By the Waters of Babylon

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Towers Symbol Icon

Towers, which readers will recognize as skyscrapers, are the defining feature of the Place of the Gods, making it remarkably different from any landscape that John has ever seen before. As architectural marvels, the towers represent the power, “magic,” and technological prowess of the “gods”—and the pinnacle of human achievements. The ruined towers, then, symbolize the downfall of a past society—a downfall brought about because that society gained too much knowledge too quickly. The destruction of the towers of “newyork” also recalls the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis: when people attempted to build a tower tall enough to reach Heaven, they over-stepped the natural boundaries set for them by God. As punishment, God dispersed them across the earth and gave them different languages so that they could no longer work together to build the tower. In much the same way, the few survivors of the Great Burning have dispersed and formed rival tribes (the Hill People and the Forest People) who have lost the knowledge and technological skills that their ancestors once had.

Towers Quotes in By the Waters of Babylon

The By the Waters of Babylon quotes below all refer to the symbol of Towers. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of By the Waters of Babylon published in 1999.
By the Waters of Babylon Quotes

When gods war with gods, they use weapons we do not know. It was fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned. It was the time of the Great Burning and the Destruction. […] Then the towers began to fall. A few escaped—yes, a few. The legends tell it. But, even after the city had become a Dead Place, for many years the poison was still in the ground. […] It was darkness over the city and I wept.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Related Symbols: Towers
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

John spends the night in the apartment. He then wakes in the night to find his spirit floating out of his body, and has a vision of the city in the Time of the Gods. This soon becomes a vision of the Great Burning, a terrible war between the gods. “By the Waters of Babylon” was written shortly after WWI, a war which saw the first use of aerial bombings and poison “mustard” gas, and during the Spanish Civil War, which saw strategic aerial bombings of civilians. Benét’s first readers would have easily recognized the weapons John describes as the dangerous new military technology that that resulted in enormous casualties during WWI. Though the story was written before the invention of nuclear weapons, John’s description of poison that remains in the ground for many years and renders the city a Dead Place seems to prophesize the long-lasting consequences of nuclear radiation. Benét warns the reader that the advanced scientific knowledge and technology of modern society may ultimately destroy it. John’s vision shows readers that knowledge may be power, but power is dangerous.

After witnessing the city’s destruction, John says, “I wept,” an allusion to the first line of the Biblical Psalm 137, which reads, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” The psalm recounts the grief of the ancient Hebrews after they were taken prisoner by the king of Babylon and forced out of the holy city of Jerusalem. Like the Hebrews, the “gods” were forced from their city by a terrible war.

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Towers Symbol Timeline in By the Waters of Babylon

The timeline below shows where the symbol Towers appears in By the Waters of Babylon. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
By the Waters of Babylon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
...south and sees the Place of the Gods, an island filled with “mighty and ruined” towers “too big to be houses.” Afraid that the gods will see him, he returns to... (full context)
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
...evil spirits, and the air is not filled with enchanted fog. Instead, John sees ruined towers and “god-roads.” What is more, there do not seem to be any gods on the... (full context)
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
...Gods has very few trees: its landscape is almost entirely made from metal and stone towers, and John describes how many buildings are carved with words and numbers that he believes... (full context)
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
...as the dogs begin to rush him, John finds a door into one of the towers (John also calls them “god-houses”) that opens. He slams the door behind him, shutting the... (full context)
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
...Fire fell out of the sky onto the people in the streets and toppled the towers, he tells us. The island was covered in a poisoned mist, and the gods ran... (full context)