Scratching runes is no different from spraying tags
Carving runes into combs and stones is basically the same as spraying tags on subway cars and bicycle tunnels. Those who create runes or graffiti are called writers. More precisely, rune writers and graffiti writers. The word graffiti stems from the Italian word graffio, which means 'a scratch.' That is why we speak of runic graphs. Just as graffiti pieces are made in the dead of night, much of the history of runes is covered in darkness too. For example, how did the Germanic peoples obtain the runic alphabet? What did the runes say? What purposes did runes serve? What also puzzled many a scholar is the mind-blowing level of uniformity and standardization, all over the Germanic-speaking world, of the earliest runic writing. We deliberately say 'puzzled' because at the end of this post we have the explanation long awaited.
Like the runic alphabet, the origin of the word rune is also covered in darkness, and no general consensus exists among scholars. One theory is that the word rune also meant 'council' or 'whisper/murmur'. The word rune in the meaning of 'council' can be found in the Old Saxon epic poem Heliand written in the early ninth century. In addition, there is the modern German verb raunen which means 'to whisper', and the proto-Celtic word *runa meaning 'secret'. Both might be related to the word 'rune'. Counseling and whispering belong to each other. Whispering advice in someone's ear (Barnes 2012, Crawford 2023). Then we are back to secretly spraying tags undercover of the night, to become visible to the public during daylight. Graffiti writers in action always whisper.
tags and pieces on the trains (subway) of NYC
There are more parallels between graffiti and runes.
Firstly, runic inscriptions on combs, coins, bracteates, brooches, wooden sticks, swords, pottery, etc. are often just as indecipherable as tags and pieces on the trains of New York City. You can stare at tags for hours without understanding what it says. Runologists, too, study for decades the same runic inscription and through time come up with all kinds of explanations for the same lines. It shows how difficult the runes are to interpret. For example, the mid-eleventh-century runic inscription on the silver neck-ring found in the remote village of Senja, way in arctic Norway. The inscription, probably a half stanza of a Fornyrðislag, type of Old Norwegian verse, reads as follows:
ᚠᚢᚱᚢ ᛏᚱIᚴIᛆ ᚠᚱIᛋᛚᛆᛏᛋ ᚢIᛏ ᛆᚢᚴ ᚢIᚴᚴᚠᚬᛏᚢᛘ ᚢIᚱ ᛋᚴIᚠᛏᚢᛘ
Fórum drengja Fríslands á vit ok vígsfǫtum vér skiptum
Initially, this was basically translated as: 'We travelled to visit the young lads of Frisia and we divided the spoils of war' (Page 1987, Van der Tuuk 2015, Riksantikvarieämbetet website). This epic sentence can be interpreted to mean that Norsemen and Frisians together went on a raiding expedition and shared the booty, or that Frisia was raided by Vikings and the Vikings distributed the booty among each other. More recently, instead of a primitive raiding adventure, they simply might have gone to Frisia to trade. The more peaceful translation could then be: 'We went to visit young Frisian trading partners and exchanged war gear' (Barnes 2012). Weak point of this latter version is that an insignificant trading mission hardly seems worth mentioning on a piece of jewellery. Probably more versions will come up in the future.
Of course, in defence of the runologists, clumsy scratching and the test of time can make the understanding of runic inscriptions more complicated. Is a scratch just a scratch or a rune? A peculiarity of early runographers that complicates unravelling runes was that they could easily write them backwards. This could be the whole inscription or incidentally a graph or two. A custom we find intriguing and are not familiar with in other cultures. But just as easily, a rune could be carved mirrored, so a double-sided version of a rune. Or rune writers 'suddenly' carved a rune upside-down. Lastly, sometimes inscriptions were a mixture of Roman letters and runes.
Take a look at the featured image of this post and imagine this is where you are looking at as historian or runologist after another 1,000 years without any context. Try to make sense of it and raise classic questions like: what was the purpose, who made them, who invented them, how were the words pronounced, etc?
Therefore, carved runes must be studied "with the index finger tip or fingernail in the carved line, eyes fixed on the finger" (Fischer 2005).
graffiti street art by RUNE (Run Until Nightmares Ends), Yogyakarta (IDN) and NYC (USA)
A second parallel with graffiti is that many runic inscriptions contain personal names, either of the writer who carved or scratched the runes, or the owner of the object. Tagging on the streets, on bridges, in tunnels, and in the subway is basically the same thing. Leaving your mark and making your presence known on the block. Apparently, human behaviour is being guided by the same basic instincts in this. A dog that pees against a street light to let others know he is in the hood.
From the small Frisian corpus of runic inscriptions, consisting of approximately twenty inscriptions (Looijenga, 2003), we have nevertheless extracted fourteen personal names. These are: ᚢᚱᚫ (Uræ), ᚪᛁᛒ (Aib), ᚻᚪᛒᚢᚳᚢ (Habuku), ᚻᚪᛞᚪ (Hada), ᚫᛈᚪ (Æpa), ᚹᛖᛚᚪᛞᚢ (Weladu), ᛋᛣᚪᚾᛟᛗᛟᛞᚢ (Skanomodu), ᚪᛞᚢᛡIᛋᛚᚢ (Adujislu), ᛡIᛋᚢᚻIᛞᚢ (Jisuhidu), ᚹIᛗᛟᛥ (Wimœd), ᛏᚢᛞᚪ (Tuda), ᚫᚻᚫ (Æhæ), ᚩᚳᚪ (Oka), and ᚫᚾᛁᚹᚢᛚᚢᚠᚢ (Æniwulufu). Names shown in italics are female personal names, while the rest are probably male.
Artifacts with Frisian runes have been found in England, Belgium (at Amay), the Netherlands (by far the most in the province of Friesland), and in the region of Ostfriesland in Germany (at Schweindorf). Note that what constitutes a Frisian runic inscription and what does not, is in general sense understood by scholars. However, when it comes to specific rune objects, opinions can vary greatly. Therefore, it is time to delve into the runic alphabets.
Short history of early runes
As stated earlier, runic writing is the authentic writing system of the Germanic peoples. Runes have been used by the Goths, the Franks, the Saxons, the Anglo-Saxons, the Frisians, and notably by the Scandinavian peoples. Just as the Chinese, the Arabs, the Greeks, the Sinhalese, etc. have their own unique alphabet, the Germanic people had one too. Runes can, therefore, be found from Greenland to Hungary, and from France to Sweden. By far, the most runic inscriptions have been found in the Scandinavian-speaking countries. It is where the runic writing tradition survived the longest. Also, the Faroes, Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles, and very modestly Frisia, contributed to the preserved medieval runic corpus.
As yet, the oldest runes are carved in a fibula found in the Wadden Sea region, near the town of Meldorf in Kreis 'district' Ditmarschen, Germany. You will pass by when hiking the Frisia Coast Trail. It is dated in the first half of the first century AD. The runes, if runes at all, are too difficult to read to make sense of what they say. The second-most ancient runes are written on a comb found at Vimose on the island of Fyn, Denmark. It is dated ca. AD 160. The runes read ᚺᚨᚱᛃᚨ harja, which could be a female personal name or mean 'warrior'. Considering it is a comb and the obsession of rune writers with carving names in general, the latter translation is probably less likely.
Potentially the most ancient runes are carved into the Svingerud/Hole runestone very recently (2021) found near the hamlet of Hole in district Ringerike, southern Norway (see image below). According to the archaeological deposit dating, the stone dates back to the first half of the second century AD. However, the inscription can be (much) older. The inscription probably contains once again a female personal name, namely IᛞIᛒᛖᚱᚢX Idiberug.
In Scandinavia, the practice of runes, with its climax in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, continued until the mid-fifteenth century when it died out, except for a few isolated pockets. Only on the Baltic island of Gotland, in Iceland, and in the province of Dalarna in remote central Sweden did runic writing continue after the fifteenth century. Whereas the tradition died out on Gotland and Iceland in successively the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the province of Dalarna runes remained a living script until the beginning of the twentieth century (Barnes 2012). Nineteenth centuries of runic writing would have deserved a memorial runestone by the last rune writer.
As with everything, things are always more complex when you delve deeper into it. Therefore, it is impossible to discuss all the different (sub)types of runic alphabets and all the exceptional and diverse runic scripts that have existed throughout time. We will limit our focus on the period between the second and ninth centuries AD. Thus, on the initial runic alphabet, the Elder Futhark, and the three runic alphabets that directly evolved from it, namely the Younger Futhark, the Medieval Runes, and the Anglo-Frisian Futhorc. On the latter, we will, with the reader's permission, elaborate a bit more.
Runes appeared around the beginning of the Common Era, between 50 BC-AD 150 (Düwel & Nedoma 2023). This must have been preceded by a period (decades or centuries?) necessary for the introduction of the alphabet. The emergence of runes coincided with the expansion of the Roman Empire into northern Europe, where the Celtic and Germanic tribes dwelled (Looijenga 2023). It led to more intensive relations with the Romans, both beneficial and hostile. For example, in trade, knowledge, and working as mercenaries for the Roman army, the contacts offered additional economic possibilities. But conflicts and wars were also part of the Roman expansion (read our post Pagare il fio). It was also an interaction between a literate and an illiterate, oral civilization.
Although the runic alphabet shows some similarities with the Roman alphabet, it is generally agreed that the Roman alphabet is not its origin. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted by historians that the Germanics obtained their ABC from the Mediterranean. However, there is no consensus beyond this point. One of the theories suggests that one of the several local scripts in the Mediterranean, potentially an archaic Phoenician-Punic or Greek alphabet (Düwel & Nedoma 2023), made its way to the Germanic tribes through Etruscan, Roman, and Celtic intermediaries, which can be traced in the runic alphabet (Crawford 2023). Who brought the alphabet to the Germanics, is a question without an answer.
Others (Looijenga 2023) link the arrival of the Romans with the introduction of the runes. There seems to be consensus that the cradle of runic writing is the Danish peninsula, more concrete the island of Zealand. This due to the large number of early runic inscriptions unearthed there, and because Zealand was a center of power (Düwel & Nedoma 2023). At the same time, if direct connectivity was the decisive element, the Frisians were much closer, as they bordered the busy River Rhine and the Limes Germanicus together with other tribes like the Cananefates, Batavians and Frisiavones. Earlier, Looijenga (2003) suggested considering the possibility that runes were introduced in the River Rhine region in the Netherlands.
Perhaps we need a new, young, and energetic Indiana Jones to solve the mystery of how runes were created and how they found their way into Germanic culture.
Why the Germanic cultures did not simply adopt the Roman alphabet is also a mystery. Perhaps the runic tradition somehow already existed and was rooted enough not to be abandoned. On the contrary, the introduction of Roman writing in Scandinavia even stimulated literacy in general and thus also the use of runes, especially during the Middle Ages. What seems clear is that the Roman script was used for formal, non-publicly visible writing, while runes were part of a more public and mundane expression. Certainly, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Scandinavia, Roman writing was associated with the learned world of ink and expensive parchment. Creating runes, on the other hand, was cheap and used for local audiences (Barnes 2012, Crawford 2023). All of this, by the way, corresponds wonderfully well with modern graffiti.
The four runic alphabets
(1) The Elder Futhork (ca. AD 1-800)
The oldest runes are that of the Elder Futhark alphabet. It consists of twenty-four runes and constitutes the source of the different runic alphabets that followed later. Comparable with the Western ABC, the name Futhark is a composition of the first six graphs of the alphabet, namely ᚠᚢᚦᚨᚱᚲ 'fuþark'.
Contrary to the Roman ABC, each rune has its own name and meaning. Rune ᚠ (f) is named fehu meaning 'cattle and/or wealth'; rune ᚢ (u) is named uruz meaning 'auroch or wild ox'; rune ᚦ (th) is named after the god Thurs; rune ᚨ (a) is named ansuz meaning 'god'; rune ᚱ (r) is named raido meaning 'journey'; rune ᚲ (k) is named kaunan but its meaning is unsure. Of course, all the other eighteen runes have a name and meaning as well. The full alphabet read as follows:
ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚨ ᚱ ᚲ X ᚹ ᚺ ᚾ I ᛃ ᛈ ᛇ ᛉ ᛊ ᛏ ᛒ M ᛗ ᛚ ᛜ ᛞ ᛟ
f u th a r k g w h n i j p ï z s t b e m l ŋ d o
Belonging to the oldest runic inscriptions are those written on jewellery and swords. Again, often personal names. This time, they belong to the blacksmith who wrote his name onto the weapon he forged (Looijenga 2003). One of those blacksmiths we came across earlier in this post on the list of Frisian personal names written in runes is that of ᚹᛖᛚᚪᛞᚢ Weladu. A name that refers to the Germanic legend of Wayland the Smith. Read more about this legendary blacksmith in our post, Weladu the flying blacksmith).
But the oldest runes are also stamped on bracteates, which are gold-foil medallions. These bracteates can be found in the wider southern North Sea area and are regarded as status items belonging to a powerful elite originating from southern Scandinavia (Looijenga 2003, Nicolay 2017). Not only in the North Sea area, but the Goths also knew bracteates, and a few have been preserved in Hungary and Romania.
Besides Frisia (see further below), runic writing on the Continent comes to a halt as early as in the seventh century.
(2) The Younger Futhork (ca. AD 800-1050)
The Elder Futhark alphabet remained more or less unchanged until the late eighth century. From then on, it was simplified in Scandinavia into what is known today as the Younger Futhark. Instead of twenty-four runes, it consists of just sixteen runes. Only the basics. Very minimalistic Scandinavian or IKEA-ish. The new edition Futhark reads as follows:
ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚬ ᚱ ᚴ ᚼ ᚾ I ᛅ ᛦ ᛋ ᛏ ᛒ ᛘ ᛚ
f u th a r k h n i jz s t b m l
The use of the Younger Futhark fell into disuse after the Christianization of Scandinavia. From the twelfth century, it was no longer used. It was, in the Scandinavian-speaking world, succeeded by new versions of runic alphabets.
(3) The Medieval Runes (ca. 1050-1450)
From the Younger Futhork evolved the Medieval Runes, also called Fuþork. This was, as said, an exclusive Scandinavian affair. By this time, the beginning of the eleventh century, the tradition of runes had disappeared not only on the Continent, but on the Isles and in Frisia too.
Crux of the further development of the Younger Futhark was the practise of dotting, which started probably on the Danish peninsula and spread from there into Norway and Sweden (Barnes 2012). With diacritic dots - simply put 'help signs' - added to runes, rune writers could mark additional sound values to their shortened agile alphabet. The Medieval Runes read as follows:
ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚮ ᚱ ᚴ ᚼ ᚿ I ᛆ ᛋ(ᛌ) ᛐ(ᛏ) ᛒ ᛘ ᛚ ᛦ
f u þ o r k h n i a s t b m l y
Through dotting different sounds were created. These were: ᚡ for (v), ᚤ for (y) and (ø), ᚧ for (ð), ᚵ for (g) and (ɣ), ᛂ for (e) and (j), ᛑ for (d), and, lastly, ᛔ for (p). Very creative graffiti.
(4) The Futhorc (ca. AD 450-1050)
By the time the Scandinavian tribes trimmed their alphabet with the Younger Futhark to sixteen runes, the Anglo-Saxons and Frisians had already added fertilizer to their common alphabet and extended it to twenty-eight. Evident are the additional vocals like æ, ea, œ and y, which were a consequence of the change in the spoken language that had taken place during the Early Middle Ages (Hines 2017).
Especially the ᚫ (æ) and ᚪ (a) vocals are considered typical Frisian and were added later to the Futhorc alphabet. Albeit opinions differ on whether words/names ending with an unstressed ᚢ (u) vocal are an indication of Frisian origin, generally it's considered a Frisian trait (Versloot 2015, Düwel & Nedoma 2023). When exactly the ᚫ (æ) and ᚪ (a) vocals surfaced is unknown because most of the Frisian runic inscriptions cannot be dated, and quite a few of them have unknown provenance. We must wait for a smoking gun to prove their old age.
Because of the change in the first six runes, the Anglo-Frisian alphabet, also known as the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Saxon-Frisian (ASF) alphabet, is known as the Futhorc or Fuþorc. In other words, the Futhorc was the writing used by both the Anglo-Saxons and the Frisians. Sometimes the Anglo-Saxon and Frisian writing is also called Insular Runic (Fischer 2005). It reads as follows:
ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚩ ᚱ ᚳ X ᚹ ᚻ ᚾ I ᛡ ᛇ ᛈ ᛉ ᛋ ᛏ ᛒ M ᛗ ᛚ ᛝ ᛟ ᛞ ᚪ ᚫ ᛠ ᚣ
f u th o r c g w h n i j ï p x s t b e m l ŋ œ d a æ ea y
The origin of the Anglo-Frisian runic script dates back to the middle of the fifth century. It could not be otherwise because it is then that the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons migrated to England and, together with southern Norwegians, repopulated the coastal zones of Frisia. Earlier, during the fourth century AD, the salt marsh area in the north and much of the west coast of the Netherlands had been deserted. Of the Celts living previously in England and along the coast of the Netherlands before adventus saxonum 'the coming of the Saxons', no runic practice is known. These new immigrants, or colonials depending on one's perspective, brought the runic script with them to England and Frisia (Düwel & Nedoma 2023).
Moreover, the adoption of the runic writing coincides with the shift from the Celtic Frisii 'Frisians', living in the coastal Netherlands before the fourth century AD, to the Germanic Frisians who replaced the former from the fifth century AD onward. Runes are Germanic not Celtic. This also makes it implausible the runic alphabet was introduced in the River Rhine area during the Roman period, as put forward by Looijenga (2003). For more about the Celtic origin of the Frisii (also called Fresones) check our post Barbarians riding to the Capital to claim rights on farmland.
At the end of the seventh century, the Anglo-Saxons and the Frisians were linguistically moving away from each other. Not only linguistically but in other ways as well. From the late seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries, the Franks and the Roman Catholic Church exerted a major influence over Frisia. Including the introduction of the Roman script. Starting in the seventh century, the Anglo-Saxons began to introduce different runic scripts locally. Runes fell out of use in Frisia in the ninth century and in England in the early eleventh century. This is relatively early compared to Scandinavia. That Anglo-Saxon runes survived longer than Frisian had to do with the fact in England the church accepted the runic script next to the Roman (Barnes 2012, Düwel & Nedoma 2023).
The Frisian corpus
As explained, a real consensus on which Anglo-Frisian runic inscriptions are Frisian and which are not is lacking. Some say twenty-four in total (Grimmsma 2013), while others say nineteen or twenty (Looijenga 2003, Düwel & Nedoma 2023). Clearly, it is nothing more than a hassle in the margins. The total corpus of runic inscriptions in the world counts about 7,100, mainly located in southern Scandinavia, especially Sweden. So, the Frisian corpus amounts to 0.28 percent of the overall corpus. The total number of words in the Frisian corpus is circa fifty, with the most frequent graph ᛖ, which represents the (e) vocal. The oldest Frisian runic inscription dates from the fifth century, while most date from the eighth and early ninth centuries (Versloot 2014).
Neither is there a separate local Frisian runic alphabet. The Anglo-Saxon and Frisian inscriptions should be considered as one single tradition and corpus. Even after the introduction of additional runes in Frisia. Some even suggest considering all runes found in the southern North Sea area between the River Weser (DE) in the east and the River Humber (UK) in the west as one group, and to call this corpus the North Sea/Channel group (Looijenga, 2003, 2023). Incidentally, Frisian rune writers made use of diacritic signs (Düwel & Nedoma, 2023), an example which was followed centuries later in Scandinavia with the Medieval Runes and the practice of dotting.
Strikingly, most Frisian runes are carved into organic objects like wood and antler, in comparison to the Anglo-Saxon corpus. The majority of the runic artifacts have been found in or originated from so-called terps, which are artificial dwelling mounds in the tidal marshlands along the Wadden Sea area. In the clay soil from which the terps are constructed, these organic materials are exceptionally well-preserved (Düwel & Nedoma, 2023).
How the runes were applied so uniformly
Time to return to the main question we promised to solve for the reader, namely how on earth it was possible that, especially, the Elder Futhark was applied so uniformly for centuries across wider Europe, and remained unchanged over centuries? Who taught them and how was this achieved?
One part of the answer is that during the period from the beginning of the era until the seventh century, the Germanic language was quite standard without too many variants that strongly differed. Furthermore, the suggestion is that there must have been a common source and consensus among rune writers for the introduction of runic writing (Looijenga 2003).
Well, we have found the common source. We know how people learnt to read and pronounce runes. The early-medieval rune keepers had already developed reading boards to educate the youth in reading and pronouncing runes! One specimen has been preserved and is shown below. We assume that during the long cold winters in northern and north-western Europe, children were sitting around the fireplace reading the runes aloud:
Note that in the above the personal name ᚻᚪᛒᚢᚳᚢ Habuku also means hawk; havik, hauk and Habicht in respectively Dutch, Mid-Frisian and German. The name is written on a comb found at Toornwerd in province Groningen, dated eighth century. The full runic inscription reads ᚪᛁᛒ ᚳᚪᛒᚢ ᛞᛖᛞᚪ ᚻᚪᛒᚢᚳᚢ 'Aib made the comb for Habuke' (Looijenga 2003). Of course we know, the image is that of Beitske from Hogebeintum. But Beitske never can be her real name. Furthermore, the female name ᛡIᛋᚢᚻIᛞᚢ Jisuhidu might also be translated as the personal name Gisehild (Versloot 2014).
In addition to the reading board, people also practiced writing runes. In the town of Bergen in Norway, several wooden objects have been found whereon specific graphs were carved in a row, over and over again.
Concerning the reading board, many older people in the Netherlands who have enjoyed primary education are familiar with the leesplankje 'reading board' Aap-Noot-Mies ('Ape-Nut-Mies', with Mies being a girl's name). The leesplankje Aap-Noot-Mies was developed in the small village of Stiens in province Friesland by Matheus Bernard Hoogeveen (1863-1941) from Giethoorn. His education tool became, after some time, a huge success. Nevertheless, he never applied for a patent. The reason why he did not, is after reading this blogpost quite obvious. It would have brought to light that Hoogeveen had copied the idea from the ancient rune masters!
Note 1 - There are also a few non-Frisian runic inscriptions testifying of Frisians. One we have already discussed in this post, the neck-ring of Senja in Norway. In the church garden of the town of Sigtuna in southern Sweden stand two granite runestones with long runic inscriptions, dating from 725 to 1100. Sigtuna was in the Middle Ages an important trading hub. The runestone commemorate:
The Frisian guild-brothers had this stone raised in memory of Þorkell, their guild-brother. May God help his spirit. Þorbjǫrn carved (runestone U 379).
The Frisian guild-brothers (…) these in memory of Albóð, Slóði’s partner. May the holy Christ help his spirit. Þorbjǫrn carved (runestone U 391)
These inscriptions illustrate that during the Middle Ages Frisian traders had established themselves in trading towns far from Frisia, and were organized in guilds. That the names of these Frisian emigrants have been Scandinavian-fied is nothing exceptional. Still happens.
Note 2 – We avoided speculating too much about the use of runes. One scholar says they were used for trivial purposes, such as putting your name on a comb (done fifty times!). Another scholar relates it to power and elites, while others say it was a script of lower status. Yet another does not rule out that runes had a magical meaning (so-called Alphabetmagie), etc. The only thing we can conclude is that writing is merely a tool to express yourself. You could give a message to the gods to protect your new house by burying a wooden stick with these words carved into it. But you could also simply use it to sign your property without any further deeper meaning. Or, of course, you could raise a monument (runestone) and write a message on it that seems relevant for others, as we still do today. What is really interesting are the objects on which runes are written or stamped together with their provenance.
Note 3 - Both Frisian bastards have a modest history of being graffiti writers as well. That was during the second half of the '80s in the port town of Harlingen in the province of Friesland. They made both legal and, during the night, illegal pieces. Of course, only whispering. Legal pieces financed the spray cans for illegal pieces. The bastards public tags were Roxy and Prince, and their illegal tags were Second (ref. to baseball field position) and KGB (abbr. for Kingsize Graffiti Boys). The number of arrests was once. In the wider world, graffiti was regarded more and more as street art, but not yet in Friesland back then. Only now that the bastards realize they were rune writers all that time.
Through time, all our pieces have been removed or repainted. The last visible evidence, as of the date of writing (2023), are these red colours of a piece on a sliding door shining through a more recent black paint coat. The piece was made in the Sint Odulphussteeg alley in the port town of Harlingen in 1988 (see imag below).
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