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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In "By the Waters of Babylon", what does John notice about the gods' past lives?

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When John sleeps in the New York City apartment, he has a visionary dream that permits him to see how the gods lived in the past. Here are six specific things he notices in that dream:

1. The gods had artificial lights and used them to stay active at night.

John sees a street scene at night, but it wasn't dark. He says that "everywhere there were lights," and he takes care to distinguish these lights from "torches" (lamps lit by fire). During his dream, he attributes the lighting to "strong magic" and notes that the gods "had turned night to day for their pleasure—they did not sleep with the sun."

2. The gods traveled in "chariots" that were so numerous they "blocked the streets."

John doesn't understand how they work, but he is obviously talking about automobiles.

3. The gods lived under crowded conditions.

Watching the busy street scene, John says "there were gods beyond number and counting. . . The noise of their coming and going was the noise of many waters."

4. The gods had the ability to fly.

John describes the gods as "restless" and says they could "fly in the air."

5. The gods sometimes traveled underground.

John tells us they "burrowed tunnels under the rivers."

6. The gods had the ability to obtain goods from distant places.

John notes "[n]o part of the world was safe from them, for, if they wished for a thing, they summoned it from the other side of the world."

How was John able to see these things?

The author leaves the reader with some ambiguity on this point. To some degree, we are free to conclude that John is receiving a mystical vision. Remember that John is an intelligent, observant person. He has been reading the ancient books for some time, and he has enough evidence around him to make many inferences without the help of any mystical forces.

For instance, John seems familiar with the idea of crowded cities from his readings, and, before his dream, he observed paved "god-roads" throughout the city. It would be natural for him to infer that a city street would be bustling and crowded, and that the gods would travel on their roads in special chariots.

Also, before his dream, John went into a subway station, and saw stairs leading down into "great caves and tunnels." These would have had the appearance of structures built by human beings, so it would not be a big stretch for John to guess that the ancients built tunnels under rivers.

John's assertion about the gods summoning things from "the other side of the world" may have been inspired by the luxury goods he found in the apartment and elsewhere. Perhaps his statements about artificial lighting and the power of flight also reflect his prior experiences. He may have formed these intuitions based on his readings, his observations of the ruined city, and his belief that the ancients could do marvelous things.

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