man standing off to the side looking down at a marble bust of another man laying atop a pile of broken columns

By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét
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At what point in the story does the reader begin to figure out what the Place of Gods is in "By the Waters of Babylon"?

When the Dead Place was a city, it was destroyed by nuclear war. The Forest People are the only survivors of this war and are primitive and ignorant. They believe that their gods were killed in the fire from heaven, so they worship the machines in place of their gods. Chapter 8: The Long Winter Summary: The tribe is having trouble providing for itself during a long winter because there is no game. John has been trying to help his people by hunting, but he has been unsuccessful. One day, John is out stalking deer when he comes across a deer's carcass with its throat cut.

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Almost immediately, Benet gives his readers hints as to what is going on in the Dead Place or the Place of the Gods.  When he mentions the metal that only a priest can touch because it kills, the reader is given a clue to solve the mystery of what happened...

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Almost immediately, Benet gives his readers hints as to what is going on in the Dead Place or the Place of the Gods.  When he mentions the metal that only a priest can touch because it kills, the reader is given a clue to solve the mystery of what happened to this society of the Gods. The answer to why metal kills is that the metal is radioactive and, therefore, will kill someone touching it with radiation poisoning. This suggests that the Dead Place was once the site of a nuclear war, or, as the narrator calls it, the Great Burning. John, the narrator, later calls it the place where “fire fell from the sky." It was then that the Place of the Gods was “broken.”

However, if a reader is still uncertain about the Place of the Gods, Benet gives clues throughout the story. Here are some clues:

  • The narrator, John, is allowed to go into the dead houses where he discovers skeletons and bones while searching for metal. It is there that he reads old books and old writings. He likes to “hear of the Old Days and the stories of the gods.”
  • The tribe in which the narrator lives is primitive and doesn’t have modern-day technology. For example, women still spin wool. This suggests that the tribe of Forest People are more backward than the people of the “Old Days” who used metal.
  • On his journey, John sees “god-roads” with great blocks of stones suggesting a freeway system and bridges.
  • When John gets to the Place of the Gods, he sees buildings “too big to be houses.” These "towers” are skyscrapers in a city.
  • John also sees a statue in the image of man with the word “ASHING,” meaning “Washington."
  • John also finds that the Gods got their food from “boxes and jars,” and they didn’t have to hunt for food like John’s tribe. Again, this suggests a more advanced society once lived in there in the past. 
  • There are also elevators—“a bronze door that could not be opened.”
  • There are high rise apartments with appliances (a “cooking place," a “washing place”, “a machine to cook food”) and many rooms.

If one is a good detective while one reads, all of these images and clues put together show that the Place of the Gods was once a modern, advanced city devastated by a nuclear war in the past. John and his tribe represent a new society that is in the process of rebuilding itself.

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