The Illiad in Modern English – Chapter I

My book Tales of Odysseus is based on The Odyssey, the sequel to Homer’s epic, The Illiad. The Illiad is available from Project Gutenberg (Samuel Butler’s translation is the one I prefer), but the writing style is antiquated, the gods have been given their Roman names, and there are many other annoying features of Homer’s original that are preserved by Butler. For example, the Greeks are often referred to as the Danaans or the Argives, and Achilles and Agamemnon as “son of Peleus” and “son of Atreus”. Here’s the first chapter rewritten in modern English:

Chapter I – The Feud Between Agamemnon and Achilles

The anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, brought countless ills upon the Greeks. It sent many brave souls hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero became prey to dogs and vultures. The plans of Zeus were fulfilled on the day on which Agamemnon, the son of Atreus, king of men, and the great Achilles first fell out with one another.

Which of the gods set them to quarrel? It was Apollo, the son of Zeus and Leto. He was angry with the king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people, because the Agamemnon had dishonored his priest Chryses. Chryses had come to the ships of the Greeks to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom. Moreover, he bore in his hand the scepter of Apollo wreathed with a supplicant’s wreath, and he besought the Greeks, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs.

“Sons of Atreus,” he cried, “and all other Greeks, may the gods of Olympus allow you to sack the city of Priam, and to reach your homes in safety. But free my daughter, and accept a ransom for her, in reverence to Apollo, son of Zeus.”

The rest of the Greeks, with one voice, were for respecting the priest and taking the ransom that he offered. But not Agamemnon.

“Old man,” said the king, “do not let me find you tarrying about our ships, nor coming here again. Your scepter of Apollo and your wreath shall not profit you. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos, far from her own home, busying herself at the loom and visiting my couch. Go, and do not provoke me or it shall be worse for you.”

The old man feared him and obeyed. He didn’t say a word, but went down to the shore of the sounding sea and prayed apart to Apollo whom lovely Leto had borne.

“Hear me,” he cried, “god of the silver bow, you who protect Chryse and holy Cilla and rule Tenedos with your might. Hear me oh god of mice: If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned thigh-bones wrapped in the fat of

bulls or goats for you, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge my tears upon the Greeks.”

Apollo heard his prayer. Furious, he came down from the summit of Olympus with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrows of pestilence among them. First he smote the Greek’s mules and their hound

s, but then he aimed his shafts at the men themselves, and soon all day long the pyres of the dead were burning. For nine whole days he shot his arrows among the people.

On the tenth day Achilles called the men to the assembly, moved to do so by Hera, who saw that the Greeks in their death throes and had compassion for them. Then, when they had got together, he rose and spoke among them.

“Son of Atreus,” said he, “I believe that we should return home if we want to escape destruction, for we are being cut down by war and pestilence at the same time. Let us ask a priest, a prophet, or a reader of dreams, for dreams, too, are of Zeus, to tell us why Phoebus Apollo is so angry, and w

hether it is due to some vow that we have broken, or great public sacrifice that we have not offered, and if he will accept the savor of lambs and goats without blemish in exchange for taking the plague away from us.”

With these words he sat down. Calchas, son of Thestor, wisest of augurs, who knew things past, present, and yet to come, rose to speak. It was he who had guided the Greek fleet to Ilius, through the prophesies inspired by Phoebus Apollo. With sincerity and goodwill he addressed them.

“Achilles, beloved of heaven, you bid me tell you about the anger of King Apollo. I will therefore do so. But first swear that you wil

l stand by me in word and deed, for I know that I shall offend the one who rules the Greeks with might, to whom all here are subject. A simple man cannot stand against the anger of a king, who if he swallows his displeasure now, will nurse revenge till he has wreaked it. Consider, therefore, whether or not you will protect me.”

“Do not fear,” said Achilles, “but speak as it is given to you by heaven, for by Apollo, Calchas, to whom you pray, and whose oracles you reveal to us, not a Greek among our ships shall lay his hand upon you while I yet live to look upon the face of the earth, not even Agamemnon himself, who is by far the foremost of the Greeks.”

“The god,” the seer said boldly, “is angry neither over a vow nor a great public sacrifice, but for the sake of his priest, w

hom Agamemnon has dishonored because he would not free his daughter nor accept a ransom for her. Therefore Apollo has sent these evils upon us, and will send others. He will not deliver the Greeks from this pestilence till Agamemnon restores the girl without fee or ransom to her father, and sends a great holy sacrifice to Chryse. In that way we may perhaps appease him.”

With these words he sat down. Agamemnon rose in anger. His heart was black with rage, and his eyes flashed fire as he scowled at Calchas.

“Seer of evil, you have never prophesied that things will go smoothly for me, but always love to foretell evil,” he said. “You have bro

ught me neither comfort nor useful prediction, and now you come prophesying among the Greeks, saying that Apollo has plagued us because I would not take a ransom for a girl, the daughter of Chryses. I have set my heart on keeping her in my own house, for I love her even more than my own wife Clytemnestra, whose peer she is in form, feature, understanding, and accomplishments. Still, I will give her up if I must, for I want our people to live, not die. But you must find me a prize in her stead, or I alone among the Greeks shall be without one. This is not right, for you see, all of you, that my prize is to go elsewhere.”

“Agamemnon, you are covetous beyond all mankind. How will the Greeks find you another prize?” said Achilles. “We have no common store from which to take one. Those we took from other cities have been awarded. We cannot take back prizes that have already been awarded. But give this girl to the god, and if Zeus ever allows us to sack the city of Troy, we will repay you three and four fold.”

“Achilles, valiant though you

are, you shall not outwit me,” said Agamemnon. “You shall not overreach and you shall not persuade me. Are you to be allowed to keep your own prize, while I sit meekly suffer my loss and give up the girl at your bidding? Let the Greeks find me a prize to my liking in fair exchange, or I will come and take yours, or that of Ajax or of Odysseus, and whoever I come to shall rue my coming. But we will deal with this later. For the present, let us draw a ship into the sea, and find a crew for her immediately. Let us put a great public sacrifice on board, and let us send Chryseis as well. Further, let some chieftain among us be in command, either Ajax, or Idomeneus, or yourself, son of Peleus, mighty warrior that you are, that we may offer sacrifice and appease the anger of the god.”

Achilles scowled at him.

“You are steeped in insolence and lust for gain,” he said. “With what heart can any of the Greeks do your bidding, either on a foray or in open fighting? I did not come to fight here for any hard the Trojans have done

me. I have no quarrel with them. They have not raided my cattle nor my horses, nor cut down my harvests on the rich plains of Phthia. Between me and them there is a great distance, and both mountains and sounding sea. We have followed you, ‘King Insolence’, for your pleasure, not ours, to gain satisfaction from the Trojans for your shameless self and for Menelaus. You forget this, and threaten to rob me of the prize for which I have striven, and which the sons of the Greeks have given me. Whenever the Greeks sacked a rich city of the Trojans, did I receive as good a prize as you do, though it was my hands that did the better part of the fighting? When the time to share comes, your share is by far the largest, and I must go back to my ships, taking what I can get, and be thankful, when my labor and fighting is done. Now, therefore, I shall go back to Phthia. It is much better for me to return home with my ships than to stay here dishonored, gathering gold and wealth for you.”

“Fly if you will; I shall offer you no praye

rs to stay,” said Agamemnon. “I have others here who will do me honor, and above all Zeus, the lord of counsel. There is no king here as hateful to me as you are, for you are always quarrelsome and ill affected. So what if you are brave? Wasn’t it heaven that made you so? Go home with your ships and comrades to lord it over the Myrmidons. I don’t care about you or your anger, so this is what I will do: since Phoebus Apollo is taking Chryseis from me, I shall send her on my own ship with my followers, but I shall come to your tent and take your own prize, Briseis, so that you learn how much stronger I am than you are, and that others may fear to set themselves up as equal or comparable with me.”

Wrath_of_Achilles

Achilles was furious, and his heart was divided on whether to draw his sword, push the others aside, and kill Agamemnon, or to restrain himself and hold back his anger. While he remained undecided, though he had begun drawing his mighty sword from its scabbard, Athena came down from heaven—Hera had sent her due to the love she bore for both men—and seized Achilles by his blonde hair, becoming visible to him alone, allowing no other man to see her. Achilles turned in amazement, and by the fire that flashed from her eyes, he knew at once knew that it was Athena.

“Why are you here,” he said, “daughter of aegis bearing Zeus? To see the pride of Agamemnon, son of Atreus? Let me tell you—it shall surely be—he shall pay for this insolence with his life.”

“I come from heaven, if you will hear me, to ask you to stay your anger,” said Athena. “Hera has sent me, because she cares for both of you. Cease this brawling, and do not draw your sword. Rail at him if you will, and your railing will not be vain, for I tell you—and it shall surely be—that you shall in future receive gifts three times as splendid because of this present insult. Hold, therefore, and obey.”

“Goddess,” answered Achilles, “however angry a man may be, he must do as you command him. This will be best, for the gods always hear the prayers one who has obeyed them.”

He stayed his hand on the silver hilt of his sword, and thrust it back into the scabbard as Athena had ordered him to. Then she went back to Olympus among the other gods, to the house of Zeus. But Achilles once more began railing at Agamemnon, for he was still enraged.

“Drunkard,” he cried, “you have the face of a dog and the heart of a stag. You never dare to go out with the host in battle, nor wait with our chosen men in ambush. You shun this as you do death itself. You would rather go around stealing the prizes of any man who contradicts you. You devour your own people, for you are king over a feeble folk. Otherwise, son of Atreus, from now on you would insult no man. Therefore I swear a great oath—by my sceptre which shall sprout neither leaf nor shoot, nor bud anew since the day on which it was cut from its parent stem upon the mountain, for the axe stripped it of leaf and bark, and is now born by the sons of the Greeks as judges and guardians of the decrees of heaven—surely and solemnly, that from this day, you shall look longingly for Achilles and shall not find him. In the day of your distress, when your men fall by the murderous hand of Hector, you shall not know how to help them, and shall rend your heart with rage at the hour when you offered insult to the bravest of the Greeks.”

With this Achilles dashed his gold studded scepter to the ground and took his seat. Agamemnon started forward fiercely from his place upon the other side of the gathering. Smooth tongued Nestor, the capable speaker of the Pylians rose, and the words fell from his lips sweeter than honey. Two generations of men born and bred in Pylos had passed away under his rule, and he was now reigning over the third. With all sincerity and goodwill, therefore, he addressed them.

“Truly,” he said, “a great sorrow has befallen Greece. Priam and his sons would surely rejoice and the Trojans be glad at heart if they could hear this quarrel between you two, who are so excellent in fighting and counsel. I am older than either of you; therefore be guided by me. I have been a close friend of men even greater than you are, and they did not disregard my counsels. Never again will I behold such men as Piriyous and Dryas, the shepherd of his people, Caeneus, Exadius, godlike Polyphemus, and Theseus son of Aegeus, peer of the immortals. These were the mightiest men ever born upon this earth, and when they fought the fiercest tribes of mountain savages they utterly overthrew them. I came from distant Pylos and walked among them, for they wanted me to come, and I fought as well as it was in me to do. No man now living could withstand them, but they heard my words, and were persuaded by them. So be it with yourselves, for I will show you the most excellent way. Agamemnon, though you are strong, do not take the girl Briseis away, for the sons of the Greeks have already given her to Achilles. And you, Achilles, do not argue any longer with the king, for no man who by the grace of Zeus wields a scepter has honor equal to Agamemnon. You are strong, and your mother is a goddess; but Agamemnon is stronger than you, for he has more people under him. Agamemnon, check your anger, I implore you. End this quarrel with Achilles, who in the battle is a tower of strength for the Greeks.”

“Sir, all that you have said is true, but this man feels the need to become our lord and master. He must be lord of all, king of all, and captain of all, and this shall not be,” said Agamemnon. “Granted the gods have made him a great warrior, but have they also given him the right to speak to me in anger?”

“I should be a worthless coward,” Achilles cried, interrupting, “if I were to give in to you in all things. Order other people about, not me, for I shall no longer obey you. Furthermore I say—and take this to heart—I shall not fight you or any man over this girl, for those that would take her were also those that gave her to me. But everything else that is at my ship you shall not carry away by force. Try, that others may see. If you do, my spear shall be reddened with your blood.”

After this angry quarrel, they rose and broke up the assembly at the ships of the Greeks. Achilles went back to his tents and ships with Patroclus, the son of Menoetius, and his company. Meanwhile, Agamemnon had a ship drawn down into the water and chose a crew of twenty oarsmen. He escorted Chryseis on board and sent with her a great public sacrifice for Apollo. Odysseus went as captain.

The crew went aboard and sailed away over the sea. Then Agamemnon ordered the Greeks to purify themselves, and cast their filth into the sea. Then they offered up a hundred bulls and goats without blemish on the sea shore, and the smoke, carrying the savor of their sacrifice, rose curling up towards heaven. They busied themselves throughout the host.

Agamemnon did not forget the threat that he had made Achilles, and called his trusty messengers and squires Talthybius and Eurybates.

“Go,” said he, “to the tent of Achilles. Take Briseis by the hand and bring her here. If he will not give her to you, I shall come with others who will press him harder and take her.”

With this charge, he dismissed them, and they went their way sorrowfully along the water’s edge, until they came to the tents and ships of the Myrmidons. They found Achilles sitting by his tent and his ships, and he was not pleased to see them. They stood fearfully and reverently before him, and wouldn’t say a word, but he knew why they were there.

“Welcome, heralds, messengers of gods and men,” he said. “Draw near. My quarrel is not with you but with Agamemnon, who has sent you for the girl Briseis. Therefore, Patroclus, bring her and give her to these men, but let them be witnesses that by the blessed gods, by mortal men, and by the fierceness of Agamemnon’s anger, that if there is ever again the need for me to save the people from ruin, they shall seek and they shall not find me. Agamemnon is mad with rage and does not remember the past and to look forward to the future so that the Greeks may fight by their ships in safety.”

Patroclus did as his dear friend had bidden him. He brought Briseis from Achilles tent and gave her to the heralds, who took her with them to the ships of the Greeks, though the woman was loathe to go. Then Achilles went all alone to the edge of the hoary sea, weeping and looking out upon the boundless waste of waters. He raised his hands in prayer to his immortal mother.

“Mother,” he cried, “you bore me doomed to live but for a short time. Surely Zeus, who thunders from Olympus, might have made what little time I have glorious. It is not so. Agamemnon, son of Atreus, has dishonored me and robbed me of my prize by force.”

As he spoke he wept aloud, and Thetis heard him where she was sitting in the depths of the sea, right next her ancient father. She rose immediately like a grey mist out of the waves, sat down before him as he stood weeping, and caressed him with her hand.

“My son, why are you weeping?” she asked. “What is it that grieves you? Do not keep it from me, but tell me, that we may know it together.”

Achilles drew a deep sigh.

“You know,” he said. “Why tell you what you already know well? We went to Thebe, the strong city of Eetion, sacked it, and brought the spoils here. The Greeks shared them duly among themselves, and chose lovely Chryseis as the reward of Agamemnon, but Apollo, who loved her father dearly, sent a deadly plague upon us. The Greeks are now taking the girl in a ship to Chryse, and sending gifts of sacrifice to the god. But the heralds have just taken from my tent the daughter of Briseus, whom the Greeks had awarded to me. Help your brave son, therefore, if you are able. Go to Olympus, and if you have ever done him service in word or deed, implore the aid of Zeus. Often in my father’s house I have heard you tell how you alone of the immortals saved the son of Chronos from ruin, when the others, Hera, Poseidon, and Pallas Athena, would have put him in bonds. It was you, goddess, who delivered him by calling the hundred-handed monster Briareus—who men call Aegaeon, for he is stronger even than his father—to Olympus. When he took his seat in glory beside the son of Chronos, the other gods were afraid, and did not bind him. Go, then, to him, remind him of all this, clasp his knees, and ask him to aid the Trojans. Let the Greeks be hemmed in at the sterns of their ships, and perish on the sea-shore, that they may reap what joy they may of their king, and that Agamemnon may rue his blindness in offering insult to the foremost of the Greeks.”

Hearing this, Thetis wept.

“My son, I regret that I bore and suckled you,” she said. “I truly wish that you had lived your span free from all sorrow, for it will be all too brief. Alas, that you should be at once short lived and full of sorrow beyond that of your peers. Sad, therefore, was the hour in which I bore you. Nevertheless I will go to the snowy heights of Olympus, and tell this tale to Zeus, if he will hear our prayer. In the meantime, stay where you are with your ships, nurse your anger against the Greeks, and hold aloof from battle. Yesterday, Zeus went to Oceanus to a feast among the Ethiopians, and the other gods went with him. He will return to Olympus twelve days from now. I will then go to his bronze paved mansion and beseech him, and I do not doubt that I shall be able to persuade him.”

At this she left him, still furious at the loss of the girl who had been taken from him.

Meanwhile, Odysseus reached Chryse with the great public sacrifice. When the ship entered the harbor, they furled the sails and laid them in the hold. They slackened the fore-stays, lowered the mast into its place in the bottom of the ship, and rowed her to the mooring place where they would let her lie. There they cast out their mooring stones and made fast the hawsers. They got out upon the sea shore and brought the great public sacrifice for Apollo to land. Chryseis also left the ship, and Odysseus led her to the altar to deliver her into the hands of her father.

“Chryses,” said Odysseus, “King Agamemnon has sent me to bring back your child, and to offer sacrifice to Apollo on behalf of the Greeks, in order to placate the god, who has brought sorrow upon us.”

He gave the girl to her father, who received her gladly, and they arranged the holy public sacrifice around the altar of the god. They washed their hands and took up barley meal to sprinkle over the victims, while Chryses lifted up his hands and prayed aloud on their behalf.

“Hear me,” he cried, “god of the silver bow, you who protect Chryse and holy Cilla, and rule Tenedos with your might. Even as you heard me before when I prayed, and punished the Greeks harshly, hear me yet again, and keep this fearful pestilence from the Greeks.”

Apollo heard his prayer. When they had done praying and sprinkling the barley meal, they drew back the heads of the victims, killed, and flayed them. They severed the thigh bones, wrapped them in two layers of fat, set some pieces of raw meat on the top of them, and Chryses laid them on the fire and poured wine over them, while the young men stood near him with five pronged spits in their hands. When the thigh bones were burnt and they had tasted the organs, they cut the rest of the meat into small pieces, put them on the spits, roasted them till they were done, and drew them off. When they had finished their work and the feast was ready, they ate it, and every man had a full share, so that all were satisfied. As soon as they had had enough to eat and drink, pages filled the mixing bowl with wine and water and passed it round, and every man made a drink offering.

All day long, the young men worshiped Apollo, singing hymns to him and chanting joyous praise, and the god took pleasure in their voices. When the sun went down, and it grew dark, they laid down to sleep by the stern cables of the ship, and when the rosy fingered dawn appeared, they once more set sail to return to the host of the Greeks. Apollo sent them a fair wind, and they raised their mast and hoisted their white sails aloft. The sail bellied with the wind, the ship flew through the deep blue water, and the foam hissed against her bows as she sped onward. When they reached the wide stretch of the shore that held host, they drew the vessel ashore, high and dry upon the sands, set strong props beneath her, and went their ways to their own tents and ships.

Achilles remained with his ships and nursed his anger. He didn’t go to the honorable assembly, and did not sally forth to fight, but gnawed at his own heart, pining for battle and the war-cry.

After twelve days, the immortal gods returned in a group to Olympus, Zeus leading the way. Thetis remained mindful of the charge her son had laid upon her, and rose from the sea and through the heavens with early morning to Olympus, where she found the mighty son of Chronos sitting all alone upon its topmost ridge. She sat down before him, and with her left hand seized his knees, while with her right she caught him under the chin, and besought him.

“Father Zeus, if I ever did you service in word or deed among the immortals, hear my prayer, and honor my son, whose life is to be cut short so soon. King Agamemnon has dishonored him by taking his prize and keeping her. Honor him yourself, Olympian lord of counsel, and grant victory to the Trojans until the Greeks give my son his due and load him with riches in compensation.”

Zeus sat for a while silent, without a word, but Thetis kept firm hold of his knees, and besought him a second time.

“Incline your head,” said she, “and promise me clearly, or else deny me—for you have nothing to fear—that I may know how greatly you disdain me.”

At this Zeus was much troubled.

“I shall have trouble if you set me quarreling with Hera,” he said, “for she will provoke me with her taunting. She is always chiding me before the other gods and accusing me of aiding the Trojans. Return to the sea now, lest she should learn what you have asked of me. I will consider the matter, and will bring it about as you wish. See, I incline my head that you may believe me. This is the most solemn promise that I can give to any god. I never recall my word, or deceive, or fail to do what I say, once I have nodded my head.”

As he spoke the son of Chronos bowed his dark brows, and the ambrosial locks swayed on his immortal head, till vast Olympus reeled.

When the pair had made their plans, they parted. Zeus went to his house, while Thetis quit the splendor of Olympus and plunged into the depths of the sea. The other gods rose from their seats before the coming of their sire. Not one of them dared to remain sitting; all stood up as he came among them. There, then, he took his seat. But Hera, when she saw him, knew that he and the old merman’s daughter, silver footed Thetis, had been hatching mischief, so she at once began to upbraid him.

“Trickster,” she cried, “which of the gods have you been taking into your counsels now? You are always settling matters in secret behind my back, and never tell me, if you can help it, one word of your intentions.”

“Hera,” replied the father of gods and men, “you must not expect to be told of all my counsels. You are my wife, but you would find it hard to understand them. When it is proper for you to hear them, there is no one, god or man, who will be told sooner, but when I mean to keep a matter to myself, you must not pry nor ask questions.”

“Dear husband,” answered Hera, “what are you talking about? Me, pry and ask questions? Never. I let you have your way in everything. Still, I have a strong misgiving that the old merman’s daughter Thetis has been talking to you, for she was with you, on one knee before you, this very morning. I believe that you have promised to give glory to Achilles, and to kill many of the Greeks among their ships.”

“Wife,” said Zeus, “I can do nothing without you suspecting me and finding it out. You will gain nothing by it, only make dislike you the more, and it will worse for you. It is as you say. I mean to make it so. Sit down and hold your tongue as I tell you, for if I begin to lay my hands on you, if all heaven was on your side it would profit you nothing.”

At this, Hera was frightened, so she curbed her stubborn will and sat down in silence. But the heavenly beings were disquieted throughout the house of Zeus, until the cunning workman Hephaestos began to try and pacify his mother Hera.

“It will be intolerable,” said he, “if you two fall to wrangling and set heaven in an uproar over a pack of mortals. If such ill counsels are to prevail, we will take no pleasure at our banquet. Let me advise you, mother—and you must yourself know that it will be better—to reconcile with my dear father Zeus, lest he again scold you and disturb our feast. If the Olympian Thunderer wanted to hurl us all from our seats, he could do so, for he is by far the strongest, so speak to him with fair words, and he soon be in a good mood with us.”

As he spoke, he took a double cup of nectar, and placed it in his mother’s hand.

“Cheer up, dear mother,” he said, “and make the best of it. I love you dearly, and should be very sorry to see you get a thrashing, but however grieved I might be, I could not help you, for there is no standing against Zeus. Once before when I tried to help you, he caught me by the foot and flung me from the threshold of heaven. All day long, from morning until evening, I fell, until at sunset I fell to ground in the island of Lemnos, and there I lay, with very little life left in me, till the Sintians came and tended me.”

Hera smiled at this, and as she smiled she took the cup from her son’s hands. Then Hephaestos drew sweet nectar from the mixing bowl, and served the gods, going from left to right. The blessed gods laughed out loud in applause as they saw him bustling about the heavenly mansion.

Through the remainder of the day until the sun set, they feasted, and every one had his full share and was satisfied. Apollo strummed his lyre, and the Muses lifted up their sweet voices, calling to and answering one another in song. When the sun’s glorious light had faded, they went home to bed, each to his own house, which lame Hephaestos with his consummate skill had fashioned for them. Zeus, the Olympian Lord of Thunder, went to the bed in which he always slept. When he had laid upon it, he went to sleep, with Hera of the golden throne by his side.

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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