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This year, we are raising $14,000. That money will pay the following:
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For Nos Galan Gaeaf: An article on soul hunting and soul flight in the Brythonic tradition of Gwyn’s Hunt on this night of deep magic as the borders between thisworld and Annwn, life and death, and the laws that govern time and space break down.
Within Neo-Paganism Gwyn ap Nudd is generally understood to be a leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’. Before Jacob Grimm developed ‘the Wild Hunt’ as a concept applied to various otherworldly hunts across Europe in his Deutsch Mythologie (1835), they were known by individual names often referring to their leaders such as ‘Woden’s Hunt’, ‘Household of Harlequin’, and ‘Herla’s Assembly’. This essay will focus on the Brythonic tradition of ‘Gwyn’s Hunt’.
The earliest literary reference to Gwyn as a hunter comes from Culhwch and Olwen (1090) where it is stated, ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found.’ This suggests Gwyn was the leader of the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, prior to Arthur. According to the text, which was penned by Christian scribes, Twrch Trwyth was a king changed into a swine by God ‘for his sins’. This overlay conceals a pagan tradition…
Between September and November grey geese arrive in my locality. I’ve seen a local flock of greylag geese on the stretch of the river Ribble near Howick Cross at this time two years running. Greylags are the ancestors of domestic geese and residents in the UK all year round; migratory birds are only found in Scotland. This flock also contains Canada and domestic geese.
More dramatically pink-footed geese begin arriving from Iceland and Greenland. They can be heard flying overhead to WWT Martin Mere. This year the first group touched down on September the 9th and there are currently 15000 roosting on the reserve.
Watching their return to the last fragment of Martin Mere at sunset is awe-inspiring. One can only imagine the noise and patterns of the skeins before the Lancashire’s Lost Lake, once 15 miles long, was drained.
In the folklore of northern England, the cries of migrating geese are linked to Gabriel Ratchets. ‘Gabriel’ may derive from the name of the Angel of Death, the ‘gabble’ of geese, or the medieval word gabbe, ‘corpse’. ‘Ratchet’ originates from the Old English ‘ræcc’ meaning a ‘a dog that hunts by scent’.
The earliest record of Gabriel Ratchets is from 1664. Whilst living at Coley Hall in the Calder Valley, Reverend Oliver Heywood wrote in his Memoranda:
‘There is also a strange noise in the air heard of many in these parts this winter, called Gabriel-Ratches by this country-people, the noise is as if a great number of whelps were barking and howling, and ‘tis observed that if any see them the persons that see them die shortly after, they are never heard but before a great death or dearth… Though I never heard them.’
In his Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (1879), William Henderson suggests the ‘belief in a pack of spectral hounds’ originates from ‘the strange un-earthly cries, so like the yelping of dogs, uttered by wild fowl on their passage southwards.’
Lancashire folklorist James Bowker notes, in his Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1879), ‘Mr Yarrell, the distinguished naturalist, reduces the cries of the Gabriel Hounds, into the whistling of the Bean Goose… as the flocks are flying southward in the night, migrating from Scandinavia.’
This appears to be a mistake: bean geese migrate from Scandinavia to Norfolk and southern Scotland. Here in Lancashire it seems more likely that pink-footed geese, with their ‘high-pitched honking calls, being particularly vocal in flight, with large skeins being almost deafening’ would have been associated with Gabriel Ratchets. The pink-footed goose is closely related to the Bean Goose and was once considered a subspecies. Perhaps Mr Yarrell conflated the two.
Gabriel Ratchets are often associated with a spectral huntsmen. This may originate from pagan beliefs about ‘the Wild Hunt’ which takes place at the time of year geese migrate. In Norse and Germanic tradition it is usually led by Odin or Woden, to whom a goose was sacrificed on the Autumn Equinox. The Germanic goddess, Berchta, has a goose-foot and also leads a hunt with a goose flying in front of her. Dancers in her processions, the Berchten, wear bird-masks.
In Brythonic tradition a leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ is Gwyn ap Nudd. His hounds are known as Cwn Annwn ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, Cwn Wybyr ‘Hounds of the Sky’, or Cwn Cyrff, ‘Corpse Hounds’. Like the Gabriel Ratchets they are seen as death portents because they hunt the souls of the dead. Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn who oversees the passage of souls between the worlds, which is mirrored by the migrations of geese.
Goose is traditionally eaten on Martinmas, November the 11th, which is dedicated to St Martin of Tours. This festival ‘originated in France, then spread to the Low Countries, the British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe’. Martin attempted to hide in a goose pen to avoid being ordained as a bishop, but was given away by the cackling of geese. (I can’t help noticing connections between Martin, Martin Mere and geese…)
After the feast, divination was performed by the breast-bone. In 1455, Dr Hartlieb wrote, ‘When the goose has been eaten on St Martin’s Day or Night, the oldest and most sagacious keeps the breast-bone and allowing it to dry until the morning examines it all around, in front, behind and in the middle. Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, dry or wet.’ In Hampshire ‘the nature of the coming winter’ was divined from a breast-bone and, in Yorkshire, weather was predicted from the colour of goose-flesh.
The British Apollo (1708) poses the question why the ‘breast of a fowl’ is ‘called the Merry Thought’ and provides the answer, ‘The original of that name was doubtless from the pleasant fancies that commonly arise from the breaking of that bone, and ‘twas then first certainly so called, when these merry notions were first started.’ Every Commercialmas someone in my family breaks the ‘wish-bone’ of our turkey and makes a wish.
These traditions are rooted in a wide-spread belief that the goose was an oracular bird. It has been argued this derives from the Etruscans who ‘believed geese had supernatural visionary powers as oracle birds with these prophetic powers residing within its bones’ and was brought to Britain by the Romans.
Our understanding of the oracles of geese has diminished; drained away with their wetland homes. We can no longer tell, from the cacophany of voices barking overhead, who carries news and who carries a death portent. Goose is rarely eaten in Britain, with the tradition of rearing flocks of domestic geese for food, particularly for during the festive season, being replaced by turkey farming. Divination has been reduced to a facile act of wish-fulfilment in a world increasingly disconnected from the language of the divine.
Yet, whilst there are geese, there is hope that their language can be re-learnt by re-attuning to their flight paths, their life ways, listening to their gabble, divining how this relates to teachings from our gods. Perhaps, as pumps are shut down and wetlands are re-flooded, our abilities to divine will return with the geese.
Black horse of wonder Black horse of terror Black of the seas Take me under
Du y Moroedd, ‘Black of the Seas’, is a legendary water-horse in Brythonic tradition. His fame is attested by Taliesin in ‘The Song of the Horses’, ‘The Black, from the seas famous, / The steed of Brwyn’.
He is referred to in The Triads of the Islands of Britain in ‘44. Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens’:
‘Du y Moroedd… horse of Elidyr Mwynfawr, who carried on his back seven and a half people from Benllech in the north to Benllech (Elidir) in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidyr Mwynfawr and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naoman his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinifen, his cook who swam with two hands and on the horse’s crupper – and he was the half person.’
This passage shows that Du is not only a sea-going water-horse, as his name suggests, but of supernatural size and strength to be able to carry seven-and-a-half people and swim vast distances. He is intimately associated with the sea-lanes between northern Britain and Wales; perhaps sightings of him off the west coast were once common.
Triad 44 is set in the mid-6th century and has a historical basis. According to The Black Book of Chirk, Elidyr made a voyage from his home in the Old North to Wales to press the claim of his wife, Eurgain, to the throne of Gwynedd following the death of Maelgwn in 547, because Maelgwn’s son, Rhun, was illegitimate. Elidyr was slain at Aber Mewdus in Arfon. An army of northern men, including Clyddno Eiddin, Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael, and Rhydderch Hael avenged Elidyr by burning Arfon, then were driven back north by Rhun to the river Gweryd.
In Brigantia, Guy Ragland Phillips conjectures that Du might be identified with the Black Horse of Bush Howe in the Howgill Fells in Cumbria. He suggests Elidyr’s northern Benllech was Bush Howe and cites an alignment down Long Rigg Beck valley to Morecambe to Anglesey, saying the horse would be within its line of sight. This might have been the route taken by Du and his riders. ‘Benllech in Mon’ is likely to be present-day Benllech on Anglesey.
Elidyr’s voyage aboard Du with seven-and-a-half or eight people was well known by Welsh poets until the early 16th century. Tudur Aled says ‘Of greater vigour than Du’r Moroedd, such was his strength and daring… for a spree with the cold wind, eight men formerly went upon his back’. Guto’r Glyn speaks of a foal whose ‘mother was a daughter to that horse of Mon who went to carry eight men: Du y Moroedd has grandsons – this one, I know was one of them.’
Another renowned rider of Du is Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic hunter-god and ruler of Annwn. In Culhwch and Olwen it is stated ‘No steed with be of any use to Gwyn in hunting Twrch Trwyth, except Du, the steed of Moro Oerfeddog’ (the latter is a jumbling of Du’s name).
Because he fails to recruit Gwyn, Arthur does not manage to kill Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, who finally escapes into the sea. Only the otherworldly Gwyn can ride Du to hunt the Twrch into the ocean, which might also be identified with Annwn, ‘the Deep’, ‘the Otherworld’.
Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Nodens, is pictured in a chariot pulled by four water-horses. At Vindolanda Nodens is equated with Neptune. Both Neptune (as Neptune Equester) and his Greek counterpart, Poseidon (as Poseidon Hippios) were associated with sea-horses (hippocampi).
Intriguingly we find a story in Irish mythology called ‘The Pursuit of Giolla Deacair’ featuring Gwyn’s cognate, Fionn, wherein fifteen-and-half of Fionn’s men are abducted into the sea by a water-horse.
Giolla Deacair, ‘the Troublesome Slave’ and his horse are taken in by Fionn. Both are described as monstrous. Giolla has a ‘twisted mouth with long pointed teeth projected from it at all angles’ and ‘eyes like black holes in the skull of a corpse’. He drags a large iron club leaving ‘a deep trench in the ground’.
His horse is described as ‘dirty, shaggy hair covered its long, spiny back and the ribs were sticking out through its sides. Its legs and feet were crooked and splayed and a leg that seemed too large for his body dangled awkwardly from a scrawny neck.’
The horse causes trouble amongst the other horses. Feargus tells Conan to jump on its back and ride it across country to break its spirit. However, it will not move until it carries the weight of its rider, Giolla Deacair, which is equal to fifteen men. This shows Giolla and his horse are gigantic. The men pummel and kick the horse yet still it won’t move.
Infuriated by his horse’s mistreatment, Giolla leaves. His horse follows with the men ‘welded’ to him ‘like a sword to its hilt’. Fionn and his remaining warriors follow, but no matter how fast they pursue the horse goes even faster, like the wind, over mountains, rivers, and valleys until reaching the sea. As it shoots into the waves one of Fionn’s warriors grabs onto its tail.
We are told that, as it journeys through the sea, ‘The waves did not touch it nor the fifteen Fianna on its back, nor the unfortunate man clinging to its tail. Instead, the water parted before the animal, so that it travelled on a path of dry land.’ We might imagine Du travelling similarly.
Fionn and his men sail after Giolla and his horse to where the riders are imprisoned in Tír fo Thuinn, ‘The Land Under the Wave’. Giolla reveals he is a magician called Abartach. Fionn’s marriage to Taise persuades Abartach to release his men. As retribution Goll claims fourteen of Abartach’s women to return on the horse’s back and his wife to cling onto the horse’s tail.
This tale suggests Du also originates from the watery regions of the Otherworld. I wonder whether, like Giolla’s horse, Du had an earlier otherworldly owner whose name and stories have been forgotten. Perhaps there was once a story about how Gwyn came to ride Du between worlds.
Du also shares resemblances with the Welsh ceffyl dwr, the northern British dobbie, and the Scottish kelpie. The latter are notorious for luring humans onto their backs then drowning them. Once a rider has mounted, their hand sticks to the kelpie’s neck and they cannot let go.
Du’s stories have fascinated me since I heard his splashing hoofbeats approaching whilst meditating on the Ribble estuary. When I travel to the west coast his presence is always on the edges of my mind: his great arched neck, his oar-like legs, the multitude of riders he has carried. My fingers are caught in his mane and he is forever drawing me toward the Otherworld…
I recently discovered an article titled ‘Deep Polytheism’ by Morpheus Ravenna. I particularly liked what she has to say about religion done right feeling like a bottomless well and her suggestion that when we touch those depths we become part of the stories of our deities creating a shared story and future.
Beneath is an excerpt and the full piece can be read HERE.
‘When we recognize the Gods as beings with identities rather than as symbols, expansion happens. When we recognize Them as agents within their own stories, expansion happens. Greater vistas for learning, and greater opportunities for connection and relationship are opening up. New and deeper questions come up faster than we can learn answers. That expansion, that deepening, is an indicator that we are on the track of something important. I often say that if you’re doing your religion right, it should feel like a bottomless well – the deeper you go, the deeper you discover that you can go. That is what happens when we start to recognize the agency and sovereignty of the Gods.
It’s expansive. It goes even deeper. We can look at the story arcs of the Gods engaging with history, but we can simultaneously recognize that They Themselves may not be bound by time – may exist in a non-linear relationship to these historical journeys we are looking at. Thus, it is conceivable that every form and habit and identity that a God may have undergone throughout history could be simultaneously reachable within devotional relationships.
Imagine if you could contact and talk to and get to know someone you love at every age of their life, in every one of the identities they have occupied. Once we recognize evolution and change as possibilities within the stories of the Gods, it becomes possible for us to engage with any part of Them along that story arc…
And there’s something more that arises from that orientation. Because the Gods are alive within Their stories, we ourselves participate in the unfolding of those stories. We participate in the stories of the Gods in our studies of Them. In our asking and our researching where They came from and where They have been, we add to what is known of Them, and we help to shape those narratives. In our devotional cultus, in the knowledge of the Gods that comes through oracular and revelatory work, we contribute to Their stories. In being another of the peoples that have worshiped, fed and sung songs to Them, we become part of Their stories.
This is what comes from engaging with the Gods on this level. This is true relationship. When someone begins to matter to us as a real person within Their own story, we move beyond seeking what we can get from Them. They cease to be a symbol for something or a source of something and instead They become part of our story. We begin seeking to create a story together, a shared future.’
A while back I dreamt of watching a film in a cinema. The centrepiece was a dark tower on a looming hill. Turning on its foundations, raising and dropping its drawbridge, it possessed the power to command the shifting landscape, influence the weather, and draw people into its swallowing darkness.
At the end of the film the lights went off and a voiceover resonated through the cinema and every molecule of my being: “You are in the Dark Tower”. I believed the statement to be wholly true and was struck by a combination of fear and anticipation and the fulfilling of my destiny.
But the other people seemed completely unfazed. They continued munching popcorn, crackling crisp packets, slurping on straws, and laughing amongst themselves at the ‘special effects’. I felt incredibly angry they did not heed the otherworldly voice. The magic broke. I awoke.
I researched ‘the Dark Tower’ and learnt it appears in the folktale of ‘Childe Roland’. Reading this dismal story of a knight (‘childe’ means untested knight) assaulting the Dark Tower, which is identified with the castle of the King of Elfland/Fairyland, left me soul-weary. I’d heard its like so many times before….
The first record of ‘Childe Rowland’ is in Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606). Edgar, an exiled son in the guise of Tom O’Bedlam, recites its jumbled lines to a maddened Lear on the heath:
Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.
The first whole version is recorded in Jamieson’s Illustrations of Northern Antiquities (1814). The sons of King Arthur; Rowland and his two elder brothers, are playing ball around a kirk. Their sister, Burd Ellen, runs after the ball, and disappears. Merlin tells them Ellen has been ‘carried away by fairies’ to ‘the castle of the King of Elfland.’
Rowland’s brothers fail to rescue Ellen because they do not follow Merlin’s instructions. Merlin tells Rowland to kill everyone he meets in the land of Fairy and not to eat or drink anything offered. Rowland asks directions to the king’s castle from a fairy horse-herd, cow-herd, sheep-herd, goat-herd, swine-herd, and hen-wife. After they aid him, he remorselessly beheads them.
He arrives at ‘a round green hill surrounded with rings (terraces) from the bottom to the top’ and walks around it widdershins saying, “Open, door! open, door! and let me come in!” Through a twilight passage he enters a brilliant hall adorned with gold, silver, and clusters of diamonds, illumined by ‘an immense lamp of one hollowed pearl’ with a magically turning carbuncle.
Ellen sits on a sofa of ‘velvet, silk, and gold’. She warns Rowland that the King of Elfland poses a threat to his life yet, enspelled, offers him a golden bowl of bread and milk. When Rowland refuses to consume the fairy food the King of Elfland bursts through the doors yelling:
“With ‘fi, fi, fo, and fum!
I smell the blood of a Christian man!
Be he dead, be he living, wi’ my brand
I’ll clash his harns frae his harn-pan!”
“Strike, then, Bogle of Hell, if thou darest!” Rowland exclaims. He defeats the King of Elfland and offers to spare his life if he restores his brothers, who lie in trance in the corner of the hall, and Ellen. The King agrees. Producing a ‘small crystal phial’ he anoints the ‘lips, nostrils, eye-lids, ears, and finger-ends’ of the brothers with a ‘bright red liquor’. They awake ‘as from a profound sleep, during which their souls had quitted their bodies’ to speak visions.
In Joseph Jacob’s retelling in English Fairy Tales (1890) the brothers are not entranced but dead. Rowland demands the King ‘raise my brothers to life’ and ‘they sprang at once into life, and declared that their souls had been away, but had now returned.’ Fairyland is the land of the dead. Rolande’s quest, like Arthur’s before him, is to defeat the ruler of the dead and death itself.
This tale is repeated in Robert Browning’s poem ‘Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower Came’ (1895), which is based on a dream and written in the first person from Rowland’s perspective.
The guiding figure of Merlin is replaced by a ‘hoary cripple with malicious eye’ and ‘skull-like laugh’. The landscape is a ‘grey plain’ devoid of life aside from bruised dock and grass ‘scant as hair / In leprosy.’ Instead of herds, Rowland finds a single ‘stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare.’
He is tormented by visions of other knights who set out to the Dark Tower and did not return: ‘Cuthbert’s reddening face / Beneath its garniture of curly gold’ and ‘Giles then, the soul of honour… faugh! what hangman hands / Pin to his breast a parchment?’
Fording a river lined with a ‘suicidal throng’ of ‘drench’d willows’ he is terrified of standing on a ‘dead man’s cheek’ or tangling his spear in ‘his hair or beard’. On the otherside he journeys across a trampled battlefield, through a furlong with an engine ‘fit to reel / Men’s bodies out like silk’, then over marsh, bog, clay, and rubble, to be led by a ‘great black bird’ with unbeating wings to his destination in the ‘mere ugly heights and heaps’ of the mountains.
‘The Tower itself’ is ‘the round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart, / Built of brown stone, without a counterpart / In the whole world’. The ‘tempest’s mocking elf’ he aims to ‘stab and end’.
The poem ends with a vision of the dead:
There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew “Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came.”
It is is repeated again in Stephen King’s eight part dark fantasy series The Dark Tower (1982 – 2012) where Roland Deschain, a member of a knightly order of ‘gunslingers’ of ‘Arthur’s eld’ battles against ‘the Crimson King’.
This old tale of the sword-wielding, gun-toting ‘hero’ overcoming the fay and the dead and ultimately the King of the Otherworld has been repeating since Arthur defeated the Head of Annwn.
It’s so deeply ingrained in our consciousness we can’t imagine any other telling.
We sit munching popcorn confident the ‘hero’ will win and the ‘bad guy’ with his ‘fi, fi, fo and fum’ is all special effects.
What if that’s not the case? What if the knights in shining armour are rusting on the scrap heap of a false history, their journey is at an end, we are in the Dark Tower, and the King of Elfland is not just a one-dimensional comic book villain?
What new stories will unfold from the unknighted, the armourless, the weaponless?
Will we wait for the ‘hero’ to save us or is this where our story finally begins?
A Dance with Hermes is the first full poetry collection by the British novelist Lindsay Clarke. Serving as a messenger for Hermes, the winged-footed messenger god of ancient Greece, Clarke brings his myths to life in the twenty-first century in this series of masterfully crafted verses.
In his introduction, ‘A Note at the Threshold’, Clarke writes about his creative process. As a poet and polytheist I found this fascinating. The book began life as a ‘hermaion’: a ‘windfall’ or ‘god-send’ beginning with a single poem called ‘Koinos Hermes’ based on the presiding presence of Hermes in the life of his friend, John Moat. I was fascinated by this sense of gifting.
Most of the poems consist of four quatrains steering between ‘half-rhymes to suggest the elusive nature of the god’ and ‘full rhymes echoing on his sudden presence.’ Cleverly they shift between ABAB and ABBA rhymes echoing the dancing beat of Hermes’ winged feet. I admired the way Clarke allowed Hermes to lead the dance rather than attempting to force his message into a predetermined structure. Fittingly the verses accumulated like ‘hermae’ (cairns).
Clarke’s dance with Hermes begins with his conception by ‘Zeus Almighty, randy top Olympian… making secret love / to shy-eyed Maia in her mountain cave’ and leads us through his stories. I particularly enjoyed the poems evoking Hermes’ presence in the modern world.
‘Tortoise Song’ retells Hermes’ invention of the lyre. With ‘No iPods yet, no Spotify’, Hermes picks up a ‘tortoise nibbling at the grass’, ‘scoops the creature out’, makes his ‘Stratocaster’ and ‘strikes / a chord, sets generations dancing at the trick’.
In ‘He Honours the Hospitable’, which is based on ‘Baukis and Philemon’, Hermes is described as ‘a god of wayfarers’ knowing the need for ‘shelter, food and drink, a bed – / a common act of charitable B&B.’
Clarke explores the multiple roles of Hermes documented in his praise-names. I loved the sibilance of the lines ‘Psitthyristis. He’s the whisperer. / Psst!’ In ‘He Giveth Tongue’ Hermes is hailed as the inventor of the ‘polyglottal possibilities’ of language, ‘he’s the SIM card in your phone / your satnav’s voice, your texts and Twitter, webcam’.
He’s ‘The Night Visitor’ opening ‘the hidden regions where our dreams reside’, a friendly psychopomp stealing ‘fear and grief’ and Mercurius Duplex ‘the agent of transformation’ in an alchemical journey through Nigredo, Albedo, Coniunctio, and Rubedo.
Whilst Hermes shifts through many guises I was struck by the way he is consistently portrayed as a trickster god with an abiding sense of justice. When he steals Apollo’s cattle he says, ‘All property / is theft: these might as well be mine.’ In ‘He’s Rated Triple A’ ‘Access All Areas’ he is a ‘god of boundaries’ and ‘guide to legal or illegal immigrants,’ who feels ‘profound contempt / for human meanness, and our silent shame’ when children drown fleeing war. This stuck with me as a part of Hermes’ personality he wanted Clarke to portray.
The most powerful part of the book, for me, was when Clarke shifted from poetry about Hermes to a more personal prayer addressing him directly as a psychopomp at the end of the envoi:
And so, Lord of the Threshold, deathless friend
who guides us into the Otherworld . . . O keep
me loyal to the soul that wakes in sleep,
and lead me gently homewards at my end.
In this subtle dance between the ancient and modern Clarke succeeds in his aim to show us that Hermes does not only reside in archaic myths, but is ‘dancing about us everywhere these days’.
*A Dance with Hermes can be purchased from Awen Publications HERE.