One day, long ago, in Africa, thousands years after some particularly bad volcanic eruptions, a group of humans gathered along the riverbank to fish and pick nutlets from the saw grass which grew along the river.
It was an ordinary day, about 70,000 years ago, except for the discussion playing out between the talker and the tribe. This morning, after they had their fill of nutlets and cooked fish, one new member of their tribe, called the 'talker' brought up a fashionable concept.
As the sun rose pink over the river, he began to speak of "duty". He had been thinking about it for a long time he said and felt, that it could work here as it had in the great tribes of the north.
The River Gods
"the God of the River wills it"
"Duty", he said as he walked along the river's edge, pointing at the saw grass, "is like this river. The river," he explained, "always flows. Every day it flows from the mountains to the valleys. The river's command – it's duty, is to flow, as the God of the River wills it."
The river never ceased its flow, but on occasion it did slow – usually at the end of the harvest season – this you knew. That was when the white snows on the mountains melted and the rivers slowed to a trickle.
The talker explained, as he paced excitedly, that this new concept of duty could revolutionize the river valley and the tribes therein. But there was a catch. Everyone had to believe, on faith, just like they cherished the Gods of the mountains and rivers, that duty was the right thing and the best thing, for everyone. Everyone had to submit to the higher cause and had to relinquish their doubts to the concept of duty.
Apparently, thinking about what duty was or was not - was no longer important. This was a breakthrough, the talker said. "We must pray."
"'Duty" is no different than prayer. It was the way the Gods communicated with the tribes, through the talkers – or messengers. One must simply believe, the talker chanted." Oh, how his voice soothed us.
"a Shaman from the mountain tribes"
The talker sat on the rock, near where the women who were beating the saw grass on the platform of flat stones.
This was the way the nutlets were removed. The little seed-like pods rolled about and would be collected and placed into to wooden bowl. From there, the nutlets were distributed to the others. It was hard work.
Everyone usually worked in concert, except for the talker, who was always dreaming up new things, instead of working. None were too sure if he was a talker or if he was really a Shaman from the mountain tribes. He carried rattles and other strange objects, which clunked and jostled when he walked. This made many nervous of his powers. He was therefore feared and then, almost regrettably, he was fed. Fed and cherished. Mated and, guiltily loved. Appeased.
"You see," repeated the talker, sitting on the rock, "the river has a duty to flow. It gives us water and it gives the saw grass, life. The saw grass also has a duty to grow and give us life. We then have a duty to eat the nutlets from the tips of the grasses."
"This is my concept of duty," he said, "but not mine alone." He stood and pointed.
"You", pointing to the women, "have a duty to live and bare children." The women giggled. Looked at each other. Giggled again. Poked each other.
"You," pointing to the men, "have the duty to protect, fish and procreate." The men laughed. Grabbed at themselves. It was a vulgar scene.
To the children he then pointed. "And you must grow and carry on our ways. This is your duty." They exchanged looks. Some laughed. Some stared at their parents.
"idea of submission"
The group was not so keen on this new concept. It was said that the talker had traveled far and met other tribes who had used a similar concept, but always, there was that idea of submission.
This idea of submission did not sit well with the river valley tribe. This tribe, living far from the major bands of humans, purposely avoided other odd groups and thus far, had remained relatively free from the carnage of war, pestilence and starvation. They had worked hard to maintain their independence.
"Obedience, is required for duty to work properly," the talker continued.
"All must bow to the authority of the concept called duty. Everyone of us is bound by the other and to the other, by duty."
He paused. Scanned the tribe. Took in the feeling of it. Something seemed wrong, however.
A women had stopped smacking the saw grass on the flat stones. Even the children were drawn to the talker's words. His speech was powerful. His voice carried. His expressions and gestures, extraordinary. Surely he was a messenger from Mountain Gods, as some had speculated. But an oddity was here.
"There is no reward, in this life, for being dutiful. It is simply the way we are, as is the river. The river," he gestured behind him to the rapids, "is not rewarded for flowing. It flows as is its duty to its God and that makes it a river. We must toil unto death, as an example to our Gods. That we can die unto them, perpetually."
"The river is obedient. It exists as it is. It exists only to give us water and to grow our saw grass. It does so, without payment, in this life. Rewarding the river would be as foolish as..."he drew for words...scanned the ground with his eyes, like he'd forgotten his lines..."rewarding ourselves for collecting nutlets from the saw grasses. We have no choice. It is our duty, our obedience to each other, to feed one another – or die. If the river should refuse its duty, we would die. That is the river's choice – it's God's choice."
His words seemed jumbled.
"when the rains did not come"
This new concept was way ahead of its time, thought a few of them. The talker was smart not to speak in front of the entire tribe just then and even kept his distance from the River Gods. Gods who required payment – sacrifices – when the rains did not come.
Now the talker was changing things, but something did not seem right. It was almost as if the talker was adding in a lesser God – a lesser deity he called duty.
He walked again, near the flat stones, as the women resumed their work. He scooped a handful of nutlets from a women, young of age, who momentarily resisted, but allowed the talker a handful of meal she had ground. She did not smile and seemed worried.
"This nutmeal," the talker held up a wad of brown mush, "has a duty to feed us."
He waited for the women to once again look his way. The men seemed to ignore him at the moment. Most were fishing around the river's bend and would not hear about this talker's new speech until they returned. It seemed that the talker had timed his speech when the most powerful of the group were away.
The talker returned the nutmeal to the young women, who let out a sigh of relief. "You see," he commented "even this young women understands. She knows that it is not important to think or challenge the wisdom of 'duty'. Thinking and duty are not compatible. If we do not love our neighboring tribes, we must love them soon – even if they attack us. Why you ask? Duty requires it."
"share a hunting area"
With this new revelation, many of the men, standing nearby preparing the fish for cooking, scoffed. The talker was asked how such a concept called duty will keep them alive should they fail to protect themselves from the not so infrequent attacks of neighboring tribes.
Usually the attacks were settled when one tribe agreed to move away from or share a hunting area.
The men asked the talker why they should love a warlike tribe, when the warlike tribe just wanted them dead and perhaps wanted cook them, along with their fish. They joked that the River Gods would dry the river or perhaps flood it, if they did not offer sacrifice.
The talker puzzled over this briefly, fiddling with the bones dangling from the leather strips fastened at his waist. He glanced skyward. Consulted the Gods.
The children grew concerned. Some of the women bowed their heads in supplication. Murmurs echoed.
The talker leaned against one of the hollowed-out canoes, and began scraping his fingernails along its rough edges, absently. Finally, he continued.
"'Duty, answers all of your questions easily," he replied, after some moments.
"With my new concept of duty, one can forget about love, and even morality is not required – don't you understand? It is freedom from rationality."
He walked over to the fishing tables.
"That is your 'duty'"
"You!" he pointed to the nearest man, who happened to be cutting open a large fish, "would it not be nice if you did not ever have to think about your job ever again? You are a preparer of fish. That is your duty. Pray thusly and be in peace."
The talker moved on.
"You!" he pointed to a women fumbling with a basket, "ambition is of no import, you are a Basket Weaver and you will always be such. It is your duty as it was your mother's, before you. Bow to the God's of all and continue thusly.
"My gift to you, is to interpret the will of the rivers and mountains – to make sense of the sublime – as is my ordained duty."
The talker walked slowly to the fire pit. He looked at the coals, still smoldering there. A wry smile wrinkled his chin.
"This fire is neither good or bad. It is amoral. Its duty is to burn, just as it is everyone's duty to work for the tribe as a whole. The Fire God controls the fire, but the fire must do its duty. It must cook our fish. It must warm us on cold nights." He paused. Looked into the fire again.
"It must!" The fire exploded in answer, but the tribe did not see the powder the Shaman had sprinkled.
A collective "ahhh" rose from the crowd.
"Morality causes pain, duty frees us from this dilemma. We are now free from the good and bad. Neither exist. Good and bad were early concepts. We have now progressed. Only our duty is the right.
Don't you see it? Duty frees your mind from worry. Just do as you are told. Do your duty. Pray. Let the Gods resolve your problems. Think no more. Just do."
A women, the one cutting her hands while making baskets balked, then stood. It was a challenge and the talker knew this. This new concept of duty had somehow angered her. It was not so important, since this was one of the lowland tribes he had been sent to recruit. And a mere women was questioning his power. He would make this short.
"It sounds like your duty is a must, correct?" She asked. She was of small build and diminutive features. Utterly unremarkable, the talker saw. Compared to his bulk and stature, she would be easy meat.
"As the Gods will"
The talker responded in the positive and nodded. "As the Gods will."
She put her basket down. "Then who assigns these musts?"
The talker seemed befuddled. "Why, the messengers of the Gods, of course."
"I mean, you speak of duty as if it is a must. And we all know a duty is a requirement, not a must. A requirement is an order. In other words, your new duty concept, requires obedience, right?" The women had her balled fists at her sides.
The talker sat still, near the fire pit. He eyed the smoldering coals, trying to gain power from them. Willing the Fire Gods to help him defeat this argumentative weaver of baskets. He was at a loss. No other women had even dared such an argument.
"Let me see how this works," The Basket Weaver women turned to the fisherman's table.
"It is your duty to cut our fish," she said. The fisherman did not say anything. "You can never fish again!"
He turned, as his face changed to an odd shade of purple.
"I fish when I want too!" the fisherman bellowed, stone knife in one hand, shaking.
"the Basket Weaver"
"Not according to the talker," the Basket Weaver responded.
"You do not have choice, only a duty as dictated by the Gods! Henceforth, you shall only cut our fish!"
The fisherman stared at the talker.
"I don't like this 'duty' thing," he said, pointing with his stone knife at the talker.
The talker moved back, to the opposite side of the fire pit. This was not going as planned. The Basket Weaver moved closer.
"I don't think our fisherman likes not having a choice," the Basket Weaver women quipped. "He questions his duty? Does this not also question your Gods?"
"This is not what I meant," the talker answered. "I meant that everyone should fear not doing his or her job or duty. As we fear our Gods. We should not be unworthy in each others eyes. We do not want to instill doubt in the minds of our tribe. No confusion either. The Gods must be placated. It is our duty to obey the Gods, until we attain paradise."
The talker's words came too practiced, too non-random. It was if the talker was reading from some internal script.
'duty' was a deity
"You have changed the subject," the Basket Weaver answered. "Now you are saying that we must be obedient to the concept of duty as if duty was a deity.
If we want to maintain our self-esteem, we must prey to the river? You are sowing doubt to maintain your hold.
"Duty is what it is," she replied, "a hidden order – a sneaky way to gain power. Please stay on topic. Let us not stray into the lands of Gods and Ghosts!"
Such blasphemy, the talker thought. How could anyone question HIM?
"No, no, no...you simply do not understand the concepts of the greater tribes. These concepts, I have come to bring you. Ideas which have grown these vast tribes, the same tribes now conquering the lands far to the north – as is their duty. They march as one, over the fields, through the mountains and they come this way soon. We should join them, but first we must understand their greater teachings."
The talker stood again, but maintained his position opposite the fisherman who still had not calmed himself. He had stopped cutting the fish and glared at the talker, knife in hand.
"we are not so fooled."
"Talker," the Basket Weaver said, "we are not so fooled."
She moved near the fire pit, looked him in the eyes.
"We know that we must eat to live and that we must fish to eat and that we must fight other tribes sometimes. But the difference is, we choose this. It is not some duty. It is not imposed. It is what we want to do – live."
She moved again, keeping him at arm's length.
"We are not obligated by anyone or even ourselves, to live. We choose it. We choose to fish. We choose to make canoes. These are chosen responsibilities, but we could stop and move to the mountains and make different choices. These are not duties.
It seems that there are other things you do not tell us. Why do you look around with worry?"
"One has a duty to look inward for answers to the great questions, not outward, Basket Weaver," the talker yelled. Spittle formed as little beads on his trembling lips.
The talker had removed himself back to canoes, far away from the fisherman's tables.
"You are outward looking – this is your downfall." He stared.
"The Gods will rise against you!"
The talker knew that he had to be careful. His mission was to sow doubt and hopefully to gain converts for the greater cause. A cause which was the adding of soldiers to the Northern Tribes for their military designs. The inward ploy had worked on so many levels, but this one Basket Weaver was a handful. This one small tribe must be convinced or eliminated. It was conversion or death.
"contact with the Gods"
The fisherman and women at the stone platform were intent now. This morning's events had turned heated in more ways than one.
No one was working at the moment. Some were shaking, giving the Basket Weaver side glances – trying to will her not the anger the talker or his Gods. It was said that he was a Shaman and in contact with the Gods. Why take any chances, they thought. Others whispered that the talker was a spy looking to gain allies for a great war.
The Basket Weaver continued. She glared at the talker. Ignored the others.
"Inward? You solve life's great questions by looking inside your own thoughts? We do no such thing here. We apply what we find in reality." She looked to the cutting tables.
"The fisherman makes better hooks when many of his inventions in the past have failed. He does not sit by idly and think his hooks into existence. He has succeeded after many outward tries. Never, inward seeking. He never prays for his fish – he catches them.
Those who pull the saw grass from the river beds, used to bend all day, yanking, until their spines ached. Now they used ropes and odd devices, doing the job in half the time, with none of the aches and pains. These are outward successes, not inward contemplation."
"We are inclined to survive, so we pull the saw grass from the river, hoping to avoid the beasts writhing in the waters."
The Basket Weaver held up one of her baskets. "The grasses feed us and we even make beds with these reeds. But we do not survive because it is our duty. We survive not by being amoral, devoid of rational thought. We thrive...because we want more – we look beyond all of this."
The Basket Weaver extended her arms, in the direction of the river and the sky. "We do not fear the Gods – we have banished them for something new: thinking rationally."
Some of the women gasped, but others smiled. Little squabbles broke out, but then quieted.
"Praying is a waste of time"
"Our survival requires action," the Basket Weaver said. "We must self-sustain. We cannot do this unless we are able to judge what helps us to survive. Chosing duty is meaningless. Praying is a waste of time. There is no choice within duty just as there is nothing real when you pray.
"Duty is an edict backed by nothing but the Shaman's rattle. And you are the Shaman. This," she opened her palms at the talker, "is a mirage. Duty is fickle and prayer is no better."
The Basket Weaver sat down on the grass again. She began to weave, but it was not her duty to do so. She did not pray about it.
The talker began to shake his rattle. He said, "this day you have angered the Gods."
He raised his outstretched arms, as if grabbing at the clouds. His face was full of anger and hatred. He had been bested by a lowly weaver of baskets.
The Basket Weaver looked up. She saw the talker's anger and replied, "if you don't work – you don't eat."
The fisherman, who had now calmed himself added, "perhaps you should sell your snake oil to the tribes down river."
To this day 'duty' and deities are peddled relentlessly down every river. They are the same, after all. One is used by the Witch Doctor, the other, by Attila the Hun. If you are a Iman, you have the best of both worlds.
And they are winning...caveman style. After all, that is where they left their minds – back in the caves.