The Person Who Swallowed a Snake
(or Similar Dangerous Creature)

Folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 285B*
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2022

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.


  1. The Snake in the Prince's Belly (India).

  2. The Man with the Snake (Denmark).

  3. The Alp-Luachra (Ireland).

  4. The Islay Doctor (Scotland / Norway).

  5. Ananzi and Baboon (Africa / West Indies).

  6. The Snake in the Stomach (USA).

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

The Snake in the Prince's Belly


In a certain city dwelt a king whose name was Godlike. He had a son who wasted daily in every limb because of a snake that used his belly as a home instead of an ant-hill. So the prince became dejected and went to another country. In a city of that country he begged alms, spending his time in a great temple.

Now in that city was a king named Gift, who had two daughters in early womanhood. One of these bowed daily at her father's feet with the greeting: "Victory, O King," while the other said: "Your deserts, O King."

At this the king grew angry, and said: "See, counselors. This young lady speaks malevolently. Give her to some foreigner. Let her have her own deserts."

To this the counselors agreed, and gave the princess, with very few maid-servants, to the prince who made his home in the temple.

And she was delighted, accepted her husband like a god, and went with him to a far country. There by the edge of a tank in a distant city she left the prince to look after the house while she went with her maids to buy butter, oil, salt, rice, and other supplies. When her shopping was done, she returned and found the prince with his head resting on an ant-hill. And from his mouth issued the head of a hooded snake, taking the air. Likewise another snake crawled from the ant-hill, also to take the air.

When these two saw each other, their eyes grew red with anger, and the ant-hill snake said: "You villain! How can you torment in this way a prince who is so perfectly handsome?"

And the snake in the prince's mouth said: "Villain yourself! How can you bemire those two pots full of gold?"

In this fashion each laid bare the other's weakness.

Then the ant-hill snake continued: "You villain! Doesn't anybody know the simple remedy of drinking black mustard and so destroying you?"

And the belly-snake retorted: "And doesn't anybody know the simple way to destroy you, by pouring in hot water?"

Now the princess, hiding behind a branch, overheard their conversation, and did just as they suggested. So she made her husband sound and well, and acquired vast wealth. When she returned to her own country, she was highly honored by father, mother, and relatives, and lived happily. For she had her deserts.

The Man with the Snake


Once two farmhands were cutting hay in the meadow near Borresjø. After finishing their midday meal, they lay down for a midday sleep. Before long one of them woke up with the most horrible pains in his stomach. The pains lasted for a long time, and no one could get him relief.

Little by little the pain subsided somewhat until he was able to carry out his work with considerable difficulty. A year later he was again working in the same place.

After their midday meal, they once again lay down, when he said to his companion: "It was here in this place that I got my illness last year. Maybe this time I can get rid of it here."

They then fell fast asleep.

His companion woke up first and saw two snakes coming toward them, one white and one black. Seeing that the snakes were heading straight for the sleeping sick man, he shook him to awaken him. The sick man woke up and was perfectly alert.

There had been a snake in him since he had lain there last year. Feeling that it was now near its old home, the snake had crawled out to find its old mate. It had found its new abode good; but this time it was prevented from returning there. It had lost its natural color in the man's bowels and had turned completely white.

The Alp-Luachra


There was once a wealthy farmer in Connacht, and he had plenty of substance and a fine family, and there was nothing putting grief nor trouble on him, and you would say yourself that it's he was the comfortable, satisfied man, and that the luck was on him as well as on e'er a man alive. He was that way, without mishap or misfortune, for many years, in good health and without sickness or sorrow on himself or his children, until there came a fine day in the harvest, when he was looking at his men making hay in the meadow that was near his own house, and as the day was very hot he drank a drink of buttermilk, and stretched himself back on the fresh cut hay, and as he was tired with the heat of the day and the work that he was doing, he soon fell asleep, and he remained that way for three or four hours, until the hay was all gathered in and his work people gone away out of the field.

When he awoke then, he sat up, and he did not know at first where he was, till he remembered at last that it was in the field at the back of his own house he was lying. He rose up then and returned to his house, and he felt like a pain or a stitch in his side. He made nothing of it, sat down at the fire and began warm ing himself.

"Where were you?" says the daughter to him.

"I was asleep a while," says he, "on the fresh grass in the field where they were making hay."

"What happened to you, then?" says she, "for you don't look well."

"Muirya ["Oh, Mary," or "by Mary"], musha, then," says he, "I don't know; but it's queer the feeling I have. I never was like it before; but I'll be better when I get a good sleep."

He went to his bed, lay down, and fell asleep, and never awoke until the sun was high.

He rose up then and his wife said to him: "What was on you that you slept that long?"

"I don't know," says he.

He went down to the fire where the daughter was making a cake for the breakfast, and she said to him: "How are you today, father; are you anything better?"

"I got a good sleep," said he, "but I'm not a taste better than I was last night; and indeed, if you'd believe me, I think there's something inside of me running back and forwards."

"Arrah, that can't be," says the daughter, "but it's a cold you got and you lying out on the fresh grass; and if you're not better in the evening we'll send for the doctor."

He was saying then that there was a pain on him, but that he did not know rightly what place the pain was in. He was in the same way in the evening, and they had to send for the doctor, and when the doctor was not coming quickly there was great fright on him. The people of the house were doing all they could to put courage in him.

The doctor came at last, and he asked what was on him, and he said again that there was something like a birdeen leaping in his stomach. The doctor stripped him and examined him well, but saw nothing out of the way with him.

He put his ear to his side and to his back, but he heard nothing, though the poor man himself was calling out: "Now! now! don't you hear it? Now, aren't you listening to it jumping?"

But the doctor could perceive nothing at all, and he thought at last that the man was out of his senses, and that there was nothing the mattter with him.

He said to the woman of the house when he came out, that there was nothing on her husband, but that he believed himself to be sick, and that he would send her medicine the next day for him, that would give him a good sleep and settle the heat of his body. He did that, and the poor man swallowed all the medicines and got another great sleep, but when he awoke in the morning he was worse than ever, but he said he did not hear the thing jumping inside him any longer.

They sent for the doctor again, and he came; but he was able to do nothing. He left other medicines with them, and said he would come again at the end of a week to see him. The poor man got no relief from all that the doctor left with him, and when he came again he found him to be worse than before; but he was not able to do anything, and he did not know what sort of sickness was on him.

"I won't be taking your money from you any more," says he to the woman of the house, "because I can do nothing in this case, and as I don't understand what's on him, I won't let on to be understanding it. I'll come to see him from time to time, but I'll take no money from you."

The woman of the house could hardly keep in her anger. Scarcely ever was the doctor gone till she gathered the people of the house round her and they took counsel.

"That doctor braduch," says she, "he's not worth a traneen; do you know what he said that he wouldn't take any money from me any more, and he said himself he knew nothing about anything; suf on him, the behoonuch, he'll cross this threshold no more; we'll go to the other doctor; if he's farther from us, itself, I don't mind that, we must get him."

Everybody in the house was on one word with her, and they sent for the other doctor; but when he came he had no better knowledge than the first one had, only that he had knowledge enough to take their money. He came often to see the sick man, and every time he would come he would have every name longer than another to give his sickness; names he did not understand himself, nor no one else but he had them to frighten the people.

They remained that way for two months, without anyone knowing what was on the poor man; and when that doctor was doing him no good they got another doctor, and then another doctor, until there was not a doctor in the county, at last, that they had not got, and they lost a power of money over them, and they had to sell a portion of their cattle to get money to pay them.

They were that way for half a year, keeping doctors with him, and the doctors giving him medicines, and the poor man that was stout and well-fed before, getting bare and thin, until at last there was not an ounce of flesh on him, but the skin and the bones only.

He was so bad at last that it was scarcely he was able to walk. His appetite went from him, and it was a great trouble to him to swallow a piece of soft bread or to drink a sup of new milk, and everyone was saying that he was better to die, and that was no wonder, for there was not in him but like a shadow in a bottle.

One day that he was sitting on a chair in the door of the house, sunning himself in the heat, and the people of the house all gone out but himself, there came up to the door a poor old man that used to be asking alms from place to place, and he recognised the man of the house sitting in the chair, but he was so changed and so worn that it was hardly he knew him.

"I'm here again, asking alms in the name of God," said the poor man; "but, glory be to God, master, what happened to you, for you're not the same man I saw when I was here half a year ago; may God relieve you!"

"Arrah, Shamus," said the sick man, "it's I that can't tell you what happened to me; but I know one thing, that I won't be long in this world."

"But I'm grieved to see you how you are," said the beggarman. "Tell me how it began with you, and what the doctors say."

"The doctors, is it?" says the sick man, "My curse on them; but I oughtn't to be cursing and I so near the grave; suf on them, they know nothing."

"Perhaps," says the beggerman, "I could find you a relief myself, if you were to tell me what's on you. They say that I be knowledgable about diseases and the herbs to cure them."

The sick man smiled, and he said: "There isn't a medicine man in the county that I hadn't in this house with me, and isn't half the cattle I had on the farm sold to pay them. I never got a relief no matter how small, from a man of them; but I'll tell you how it happened to me first."

Then he gave him an account of everything he felt and of everything the doctors had ordered.

The beggarman listened to him carefully, and when he had finished all his story, he asked him: "What sort of field was it you fell asleep in?"

"A meadow that was in it that time," says the sick man; "but it was just after being cut."

"Was it wet?" says the beggarman.

"It was not," said he.

"Was there a little stream or a brook of water running through it?" said the beggarman.

"There was," says he.

"Can I see the field?"

"You can, indeed, and I'll show it to you."

He rose off his chair, and as bad as he was, he pulled himself along until he came to the place where he lay down to sleep that evening. The beggarman examined the place for a long time, and then he stooped down over the grass and went backwards and forwards with his body bent, and his head down, groping among the herbs and weeds that were growing thickly in it.

He rose at last and said: "It is as I thought," and he stooped himself down again and began searching as before.

He raised his head a second time, and he had a little green herb in his hand.

"Do you see this?" said he. "Any place in Ireland that this herb grows, there be's an alt-pluachra near it, and you have swallowed an alt-pluachra."

"How do you know that?" said the sick man. "If that was so, sure the doctors would tell it to me before now."

"The doctors!" said the beggarman. "Ah ! God give you sense, sure they're only a flock of omadawns. I tell you again, and believe me, that it's an alt-pluachra you swallowed. Didn't you say yourself that you felt some thing leaping in your stomach the first day after you being sick? That was the alt-pluachra; and as the place he was in was strange to him at first, he was uneasy in it, moving backwards and forwards, but when he was a couple of days there, he settled himself, and he found the place comfortable, and that's the reason you're keeping so thin, for every bit you're eating the alt-pluachra is getting the good out of it, and you said yourself that one side of you was swelled; that's the place where the nasty thing is living."

The sick man would not believe him at first, but the beggarman kept on talking and proving on him that it was the truth he was saying, and when his wife and daughter came back again to the house, the beggarman told them the same things, and they were ready enough to believe him.

The sick man put no faith in it himself, but they were all talking to him about it until they prevailed on him at last to call in three doctors together until he should tell them this new story. The three came together, and when they heard all the boccuch ( beggarman ) was saying, and all the talk of the women, it is what they laughed, and said they were fools altogether, and that it was some thing else entirely that was the matter with the man of the house, and every name they had on his sickness this time was twice -- three times -- as long as ever before. They left the poor man a bottle or two to drink, and they went away, and they humbugging the women for saying that he had swallowed an alt-pluachra.

The boccuch said when they were gone away: "I don't wonder at all that you're not getting better, if it's fools like those you have with you. There's not a doctor or a medicine-man in Ireland now that'll do you any good, but only one man, and that's Mac Dermott the Prince of Coolavin, on the brink of Lough Gara, the best doctor in Connacht or the five provinces."

"Where is Lough Gara?" said the poor man.

"Down in the County Sligo," says he; "it's a big lake, and the prince is living on the brink of it; and if you'll take my advice you'll go there, for it's the last hope you have; and you, Mistress," said he, turning to the woman of the house, "ought to make him go, if you wish your man to be alive."

"Musha!" says the woman, "I'd do anything that would cure him."

"If so, send him to the Prince of Coolavin," says he.

"I'd do anything at all to cure myself," says the sick man, "for I know I haven't long to live on this world if I don't get some relief, or without something to be done for me."

"Then go to the Prince of Coolavin," says the beggar man.

"Anything that you think would do yourself good, you ought to do it father," says the daughter.

"There's nothing will do him good but to go to the Prince of Coolavin, " said the beggarman.

So they were arguing and striving until the night came, and the beggarman got a bed of straw in the barn, and he began arguing again in the morning that he ought to go to the prince, and the wife and daughter were on one word with him; and they prevailed at last on the sick man, and he said that he would go, and the daughter said that she would go with him to take care of him, and the boccuch said that he would go with them to show them the road.

"And I'll be on the pinch of death, for ye, with anxiety," said the wife, "until ye come back again. "

They harnessed the horse, and they put him under the cart, and they took a week's provision with them -- bread, and bacon, and eggs, and they went off. They could not go very far the first day, for the sick man was so weak, that he was not able to bear the shaking he was getting in the cart; but he was better the second day, and they all passed the night in a farmer's house on the side of the road, and they went on again in the morning; but on the third day, in the evening, they came to the dwelling of the prince. He had a nice house, on the brink of the lake, with a straw roof, in among the trees.

They left the horse and the cart in a little village near the prince's place, and they all walked together, until they came to the house.

They went into the kitchen, and asked, "Couldn't they see the prince?"

The servant said that he was eating his meal, but that he would come, perhaps, when he was ready.

The prince himself came in at that moment, and asked what it was they wanted. The sick man rose up and told him, that it was looking for assistance from his honour he was, and he told him his whole story.

"And now can your honour help me?" he said, when he had finished it.

"I hope I can," said the prince; "anyhow, I'll do my best for you, as you came so far to see me. I'd have a bad right not to do my best. Come up into the parlour with me. The thing that old man told you is true. You swallowed an alt-pluachra, or something else. Come up to the parlour with me."

He brought him up to the parlour with him, and it happened that the meal he had that day was a big piece of salted beef. He cut a large slice off it, and put it on a plate, and gave it to the poor man to eat.

"Oro! what is your honour doing there?" says the poor man; "I didn't swallow as much as the size of an egg of meat this quarter, and I can't eat anything."

"Be silent, man," says the prince; "eat that, when I tell you."

The poor man eat as much as he was able, but when he left the knife and fork out of his hand, the Prince made him take them up again, and begin out of the new (over again). He kept him there eating until he was ready to burst, and at last he was not able to swallow another bit, if he were to get a hundred pounds.

When the Prince saw that he would not be able to swallow any more, he brought him out of the house, and he said to the daughter and the old beggarman to follow them, and he brought the man out with him to a fine green meadow that was forenent [over against] the house, and a little stream of water running through it.

He brought him to the brink of the stream, and told him to lie down on his stomach over the stream, and to hold his face over the water, to open his mouth as wide as he could, and to keep it nearly touching the water, and "wait there quiet and easy," says he; "and for your life don't stir, till you see what will happen to you."

The poor man promised that he would be quiet, and he stretched his body on the grass, and held his mouth open, over the stream of water, and remained there without stirring.

The prince went backwards, about five yards, and drew the daughter and the old man with him, and the last word he said to the sick man was: "Be certain, and for your life, don't put a stir out of you, whatever thing at all happens to you."

The sick man was not lying like that more than a quarter of an hour, when something began moving inside of him, and he felt something coming up in his throat, and going back again. It came up and went back three or four times after other. At last it came to the mouth, stood on the tip of his tongue, but frightened, and ran back again. However, at the end of a little space, it rose up a second time, and stood on his tongue. and at last jumped down into the water.

The prince was observing him closely, and just as the man was going to rise, he called out: "Don't stir yet."

The poor man had to open his mouth again, and he waited the same way as before; and he was not there a minute until the second one came up the same way as the last, and went back and came up two or three times, as if it got frightened; but at last, it also, like the first one, came up to the mouth, stood on the tongue, and when it felt the smell of the water below it, leaped down into the little stream.

The prince said in a whisper: "Now the thirst's coming on them; the salt that was in the beef is working them; now they'll come out."

And before the word had left his mouth, the third one fell, with a plop, into the water; and a moment after that, another one jumped down, and then another, until he counted five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.

"There's a dozen of them now," said the prince; "that's the clutch; the old mother didn't come yet."

The poor sick man was getting up again, but the prince called to him: "Stay as you are; the mother didn't come up."

He remained as he was, but no other one came out, though he stayed there more than a quarter of an hour. The prince himself was getting uneasy for fear the old alt-pluachra might not stir at all. The poor man was so tired and so weak that he wished to get up; and, in spite of all the prince told him, he was trying to stand on his feet, when the Prince caught him by one leg, and the boccuch by the other, and they held him down in spite of him.

They remained another quarter of an hour without speaking a word, or making a sound, and at the end of that time the poor man felt something stirring again in his side, but seven times worse than before; and it's scarcely he could keep himself from screeching. That thing kept moving for a good while, and he thought the side was being torn out of himself with it. Then it began coming up, and it reached the mouth, and went back again. At last it came up so far that the poor man put the two fingers to his mouth and thought to catch hold of it. But if he put in his fingers quick, the old alt-pluachra went back quicker.

" Oh, you behoonach!" cried the prince, " what made you do that? Didn't I tell you not to let a stir out of you? Remain quiet if she comes up again. "

They had to remain there for half an hour, because the old mother of the alt-pluachras was scared, and she was afraid to come out. But she came up at last, perhaps, because there was too much thirst on her to let her stand the smell of the water that was tempting her, or perhaps she was lonesome after her children going from her. Anyhow, she came up to his mouth, and stood there while you would be counting about four score; and when she saw nothing, and nothing frightened her, she gave a jump down into the water, like her clutch before her; and the plop of her into the water was seven times heavier than theirs.

The prince and the other two had been watching the whole, and they scarcely dared to breathe, for fear of startling the horrid beast. As soon as ever she jumped down into the water, they pulled back the man, and put him standing again on his two feet.

He was for three hours before he could speak a word; but the first thing he said was: "I'm a new man."

The prince kept him in his own house for a fortnight, and gave him great care and good feeding. He allowed him to go then, and the daughter and the boccuch with him; and he refused to take as much as a penny from them.

"I'm better pleased than ten pounds on my own hand," said he, "that my cure turned out so well; and I'd be long sorry to take a farthing from you; you lost plenty with doctors before."

They came home safely, and he became healthy and fat. He was so thankful to the poor boccuch that he kept him in his own house till his death. As long as he was alive he never lay down on green grass again; and another thing, if there was any sickness or ill-health on him, it isn't the doctors he used to call in to him.

That was small wonder!

The Islay Doctor

Scotland / Norway

There were three brothers of the name of Beaton, natives of Islay, famed for their skill in medicine. One of the brothers, called John, went to Mull, and was known as the Olladh Muilleach, or Mull doctor. His tomb is to be seen in Iona. Another called Fergus remained in Islay, and was known as the Olladh Ileach. The third, Gilleadha, was in the end the most famed of the three; he was the herbalist, and employed by his brother Fergus to gather herbs and prepare them for use. When boiling a cauldron of herbs, in which a white snake had been put, in stirring, it bubbled up and spattered on his hand, this he licked off, and at once he got such a view of his profession as to make him unrivalled.

He was summoned to attend one of the Scotch Kings, who was cured by him; but through the jealousy of other doctors, he never returned to Islay, having been poisoned. (So far the Islay tradition very nearly accords with the Sutherland account of Farquhar Leech). He was called to see a young lady, daughter of Mackay of Kilmahumaig, near Crinan. When approaching the house, attended by servant, the latter remarked a sweet female voice which he heard singing a song:

"Sweet is that head's voice," said the lad;
"Sweet," said the doctor, above a Toad."

The poor young woman had an enormous appetite, which could not be satisfied, but she was reduced to a skeleton. The doctor, on hearing her voice, knew what her disease was, and ordered a sheep to be killed and roasted. The lady was prevented from getting any food, from which she was in great agony. She was made to sit by the sheep while it was being roasted, and the flavour of the meat tempted the toad she had swallowed to come up her throat and out of her mouth, when she was completely cured.

The reptile she had swallowed was called Lon Craois.

Now, something very like this part was told me in Norway as a fact by a Norwegian, the travelling interpeter of an English companion. My old friend Juil has since become a flourishing contractor. He had seen a young woman on board a steamer going with her friends to Christiania for advice. She had been reaping, and had fallen asleep on a sheaf of corn in the field. She slept with her mouth open, and a serpent had run down her throat. She had been in a state of terror and horror ever since, and they were taking her to the capital.

"I saw her myself," said my informant. "I heard that the doctors could not cure her at Christiania, and that she went to Copenhagen. There all the great doctors were beat; but a young doctor made them put her in a dark room, lying on her side on the floor, with a saucer of milk before her. Serpents are very fond of milk, you see. The first time they opened the door the serpent had only put his head up, and he drew it in again when he heard the noise. The second time they moved the saucer a little further away, and he came out altogether, and the young doctor killed the serpent and shewed it to the young woman, and thus she got quite well. And that is quite true."

Every word of it might be true, if we suppose a clever man and a woman possessed with an idea which had to be coaxed out of her; but the question is, when did that clever man live, and where? -- in Copenhagen -- in the West Highlands -- or in Africa, where the creature swallowed was a baboon, and the bait a banana skilfully administered by a doctor to Anansi (Dasent, Norse Tales, p. 502); or in London, where a clever doctor tempted a serpent out of a patient with a mutton chop, according to a story told to a friend of mine in his childhood; or have there been many doctors and patients who have gone through the same adventure?

Ananzi and Baboon

Africa / West Indies

Ananzi and Baboon were disputing one day which was fattest. Ananzi said he was sure he was fat, but Baboon declared he was fatter. Then Ananzi proposed that they should prove it; so they made a fire, and agreed that they should hang up before it, and see which would drop most fat.

Then Baboon hung up Ananzi first, but no fat dropped.

Then Ananzi hung up Baboon, and very soon the fat began to drop, which smelt so good that Ananzi cut a slice out of Baboon, and said, "Oh! brother Baboon, you're fat for true."

But Baboon didn't speak.

So Ananzi said, "Well, speak or not speak, I'll eat you every bit today," which he really did.

But when he had eaten up all of Baboon, the bits joined themselves together in his stomach, and began to pull him about so much that he had no rest, and was obliged to go to a doctor.

The doctor told him not to eat anything for some days, then he was to get a ripe banana, and hold it to his mouth; when the Baboon, who would be hungry, smelt the banana, he would be sure to run up to eat it, and so he would run out of his mouth.

So Anansi starved himself, and got the banana, and did as the doctor told him; but when he put the banana to his mouth, he was so hungry he couldn't help eating it. So he didn't get rid of the Baboon, which went on pulling him about till he was obliged to go back to the doctor, who told him he would soon cure him; and he took the banana, and held it to Ananzi's mouth, and very soon the Baboon jumped up to catch it, and ran out of his mouth; and Ananzi was very glad to get rid of him. And Baboons to this very day like bananas.

The Snake in the Stomach


Ah, the very brooks seem fuller of reflections than they were! Ah, such provoking sibylline sentences they are! The shallowest is all at once unfathomable. How can that depth be fathomed where a man may see himself reflected?

The rill I stopped to drink at I drink in more than I expected. I satisfy and still provoke the thirst of thirsts. Nut Meadow Brook where it crosses the road beyond Jenny Dugan's that was. I do not drink in vain. I mark that brook as if I had swallowed a water-snake that would live in my stomach. I have swallowed something worth the while. The day is not what it was before I stooped to drink. Ah, I shall hear from that draught! It is not in vain that I have drunk. I have drunk an arrowhead. It flows from where all fountains rise. How many ova have I swallowed? Who knows what will be hatched within me? There were some seeds of thought, methinks, floating in that water, which are expanding in me. The man must not drink of the running streams, the living waters, who is not prepared to have all nature reborn in him, -- to suckle monsters. The snake in my stomach lifts his head to my mouth at the sound of running water.

When was it that I swallowed a snake? I have got rid of the snake in my stomach. I drank of stagnant waters once. That accounts for it. I caught him by the throat and drew him out, and had a well day after all. Is there not such a thing as getting rid of the snake which you have swallowed when young, when thoughtless you stooped and drank at stagnant waters, which has worried you in your waking hours and in your sleep ever since, and appropriated the life that was yours? Will he not ascend into your mouth at the sound of running water? Then catch him boldly by the head and draw him out, though you may think his tail be curled about your vitals.

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Revised October 21, 2022.