be measured in various ways. Moreover, as material light is essential to physical life, so also is intellectual illumination essential to our moral and spiritual welfare.


In contrast to material light, darkness is neither tangible nor measurable. It is merely a condition, which is the absence of light. In this respect darkness is synonymous with the absence of knowledge and truth, symbolising ignorance and falsehood. In another sense, darkness represents the mysterious veil that surrounds death, which the eye of human reason cannot penetrate unless assisted by that spiritual light from above. A parallel in the natural universe is the black hole in space, where the force of gravity is so great that nothing can escape from it, not even light. Matter that has been drawn into a black hole behaves as if it is squeezed to infinite intensity, which is the condition that the proponents of the Big Bang say would have prevailed immediately before the creation of the universe of which our solar system is a part. Because no light can escape from black holes they cannot be seen, but they can be detected because the gases being drawn towards them become so hot that they emit X-rays. Likewise human reason and logic cannot penetrate the black curtain of death, except with the assistance of the spiritual light of pure faith. Only the strength which comes to us through pure faith enables us to approach that mysterious veil, secure in the knowledge that the spirit which inhabits our frail and transient frame will be raised to a spiritual life hereafter, when our body returns to the dust as it was.


The symbolism and rituals used in modern speculative freemasonry had crystallised before the first Grand Lodge was formed in 1717, but they were not the product of that era. Moreover, symbolism and ritual continued to be a subject of considerable argument between the “Antients” and the “Moderns” until those two persuasions were consolidated under the United Grand Lodge of England established in 1813. In reality the symbolism and rituals of speculative freemasonry evolved naturally and in many ways inevitably development of the way of life of the operative masons. For millennia the operative masons had worked closely with the priesthood of successive religions, in association with whom they were engaged in the design and construction of ecclesiastical buildings. The symbolism of freemasonry has an interesting heritage that can be traced back through the classical period of Greece and Rome to the Phoenicians, the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Aryan (the Sanskrit arya, meaning noble) and many other ancient cultures. Before considering relevant aspects of the religions associated with those cultures, it would be appropriate to consider the story of the creation recorded in the Book of Genesis, because it is a synthesis of many beliefs that were widely held in the ancient world.


Light in the creation


Light is a symbol of truth, wisdom and knowledge that plays an important role in the teachings of all ancient religions. Primordial light is a symbol of the truth emanating from the awareness generated by the union of spirit and matter in the creation, which was the beginning of the manifestation of the two great principles of light and darkness representing good and evil. The descriptions of the creation in all versions of the Bible are very similar, although the words of the Revised Standard Version probably are those with which most people are familiar. In Genesis 1:1-4 it is said that:


“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness”.


It is of interest that “a mighty wind” is substituted for “the Spirit of God” in the New English Bible, with a footnote adding that it could be read as “the spirit”. This is because the root word in Hebrew is ruha, which is formed by the characters Resh Waw Heth, signifying spirit, breath and wind, whence the well known expression “the breath has passed away” has been derived, in the context that “the spirit has left the body”. It also is interesting to note that the Biblical description of the first phase of creation could be applied with equal validity in the Big Bang theory. The initial stage of the Big Bang is considered to have taken place about 15 billion years ago, when all matter that had been compressed infinitely in a total void exploded spontaneously, producing light and energy where previously there had only been utter darkness. Moreover, if the “days” appearing in the Biblical description were used in the indefinite Hebrew context of the root word, as they appear to have been used, they could signify any of the periods of the various stages of creation instead of discrete periods of twenty-four hours. Thus “days” could be eons and the sequence given in the Bible would aptly describe the known evolution of the universe that has taken place since the Big Bang. This transposition in time would not be the negation of a belief in a Creator, but a transcendence of long held religious beliefs taking into account the continuing discoveries of modern science.


The ancient religion in Egypt


Most people are aware that the ancient Egyptians had a profound religion, though many probably do not have any great knowledge of it. Archaeological studies, especially those carried out since J-F. Champollion deciphered the inscription on the Rosetta stone in 1822, which enabled the Book of the Dead or Papyrus of Ani to be translated by E.A. Wallis Budge in 1895, have ensured that the hieroglyphs and iconography in Egyptian temples have become well known. A superficial acquaintance with the sacred writings and icons of Egypt gives the impression that the Egyptians had always worshipped a multitude of gods who had human bodies and the heads of animals, but in fact these icons originally were intended to illustrate the multitudinous attributes of the one god. However the pyramid texts indicate that by the Vth Dynasty, in about 2400 BCE, monotheism and polytheism were both flourishing. When the power of the pharaohs collapsed at the end of the Old Kingdom in about 2100 BCE, the priesthood progressively acquired supreme power, the substance of the true religion was lost and the grotesque and often demoniacal representations were worshipped as individual gods. Notwithstanding the inroads of polytheism, the texts show that a similar doctrine of eternal life prevailed in all periods. When the devout pharaoh Akhenaten was in power from about 1372 BCE to 1354 BCE, he declared void the supposed functions of the multitude of gods. He also removed the power of the priests and their intermediaries with the people, so that everyone could participate freely in the religion of the one absolute god and believe in the mystery of the resurrection. Unfortunately, when Akhenaten died, the priesthood regained power and religion in Egypt degenerated again.


The true religion of ancient Egypt is typified by the cosmogeny of Annu, which in the Bible was called On, the “city of the pillar”, where the benben stone was kept in the Temple of the Phoenix dedicated to Aten, called the Complete One and later identified with Ra. Annu was renamed Heliopolis during the rule of the Greek pharaohs. This cosmogeny was founded on a belief in one absolute God, who was the beginning and end of all things visible and invisible. It was believed that Ra, the Absolute Spirit or Light and Conscience of the Universe, was diffused in primordial Chaos or darkness before the creation. When Ra became aware of himself in the Great Silence, he called up his own image, Amon the Spirit of the Universe Itself. This call was the Word that was the Creative Power that caused the kingdoms of space-air or Shu and movement-fire or Tefnut to materialise. They in turn generated and separated the earth Geb from the sky Nut, to receive the creative forces of terrestrial and celestial life. They were Osiris the fertilising force and Isis the generating force, which ended the primordial Chaos and brought the universe into equilibrium. In the beginning Ra watched over humanity in the paradise of the kingdoms of Shu and Geb. Later however, like the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the forces of evil appeared as the destroying couple known as Seth and Nephthys. Ultimately Osiris and Isis overcame the repeated assaults of the forces of evil and they became the life-bearing couple that established resurrection and eternal life as it is described in the myth of Osiris.


The ancient system of religious thought and moral rectitude of the Egyptians is based on the myth of Osiris, which reflects historical events and also has a highly spiritual content. Briefly, we are told that after the fall of man Ra, who was the Absolute Spirit, became man in the form of Osiris so that he could reach mankind, which had become lost outside paradise. This event is said to have taken place at the First Sunrise of the Zep Tepi, called the First Time of Osiris, which some investigators have dated to be about 10450 BCE. In his capacity as a man Osiris lived, suffered and died like other men, leading them to an awareness of themselves and a belief in a resurrection and eternal life, which was brought about by the boundless love of the creator for the created. This belief arose because, when Osiris was slain by his brother Seth and his dismembered body was strewn all over Egypt, he was brought back to life by his sister-wife Isis. In her great love Isis searched for and ultimately found all of Osiris’s pieces, which she reunited so that he lived again. Seth was then defeated and captured by their son Horus, who was described as the first man-god to rule Egypt as a pharaoh.


The ancient Egyptian concept of death and resurrection is interesting. It was believed that when the Ka or divine spirit left Khet the body, it released the soul Ba to begin its life in the afterworld of the terrestrial kingdom. The rebirth rites began with repeated washings followed by mummification of the body. The intestines, lungs, liver and brain of those who could afford the expense were removed surgically and mummified separately in their individual canopic jars. The mummified body was then bound in intricately plaited linen wrappings into which amulets were inserted with the accompaniment of special prayers. The body, with a painted or sculptured representation of its Ba was then placed inside one or more coffins, often in the shape of the mummy itself. The coffin was decorated with a representation of the deceased person’s Ka, usually the human figure with its upper arms horizontal, forearms vertical and palms of the hands to the front. Sometimes the arms and hands in that attitude were shown placed on top of the head. The Book of the Dead and various other funerary texts describe in detail how the soul was believed to pass from its earthly abode through the underworld to the heavenly Duat, to become an Osiris or star soul. Briefly, Horus performed the ceremony of “opening the mouth” to give a new breath of stellar life to the deceased. This was followed by Anubis supervising the “weighing of the heart” in comparison with a feather, the symbol of truth, to determine if the life of the deceased had made him worthy of resurrection. It was believed that if the deceased’s life was found worthy, he would become a star soul and that Anubis would guide him through the underworld and that finally, after passing through the underworld, the star soul would be conducted to the astral plane of the heavenly Duat by Upuaut, the “opener of the ways”.


The Egyptian doctrine of eternal life involved more than the simplified explanation of the relationship between the body Khet, the divine spirit Ka and the soul Ba outlined above. A theme repeated down through the ages is recorded in texts from the Vth Dynasty as “My soul is God, my soul is eternity”, which confirms the Egyptian belief that the soul of man preceded the creation and would enjoy an eternal existence in heaven in a state of glory. Texts from the Vth Dynasty onwards also say “Heaven hath thy soul, earth hath thy body”, which indicates that the body was not expected to rise again, notwithstanding the superficial evidence of the Egyptian funeral rites. The texts also indicate that the Egyptians believed that the Ka and Ba of each person had an accompanying Khaibit or shadow, more or less analogous to the Umbra that was an element of the beliefs held by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Khaibit was believed to have an existence independent from the body and that it was free to move wherever it pleased. However it was also was believed that the Khaibit was intimately associated with the soul and therefore always stayed near it. This belief is a recurring theme in the Book of the Dead, in relation to which the following texts are typical examples:


“Let not my soul be shut in, let not my shadow be fettered, let the way be opened for my soul and for my shadow, may it see the great God”.


“May I look upon my soul and my shadow”.


The ancient Egyptians also believed that there was another important element of the body within their concept of eternity. This was the Khu, which they visualised as a translucent and intangible casing, frequently depicted in the form of a mummy and often translated as “the shining one” or “intelligence”. In the usual context of its usage, Khu could often be translated to mean “spirit”. The following is a typical text relating to the imperishable Khu or spirit:


“Horus hath plucked his eye from himself, he hath given it unto thee to strengthen thee therewith, that thou mayest prevail with it among the spirits”.


Other ancient doctrines


Hinduism is the ancient religion of northern India that evolved and grew gradually over a period of nearly five thousand years. Its adherents refer to Hinduism as the sanatana dharma, which literally means the eternal tradition or universal truth. Superficially and in some of its forms Hinduism appears to be polytheistic, but it has a central concept of a supreme spirit, which is the essential reality or “Absolute Being” called Brahman who is represented by many divine manifestations. Chief among these manifestations is the Trimurti or divine triad comprising Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Siva the destroyer. In Hinduism Menu is depicted as the son of Brahma and the founder of the Hindu religion. In the Brahminical doctrine light and darkness are considered to be the eternal ways of life. Someone who walks in the way of light is said never to return, going on to eternal bliss. By contrast, someone who walks in the way of darkness is said to return to earth, destined to pass through further transmigrations of the soul until it has been perfectly purified by light. In his treatise entitled The Institutes of Menu, Sir William Jones describes the Brahminical code of ethics and explains that the teachings of Brahminism say:


“The world was all darkness, undiscernable, indistinguishable altogether, as in a profound sleep until the self-existent, invisible God, making it manifest with five elements and other glorious forms, perfectly dispelled the gloom”.


Contrary to the impression created by the Hebrew prophets in their fulminations against “the abominations of the Canaanites”, there are texts found since 1929 from Egypt in the nineteenth century BCE and from Ras Sharma in the fourteenth century BCE, which indicate that the elaborate pantheon and cosmogeny of the Mesopotamians were not then a feature in the Canaanite religion. The Canaanites did not attempt to explain the forces of nature and their effect on society, but declared their dependence on the gods and set out to please them. They believed there was a heavenly court ruled by a paramount king El, or simply God, who sanctioned all decisions affecting nature and society. In the myths El is described as the “Creator of Created Things” and is referred to as the “Father of Men”, and the “Kindly One” or the “Compassionate”, whence was derived the Islamic appellation “Allah the Compassionate”. In the heavenly court of the Canaanites El was assisted by Baal, who was the divine executive of his will. The Phoenicians who were living in Canaan from about 1200 BCE assimilated the local religion. They believed that the beginning of all things was a wind of black air and chaos as dark as Erebus, that dark and gloomy cavern of the lower world between earth and Hades, from which light sprang forth at the Divine command “Let there be Light”.


Many of the ancient beliefs that originated in the Near East have been absorbed into Judaism and Christianity. The stories of Cain and Abel, of the expulsion Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and of the flood described in Genesis all have counterparts in earlier Sumerian myths. In Genesis 14:18-19, God is called El Elyon when Melchizedek, as the priest of the God Most High, blessed Abram saying: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth”. In I Kings 22:19 the prophet Micaiah says, in respect of the heavenly court: “I saw the Lord sitting on his throne and all the host of heaven standing beside him”. Again in Psalm 82:1, we read that: “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment”. The myths of Canaan also describe Baal’s death and descent to the darkness of the underworld, from which the concept of Satan was derived to explain the sinister reality of sin and suffering. For example, it is recorded in I Chronicles 21:1 that “Satan stood up against Israel and incited David to number Israel”, which the people believed to be the reason for the subsequent plague. A wonderful example of the symbolism of light and darkness, which originated in the Near East, is the record in Revelation 21:13-24 that “the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light . . . and there shall be no night there”.


Mithraism is an ancient religion of Persia that probably was being practised before 3000 BCE. Mithra was the Persian god of light, who represented the power of goodness and promised that his followers would be compensated after death for their sufferings on earth. Mithra is identified with the Aryan God Mitra and their characteristics are similar. The oldest available texts are from India and refer to Mitra as “a friend” who has connections with the sun and ratifies contracts. A tablet in cuneiform script from Boghas Koi in Turkey, dating from about 1400 BCE, confirms a contract between the Hittites and the Mittani, a Persian speaking tribe in Mesopotamia, in which Mithra is invoked as a god before whom an oath may be sworn. Zoroastrianism was the religion founded in the sixth century BCE by Zarathustra, a prophet and religious teacher of Persia. Zoroastrianism is still practised by the Parsees who fled from Persia after its conquest by the Arabs, when they settled in northern India. Zarathustra’s teachings reflect some aspects of Mithraism and his doctrines are also similar in many respects to those of the ancient religions of the Egyptians, the Hindus and the Canaanites. In Zoroastrianism the principle of light or goodness was called Ahura Mazda, or Ormuzd, who was the spirit of supreme good born of the purest light. The principle of darkness or evil was called Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman, who was the supreme spirit of evil called the lord of darkness and death, who sprang from utter darkness. In a story that is very similar to the Ramayana of Indian mythology, Ormuzd wages war with Ahriman until such time as all humans choose to lead good lives, when Ormuzd destroys Ahriman.


The renowned Greek philosopher, Pythagoras (580-500 BCE), travelled widely in Egypt and the Near East to acquire knowledge. He is reputed to have undergone many initiations in those countries and appears to have been influenced by Zarathustra, whom he probably met. On his return to Europe, in about 529 BCE, he established his celebrated school at Cromona in southern Italy and taught the doctrine of two antagonistic principles. The first he called unity or light, represented by the right hand and symbolising equality, stability and a straight line. The second he called binary or darkness, represented by the left hand and symbolising inequality, instability and a curved line. Pythagoras attributed the colour white to the good principle and black to the evil principle. He taught the mystical power of numbers and the principal dogma of his philosophy was the system of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls.


The mystical philosophy or theosophy of the Jews is called the Cabala, or Kabbala, derived from Kaph Beth Lamed in Hebrew, which is Kabal that means to receive. It signifies the doctrine received from the elders and is referred to as “the tradition”. The origin of the Cabala is uncertain, but there is evidence suggesting that it may have been derived from the system of Zarathustra. There are traces of Cabalistic doctrine in the Book of Daniel, which researchers believe was compiled by an unknown author in about 165 BCE. Daniel was a Hebrew prophet and a contemporary of Ezekiel who was deported to Babylon, probably in the company of Jehoiachim in 597 BCE. Daniel was renowned for his skill in the interpretation of dreams, which may well have been derived from his knowledge of the mystical philosophy. In its modern form the doctrines of the Cabala are set out in writings dating from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The Cabalists regard the Supreme Being as En Soph, meaning the Infinite One, who is an absolute and inscrutable unity, having nothing without him and everything within him. In their system of cosmogeny the Cabalists place great emphasis on light in the creation. They teach that before the creation all space was filled with Aur en Soph or Eternal Light. They also teach that when the Divine Mind willed the creation, the Eternal Light withdrew to a central point, leaving around it an empty space in which the process of creation proceeded by means of emanations from the central mass of light. Nowadays it is mainly the Hasid sect of Orthodox Jews who base their teachings on the Cabala.

The Rosicrucians of the seventeenth century claimed occult powers and used the terminology of alchemy to expound their mystical doctrines, reputedly derived from Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), who adopted the name of Paracelsus. He was the famous Swiss physician, alchemist and scientist who developed the use of minerals and chemicals in medicine and introduced the use of laudanum as a pain-killer. The word alchemy is derived from the Arabic al-Kimya, which was the supposed technique for the transmutation of base metals into the noble metals of silver and gold using the “Philosopher’s Stone”, a hypothetical substance to which the Rosicrucians attributed the power to give eternal life. Among the Rosicrucians the Latin word Lux, meaning light, was used to signify knowledge of the object of their desire, which was a universal medium or elixir by means of which all truth would be revealed. This elixir was their “Truth”, which they commonly referred to as the “Philosopher’s Stone”. There have been claims that freemasonry was derived directly from Rosicrucianism, which has not been substantiated. Nevertheless there were several eminent freemasons, including Richard Fludd and Elias Ashmole, who were prominent Rosicrucians.


Initiation among the ancients


In all of the ancient Mysteries the aspirant was shrouded in darkness in preparation for his reception into the full light of knowledge. The duration of the dark period varied widely between the different rites, being progressively longer as one goes further back in history. Likewise the trials and tribulations that the candidate was required to survive during his preparation were much more severe in earlier times. The candidate usually underwent purification by water, by fire and by fasting as a preliminary to the trials of his preparation, which commonly were conducted in the darkness of underground caverns. Thus it is that from the earliest times darkness became synonymous with preparation for initiation, reminding the candidate of his ignorance, of his inherently wicked nature and of the obscurity of the world in which he had been wandering aimlessly.


The initiation rites of Mithras were the most stringent of all. Fifty days of darkness, solitude and fasting were imposed upon the aspirant, who was subjected to fearful trials before he became entitled to admission into the light. Because the serpent shed its skin annually, it was a symbol of regeneration in those rites. Although the harshness of the trials diminished over the centuries, the rites of Mithras continued in one form or another until introduced into the Roman Empire as the rites of Mithras in the time of the Emperor Pompey, in about 68 BCE. The rites of Mithras overshadowed Christianity in Rome until Constantine the Great formally recognised Christianity by the Edict of Milan in 313, but their practise continued to flourish until proscribed by a decree of the Senate in 378, when the sacred cave in which they had been celebrated was destroyed by the Pretorian Prefect. It is interesting to note that in 1954 the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Mithras were discovered in London.

The Eleusinian Mysteries, celebrated from 1800 BCE or earlier in the ancient Greek village of Eleusis near Athens, were very popular and among the most splendid. They were dedicated to the corn-goddess Demeter, worshipped by the Greeks as the symbol of a prolific earth. They prtrayed the loss and recovery of Demeter’s beautiful daughter Persephone, esoterically teaching the unity of God and the immortality of the soul. The Eleusinian Mysteries comprised two stages celebrated annually, the lesser or first stage at the vernal equinox and the greater or second stage at the autumnal equinox. The aspirant was required to wait at least a year after the first stage before he could undergo the second stage. The Lesser Mysteries were celebrated on the banks of the river whose waters were used for the aspirant’s purification. The Greater Mysteries were celebrated in secret and originally required the aspirant to spend twenty-seven days in complete darkness. Later they lasted for nine days and were concluded in the magnificent temple destroyed by the Persians under Xerxes in about 480 BCE. The temple was rebuilt, but it was utterly destroyed again by Attila the Hun, the “Scourge of God”, in about 450 CE. The temple had three elements: a subterranean vault representing the infernal regions, a sanctuary and a holy of holies. Although the ceremonial is not known in detail, it is known that the symbolism represented a restoration from death to eternal life, in which the funereal part of the initiation referred to the loss of a life and the subsequent exaltation ceremony referred to its recovery and resurrection.


The Druidism of the Celts probably was first practised in about 1000 BCE and was divided into three ascending orders or grades, Bards, Prophets and Druids. The Celt’s places of worship were of various shapes including circular, oval, serpentine, winged and cruciform, respectively emblematic of the universe, of procreation, of salvation, of the movement of the Divine Spirit and of regeneration. They were constructed of earth and unhewn stones to avoid pollution from any metal tool. As Druidism considered it improper to attempt to confine the Omnipotent, the only roof to their temples was the cloudy canopy. None was permitted to enter their sacred retreats unless wearing a chain that signified their bonding within the sacred rites. The ceremonies of Druidism were in three distinct stages. They included physical purification by ablution, painful physical tests and stringent mental trials. The ceremonies commenced with the aspirant being confined to darkness for nine days and nights, including symbolic death within a coffin, through symbolic regeneration and concluding with his confinement in a small boat emblematic of the ark on troubled waters. The candidate initially was clothed in a tricoloured robe of green, blue and white, colours that were considered to be sacred. When the candidate had successfully completed the first stage of the trials his tricoloured robe was changed to green, signifying hope. In the second stage he was clothed in blue, signifying truth. When he had overcome all the dangers of the third stage, the candidate had reached the summit of his perfection and was clothed in a mantle of pure white, the symbol of light. Finally he was crowned with a red tiara, symbolising the purification and regeneration of the soul.

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