An Introduction To The Elements

by Douglas Gibb on July 1, 2009

The Four Elements and Spirit

The four Elements provide your Tarot deck with a structure, a kind of glue that keeps all the separate and different components represented within the 78 Tarot cards together and working as a whole. By being aware of Elemental Dignities within your Tarot readings, you will be able to see the whole picture represented by your Tarot spread and symbolising the clients life.

I want to keep this tutorial as practical as possible but there a few things that need to be mentioned. Firstly, using the Elements within a Tarot reading is as much art as it is technique and secondly, don’t be too concerned with trying to work out the effects the Elements are having; much like learning the 78 Tarot cards, keep things simple.

When we learned the 78 Tarot cards, we first learned how to recognise the cards before we looked at applying two keywords. I will be following the same principles with this post. Stage one involves learning to recognise the Elements and stage two involves building upon that with one or two key concepts. With all that said, let’s look at stage one.

Stage One

In the interest of keeping things simple, all I want you to recognise when you see a card is the Element itself. Here’s how to do that:

  • The suit of Wands is Fire
  • The suit of Cups is Water
  • The suit of Swords is Air
  • The suit of Disks is Earth

All 78 Tarot cards are associated with an Element, even the 22 picture cards. In case you are unsure what Element to apply to the picture cards I have provided a list below which should help.

  1. The Fool is the Element Air (or Spirit)
  2. The Magus is the Element Air (or Spirit)
  3. The Priestess is the Element Water
  4. The Empress is the Element Earth
  5. The Emperor is the Element Fire
  6. The Hierophant is the Element Earth
  7. The Lovers is the Element Air
  8. The Chariot is the Element Water
  9. Justice is the Element Air
  10. The Hermit is the Element Earth
  11. Fortune is the Element Fire
  12. Strength is the Element Fire
  13. The Hanged Man is the Element Water
  14. Death is the Element Water
  15. Temperance is the Element Fire
  16. The Devil is the Element Earth
  17. The Tower is the Element Fire
  18. The Star is the Element Air
  19. The Moon is the Element Water
  20. The Sun is the Element Fire
  21. Judgement is the Element Fire
  22. The World is the Element Earth

That’s all you need to practice for Stage One.

Stage Two

In this stage we will be applying a key concept to each of the Elements. Again, I am only going to mention one or two key concepts for the reasons I stated when we learned the 78 Tarot cards. I want you to avoid learning hundreds of keywords and concepts per card which will ultimately undermine your ability to do a successful and competent reading.

For the Element Fire, apply this concept:

Things are moving and things are changing. Fire represents change.

For the Element Water, apply this concept:

Things are not moving. Things are staying the same.

For the Element Air, apply this concept:

There are problems.

For the Element Earth, apply this concept:

Things are grounded. Things are stable.

Now, when you practice dealing out the cards, follow this structure:

  1. Start your practice session dealing out one card and instantly naming it and the two keywords you learned in a previous post
  2. Now, look at the card and try and fix into your mind what the Element associated with it would be
  3. Repeat this process until you can comfortably name the Elements that are associated with all 78 Tarot cards
  4. Deal out two cards and name their Elemental associations
  5. Finally, do a two card reading
    • I will be covering how to use the Elements with two cards tomorrow but for the moment I’d like you to try and apply this technique to your two card readings by yourself

Tomorrow, we will look at different ways the Elements can help us read two cards together. We will also be adding to the key concepts that I have suggested for each of the Elements. If you have any questions or suggestions please leave a comment; are the posts too long or two short? Have I explained things clearly enough? I’d love to hear how you guys are getting on with this tutorial.

If you would like some additional information on how to use the four Elements within a Tarot reading then check out the following articles:

  1. A series of articles that explains how to read the Tarot using the four elements – Pick A Card, Any Card…
  2. Elemental Dignity Rules.
  3. Also, you might like to check out a few articles that I have already written on EDs: The Elements.

This post is part of the Beginners Tutorial To Reading Tarot Cards.

(Theoretically) Related Posts:

28 comments… Let's discuss

Ginger August 17, 2009 at 2:21 am

For the Element Fire, apply this concept:
Things are moving and things are changing. Fire represents change.

For the Element Water, apply this concept:
Things are not moving. Things are staying the same.

For the Element Air, apply this concept:
There are problems.

For the Element Earth, apply this concept:
Things are grounded. Things are stable.

This is probably the simplest and most helpful way I’ve seen this described. Also in the first part with the Major Arcana….you call the Fool and hmmm Magician (air or spirit)…do you see those as the same or ? And are you singling out those cards as the two having a dual possibility? Or do all the air? I need to learn the elements associated with the Majors but I’m not sure how the changing not changing plays out in conjuntion with the card meaning….more reading to do I suppose.

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Douglas August 17, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Hi Ginger, thank you for your kind words :)

The Elemental associations I’ve used are based on a theory that links the Tarot to the Kabbalah, but more specifically, the Hebrew Alphabet and the Tree-of-Life. In this context we can link the Fool and Magician to both the Air Element and Spirit. This only applies to these two cards so all other Air cards are simply Air.

Check out this example:

Magician next to the 3 of Disks.

Viewing this two card combination as Air and Earth, we might say that the client isn’t happy with the quality of work that is being produced; or we might say that the current career is limiting and produces frustration.

If we view these same two cards as Spirit and Earth, we might say something slightly different. We might say that the person is producing quality work; or that the career offers opportunity.

What is the influence of Spirit?

Rather than weaken surrounding Elemental influences, it actually binds them ( not completely, just enough to allow movements with cohesion).

There are no rules for deciding whether or not the Magician or Fool card is Air or Spirit. Sometimes you will get the feeling that they are Spirit and other times you will get the feeling that they are Air. This all depends on intuition.

However, you don’t technically have to limit yourself to seeing the Fool or Magician as the only cards having this special quality if you are not comfortable with the associations to the Kabbalah. You might prefer to see the quality of Spirit as belonging to all 78 Tarot cards, in which case, this would be an excellent method for developing intuition.

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Paul Yeung November 15, 2009 at 8:32 am

Hey Doug, this is really interesting! If I do not take the Elemental Dignities into account, I’ll probably going to read the Magician placed beside the 3 of Disks as ‘the miracle worker’. That here is someone fully confident in his or her own abilities, and is gradually materializing his or her vision. But applying the EDs, particularly if we take Magician as Air, seems to alter the whole picture. I can think of other examples too, like when the two of cups is placed beside four of wands, or when the three of swords is placeds next to Disks cards or Earth attributed trumps, like the Hermit. Does that mean the more ‘pleasant’ qualities in the first pair and the ‘unpleasant’ qualities in the second pair is weakened in each case?

By the way, I thought the Empress is water Element and the Fortune is Air Element?

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Douglas Gibb November 15, 2009 at 5:42 pm

Hi Paul,

Thanks for stopping by :D

I’ll probably going to read the Magician placed beside the 3 of Disks as ‘the miracle worker’. That here is someone fully confident in his or her own abilities, and is gradually materializing his or her vision. But applying the EDs, particularly if we take Magician as Air, seems to alter the whole picture.

That’s a great description of the Magus with the Three of Disks.

If we are pairing these cards together using Elemental Dignities then it does alter the picture. Earth cannot contain Air; nor does Air want to be contained. We could reinterpret this pairing to indicate:

Someone with the skill to produce a high level of quality ‘work’, however, will this person be committed to the project long term?

Although the story has changed somewhat, the Divinatory definitions do not. What happens is the story takes on a slightly deeper level of complexity. The reading goes from being definitive (“This person is a miracle worker”), to something slightly ambiguous; something that is no longer black and white, but gray.

What Elemental Dignities has done is ask us to question how motivated the Magician will be to stay the course.

Remember, when we pair cards, both cards are considered equally strong. This means that the person’s skill (Magician) and ability to produce quality work (3 of Disks) is not in question. The pairing is also suggesting that a “quality of work” will be the result. However, the elements themselves ask us to question how committed he is to the task over the long term.

Does that mean the more ‘pleasant’ qualities in the first pair and the ‘unpleasant’ qualities in the second pair is weakened in each case?

Technically, reading Elemental Dignities in Triads will produce this phenomena more than in pairs. This is because reading Elemental Dignities in pairs – both cards considered equally strong.

When we have enemy elements in card pairing we are being ask to look at the long term potential of such a pair. For instance, the 2 of Cups paired with the 4 of Wands might be a successful relationship; but does the pressure of moving home put it under strain? Or, the 3 of Swords paired with the Hermit might be, someone who has retreated from life as a coping strategy during a time of mourning; but are they hiding from how they really feel?.

As you can see, the Divinatory meanings don’t actually change when we pair Tarot cards. Rather, we are looking at all the tensions that the pairing of Elements produces and seeing how that will effect things long term.

By the way, I thought the Empress is water Element and the Fortune is Air Element?

The system I use to attribute the Elements to the Trump cards can be found in, an introduction to the Elements.

I hope that helped answer some of those questions :D

Please feel free to ask anymore if you would like further clarification :)

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Melissa September 21, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Hi Doug,

I have never seen this kind of approach to tarot reading before. I was quite shocked that when I tried it, the 2 card spread was dreadfully accurate and insightful when applying ED in the reading. I, too, drew a 3 of swords but paired with the star card for someone else. When I first looked at these 2 cards, I was inclined to think they were opposites, the 3 of swords being a card of mourning, and the star being a card of inspiration and feeling serene. When I look at them as 2 air cards, I feel as if they both represent problems, lessening the impact of the inspiring star card. How should I read this since one card is that of mourning and the other is inspiring?

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Melissa September 21, 2010 at 9:01 pm

I also failed to mention that another puzzling combination I drew out was the death card and queen of cups. Since Death is a major arcana, my first instinct is that it swallows up the Queen of Cups changing it to be anything but, however these are only my first guesses. Any help and insight on these very puzzling combinations would be appreciated!

Douglas Gibb September 22, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Hi Melissa,

Good example.

As you pointed out, they are both Air cards, meaning they are both concerned with the mental well being of the person you read for. The 3 of Swords indicates a separation from someone, or something that was important to them and the Star card is the healing that is already happening to them. This healing process can happen in a variety of different ways. It can indicate someone else helping them, it can indicate an internal process or a combination of the two.

The overall story that these two cards are telling is one of pain and recovery.

Hope that helps :)

AJ September 20, 2009 at 7:42 pm

The elements are pretty interesting. I have to continue using these elemental associations.

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Douglas September 20, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Hi AJ,

I’m sure you’ll find that they will help you make a deeper connection to the Tarot :D

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Dan February 16, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Hey Doug, I just stumbled onto your site yesterday and so far I like it the best, as I am a beginner Tarot reader. I do have one question that perhaps you can clarify: if water signifies things staying the same and earth signifies things being stable, what is the difference between the two? Can you help illustrate the differences further for me, thanks in advance!

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Douglas Gibb February 16, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Hi Dan,

Thank you for your kind words.

Okay, let’s look at some of the similarities between these two Elements, before we explore their differences :)

The similarity between Earth and Water is that they’re both passive Elements. In this sense, they both tend to indicate that external events won’t change quickly; that they will stay the same. However, Water is associated with the inner world, emotions, physical healing, love, obsession, fascination etc. We could think of Water as indicating changes on an inner level as opposed to an outer level. Water is a Spiritual card, whereas Earth is usually concerned only with practical matters (okay, that’s not strictly true as Earth represents the greatest mystery there is … the body).

Earth symbolise stability, whereas Water symbolises growth; but the kind of growth that happens on an inner level, not an outer level.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two, is that Water is a fluid Element – it’s not fixed like Earth. Water, therefore, is always ready to change, fluctuate and adapt in accordance with the slightest variations in events. Earth, on the other hand, cannot be changed by mere pressure alone.

The reason Water is seen as “things staying the same” is because it adapts to the surrounding situation, effortlessly and fluidly, without making an impression on what’s causing the change.

There is one exception to this rule: when Water becomes destructive and leaves devastation in its wake.

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Dan February 17, 2010 at 6:35 am

Hey, thanks for clarifying. I’ve been practicing the exercises with the two-card readings, and I’m working on getting better according to your biggest secret article about just saying what you see. Your articles are just the thing I needed, cause I started to get overwhelmed.

I heard about a friend who got a reading and the stuff the lady told her was like someone called in advance and told her my friend’s life story, so I went out and bought my first deck and I’ve been intrigued ever since!

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Douglas Gibb February 18, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Hi Dan,

If you’re interested in looking into the Element Water further, here is a post that I’ve written on The Element Water.

I’m working on getting better according to your biggest secret article about just saying what you see.

The truth is … most Tarot readers that I know (me included) forget everything they know when they do a Tarot reading. Saying what you see, and feeling comfortable with that, is the mind set that most Tarot readers enter into during a Tarot reading. By all means study and learn as much as you can, but during a Tarot reading, be prepared to let go of all that knowledge and allow your intuition to flow.

The Tarot can be a lot of fun. Try and remember that when you feel overwhelmed.

I heard about a friend who got a reading and the stuff the lady told her was like someone called in advance and told her my friend’s life story, so I went out and bought my first deck and I’ve been intrigued ever since!

You’ll get there Dan – you’ve got the passion for it, and at the end of the day, that’s the fuel that allows you to continue on this journey.

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Colin M March 26, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Hi Doug I know exactly how Dan Feels I feel exactly the same way when I look at the cards something exciting and Buzzing…

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Colin McQ March 27, 2010 at 8:52 am

Hi Doug, was just working through this tutorial on the elements, having taken all the different elements in to perspective I can make the reading now flow lots more fluently never though of things like this I feel that within time I will develope a lot more insight to what the cards are saying, and I suppose with reading for your self is hard to do because we can always make the cards say what we want and through this I feel that I have to be more objective with what they tell me. so heres to more practice and some more practice, I suppose I will know when the time is right when I will be able to read for a complete stranger with confidence. for practice do you think taking a question from a friend in home is a good idea..

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Douglas Gibb March 27, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Hi Colin,

I’m glad you’re finding working with the Elements to be useful.

…for practice do you think taking a question from a friend in home is a good idea..

Good question! I would say yes and no!

Yes, because it’s your friend, the atmosphere is relaxed, it can be a lot of fun and no doubt you will learn a lot.
No, because the experience could damage your confidence if either you’re not ready, or your friend is not interested.

It’s a double edged sword, but I think in theory it’s a good move :)

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Tarot1 July 22, 2010 at 1:45 am

Dear Doug,

This blog is such a joy to read and the beautiful artwork is absolutely breaktaking! I am learning so much. Right now, I am continuing my study of the elemental dignaties. You and Catherine have done a tremendous job in giving us all of the combinations as well as giving us your own individal interpretations. This has been so helpful to me to see that tarot is alive with so many possibilities.

I do have quite a few questions. However, as I continue to read and study the great articles, I am beginning to answer some of my questions for myself. Thank you both for presenting the lessons in such clear writing styles!

I just went to the mailbox and got Catherine’s book and I can not wait to dig into it. Actually, I can. My goal is to read and study all of the articles on ED’s on this blog first, and then when I get to her book, this “newbie” just might feel ready to tackle counting techniques when I do the Celtic Cross:)

Gotta run. I just wanted to stop and say THANK YOU both!!!

Tarot1

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Douglas Gibb July 22, 2010 at 9:07 pm

Hi Tarot1,

Thank you for your kind words and I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog.

It’s great that the solutions to certain problems are just presenting themselves to you. The more problems you solve, the more fluid the whole reading experience becomes. A friend of mine, Paul, always says that once you solve one, then another takes its place. Learning the Tarot is a life time of problem solving – and the fun and enjoyment that that brings :D

I really enjoyed the book that Catherine and Paul wrote. I learned from it and I’m sure you’ll really enjoy it when you start reading it :)

Thank you for your kind words :)

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Tarot1 July 30, 2010 at 5:25 am

Hi Doug,

I read Catherine and Paul’s book on ED’s and counting cards and found it quite enjoyable as well as fascinating! I also attempted to follow the exercises:) I will be coming back to the book many times so that I can really learn the material. The more I study, the more I know I need to learn! However, I will follow your suggestion and make sure that I keep it fun.

I do hope that you can help me read these cards using elemental dignaties ASAP. This is a 3 card reading on a career and job issue in education. The cards were read in their upright positions. The cards are 10 of Cups/Page of Wands/Ace of Pentacles. In my limited experience, this seems like a pretty good layout. The 10 of Cups card showed up in the sixth house of the Horoscope Spread when the client got the job. We thought that was a good omen that indicated their passion and love for their career. Now, after several unhappy years in the position, the client can not wait to leave! So, my question is, which is the most important card in this spread? I see Water/Fire/Earth. Water and Fire are enemies and neutral and Fire and Earth are friendly. What does this exactly mean in this instance “neutral,” “friendly,” and “strong?”

In addition, the Page of Wands seems to be turning to the future towards the Ace of Pentacles. Both the Ace of Pentacles and the Page of Wands indicate a message of a new job to me. I read somewere, according to this certain author, that the happiness in the 10 of Cups is rarely experienced in the present. (In this case, I wonder if it was ever experienced.)

In this layout, it appears that the 10 of Cups is in the past because the Page has her back to the card. Also, the two flanking cards are passive and the middle card is active. The middle card seems squeezed to me like its action is blocked. The Earth/Ace of Pentacles does not seem like the action of getting a new job will take place soon because of slow movement. Is this saying a job opportunity now or later? I am also wondering if the economy is also a factor or do we just keep to the message of the cards? This layout seems to promise a job offer. The client is only asking a few friends if they know of available positions because it might not be in their best interest if the present job found out. Many of the client’s friends are suggesting that they stay where they are because of the numerous firings and layoffs in the client’s field.

Well, I would appreciate some insight into this. How would we read these cards both elementally and with their card meanings? In addition, from reading your articles on this great site, I understand that the cards do not have to be read reversed. How does this reading change with the one flanking card in poor aspect to the middle card?

Where can I get some in-depth practice, with answers, on card combinations? I am a little stuck. Please HELP!!!

Thanks:)
Tarot1

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Douglas Gibb August 1, 2010 at 11:11 pm

Hi Tarot1,

The cards are 10 of Cups/Page of Wands/Ace of Pentacles.

The Elemental balance in this reading indicates that the Page of Wands is in a slightly weakened position. That means that this card will not be so influential to the overall outcome. Next to the 10 of Cups, it could indicate tensions within the family. Does this influence the job and career? Perhaps it distracts.

The Ace of Pentacles shows that a new job is likely – but is it the specific job that the reading is concerned with? I’m unsure, and would probably be inclined to think that it means a different job.

Overall, I think a job offer is likely, but in the short term. I think there are some tensions (as indicate between the 10 of Cups and Page of Wands) between this persons and their close relationships and family.

The Elemental Dignities lets us know that the Page of Wands is weakened. This tells us not to expect the message instantly, but that there will be a time delay.

I hope that helps :D

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Christine Houser April 30, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Very good insight about the difference between the water and earth elements. I was a bit confused on that also. I would like to thank you for the information, as I have just recently become fascinated with tarot. I am more on an informational quest to learn about the subject, rather than practice myself, and your site has been a great way for me to open up my mind.

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meachelle July 16, 2013 at 11:27 pm

If the death card means change, then why is it a water symbol meaning things are not moving and staying the same?

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Douglas Gibb July 17, 2013 at 12:04 am

Good question.

There is a difference between reading the cards elementally and reading the divinatory meaning of an individual card. They are two different techniques that are usually applied at different points during a reading. It is better to read Elementally at the beginning of a reading and to read the individual cards at the end.

For instance, suppose you have dealt out 10 cards and 5 of them are the Element Water, then, you could apply the meaning “things are not moving but staying the same.” Emotions doesn’t like change. However, if 5 of them are the Element Fire then you would say that things are changeable. Notice, the individual meanings of the cards haven’t been interpreted yet, just the overall energy flow of the spread.

The Death card can mean change but more literally it means an end. People see endings as the start of something new. Also, the Element Water, like Death, can also be interpreted as change, rebirth and so on. Which is to bring me to a more important point – context. If the question was concerning the individuals psyche then the concept of Water (healing and so on) would be interpreted differently from a question that was about career (water isn’t always helpful in this context).

Finally, the individual cards are symbols in their own right. A water molecule contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms – h20. But water is a separate entity from oxygen and hydrogen. The Death card is composed of many different symbols but it is still its own thing.

I hope that helps :)

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meachelle July 17, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Thanks,
I’m new to Tarot and am just learning the cards so may have more questions for you and thanks!!!

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meachelle August 5, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Sorry, but another question. The cards in the Rider Waite deck the 22 cards, the Hermit and those ones. are they water, earth, air or fire?
I’m just learning and finding that I’m am loving this.
Thanks so much.
Meachelle

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Shilpi February 7, 2014 at 7:08 am

Hi ..
You mentioned Star as air…Does star represent problems as to me star is a positive card.

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Douglas Gibb March 1, 2014 at 3:25 am

Hi Shilpi,

No, the Star cards is not to be identified that strongly with the suit of Swords. The element Air is a quality of the suit of Swords but it is not the equal of the suit of swords.

Each card should be considered something unique and specific. The attributes of the individual cards help us to understand their uniqueness but don’t necessarily determine it. They don’t determine it because, as with all unique things, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Star card, overall, is a welcomed site in a Tarot reading. The element of Air is one aspect of its character. It contributes to the cards optimistic qualities. Remember, the element Air can be optimistic and far reaching – like the air itself.

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Douglas Gibb September 22, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Hi Melissa,

Good insight!

Both are Water cards, implying this reading concerns the emotional and pleasure driven areas of this persons life – usually involving relationships.

This combination also involves a Court card. There are several ways to interpret this – either as the person you’re reading for, or someone else. Either way, the Death is occurring to this Queen. But what does Death mean? It means an ending.

Therefore this combination of cards would suggest the ending of a relationship, or the ending of all the things associated with a relationship – such as the joint social scene (mutual friendships) etc. The ending is something that this person enjoys.

Hope that helps, but if you have any further questions you can post them to the forums where both myself and others will do our best to help :D

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