By the Waters of Babylon Summary

Stephen Vincent Benét

By the Waters of Babylon

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By the Waters of Babylon Summary

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The short story “By the Waters of Babylon” was written by Stephen Vincent Benét in 1937. In this story, there are two groups of people—the Hill People and the Forest People. They compete, each group having its strengths. The Hill People are more advanced in technologies such as hunting, metallurgy, and spinning wool. They also have the knowledge to heal things as cuts because their priests retain the knowledge from past writings. The Hill People are forbidden to travel east or to cross the great river. They cannot enter the Dead Places, or come into contact with any metals not purified by the priests. They are superstitious and fear demons and spirits, and the ancestral memory referred to simply as the “Great Burning.”

The narrator belongs to the Hill People tribe. He has been training to become a priest under his father’s tutelage. His father has taught him the medical secrets of the priesthood, as well as various chants and spells. He has sought out metals in spirit houses. There remains only one more step for his initiation—a spirit journey. This journey begins with purification rites. He is tasked with describing his dreams to his father. Then, he must look into the fire and smoke for a vision, which he also describes to his father. He sees a Dead Place.

His father sends him on a journey of discovery to initiate him into the priesthood. The narrator must first fast, and then await a sign. He sees an eagle, flying in the forbidden direction—east. He kills a panther with a single arrow, which he shoots through the panther’s eye as it’s attacking a white fawn. These specific signs convince him that he has to travel to the Dead Place he envisioned in the fire and smoke, despite decrees among his tribe that such a journey is not allowed.

He journeys on the god-road for eight days, certain that his journey will reveal to him what happened in the past—and what will happen in the future. After determining that the dangers, such as the burning ground, have disappeared, he decides he should cross the river. He ventures beyond that boundary into the Place of the Gods. There, he discovers an ancient city, overrun with wild animals. The city had been destroyed long ago by fire from above and poisonous fog, but its ruins and remnants remain.

He sees what were once towering buildings and bridges. He can imagine the city before it was destroyed, when it was a bustling, lively place. Then, he discovers the remains of one of the gods, whom he discovers was really just a man. He has arrived in New York City, and is determined to use what he has found and learned on this journey to enlighten and advance his people.

There are several themes at work in “By the Waters of Babylon,” including the dangers of technological advancement. The city of New York, once so advanced, was destroyed, its people nearly killed off, technology and other advancements. Just like the biblical story of Babylon, where the people wanted to build a tower high enough to reach Heaven, New York City and its people reached too high and paid the price in their own destruction. In the story of Babylon, God becomes angry at the people for thinking they can do such a thing and destroys the tower, scattering the people of Babylon and giving them different languages so that even if they meet again, their differences will divide them—much the same way the differences between the Hill People and the Forest People set the two tribes at odds.

There are other biblical references as well. In the short story, the narrator must fast. In the Bible, prophets fast to purify their bodies in preparation for spiritual experiences and to receive the word of God. In “By the Waters of Babylon,” the narrator must look into the fire to find guidance. God speaks to Moses via the burning bush to deliver the Ten Commandments.

In addition to commenting on the dangers of rapidly advancing technology, Stephen Vincent Benét creates an allegory, using stories from the Bible that would have been known by his contemporaries. In so doing, he adds another layer of meaning to his story.

Stephen Vincent Benét was an American writer. At the time “By the Waters of Babylon” was written, Americans were mired in the Great Depression, which shocked the country after the advancements and the economic boom of the 1920s. The cultural shifts of that tumultuous time are evident in “By the Waters of Babylon” as the narrator rediscovers his people’s past.