By the Waters of Babylon Summary

"By the Waters of Babylon" is a post-apocalyptic story about humanity's relationship with technology.

  • The remnants of humanity have gathered into tribes and cling to superstitions for survival.
  • Newly-initiated priest John travels to the Dead Lands, a wasteland that only priests are allowed to visit.
  • In the Dead Lands, John encounters the corpse of a "god" and realizes that he is actually in the ruins of a city and that the gods were just humans, killed by their own hubris.
  • He plans to bring the ruined city's technologies back to his people, believing that they will use the knowledge more wisely than their predecessors.

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Last Updated on July 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 240

"By the Waters of Babylon" tells the story of a young man named John who belongs to a tribe called the Hill People. John is the son of a priest, and he is initiated into the priesthood himself when he comes of age. According to the laws of his tribe, all persons are forbidden to travel east to what is called the Dead Place, or the Place of the Gods. Priests are allowed to travel there, but only to collect metal, and when they return, they must be purified. John, however, has an insatiable curiosity about the gods, and he has visions of the Dead Place. This place was once a great city that was destroyed by a great burning. According to the lore of his tribe, since the burning, the place has been inhabited by spirits and demons.

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As part of his initiation into the priesthood, John travels to the Dead Place. He crosses an abandoned highway and a river, and he finally arrives at the forbidden city, which is a post-apocalyptic New York. John learns that the secrets the priests had told him about this Dead Place are not true, and in fact, the items in the city are not magical objects of the gods, but modern appliances and machines that were destroyed in the apocalypse. Similarly, the gods are not gods but were simply men who abused their knowledge and abilities and caused destruction to the world.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

The Forest People compete with the Hill People, who have slightly more advanced skills in spinning wool, hunting, and using metals. The priests of the Hill People have not forgotten the old writings and have some knowledge of healing—such as how to stop bleeding. Bound by superstition and taboos based on experience, tribe members are forbidden to go east, cross the great river, enter the Dead Places, or touch metal not purified by priests. These strictures have been in force throughout tribal memory. In addition, the people fear spirits and demons and have an ancestral memory of a “Great Burning.”

A young member of the Hill People, the narrator has studied for the priesthood under his father. He has learned chants, spells, and medical secrets, and has made dangerous journeys searching for metal in spirit houses. Now he has come of age and has reached the time of initiation and spirit journey. He undergoes purification rites, answers questions about his dreams, and tells his father about the vision that he sees in the smoke of the fire. His vision is of a gigantic Dead Place in its time of glory; although his father fears that his son’s strong dream will eat him up, he sends his son on the journey of discovery required as the final initiation into the priesthood. After fasting, the young man awaits a sign. After he sees an eagle flying east and kills a panther by shooting a single arrow through its eye while it attacks a white fawn, he is convinced that he is right to break tribal taboos and journey to the Dead Place.

He travels east for eight days, following a “god-road” that time and the forests have reduced to great blocks of stone. He is driven by his thirst for knowledge and his desire to regain the secrets of a lost civilization whose forest-encroached ruins hold clues to the past and signs for the future. As he travels he observes that the causes of the taboos (“burning” ground, strange fogs) have disappeared, so he bravely crosses the forbidden river and enters “the Place of the Gods.”

Wild cats and packs of wild dogs roam the ancient city, and pigeons fly overhead. There are subterranean tunnels and huge temples, food in enchanted boxes and jars, strong bottled drinks, bronze doors without handles, high-rise dwellings with inexplicable machinery, lovely paintings, and books. The young would-be priest gazes over the ruins—with their broken bridges and tumbling towers—and envisions the city at the moment that it died: huge, restless, destroyed by fire from the skies from weapons of unimagined horror, followed by a poisonous mist that left the ground burning for aeons. When he sees a “dead god” sitting by a window looking out on the ruined city, he realizes that the “god” is only a man and that despite its wonders, this city, New York, was once a city of men like himself. He longs for the knowledge they possessed and is sure of his ability to use that knowledge more wisely than they. As a new priest he will help his people make a new beginning, recapturing lost knowledge from the broken city in order to build again.

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