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By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

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How does being a priest's son impact the narrator's life in "By the Waters of Babylon"?

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John is told by his father (as he well knows already) about what is forbidden on his journey. It is forbidden to travel east, to cross the river, or to go to the Place of the Gods. John, once he starts his journey, sees multiple signs that are guiding him east. He follows an eagle, a white faun, a panther, as they are all moving eastward. John is a deeply spiritual man, and though he knows he is putting himself in danger, he also believes he is doing what must be done. He is priest after all: it is better to lose one's life than one's spirit if one is a priest and the son of a priest." I have learned that [...

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"By the Waters of Babylon" is a short story written by Stephen Vincent Benét, published in 1937. The story, reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic and speculative fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, tells the tale of a journey taken by the son of a priest in the distant future,...

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long after the self-destruction of our current civilization. For the young man, John, this is a spirit quest that only he, as a priest who is the son of priest, can take:

I was taught the chants and the spells—l was taught how to stop the running of blood from a wound and many secrets. A priest must know many secrets—that was what my father said.

John is the only child of his father, who is a priest—the others are all hunters. His tribe are the Hill People. John reports that the Hill People are the only tribe who have knowledge and are curious to learn more about their world. For this reason, John is sent on his spiritual journey.

John is told by his father (as he well knows already) about what is forbidden on his journey. It is forbidden to travel east, to cross the river, or to go to the Place of the Gods.

But John, once he starts his journey, sees multiple signs that are guiding him east. He follows an eagle, a white faun, a panther, as they are all moving eastward. John is a deeply spiritual man, and though he knows he is putting himself in danger, he also believes he is doing what must be done. He is priest, after all:

It is better to lose one's life than one's spirit, if one is a priest and the son of a priest.

John travels east, across the river, and to the Place of the Gods. Later in the story, he refers to another name for this ancient, abandoned city: "newyork." It is here that he is chased by wild dogs and escapes into an old building. Upstairs he finds an apartment and spends the night there. He calls it a house of the gods:

It was close and dry and dusty in the house of the gods. I have said the magic was gone but that is not true—it had gone from the magic things but it had not gone from the place. I felt the spirits about me, weighing upon me.

During the night, John has a vision about the history of the Place of the Gods. He sees the people in the city and their terrible end as mist and fire rain down upon them, killing almost everyone. In the morning he finds the mummified body of the owner of the apartment. John has a revelation—this is the body of a man, not the body of a god. He surmises that this was a place of men rather than a Place of the Gods. John returns to his village and tells his father about it:

I told and he listened. After that, I wished to tell all the people but he showed me otherwise. He said, "Truth is a hard deer to hunt. If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth. It was not idly that our fathers forbade the Dead Places." He was right—it is better the truth should come little by little. I have learned that, being a priest. Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.

John, a priest and a son of a priest, goes on a deep, spiritual journey in "By the Waters of Babylon," and through his personal bravery and spiritual insight, he discovers the truth about his distant ancestors and their vanished civilization.

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