On Auguries
by: M. Horatius Piscinus

The art of augury concerns the taking and interpreting signs from nature in order to determine the will of the gods. Chrysippus (2.130) defined divination as the “power to see, to understand, to interpret the signs that are given to men by the gods.” But augury is not a form of divination as we usually think of such, in that it does not attempt to foretell future events. Instead a course of action is proposed, such as the planning of a wedding or plans to erect a public building, and the gods are consulted as to whether they approve or not.

More specifically, augury concerns signs brought from the gods by birds. Augury is therefore distinct from haruspicy, which looks at the entrails (exta) of sacrificial animals to see if they had been acceptable to the gods. The Etruscans were credited with bringing haruspicy to Rome. They were also said to have brought to Rome their form of augury. But there is a notable difference between the Etruscan practices and those found at Rome (Cicero: On Divination 1.41, 2.35, 38; On the Nature of the Gods II.4).

The Etruscans employed ostentaria that notes the direction from which certain birds call. The Romans noted the oscines as well, but also watched for the flights of birds. The use of the flight of birds as omens was common in other parts of Italy as well as in Greece and the Near East (Cicero, On Divination 1.92). The earliest mention of augury is found in Homer’s Iliad, dating to around 700 BCE. That is not to say that the Romans adopted their particular form of augury from others, for there are some differences between the Roman practice and elsewhere.

For example the Greeks regarded signs on the right to be favourable, whereas in Roman practice the left was considered favourable. In the Libri Fulgurales the Etruscans recorded those omens concerning the direction from which thunder could be heard and lightning seen. The sky was divided into sixteen regions for divining, and eleven different kinds of lightning were recognized by the Etruscan, each wielded by a different god. The Romans adopted a similar method from the Etruscans that they included alongside their other forms of augury, but recognized only three gods and one goddess as wielders of lightning – Jupiter, Veiovis, Summanus, and Minerva. (Pliny, Natural History II.138 only recognized Juppiter and Summanus.) While the Romans greatly acknowledged the Etruscan influence, what they borrowed from their northern neighbors was only accretions on a traditional core of practices that was essentially Italic in origin.

The Roman form of augury was said to have begun with Attus Navius around 600 BCE. According to legend, Navius was a swineherd who owned a vineyard. One day when he lost one of his pigs, he prayed to the Lares that if they would assist him in finding the pig, he would sacrifice his choicest bunch of grapes to them. The next day the pig was found. Going to the center of his vineyard, Attus Navius used his swineherd’s staff to divide his vineyard into four quarters. He then noticed that the birds favoured one particular quarter. He went to the center of this quarter and again using his staff he divided it into another four quarters. Again the birds favoured one quarter, and so he again divided that section of his vineyard into four sections. Proceeding in this manner he discovered an enormous bunch of grapes, which he then sacrificed to the Lares. News of this spread to Navius’ neighbors who then began to consult with him. Thereby Navius gained a reputation as an augur. When news of Navius reached the king of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus, he was called upon to take the auspices for an important matter.

Tarquinius wished to create new centuries of cavalry in addition to the three existing ones of the Ramnes, Titienses and Luceres, established by Romulus. Navius found that all the omens were unfavourable to Tarquin’s plan. This angered the king, who mockingly demanded that Navius, “Come then, prophet, divine by your augural art whether it is possible to do what I am thinking of at this moment.” Navius took the auspices and reported that whatever the king was thinking would in fact come to pass. Tarquinius said, “Well then, I was thinking of you cutting a whetstone in half with a razor. Fetch them at once and perform what your birds declare can be done.” Navius did as he was told and cut the whetstone in half. A statue of Navius with his head veiled was erected in the comitium to the left of the Senate House, along with the whetstone, and he went on to serve as the official augur (Livy, A.U.C. I.36.2-6).

Any paterfamilias was able to take auspices for private ceremonies. Most commonly private auspices were taken when marriages were proposed. For the auspicia publica, however, only the highest magistrates were permitted. The magistrates represented the state and thus acted on behalf of all of Rome whenever the gods were consulted. The power to take auspices was transferred from one magistrate to the next; that is, after an official was elected he had to perform a special augury to see if the gods approved his election. If the omens were good he was then “inaugurated” into office. The magistrates also took the auspices whenever the various comita and Senate were to meet, whenever the erection of a temple or other public building was proposed, or whenever the Romans were about to go to war. Magistrates also commanded the Roman armies, and auspices were taken prior to engaging in any battle. In taking the auspicia publica the magistrates were assisted by various priests.

Augures were on hand for interpreting the calls and flights of birds. As sacrifices were often made along with the taking of auspices, Haruspices were present for reading entrails. Fulgatores might be present should any lighting and thunder occur that would need interpreting. Always present for auguries were the tibicines (flute-players) who played throughout the ceremony. Originally at Rome there seems to have been two official augurs established as a collegium during the regal period. These were increased to four, and later to nine by the inclusion of five plebeian augurs in 300 BCE. The augurs did not themselves conduct the ceremony of taking auspices. Their role was mainly to oversee that the ceremony was conducted properly especially in establishing a templum, to point out certain possible omens to a magistrate, and to interpret omens as might appear.

Very early in the history of the Roman Republic members of the patrician order put forward a claim that only patricians could act as mediators between the gods and men, and that therefore only patricians could take the auspices (Livy: IV.2, VI.41; X.8). The issue first arose when a new law was included in the Twelve Tablets in 450 BCE that outlawed intermarriage between patricians and plebeians. A special marriage ceremony was held for patricians called a confarreatio in which the taking of auspices was part of the ceremony. There is really nothing to suggest that plebeians did not conduct confarreatio ceremonies as well, whereas there is everything to suggest that confarreatio was conducted for marriages between patricians and plebeians prior to the introduction of the Twelve Tablets.

Intermarriage between patricians and plebeians was commonly practiced before 450 BCE. This particular law was then overturned in 445 BCE with the passage of the Lex Canuleia. Patricians continued to insist that only they could take auspices and tried to use that excuse to exclude plebeians from magistracies, prevent the comitia plebis from meeting, and to veto plebiscita passed in the comitia. However the very first consul of the Roman Republic, L. Junius Brutus, was a plebeian, as were possibly as many as fifteen other consuls between 509 and 445 BCE. Plebeian rights to hold the highest magistracies were guaranteed under a series of laws: quaestores were already being elected by the plebeians in 447 BCE, the Leges Liciniae-Sextae for consuls in 367 BCE, dictator in 356, censor in 351, lex Genucia for consuls again in 342, Lex Ovinia of 339 required plebeian inclusion in the Senate, praetorship by 337 BCE. The comitia plebis was first organized in 494 BCE during the first secessio of the plebeians. It met without a requirement for auspicia publica. With the Lex Icilia of 471, magistrates were no longer able to interrupt its proceedings.

Thus patrician augurs could not use the excuse of bad omens to prevent the plebeians from holding their councils. Patrician veto over the Comitia Centuriata, another assembly of the people composed of both patricians and plebeians, was next cancelled in 339 when the requirement of the patrum auctoritas in advance of votes on laws was then proscribed. With the passage of the Leges Ogulniae in 300 BCE the collegium of augurs was opened to plebeians so that the four patrician augurs were then joined by five plebeian augurs. Thus the repeated claim by some patricians that only they had a right to take auspices was generally ignored during the history of the Roman Republic and finally made mute. (See Religions of Rome, May Beard et al, p.64.)

When to take auguries

For certain events affecting an entire society auspicia publica should be taken. This would include after the election of public magistrates to see that they are acceptable to the gods. The same should be made for elected officials of any sodalitas. If only auspices of the gods’ disapproval are obtained, or if something should vitiate the auspices, then the official-elect is obliged to withdraw and another election held. Even if it is later discovered that the favorable auspices were performed improperly, the magistrate is to resign his or her office (Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods II.10-12). If bad omens occur along with approving auspices the elected official may take office and special rites conducted to attain divine assistance during their tenure. (See below on more details on mixed omens.) When a call is made for the assembly of any comitia auspices should be taken, but the assembly of the comitia cannot be prevented by bad omens. The assembly of the Senate does not require auspices be taken. Any decision made or leges passed by the comitia or Senate does not generally require auspices be taken. However, decisions to erect temples or other special public facilities, or decisions on joining with other societies, or on sending or receiving ambassadors, do require the taking of auspices. Treaties, alliances, and declarations of war cannot be finalized until the auspices are taken and the gods signify their approval. If the auspices indicate disapproval of a proposal to build a temple or other public facility, then it should be determined whether the chosen site or some other aspect of the proposal needs to be altered, and auspices taken again.

Private auspices should be taken whenever major decisions affecting the patrimony of a family are to be made. This would include proposed marriages (Cicero: On Divination 1.16) or plans to buy, sell, or build on any property. At other times, whenever a special request is made of the gods, then auspices may be taken in private to see if the gods will approve of the request. Such requests are usually made by a do ut des formula, and thus it may be required to take auspices to see if the proposed action is sufficient to please the god(s) who are being asked the favor. Individuals may also want to take auspices when considering major decisions in their personal lives.

Who may take the auspices

Auspicia publica may only be taken by consuls, praetors, or censors. Any elected official may perform his or her own augury to see if he or she is acceptable to the gods to hold office. In this, official augurs may assist the magistrate. The same holds for elected officials of sodalitates. The magistrate who calls for the assembly of a comitia should take the auspices. For treaties or alliances and similar actions regarding relations with foreign societies the consuls or praetors should take the auspices. The erection of temples and public facilities require that the higher magistrates take the auspices. For private auguries the paterfamilas should take the auspices for any event affecting the entire family. Any individual may take auspices in private matters between themselves and the gods.

Performing an Augury

The first step in observing auspices is to select a spot of high ground. At Rome the tale is told of how Romulus took auspices for the founding of the city while seated on the Palatine Hill; Remus also took auspices on the Aventine Hill. Later when the Latins and Sabines united, Romulus established the Auguraculum upon the Arx, the northern summit of Mons Saturni now known as the Capitoline Hill. The Sabines on the collis Latiaris established another auguraculum, which is the southern most point on the Quirinal. This Auguraculum Quirnale is mentioned only by Varro (L.L. V.5.2). At these established auguracula it was not necessary to make the first step of drawing out a templum for where the ceremony would be held. In military camps augurale were similarly established (Tacitus: Annales II.13, XV.30). But each time the Comitia Centuriata was to be called a new templum would have to be drawn in the Campus Martius, and the same would hold true for any other occasion.

A spot is selected to mark out a templum on the ground, drawing out first the cardo running east and west, then the decumanus running north and south, according to astronomical observations. The same is described for laying out an estate, as Pliny mentions (NH XVIII.76-77), or a military camp, a colony or a city. The cardo is determined by the point on the horizon where the sun rises and sets, altering through the seasons, and not by determining the true east-west direction. The decumanus is determined by observing Polaris and not by employing a compass. Then two sets of parallel lines are drawn to form a rectangle in a proportion of 6:5. At the center of the templum the Romans would erect a tabernaculum, a square tent with its opening facing south.

The magistrate taking the auspices is referred to as an auspex, distinct from the augurs who interpret the signs (Cicero: On Divination 1.48; On the Nature of the Gods II.3; On the Laws II.13). The auspex sits out in front of the tabernaculum, usually near the edge of a hilltop, while his assistants and the tibicines and tibicinae will stand within. The purpose of the tabernaculum was to avoid the auspex from being distracted by auspicia oblativa, or naturally occurring omens, and that he might concentrate on the auspicia imperitiva being sought in the sky (see below).

Throughout the ceremony the tibicines and tibicinae are to play their flutes. Mention is made in the ancient texts that this was done to prevent the magistrate from being interrupted by the sounds of any ill omens. However there may have been more to this and the flute players might have also been present to draw birds to the templum. It was normal practice to have tibicnes and tibicinae play during any Roman ceremony, as a way of pleasing the gods. The first step in the ceremony would be to perform a libation to Jupiter, stating the reason that auspices are being taken and asking that He give his approval. Only Jupiter sends the birds to act as messengers of the gods in public auguries (Cicero: On Divination 2.34, Aves internuntiae Jovis; On the Laws II.8, Interpretes Jovis optimi maximi publici augures). For private auguries other gods or goddesses may be called upon and a sacrifice would then be offered to them. One emblem of an augur is the special earthen vessel (capis) used in making this libation. Incense and flute music are also offered as a part of this opening sacrifice.

Next the magistrate would employ his lituus to designate another templum in the sky. A lituus is a special wand of augury, made from a tree branch (possibly ash or hazel) without any knots and with one end naturally curled. With the lituus he would again draw out a templum by designating the cardo and decumanus. One formula has the auspex call out, “This shall be to my left is the East, and this to my right shall be the West. This before me is South, that behind me is North.” Then the enclosing sides are drawn. The boundaries of this celestial templum are designated by the auspex in calling out points of reference on the ground. Varro says that different formulas were used to designate a templum, and offers one such formula as was used on the Arx:
“Let the boundaries of my templa and the wild lands (tesca) be as I declare them with my words. That tree of whatever kind it is which I deem myself to have named, let it be the boundary of my templum and the wild land to the right. That tree, of whatever kind it is, insofar as I deem myself to have named it, let it be the boundary of my temple and the wild land on the left. Between these points I have established the templa and the wild lands by means of directing (conregione), viewing (conspicione), reflecting (cortumiones) as far as I have been most rightly aware of it within this limit.”

(Varro: On the Latin Language, VII.8)
The plural form is used here, seemingly making each boundary line a templum. Varro goes on by quoting from Ennius’ play Medea, “Contemplate and see the templum of Ceres on the left…” to draw a parallel between the words contemplate (contempla) and templa. The formula also mentions the plural form tesca that is translated as “wild lands” but these are rural sanctuaries of gods. The area within the boundaries of the rectangular templum is divided into four quarters by the cardo and decumanus, and there were further divisions, to a total of sixteen, each division dedicated to a particular divinity. A similar practice is found in the Etruscan practice of haruspicy where the liver of a sacrificial animal is divided into sixteen sections, each associated with a particular divinity. This formula by Varro seems to indicate that other regions beyond the designated templum were also associated with divinities. The cardinal directions marked out above were associated with light and life in the East, darkness and death in the West, the abode of the gods was held to be in the North, while the South was associated with the lower regions of the earth and below.

Once the templum is established, the auspex would then pray, “Juppiter Optimus Maximus, and all You other gods and spirits whom it is proper to invoke, I ask that if it is good and right that (the proposed action) be done, that You will send clear and certain signs within the boundaries that I have marked.” Here the auspex may specify the kinds of signs he wishes to appear within the templum he has marked out. These become the auspicia impeeritiva that he must watch for. He may also designate other signs that he will ignore, whether within or outside the templum. These, together with all other omens, become auspicia oblativa, and while they may be noted and used in clarifying more details about the augury, they are not to be considered as omens specifically answering the question posed. The auspex then awaits the auspices by watching the sky (sevare de caelo) for signs (spectio). This was to be done without interruption (silentium; silentio surgere) and anything that might make the augury invalid was called a vitium. For the auspices taken for inaugurating an official, the templum that was drawn and established on the ground might be made after midnight, where the auspex would remain in contemplation and offering sacrifices to the gods. Just before dawn he would then draw the templum in the sky and begin to look for signs.

The signs used in augury

Roman augury observed the birds. Only the flight of certain birds (alites) was noted as signs in augury. These were mainly eagles and vultures. Pliny recognized six kinds of eagles (Natural History X.6-7), the black eagle, hare-eagle, morphos or Homer’s dusky eagle (Iliad XXIV.316), the hawk-eagle or mountain stork that he says is like a vulture, the sea eagle, and what he refers to as the true eagle, being reddish in colour and of medium size. Other alites were the osprey (avis sanqualis or ossifraga) and the immusculus. (Virgil: Aeneid I.394; Livy 1.7, 34; Pliny: Natural History X.7) The other form of augury employed the call of certain birds (oscines). These were mainly owls, ravens, crows, and chickens. Some birds were used for both. Of the call of ravens, Pliny says that the worse message is when they make a plaintive “whine, as though they were being strangled (Natural History X.33).” They were then birds of ill omen (lugubres). Livy mentions at least one instance where the flight of a raven towards a general from his front, and then calling out over him, was taken as a good omen. The Romans regarded an owl (bubo) as an ill omen, unlike the Greeks. Owls were considered by Romans as funerary birds (funebres) who inhabit the night, the dessert, and “inaccessible and awesome” places. “As a result of this,” Pliny says (Natural History X.34), “it is a direful omen whenever seen inside the city or at all in daytime.” Other birds noted for both their calls and observed flights were the picus martius (woodpecker), feronius, and parrha (a type of owl). (Pliny: Natural History X.18; Horace: Carmina III.27.15)

The most important aspect of a sign is the direction from which it comes. Facing south, the flight of birds on the left, and thus in the east, or from the front in the south, is generally regarded as a favorable sign. A bird of omen approaching from the right or from behind is regarded as unfavorable. The same is true for the calls of birds of good omens, but not always. It is regarded a favorable sign if a crow (cornix) calls from the left, while the call of a raven (corvus) is considered favorable if from the right (Plautus: Asin. II.1.12; Cicero: On Divination 1.39). While an owl (noctua) is generally regarded as a bird of ill omen, his call from the left is considered favorable. However in this it is not always that simple. Every sound and motion a bird makes may hold a different significance according to the circumstances in which they occur, and the different times of the year. A good augur will be familiar with the habits of the various birds in his area. He will look for only certain signs, but when something out of the ordinary occurs, even if not by one of the birds specifically used in augury, then he should take note of it. Interpreting the meaning of the signs is based on experience. This is made clear by Cicero who says that divination of any kind depends upon the “frequency of the records” (On Divination 1.109-110). The habits of birds and the significance they signaled were recorded in different books and these were consulted when unusual occurrences were seen. Every paterfamilias kept his own books on omens to use when he was called upon to perform private auguries.

After designating the templum in the sky an augur will state the proposed action for which he or she seeks auspices, and in doing so the augur can stipulate what particular signs will be looked for. If the proposal falls under the providence of Venus, the augur could designate that the call or appearance of a dove would be accepted as a sign, as a dove is a bird sacred to Venus. The augur can just as easily designate the bark of a dog as a sign were he or she consulting Hecate, although for auspicia publica this should not be done as only signs sent from Jupiter may be considered. Only those signs which are specifically called to be watched for (imperitiva) should be considered as a proper sign in the augury. Other natural events (oblativa), which may occur and could be regarded as omens, should be noted and used in interpreting the auspices, but not held to be an auspicium in itself. Such oblativa might be the chance appearance of some animal, or their unusual behavior. Pliny records that “indeed augurs, who always think the presence of bees is a bad omen are not invariably correct (Natural History XI.55).” Normally such signs of oblativa appearing to the auspex is guarded against by pitching a tent or erecting a screen (tabernaculum capere) to block his view, and the playing of flute music to drown out sounds other than are imperitiva. What an auspex should consider however are common weather signs, as they indicate the circumstances under which a sign is given, and those signs that are ex caelo. These latter signs would include the appearance of comets, eclipses, and other astronomical phenomenon. The most important ex caelo signs to be kept in mind are the direction from which thunder and lightning may appear (the maximum auspicium: Servius: Commentary on the Aeneid by Virgil II.693; Cicero: On Divination 2.18). While Jupiter thundered and cast His lightning bolts, the comitia could not meet (Cicero: On Divination 2.14; Philippics V.3). The historical records stated that thunderbolts were sent in answer to certain prayers and rites. Numa was said to frequently make prayers to Jupiter which were answered by thunderbolts, and Piso added that when Tullius Hostilius followed in his example, but with too little regard for the ritual, he was struck by lightning (Pliny: Natural History II.140). Because the auspicia publica are asked of Jupiter, and thunder and lightning are associated with Him, such signs are regarded to have the same weight if not more than the flights and calls of birds. In general the sound of thunder or flash of lightning on the left, or to the front of the auspex is considered a favorable sign, while those from the right or behind are taken to be a sign of disapproval. Thunder and lightning occurring out of season, such as in winter, are especially considered a potent portent.

The Rule of Four

A method of categorizing and ranking the importance of various signs is given by the Rule of Four. The system uses four categories of signs, each of four kinds of signs.

  1. Ex Caelo
    • Cloud forms: nimbus, cirrus, stratus, cumulus
    • Precipitation: snows, hail, sleet, rain
    • Lightning, sheet or forked, and thunder, rolling or a clap
    • Light: rainbows, occultation of the sun, moon, or stars, shooting stars, comets

  2. Ex Avibus Alites (flight)
    • Eagle (Jovis ales) and/or Vulture (vultur)
    • Hawk (ossifraga)
    • Crow (cornix)
    • Woodpecker (picus)

  3. Ex Avibus Oscines (calls)
    • Raven (corvus) and/or Crow (cornix)
    • Owl (noctua, parrha)
    • Woodpecker (picus Martius)
    • Hen (gallina)

  4. Ex Quadrupedibus
    • Wolf (lupus)
    • Fox (vulpes)
    • Dog (canis)
    • Horse (equus)
If more than one omen is received, and they should contradict one another, then the higher ranked category and kind has the greater import. The greater number of equally ranked signs appearing in one quarter of the templum as opposed to another quarter, likewise takes precedent. Such was the case in the auguries taken respectively by Romulus and Remus. Both received favourable auspices of vultures, yet Romulus received more and was thus judged to become the founder of Rome.

All birds and animals taken as omens, and the order in which they are ranked, varies according to the location where the augury is made. What is given above is based on the ancient texts used at Rome. In general, a bird or animal that is more rarely seen in a given locality would be ranked higher. The system used at Rome for official auguries was recorded in the Libri Augurales, while in the Commentarii Augurales a collection of interpretations of signs given in specific cases were kept for future reference. In practice every paterfamilias maintained his own books, handed down through the family. Cicero, who was himself an official augur for the state, mentions a different system of omens used by his friend Divitiacus, a Druid of the Aedui. In the Druidic system he recognized one similar to his own, only different in that it used the birds and animals native to its own location. Through careful observation and experience, each augur would develop his or her own system.

The possibility of receiving multiple signs raises the question of how long the auspices should be taken. If ill omens arrive, should the auspex continue to wait for other signs that might be more favourable? Once the auspex makes a sound or leaves his seat the augury ends under any circumstances. How long an auspex should plan to conduct an augury should be a natural unit of time. A natural hour (measured by a sundial, not a clock), from dawn to midday or midday to dusk, or for a full day from dawn to dusk can be used.

Announcing the auspices

The question put to the gods in an augury is made in a straight yes or no format. “Do you approve of this?” The results of an augury can therefore only be favorable (nuntiatio) or unfavorable (obnuntiatio). Auspicia were described as “favourable” (addictivae), “admitted” or “allowed” (admissivae), “prosperous” (secundae) or simply as “good omens” (praepetes) when the gods approved. If favorable the results are announced in a nuntiato, stating the day the auspices were taken, what was asked, and that the signs were favorable. “Aves admittunt!” (The birds allow it.) If the signs were unfavorable, this is announced by saying “Alio die!” “Another day.” The auspices may then be taken on another day, depending on the matter concerned in the inquiry. Ill omens are described as clivia or clamatoria; the birds giving ill omens described as “funerary” or “murderous” (funebres), “inhibiting” (inhibitae), evil (malae), or “disastrous” and “plaintive” (lugubres). Depending on the question that was asked, unfavourable omens can indicate that one should “resign” or “abdicate” (abdicere), be “prevented” from taking the proposed action (arcere), or that the action itself is “opposed” by the gods (refragari). Such auguries of the gods’ disapproval are named either adversae or alterae. If no sign is received then it means that the gods are indifferent to the proposed action. One can proceed without the approval of the gods in this case, or wait until another day to take the auspices again.

1. Ancient sources
  • On Divination, M. Tullius Cicero
  • On the Nature of the Gods, M. Tullius Cicero
  • On the Laws, M. Tullius Cicero
  • On What Words Mean, S.P. Festus
  • Ab Urbe condita, Titus Livius
  • Natural History, Pliny the Elder
  • Annals, P. Cornelius Tacitus
  • Lingua Latine, M. Terentius Varro Reatinus
2. Modern sources
  • Religions of Rome: Vol. I: A History; Vol. II: A Sourcebook, Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Cambridge University Press, NY, 1998: ISBN 0 521 31682 0
  • Roman Augury and Etruscan Divination, P.Regell, Arno Press, NY, 1975.
  • Roman Augury & Etruscan Divination, Edited by: W. R. Connor, Ayer Company Publishers, Inc.,1979: ISBN 0405072732
  • The Beginnings of Rome, T. J. Cornell, Routledge, NY, 1995: ISBN 0-415-01596-0
  • Roman and European Mythologies, Y. Bonnefoy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.
  • Augury at Lacuus Curtius
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