“By the Waters of Babylon” is a short story written by Stephen Vincent Benét, first published in 1937.
This story is set in a post-apocalyptic future and is often noted for its exploration of themes such as the dangers of unchecked technological advancement, the quest for knowledge, and the cyclical nature of civilization.
The narrative unfolds in a society bifurcated into two distinct tribes: the Hill People and the Forest People, each unique in their customs and competencies.
The Hill People, to whom the protagonist belongs, excel in hunting, metallurgy, and wool spinning, grounded in the wisdom of ancient writings preserved by their priests.
However, their world is circumscribed by strict taboos: they must not travel east, cross the great river, enter the Dead Places, or handle un-purified metals, for they hold deep-seated fears of demons, spirits, and a catastrophic event known as the “Great Burning.”
The story’s narrator, a young member of the Hill People, is in the throes of training to become a priest under his father’s guidance.
He learns the sacred medical knowledge of the priesthood, chants, spells, and the ritual of seeking metals in spirit houses. His initiation culminates in a spirit journey, beginning with purification rites and seeking visions in fire and smoke, leading him to envision a Dead Place.
Defying tribal decrees, his father sends him on an exploratory journey to the Dead Place, a decision spurred by auspicious omens: an eagle flying east and the narrator’s remarkable feat of slaying a panther with a single arrow.
Embarking on this forbidden quest, the narrator travels along the god-road for eight days, seeking insights into the past and future.
Crossing the once-feared river, he reaches the Place of the Gods, only to discover the ruins of an ancient city, overrun by wildlife and scarred by past destruction.
Amidst the skeletal remains of towering buildings and bridges, he confronts a startling revelation: the gods were mere men, and the city is the long-lost New York City. This discovery, laden with relics of a bygone era, emboldens him to enlighten and propel his people forward.
Benét weaves multiple themes throughout the narrative, predominantly the peril of unchecked technological progress, mirrored in the downfall of New York City—a modern-day Babylon.
This allegory draws parallels to the biblical Tower of Babel, where humanity’s hubris in reaching the heavens led to their downfall and dispersion. Similarly, the story hints at the division between the Hill People and the Forest People as a consequence of such overreach.
Biblical motifs are further echoed in the narrator’s fasting and seeking divine guidance in fire, reminiscent of prophetic traditions and Moses’ encounter with the burning bush.
Through these layers, Benét crafts an allegory resonant with his contemporaries, reflecting on the perils of rapid technological advancements.
Written during the Great Depression, “By the Waters of Babylon” not only explores a futuristic dystopia but also subtly comments on the cultural and economic upheavals of the 1930s.
Stephen Vincent Benét, through this story, invites readers to ponder the cyclical nature of civilization’s rise and fall, and the eternal human quest for knowledge and understanding amidst the ruins of the past.
1. The Perils of Technological Advancement
At the forefront of Benét’s narrative is a cautionary tale about the dangers of unbridled technological progress.
The story’s setting, a post-apocalyptic world, serves as a stark reminder of the destructive potential of technology. New York City, once a symbol of human achievement and progress, lies in ruins, devastated by its own creations.
This theme resonates with the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where human arrogance and technological ambition led to a catastrophic downfall.
Benét uses this allegory to reflect on the potential consequences of humanity’s relentless pursuit of technological advancement, questioning whether such progress truly serves the greater good or leads to our undoing.
2. The Search for Knowledge and Truth
The protagonist’s journey symbolizes the human quest for knowledge and understanding. His insatiable curiosity drives him to defy tribal taboos and explore the unknown.
This exploration is not just physical but also metaphorical, representing the pursuit of truth and enlightenment. The discovery that the ‘gods’ were actually humans and that his people’s myths and fears were based on misunderstandings of the past, underscores the importance of seeking knowledge to dispel ignorance and superstition.
Benét suggests that this quest is a fundamental part of human nature, but he also implies a need for balance and caution in our pursuit of understanding, highlighting the potential risks of uncovering truths we are not prepared to handle.
3. The Cyclical Nature of Civilization
Benét’s narrative subtly addresses the rise and fall of civilizations, a cycle repeated throughout human history.
The story contrasts the primitive, superstitious society of the protagonist with the advanced, now-extinct civilization he discovers. This contrast serves as a reminder of the transient nature of human societies, no matter how advanced or seemingly invincible they may appear.
The ruins of New York City serve as a metaphor for this cycle, where each civilization builds upon the ashes of the previous one, often oblivious to the lessons of history.
Through this theme, Benét invites readers to reflect on the temporal nature of our achievements and the importance of learning from the past to forge a wiser, more sustainable future.
“By the Waters of Babylon” is an exploration of human curiosity, cultural evolution, and the cyclical nature of civilizations.
Stephen Vincent Benét masterfully intertwines a post-apocalyptic setting with biblical allegories, creating a narrative that resonates with timeless themes. The story’s cautionary tale about technological hubris and the importance of understanding our past to navigate the future remains still remains relevant in modern society.