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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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


The protagonist and narrator of the story is John, an archetypal hero who embarks on a journey, or quest, that leads to a revelation about life and death and the fate of the world. John is the son of a priest, and he belongs to a tribe called the Hill People. The Hill People are portrayed as possessing great knowledge and foresight. John himself has dreams of the Dead Places, in particular the Place of the Gods, and his quest to understand these dreams eventually leads him to travel to what he believes to be the realm of the gods: a forbidden and frightening place that holds great secrets.

As a priest’s son, John is granted the right to help scavenge for metal in the Dead Places. He reports that although he was afraid the first time his father took him to a Dead Place, he knew that he must not show fear and did not run away. John’s status as an apprentice priest grants him both more privileges and harsher punishments than those meted out to his brothers. It has also granted him an education; he has learned “the chants and the spells,” as well as medical knowledge, reading and writing, and “stories of the gods,” which he loves best of all. John places great value on knowledge and burns to learn more about the world. His eagerness to embark on a quest as soon as he comes of age reflects this desire.

Throughout the story, John shows curiosity, courage in the face of fear and danger, and a growing sense of certainty about his quest. He is keenly aware of his role as a priest and of his own values, stating at one point that “It is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit, if one is a priest and the son of a priest.” With this in mind, John ventures into the Place of the Gods. He does not die as he expects to do, but becomes the first of his people to realize the true nature of the gods. He then brings this knowledge back to the Hill People, setting them on the path to rebuilding civilization—for better or for worse.

John’s Father

John’s father is a minor character in the story, a priest, and he provides guidance to his son and encourages him to follow his vision and travel to the Place of the Gods, even though it is forbidden. He understands that knowledge can be dangerous. The danger of abusing knowledge is fully revealed to John once he explores the Place of the Gods himself and unravels its mysteries.


The other significant character in the story is the man whose statue John discovers in the post-apocalyptic city of New York and who he eventually learns is not a god, but was, in fact, a man. The statue’s inscription reads “ASHING,” and unbeknownst to John, the statue’s face is that of George Washington, the first president of the United States. This ruined statue of the man John calls ASHING is a relic of a highly technological society in which people’s insatiable thirst for progress led to their destruction. This is hinted at in the name ASHING itself, which calls up images of ashes and therefore of the devastation left behind by the Great Burning.

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