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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What are some symbols in "By the Waters of Babylon" by Stephen Vincent Benet?

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One symbolic item from the story is metal.   Metal is representative of the people's fears and superstitions.  John's people believe that anybody who is not a priest or destined to be a priest will die if they touch metal.  At one point, the metal was likely radioactive.  It would definitely kill people then, so the people probably learned the phrase "don't touch the metal."  After a long enough time, the metal would become safe to handle.  Likely somebody touched the metal and didn't die.  Everybody thought that person must be graced with special powers of some kind.  It is the metal that has the power to identify who is "special."  

East is also symbolic.  For John, the east is symbolic of knowledge.  For everybody else (and John at the beginning), the east symbolizes forbidden and holy ground.  

Third, the Place of the Gods (New York City) is symbolic of mankind's destruction.  John learns that the "gods" had great technology, but lost control of that technology.  Technology got out of control, and it ultimately destroyed most of the human population.  After John figures out all of this, I believe that the Place of the Gods becomes symbolic of what will be a rebirth in mankind's civilization and knowledge.  

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