Study Guide

By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

By the Waters of Babylon Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

By the Waters of Babylon

The Forest People compete with the Hill People, who have slightly more advanced skills in spinning wool, hunting, and using metals. The priests of the Hill People have not forgotten the old writings and have some knowledge of healing—such as how to stop bleeding. Bound by superstition and taboos based on experience, tribe members are forbidden to go east, cross the great river, enter the Dead Places, or touch metal not purified by priests. These strictures have been in force throughout tribal memory. In addition, the people fear spirits and demons and have an ancestral memory of a “Great Burning.”

A young member of the Hill People, the narrator has studied for the priesthood under his father. He has learned chants, spells, and medical secrets, and has made dangerous journeys searching for metal in spirit houses. Now he has come of age and has reached the time of initiation and spirit journey. He undergoes purification rites, answers questions about his dreams, and tells his father about the vision that he sees in the smoke of the fire. His vision is of a gigantic Dead Place in its time of glory; although his father fears that his son’s strong dream will eat him up, he sends his son on the journey of discovery required as the final initiation into the priesthood. After fasting, the young man awaits a sign. After he sees an eagle flying east and kills a panther by shooting a single arrow through its eye while it attacks a white fawn, he is convinced that he is right to break tribal taboos and journey to the Dead Place.

He travels east for eight days, following a “god-road” that time and the forests have reduced to great blocks of stone. He is driven by his thirst for knowledge and his desire to regain the secrets of a lost civilization whose forest-encroached ruins hold clues to the past and signs for the future. As he travels he observes that the causes of the taboos (“burning” ground, strange fogs) have disappeared, so he bravely crosses the forbidden river and enters “the Place of the Gods.”

Wild cats and packs of wild dogs roam the ancient city, and pigeons fly overhead. There are subterranean tunnels and huge temples, food in enchanted boxes and jars, strong bottled drinks, bronze doors without handles, high-rise dwellings with inexplicable machinery, lovely paintings, and books. The young would-be priest gazes over the ruins—with their broken bridges and tumbling towers—and envisions the city at the moment that it died: huge, restless, destroyed by fire from the skies from weapons of unimagined horror, followed by a poisonous mist that left the ground burning for aeons. When he sees a “dead god” sitting by a window looking out on the ruined city, he realizes that the “god” is only a man and that despite its wonders, this city, New York, was once a city of men like himself. He longs for the knowledge they possessed and is sure of his ability to use that knowledge more wisely than they. As a new priest he will help his people make a new beginning, recapturing lost knowledge from the broken city in order to build again.