Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Publication Year
the Waters of Babylon" is a short story centering on a young man from a
post-apocalyptic society who goes forth from his village to learn and explore.
The narrative has elements of the science-fiction, adventure, and coming-of-age
genres. The Saturday Evening Post published the story in the issue
of July 31, 1937. The Pocketbook of Science Fiction published it
action takes place in the Eastern United States many generations after
a war desolated civilization and left cities in ruins. Some descendants
of the few survivors of the war live in a tribe in the countryside many
miles west of the Hudson River (which the main character refers to as the
Ou-dis-on). They are called Hill People. The men use bows and arrows to
hunt, and the women spin wool to make fabrics. One member of the tribe
travels to a forbidden zone (New York City) and explores the ruins.
John: Son of a tribal
priest (similar to a shaman or witch doctor) in a post-apocalyptic society.
John also becomes a priest.
John's Father: Priest
who conducts the ceremony initiating his son into the tribal priesthood.
Forest People: Ignorant
rivals of the more advanced society in which John lives. John says he has
fought against the Forest People.
of View and Narrative Style
tells the story in first-person point of view, using I, we,
and other first-person pronouns. He uses simple words, for he has learned
only the rudiments of the English language from old books that he has found.
Consequently, the narrative is uncomplicated and easy to understand.
main character, John, struggles against his own fears (internal conflict)
and against real or imagined outside threats (external conflict), such
as a pack of wild dogs and the Hudson River (which almost sweeps him away).
a priest or his son may enter Dead Places, says the narrator of the story,
John. And no one may cross the river far off in the east to see the remains
of the Place of the Gods, which the Great Burning reduced to ashes. Demons
and spirits live there now.
priest or his son may enter Dead Places for one purpose only: to look for
metal. If either finds metal, he and the metal must undergo purification.
the son of a priest, has entered Dead Places with his father. He recalls
a time when he stood at the door of a dead-house, afraid, while his father
searched among the bones of men for metal. When he found a piece of metal,
he handed it to his son.
took it and did not die," John says. “So he knew that I was truly his son
and would be a priest in my time. That was when I was very young."
then on, John's brothers showed him new respect, giving him the finest
piece of meat and the warmest place at the fire.
time, John goes alone to the houses in the Dead Places and learns chants,
spells, and other secrets, such as how to staunch the blood from a wound.
He also learns to read the old books—stories of the gods and the old ways—and
even to write in the manner of these books. He enjoys this activity and
points out, “We are not ignorant like the Forest People—our women spin
wool on the wheel, our priests wear a white robe."
the time comes for John to become a priest, he undergoes a purification
rite in which "my body hurt but my spirit was a cool stone." His father
tells him to look into the fire and report what he sees in his dreams.
John says he sees “a river, and, beyond it, a great Dead Place and in it
the gods walking." When his father asks him to describe what the gods are
wearing, he does so. His father says it is a “strong dream" that “may eat
you up." He then makes his son promise not to travel to the east and cross
the great river to visit the Place of the Gods. Afterward, his father says,
“Now go on your journey."
a bow and three arrows for protection, he leaves the village, fasting and
praying. At dawn the next day, he looks for a sign and sees an eagle flying
east. Because such a sign is sometimes the work of evil spirits, he remains
where he is—on a flat rock, fasting, while awaiting another sign. As the
sun goes down, he sees four deer also traveling eastward. One is a white
fawn. He follows the animals. Suddenly, a panther leaps upon the fawn.
The narrator shoots an arrow through the panther's eye and into his brain.
At nightfall, the narrator builds a fire and eats roasted meat.
next day, the narrator continues his journey toward the eastern zone even
though the law forbids him to go there. From John's village, it takes about
eight days to reach the zone, the site of the Place of the Gods. Along
the way, he passes many Dead Places. While camping near a Dead Place, he
enters a dead-house and finds a knife, rusty but useful.
the eighth day of his journey, the narrator arrives at the top of a cliff
on the edge of a forest. Below is a long, wide, sacred river called Ou-dis-sun.
No one else in his tribe, not even his father, had ever seen it. Looking
to the south, he sees the Place of the Gods. Believing that they might
see him, he drops back into the forest. During the night, the urge to cross
the river to visit the Place of the Gods eats at him.
the morning, a desire to see the Place of the Gods overwhelms John. He
must satisfy that desire, he decides, even though he will die if he does
I did not go, I could never be at peace with my spirit again," he reasons.
“It is better to lose one's life than one's spirit, if one is a priest
and the son of a priest."
building a raft, he recites words for the dead and paints himself for death,
then sings a song of death:
am John, son of John. My people are the Hill People. They are the men.
the river, he is afraid. The strong current grips his raft, and evil spirits
seem to hover about him. His magic is useless. He feels very alone. He
can see what were once god-roads that crossed the river. But they broke
and collapsed during the Great Burning, when fire fell from the sky. When
the river begins to carry him toward the Bitter Water
of the legends, John asserts himself: “I am a priest and the son of a priest!"
He believes the gods hear him; suddenly gains control of the boat, using
his pole to navigate to the Place of the Gods.
go into the Dead Places but I am not slain.
take the metal from the Dead Places but I am not blasted.
travel upon the god-roads and am not afraid. E-yah! I have killed the panther,
I have killed the fawn!
I have come to the great river. No man has come there before.
is forbidden to go east, but I have gone, forbidden to go on the great
river, but I am there.
your hearts, you spirits, and hear my song.
I go to the Place of the Gods, I shall not return.
body is painted for death and my limbs weak, but my heart is big as I go
to the Place of the Gods!"
the shore, his raft turns over and he swims the rest of the way, managing
to take with him his bow, arrows and knife. Once on land, he discovers
that the ground does not burn, as the tales say, nor is the island “covered
with fogs and enchantments." It is simply a great Dead Place. There are
old, cracked god-roads and ruins of the gods' towers.
is expecting to hear “the wailings of spirits and the shrieks of demons,"
but there are no sounds. The sun is shining, grass is growing, and birds
and butterflies are flying and flitting. Not all the towers had crumbled.
Here and there, a tower still stands. They are empty. He sees among the
ruins letters carved into broken stone: UBTREAS.
There is also “a shattered image of a man or a god . . . who wore his hair
tied back like a woman's." On a cracked stone he reads the god's name:
ASHING. John prays to ASHING, although he never
heard of that god.
John roams about, he does not notice any smell of man. Few are the trees
in this place of stone. There are many pigeons in the towers. Either the
gods favored them or they were kept for sacrifices. There are cats, too,
and packs of wild dogs. Although John is hungry, he does not hunt. Instead,
he looks for the food of the gods, contained in “enchanted boxes and jars."
These have been found from time to time in the Dead Places. In the ruins
of a huge temple, he finds jars of fruit and bottles of drink, which “was
strong and made my head swim." Afterward, he sleeps on a rock.
he awakens, the sun is setting. He decides to head north toward a god-road.
A dog follows. When he reaches the road, he notices that other dogs are
behind the first one. He goes into a dead-house (Biltmore Hotel). Just
as the dogs attack, he enters a room and closes its heavy metal door before
the dogs reach it. He climbs many steps and opens a door into a chamber.
After entering it, he opens another door and enters a room with windows—still
intact—overlooking the ruined city. He sees soft chairs, floor coverings
(carpets), pictures on walls (paintings), a bird made of hard clay on a
table, books, and other writings
god who lived [here] must have been a wise god and full of knowledge,"
notices a washing place without water and a device to cook in but no place
to put wood. There are no candles or lamps with wicks, but there are objects
that resemble lamps.
these things were magic, but I touched them and lived—the magic had gone
out of them," he thinks.
he feels the presence of spirits around him.
exploring other rooms, John returns to the room with the soft chairs and
pictures on the walls. It is evening. When he sees a box of wood and a
fireplace, he builds a fire and goes to sleep in front of it. During the
night, he awakens after the fire goes out. He believes he hears voices
and whispers around him and feels the spirits “drawing my spirit out of
my body as a fish is drawn on a line." He then sees his body in front of
the fire. He is not dreaming, he believes; everything he sees is real.
When he looks out the windows, he does not see darkness but “circles and
blurs of light"—light so bright that “ten thousand torches would not have
been the same." He hears a roaring sound (traffic).
knew that I was seeing the city as it had been when the gods were alive,"
believes that he can see the sight only because his spirit is out of his
body. If he had perceived it with his body, he would have died. He sees
countless gods. They are walking and riding in chariots. He also sees bridges
with god-roads leading east and west.
I looked upon them and their magic, I felt like a child," he observes.
he beholds from his vantage point the fate of the gods, occurring when
they make war against one another. They use fire from the sky and poisonous
mist. It is the time of the Great Burning. Towers fall. Only a few gods
escape, as the legends point out. Then there is darkness, and “I wept."
John wakes up in the morning, he wonders why the Great Burning happened.
seemed to me it should not have happened, with all the magic they had."
roams the building looking for evidence of the cause of the Great Burning.
In a room he had not previously entered, he finds a dead god seated in
a chair. He has “wisdom in his face and great sadness." He had watched
the destruction of his city, then died. Then John realizes that he had
been a man, not a god or a spirit. Afterward, John no longer fears things
and is able to fight off the dogs and later the forest people when he is
on his way home.
father does not reproach him for entering the Place of the Gods but asks
him tell of his experiences. John reports everything and then wishes to
tell his story to everyone in his tribe. But his father says he must present
the truth a little at a time.
John says, “We make a beginning." Then he says,
And, when I am chief
priest we shall go beyond the great river. We shall go to the Place of
the Gods—the place newyork—not one man but a company. We shall look for
the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the others—the gods
Lincoln and Biltmore and Moses. But they were men who built the city, not
gods or demons. They were men. I remember the dead man's face. They were
men who were here before us. We must build again...
title alludes to the first verse of Psalm 137 in the King James Bible or
the first verse of Psalm 136 in the Douay-Rheims Bible:
By the rivers of
Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. (King
This passage reports the sorrow
the of the Jews after the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon gained
control of Jewish lands and began deporting Jews to Babylon in 597 BC.
After Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC and destroyed most of
the city and its temple, he deported more Jews to Babylon, the capital
of Babylonia, between 586 and 581. In 538, the Persians conquered the Babylonians,
then permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. Babylon was situated
east of the Euphrates River, more than 50 miles south of present-day Baghdad,
Upon the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat and wept: when we remembered Sion. (Douay-Rheims)
Benét's story, the descendants of the survivors of the Great Burning
live in exile, like the Jews at Babylon. But John says he and his people
will one day return to the ruined cities, including New York, and begin
climax occurs when John has a vision revealing the Place of the Gods (New
York City) as it was just before, and during, the Great Burning.
the gods, on foot and in chariots—there were gods beyond number and counting
and their chariots blocked the streets. They had turned night to day for
pleasure-they did not sleep with the sun. The noise of their coming
and going was the noise of the many waters. It was magic what they could
do—it was magic what they did. . . . Then I saw their fate come upon
them and that was terrible past speech. It came upon them as they walked
the streets of their city. I have been in the fights with the Forest People—I
have seen men die. But this was not like that. When gods war with gods,
they use weapons we do not know. It was fire falling out of the sky and
a mist that poisoned. It was the time of the Great Burning and the Destruction.
They ran about like ants in the streets of their city—poor gods, poor gods!
Then the towers began to fall. A few escaped—yes, a few. The legends tell
the denouement (conclusion), John reveals what he has learned from his
experiences in the Place of the Gods and what happened when he returned
home. (See the last four paragraphs of the story.)
the Waters of Babylon" presents an implied warning that war will eventually
desolate civilization unless human beings learn to live with one another
without resorting to violence to resolve their differences.
Advancement Through Exploration
understands that the only way to better himself is to explore the world
around him even though such exploration involves great risks. In a sense,
he is like explorers of the past—seamen, scientists, philosophers, theologians,
artists, and so on—who crossed physical or intellectual boundaries, often
at the risk of their reputations or even their lives.
tribal lawgivers establish boundaries beyond which no one may go. They
do not realize, as John does, that some boundaries must be crossed and
some forbidden zones must be entered if there is to be learning and progress.
In their desire to maintain the status quo and remain within familiar boundaries,
these lawgivers are obscurantists—persons who oppose enlightenment and
human progress because they fear change and contact with the unknown. They
are comfortable with things as they are.
Coming of Age
his travels, John builds his confidence, gains a better understanding of
himself and his capabilities, and learns about the world around him.
arises from ignorance. When a person cannot explain an event or a condition,
he may attribute it to spirits or magic, as John does until he learns the
truth about the world around him.
the end of the story, John speaks of the rebirth of civilization as it
was before the Great Burning.
and Danger of Metal
the first paragraph of the story, John says, "It is forbidden to go to
any of the Dead Places except to search for metal and then he who touches
the metal must be a priest or the son of a priest. Afterwards, both the
man and the metal must be purified."
the second paragraph, John says, "My father is a priest; I am the son of
a priest. I have been in the Dead Places near us, with my father—at first,
I was afraid. When my father went into the house to search for the metal,
I stood by the door and my heart felt small and weak."
the third paragraph, he says, "Then my father came out with the metal—good,
strong piece. He looked at me with both eyes but I had not run away. He
gave me the metal to hold—I took it and did not die."
members of the tribe probably use pieces or sheets of metal to make shelters,
containers, kitchen utensils, farm implements, and so on. In some instances,
the metal they salvage may already be in the form of a useful item, such
as the knife John found.
what John says, some metal objects pose a danger, perhaps because they
are unexploded bombs or artillery projectiles. John implies this possibility
in the third line of his death song: "I take the metal from the Dead Places
but I am not blasted."
does not explain why "the metal must be purified." Perhaps unexploded weapons
must be disarmed or otherwise neutralized; other objects might require
removal of rust, oil, gasoline, or other contaminants or corrosives. It
is obvious, however, that author Benét was
not suggesting that metal was contaminated with radiation. When he wrote
the story in 1937, the U.S. had not yet developed atomic weapons, which
spread radioactive particles after they explode.
ASHING: Letters engraved
in a stone remnant from a statue of George Washington on Wall Street in
New York City.
Bitter Water: Ocean
water, described by John as bitter because of its salt content.
a black-and-white bird that dives for fish.
great temple in the mid-city:
Grand Central Terminal (railroad terminal often referred to as Grand Central
Hotel, which adjoins Grand Central Terminal. When John enters this "dead-house"
he sees pictures on the walls in one part of the building. These are paintings
that the Biltmore Hotel houses in its Grand Central Art Galleries, opened
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, and to the
Lincoln Tunnel, which connects Weehawken, New Jersey, with New York City.
Moses: Probably a
reference to Robert Moses, who oversaw a construction of hundreds public
facilities in New York City, including parks, playgrounds, tunnels, and
highways. He also supervised completion of the Triborough Bridge (really
three bridges), connection Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.
for the Hudson River.
roof . . . painted like
the sky at night with its stars: Ceiling of Grand Central Terminal.
engraved in a stone remnant from the The United States Subtreasury building
on Wall Street in New York City. A subtreasury is a regional bank that
holds federal funds.
Questions and Writing Topics
In what ways is the story prophetic?
Write an essay comparing and
contrasting the plot and theme of "By the Waters of Babylon" with the plot
and theme of The Planet of the Apes, an American film based on the
novel La planète des singes, by Pierre Boulle. (If you wish,
you may compare and contrast the short story with an English translation
of Boulle's novel.
Write an essay focusing on the
aftermath of a real-life Great Burning—the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
that ended the Second World War.
In your opinion, how many years
after the Great Burning did John visit New York City?
Is "By the Waters of Babylon"
a story of optimism or pessimism?