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The dominant religion of Burma/Myanmar is Theravāda Buddhism.  But there is a pervasive older animism which lies just beneath the surface of Burmese Buddhism.  This ancient folk religion centers around the worship of “nats”, spirit beings which can be found in natural things.  Nats are complex and take on different forms and meanings depending on local custom and belief (although lesser nats tend to be tricksome and irascible).  Human beings can become nats, particularly if they die gruesome violent deaths. The worship of nats takes various individualistic shamanistic forms, but the universal practice throughout the land involves placating the nats with little shrines and offerings of bananas and coconuts.

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The stolid Buddhist monarch, King Anawrahta (1044-1077 AD) was frustrated with the widespread worship of nats and he tried to stamp it out with royal edicts and persecutions, yet people merely worshiped on the sly, replacing their nat statues with coconuts (which could always be passed off as, well, just coconuts).   Anawrahta realized he could not eradicate the people’s folk belief, so he formalized it by introducing 37 greater nats and giving them a chief with a Buddhist name. Additionally he tried to tie the 37 nats closer to Buddhist iconography and practice.  Yet the ancient traditions still persisted and the 37 nats (who endure as a national pantheon to this day) are not entirely convincing as Buddhist devas, which is how they tend to be portrayed).  For one thing, almost all of the 37 died in terrible carnage (which is known as “green death” in Burmese).  Likewise, they don’t quite seem to have the divine perfection and blissful superhuman happiness/tranquility of devas or Bodhisattvas.

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Shingon “Lady Hunchback” from Sir Richard Carnac Temple’s “The Thirty Seven Nats”

For example, this is Shingon (ရှင်ကုန်း) aka “Lady Humpback.”  She was a “maid” of the handsome womanizing King Thihathu of Ava, but it sort of seems like she was maybe a concubine or a sorceress since she accompanied the monarch in battle.  She was on her way back to the capital Ava when she “died”…which also seems like a euphemism (?) for being poisoned (Thihathu was also murdered with arrows at the order of the beautiful evil queen Shin Bo-Me).  After her “death”. Lady Humpback transcended into a nat, but, despite her godhood, she thereafter walked bent over in agony with her arms swaying lifelessly.  If I apotheosized into a Burmese deity. this is not how I would want to be!  Does anyone out there have a more comprehensive version of this tale?  I think I am going to have to go to the New York Public library and look at actual books to find out more, but, even so, I get the feeling the real story might not be written in any language other than Burmese.

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A nat shrine of bananas and coconuts

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As a Halloween treat, here is a pen and ink drawing which I made of a great dark fantasy metropolis (which is also a lurking predatory fish).  As you can see, there are three stages to the composition: the cerebral top portion inhabited by angels, gods, and flying marvels; the primal underworld at the bottom (which is filled with wailing souls, dark sacrifice, and insatiable hunger); and, in the middle, a glistening city between the two extremes.  In the sky, Apollo, god of prophecy and the arts, rides his chariot angrily towards a blithe Icarus.  At far right, Death watches the city while, beneath the towers (beyond life?) the inhabitants…or possibly their souls walk through a Tartarus of appetites and chthonic marvels.  I am sorry that it is too small to appreciate (it took me forever to draw all of the little ghost figures and monsters which are under the fish).  The piece speaks to the larger nature of humankind’s collective existence (and our appetites) but I feel the supernatural monsters and crystal landscape with the heavens also speaks to larger possibilities we could aspire to.  I am sorry it is slightly crooked in this shot: this was the best picture I have but it is slightly distorted (until I can get a finer scan made).

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The three spirits sent by Nüwa as seen in a contemporary Chinese theatrical production

The three spirits sent by Nüwa as seen in a contemporary Chinese theatrical production

My favorite demiurge is the Chinese snake goddess Nüwa. Nüwa tends to be portrayed as a beneficent creator who loves humankind and goes out of her way to protect them (while modestly shunning the worship craved by lesser deities). There is, however, a scene in Chinese mythological literature where a presumptuous human manages to rile up the usually gentle goddess. In the Ming dynasty era epic Fengshen Yanyi (AKA “The Investiture of the Gods”) the last Shang ruler King Zhou, a legendary debauched ruler, visits the temple of Nüwa to ask for her blessing. The sybaritic king sees a pulchritudinous statue of the great goddess and makes extremely inappropriate remarks about her charms before defacing the temple with obscene poetry/graffiti. In response, Nüwa sets aside her traditional compassion and decrees that King Zhou will be the last ruler of the Shang kingdom. To make her pronouncement come true, Nüwa sends three spirits to destroy the king: a thousand-year old white vixen, a nine-headed phoenix, and a jade pipa. Each spirit takes the form of a beautiful woman and soon they are destroying the king and his empire with erotic wiles and the darkest treachery! I don’t want to spoil the rest of the tale for you, but perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that things go downhill for King Zhou… The moral of the story is to respect Nüwa, the mother goddess of humankind and maybe also beware if numerous supernaturally beautiful women are suddenly throwing themselves at you.

Chinese Fox Spirit

Chinese Fox Spirit

Nine-headed Phoenix

Nine-headed Phoenix

A woman holding a pipa (Chinese lute)

A woman holding a pipa (Chinese lute)

 

sluaghIn Celtic mythology, there is a mysterious group of supernatural beings, the aes sídhe, who belong to a realm which is beyond human understanding (yet which lies athwart the mortal world).  The greatest among these aes sidhe were gods and goddesses—divine incarnations of nature, time, or other abstract concepts.  Other members of the fairy host were thought of as elves, goblins, sprites, or imps (for example, the leprechauns–the disconcerting little tricksters of fairydom).  However the supernatural world was also filled with the restless dead…beings who were once mortal but whose failures and miseries in life kept them connected to this plain of existence.  A particularly ominous group of these dark spirits comprised the sluagh sidhe—the airborne horde of cursed, evil, or restless dead.

shadow_peopleThe sluagh sidhe (also known simply as the sluagh) were beings who were cursed to never know the afterlife.  Neither heaven nor hell wanted them.  Like Jack O’Lantern they were condemned to roam the gray world.  Unlike Jack O’Lantern, however, the sluagh were reckoned to be a malicious and deadly force.  They appeared en masse in the darkest nights and filled the air like terrible rushing starlings or living mist.  One of the most horrible aspects of the sluagh was the extent to which their horde existence erased all individual personality (like eusocial insects—but evil and spooky).

article-2077359-0F3F563E00000578-477_634x320Before the advent of Christianity in Ireland, Scotland, and the northlands, the sluagh were thought of as a dreadful, otherworldly aspect of the wild hunt.  When the dark gods came forth to course the world with hell hounds, the sluagh were the evil demons and fallen fairies which flew along beside the grim host.  After Christian missionaries began to arrive, the idea of losing one’s soul forever became worse than the idea of merely being torn apart by dark monsters—and the sluagh was reimagined as a force which hunted and devoured spirits.

Wodan's Wilde Jagd (F. W. Heine, 1882, engraving)

Wodan’s Wilde Jagd (F. W. Heine, 1882, engraving)

The sluagh were thought to fly from the west.  They were particularly dangerous to people alone in wastelands at night (which sounds dangerous anyway) and to people on the threshold of death [ed.–that sounds dangerous too].  Some of the Irish death taboos against western windows and western rooms are thought to be related to fear of this demonic horde. Although the sluagh could apparently be dangerous to healthy people in good spirits, they seem to have been most dangerous to the depressed, the anxious, and the sick.  From my modern vantage in a warm well-lit (northerly-facing) room, the idea of the sluagh seems to be an apt metaphor for depression, despair, and fear.  Hopefully they will stay far from all of us!

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Statuette of the god Anubis, ptolemaic Period 304-30 B.C., wood with gesso and paint

Statuette of the god Anubis, ptolemaic Period 304-30 B.C., wood with gesso and paint

In the most ancient ritual texts from the beginning of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (ca. 2686 BC), the supreme god of death and the underworld was the dark god Anubis, an embalmer-deity with the head of a jackal or wolf.  By the end of the 5th dynasty (2345 BC) this role was assumed by the great mummy Osiris who transcended death itself to live on forever as lord of the underworld. Yet Anubis remained an important deity in his role as embalmer and protector of the dead on their journey to the afterlife.

Anubis attending the mummy of the deceased (tomb mural from the tomb of Sennedjem, ca. 1300 BC).

Anubis attending the mummy of the deceased (tomb mural from the tomb of Sennedjem, ca. 1300 BC).

One of the most distinctive Egyptian deities, Anubis was usually portrayed with a powerful human body surmounted by the black head of a jackal.  Sometimes he was portrayed simply as a black jackal wearing a ceremonial ribbon, and in one or two statues he is portrayed as fully human.  As with the enigmatic desert god Set, the exact nature of the animal associated with Anubis is hard to ascertain.  For centuries, Egyptologists have identified the creature as a jackal–but increasingly, scholarly consensus inclines towards a subspecies of wolves which have long since gone extinct in Egypt.  The black color was not meant as a zoological illustration, but instead denotes mastery of night and the secrets of death.

Anubis in his recumbent form lying atop a coffin: from the the tomb of Tutanhkamun (ca. 1323 BC)

Anubis in his recumbent form lying atop a coffin: from the the tomb of Tutanhkamun (ca. 1323 BC)

Anubis was also known by various sacred titles such as “He who is upon his mountain” and “He who is in the place of embalming”.  In addition to embalming the corpses of the deceased so that their spirits would live on in the afterlife, Anubis was a psychopomp who lead the newly dead spirits to the great scale of the underworld where they faced judgment.  Under the watchful eye of Thoth, each dead person would then place their heart upon the balance where it would be weighed against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth and order.  If a person had led a virtuous life, their heart would balance against the feather, but if they had been violent, dishonest, and dissolute, their heart would weigh too much for them to enter the afterlife—whereupon Anubis would throw them into the jaws of a crocodile demon known as “the devourer” and their soul would be annihilated.

A papyrus depicts Anubis leading the departed to the great scale of judgement (the devourer eagerly awaits on the right of the scale)

A papyrus depicts Anubis leading the departed to the great scale of judgement (the devourer eagerly awaits on the right of the scale)

This weighing was regarded as all-important to obtaining an eternity of bliss, so Egyptians were careful to please Anubis with temples, carvings, hymns, and offerings.  Egyptian tombs also demonstrate that the living made plans to deceive Maat when the moment of absolute truth arrived and the walls are graven with litanies of virtues which the dead perhaps did not possess and suspiciously plaintive lists of sins which they claim to have never committed.

Thanatos, God of Death, sculpted from marble in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Circa 325 BC

Thanatos, God of Death, sculpted from marble in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Circa 325 BC

In ancient Greece, there were two incarnations of death.   The more well-known Greek personification of Death was Thanatos, the child of Nyx and brother of Hypnos (Sleep).  Thanatos represented natural death and was portrayed as a gentle being.  He was represented either as a kind handsome bearded man with wings or as a beautiful winged child.  Thantos is sometimes portrayed carrying a butterfly, a wreath, or an inverted torch.  Thanatos is frequently represented on funerary stele and on vases—a peaceful figure who led souls away after they had lived full lives.

Thanatos Takes Alkestis (Attic Red Figure Vase,  Attributed to the Amphitrite Painter)

Thanatos Takes Alkestis (Attic Red Figure Vase, Attributed to the Amphitrite Painter)

However Thanatos had a flock of hellish sisters, the Keres, dark flying beings with sharp teeth and an insatiable taste for blood.  The Keres represented violent senseless death.  They flew in the thousands above battlefields and hung over plague ravaged cities.  The Keres were associated with  the apparatus of violent death–famine, madness, agony, hate, and violence, yet classical authors also sometimes treat them as oddly personal—like a bullet with a soldier’s name on it.  Keres were portrayed like harpies or demons—cruel women with fangs and talons dressed in bloody ripped garments.  When they found a wounded or sick person the Keres would descend to feast on blood.  Hesiod’s harrowing poem, The Shield of Heracles describes them in such a manner:

The black Keres, clashing their white teeth,
Grim faced, shaggy, blood-bespattered, dread,
Kept struggling for the fallen. They all wanted
To drink black blood. Whom first they caught.
Lying or fallen newkly wounded, around him
They threw their might talosns, and the shade to Hades
Went, in icy Tartarus. Their hearts were glutted
With human blood: they threw away the corpse
And back to the tumult and fighting rushed, in new desire
(verses 248-257)

Hesiod also indirectly indicates that the Keres were among the horrible fates which flew out of Pandora’s box and have subsequently plagued mankind.  The Romans also believed in these cruel & deadly incarnations of fat.  The Roman name for the entities was tenebrae—“darknesses”

Ker or Poena (Lucanian red-figure kraterca. 4th century B.C.)

Ker or Poena (Lucanian red-figure krater
ca. 4th century B.C.)

The Keres do not fit neatly into the larger Greco-Roman pantheon.  Perhaps, like Nyx herself, they were outsider gods left over from some earlier tradition.  Throughout the course of classical history, their portrayal and their fatalistic meaning changed.  However they were a part of classical thought.  It is important to mention them when writing about the Greek underworld.  The dark realm below was haunted by these cruel children of night—they would fly forth when disaster struck humankind.keres

Imagine working deep inside a mine in medieval Cornwall.  Darkness is all around you, barely broken by the hot sputtering oil lamp.  Breathing poisonous air, you have carved deep into an underworld of granite using simple handtools and brute strength.  You are seeking precious ore for some greedy lord when suddenly an unearthly knocking sound starts to come from the walls and ceilings and the whole mine starts to shudder.  It’s the knockers, the spirits of the mine!

The Works of an Abandoned Cornish Mine

Cornwall is a peninsula of ancient rock which juts out from the southern tip of Great Britain.  When the continent Laurussia slammed into Gondwana during the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, the complicated geology of colliding plates caused a massive intrusion of magma to push up into the native rocks.  This magma cooled into huge swaths of granite which underwent extensive metamorphism and mineralisation during subsequent ages—a process which left the area which rich seams of various metals. Mining began in Cornwall by at least 2150 BC–when tin was critical to bronze making– and it continued until 1998 AD (and it could restart at any time in accordance with the schizophrenic dictates of the world economy).  Various periods have seem particular flurries of mining activity—particularly the middle ages and the Industrial revolution, but the vocation has always been an underlying part of the Cornish character.  The myth of the knockers is a major part of that tradition.

The Knockers (unknown artist, woodblock print?)

The knockers were conceived of as a fairytale race of hard-working dwarf-like miners.  The height of children, the hardscrabble little men possessed the clothes and tools of underground laborers and the work ethic of supernatural beings.  Although they existed slightly beyond human kin, the knockers could be occasionally apprehended at the edges of perception–where the light faded in the depths of the pit, or just around a braced corner.  The knockers were thought to be pranksters.  They would steal tools or put out lights.  To some miners, the knockers were evil beings who would knock down the supports holding up the shaft.  The majority of miners however  thought were benevolent imps or even the spirits of miners who dug too deep and died crushed in the blackness.  When the mine walls started to groan and pop, it was the knockers trying to warn the miners of imminent collapse.

An illustration of Knockers (who are unaccountably hanging out with a fossil ichthyosaur)

There idea of magical miners was widespread in Europe.  The Germans talked about the kobald–the goblin miners who poisoned the deep shafts.  The Scandinavians believed in different races of dwarves.   The tunnels beneath the burial mounds of Ireland were thought to be the haunt of leprechauns hoarding pots of gold.  Yet of all these underground folks, the knockers seem to play the biggest part in the life of the Cornish miners.  The men demanded that mine bosses propitiate the knockers in various ways.  Individual miners took care to throw the last bite of their famous Cornish pasties to the knockers.

Knockers dress differently but share a thirst with Leprechauns.

As the world changed the mining industry changed: Cornish miners emigrated to other lands to share their expertise (and to share the profits of new strikes).  They played a substantial part in America’s mining boom and they brought their traditions with them to the mines of the new world.  The knockers morphed into the tommyknockers, but otherwise changed very little in the copper, silver, and gold mines of the old west.  As a remarkable post script to the age of Cornish-American mining, when a huge California metal mine closed in 1956 and sealed the entrance, the former workers petitioned the owners to reopen the door, so the tommyknockers could leave and seek new jobs– a request which was granted.

Statue of an Apsara Dancing(Unknown artist, Uttar Pradesh, India, Early 12th century)

In both Hindu and Buddhist mythology a group of beautiful & ethereal female spirits inhabit the skies.  These elegant beings are known as apsaras.  They are lesser goddesses of water and clouds.  In classical Indian literature apsaras are often portrayed dancing seductively in the courts of the gods or married to ganharvas—nature spirits who play celestial music for the gods. Both groups of entities are particularly connected with the court of Indra, the god of the skies and storm, and also king of the gods (although that title is less absolute in Hinduism than in other cosmologies).

Rambha Apsara (Kishan Soni, 2012, oil on canvas)

In many myths, apsaras are cast as supporting characters.  They are roughly analogous to nymphs and naiads in Greek mythology or angels in Abrahamic myths.  Indra constantly felt threatened by great ascetics who amassed titanic spiritual and magical power through physical austerity.  One of his favorite ways of dealing with these powerful yogis was to send apsaras to seduce them—which is why many heroes of Indian myth have a sexy apsara as a mother and a crazed hermit as a father!  In addition to being masterful dancers apsaras could alter their form at will (although I can’t think of any story where they were anything other than beautiful).  They also ruled over the vicissitudes of gaming and gambling.

The apsara Menaka seduces the sage Viswamitra

Apsaras can be recognized because of their tiny waists and their pronounced feminine attributes.  Usually they are pictured dancing gracefully, clad (or partially clad) in lovely silk skirts and bedecked with gold jewelry and precious gems.  Often they are gamboling in the skies or playing in the water.  Additionally apsaras tend to be crowned with gorgeous ornate headdresses.

Apsara (stone relief carving at Angkor Wat)

Sculptures of apsaras are frequently a principle component of classical Indian temples and the gorgeous undulating female forms remain a mainstay of Indian art.  These celestial dancers were also particularly esteemed in Southeast Asia. Classical art and architecture from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos frequently features the lovely spirits.  Recently a controversy has broken out in the Cambodian community involving contemporary paintings of apsaras which some critics deem too racy for refined tastes.  Ascetics beware!

 

Paphiopedilum King's Forest 'Kate's Peridot' (Photo by Ken Jacobsen)

Pigments, hues, colors!  The way light bounces off objects and shines into our primate brains is rife with emotional and moral meaning.  Each color has historical dimensions and conveys allusions to different times and places. Colors evoke feelings and thoughts in a way that almost nothing else can.

In continuing celebration of Holi, the festival of colors, I’m writing about some of my favorite colors starting today with chartreuse.  Half way between green and yellow, chartreuse plays tricks on the brain–sometimes looking like one or the other. It is a quintessential color of spring, appearing in the first buds of willow and the tip of the crocus as it pokes up from the ground.  However a summer field glowing in the sunlight is also chartreuse as are aspen leaves when they begin to change in fall.

Weeping Willow in Spring

The historical roots of the word are as colorful as it is. Chartreuse is named after a delightful herbal liquor made by Carthusian Monks.  Wikipedia tells the story as follows:

According to tradition, a marshal of artillery to French king Henry IV, François Hannibal d’Estrées, presented the Carthusian monks at Vauvert, near Paris, with an alchemical manuscript that contained a recipe for an “elixir of long life” in 1605. The recipe eventually reached the religious order’s headquarters at the Grande Chartreuse monastery, in Voiron, near Grenoble. It has since then been used to produce the “Elixir Végétal de la Grande Chartreuse”. The formula is said to call for 130 herbs, flowers, and secret ingredients combined in a wine alcohol base. The monks intended their liqueur to be used as medicine. The recipe was further enhanced in 1737 by Brother Gérome Maubec.

Just why the artillery marshal had a magical longevity elixir is unclear. Twice the monks have been evicted from their monasteries and deprived of their properties (in 1793 because of the revolution and in 1903, thanks to an anti-monastic law).  But even in exile, they kept the secret recipe and they have always come back to distilling stronger than ever.  Because it is so well known around the world, their delightful (and extremely alcoholic) concoction has loaned its pretty name to the lovely color.

Perhaps it is appropriate that chartreuse bears the name of a spirit.  Despite the fact that it is a color frequently seen in the natural world there is also something otherworldly about it.  Think of how many ghosts, aliens, and mystery substances are colored a crazy yellow-green and you will immediately see what I mean.

Beings beyond human comprehension....

You can probably tell that Chartreuse and similar yellow greens are among my favorite colors.  Nothing combines the feeling of vibrant, thriving life with a hint of mystery and ineffability like chartreuse.  That’s enough writing I am going to go out and revel in a world of golden-green shoots!

The Garden of Earthly Delights (Hieronymus Bosch, ca 1510)

Dante and Virgil encounter Cerberus" by Christopher ´Topher´ Allen Shepard

Pride of place among the monsters born of Echidna has to go to Cerberus, the great three headed dog that guards the underworld.  As a dutiful pet to Hades, ruler of the dead, Cerberus works hard to keep living beings out of the underworld and prevent deceased souls from returning to the world of life.  Getting past Cerberus on the way into and out of the underworld was therefore a chief problem for the heroes who visited the land of the dead.  Orpheus charmed his way past the dog with music.  Aeneas pragmatically fed the creature drugged honey cakes.   Psyche used sweet words and dog biscuits.

Hercules of course used brute strength.  In fact the demigod was in the underworld specifically to borrow Cerberus as a twelfth and final bravura labor. Capturing the hellbeast of course required bravery and raw force, but Hercules had become rather savvier by the time of his last labor, and he did some other things right.  Before going to the underworld he mastered the Eleusinian Mysteries so that, in case he never returned from the realm of the dead, he could at least enjoy a pleasant afterlife (the cult’s principal benefit).  Once he had entered the underworld through the winding subterranean cave Taenarum in Laconia, Hercules sough out Hades and asked permission to borrow his dog.  Hades granted it provided Hercules subdue the beast without using any weapons.  When Hercules wrestled Cerberus to submission, he took the creature back to Eurystheus who was so frightened he hid in a jar (which is how he is always portrayed) and freed Hercules from any further obligations.  Cleansed of his past sins, Hercules was free to pursue his own life.

Herakles, Cerberus and Eurystheus (from a black-figured Caeretan hydria vessal of Etruscan make, ca 525 BC)

Dante also described Cerberus.  The Italian poet’s version of the monster seems to be having doggy fun.  Virgil and Dante witness him tearing apart spirits and they feed him some dirt to play with in the following passage from Inferno:

In the third circle am I of the rain
Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
Its law and quality are never new.
Huge hail, and water sombre-hued, and snow,
Athwart the tenebrous air pour down amain;
Noisome the earth is, that receiveth this.
Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth,
With his three gullets like a dog is barking
Over the people that are there submerged.
Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black,
And belly large, and armed with claws his hands;
He rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.
Howl the rain maketh them like unto dogs;
One side they make a shelter for the other;
Oft turn themselves the wretched reprobates.
When Cerberus perceived us, the great worm!
His mouths he opened, and displayed his tusks;
Not a limb had he that was motionless.
And my Conductor, with his spans extended,
Took of the earth, and with his fists well filled,
He threw it into those rapacious gullets.
Such as that dog is, who by barking craves,
And quiet grows soon as his food he gnaws,
For to devour it he but thinks and struggles,
The like became those muzzles filth-begrimed
Of Cerberus the demon, who so thunders
Over the souls that they would fain be deaf.

It is good that there is a family member of Echidna that did not suffer extinction at the hands of some hero. It is pleasant to imagine the three-headed dog enjoying a vigorous and rousing eternity with his master in the halls of hell.

Here is gallery of some images both ancient and modern, high art and low art, of the great monster.  Also I would like to give a hearty thanks to all of the creative people whose work is available on the internet.  You all are truly the best.

Cerberus (by Allison Smith)Cerberus (by Evolvana)

Sorcier (David Teniers)

(by R'john-aka-THE LOCKER)

Cerberus (an amazing pencil drawing by Todd Lockwood, 1994)

I wrote yesterday that this would end my series on Echidna’s monstrous offspring–but it occurs to me I forgot the Colchian Dragon.  So tune in tomorrow for a special bonus monster!

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