By the Waters of Babylon

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Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in By the Waters of Babylon, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon

Benét portrays the Hill People as superstitious by showing John’s firm belief in the power of visions and his willingness to follow unexplained traditions, laws and taboos. John’s tribe has many traditions and taboos, which John often also calls “laws.” Though John implies that there are valid reasons and histories behind these laws, he does not explain them, and it is not clear if he himself knows them. In the opening paragraph of “By the Waters of Babylon,” John tells us, “It is forbidden to travel east. It is forbidden to cross the river. It is forbidden to go to the Place of the Gods. All these things are forbidden.” John’s quest leads him to break all three of these rules, in spite of the fact that he believes in the laws of the tribe. Through John’s transgression – which both leads him to revelations about the past and for which his father refuses to punish him after he returns home, on the grounds that laws can change over time – the story suggests that, in order to acquire new knowledge that pushes a society forward, an individual must often break with that society’s traditional practices and values.

Yet the story also involves a broader examination of superstitions and magic and connects that to a critique of our own technological society. John uses the word “magic” to describe objects and practices that we might think of as scientific or technological, as well as to describe rituals and beliefs that would be more commonly thought of as magical practices. This mixture of “magic” and technology is further woven into the role of the priests, who collect metal from the Dead Places as part of their sacred duties. Further, John tells us that the hunters believe that the priests “do all things by chants and spells,” but implies that the priests use other methods to do their work as well. The priests’ role is not solely mystical; they are the keepers of technological/scientific and historical knowledge as well.

By using “magic” to describe both mystical and scientific objects, Benét does two things: First, and most obviously, he emphasizes the lack of sophistication of the Hill People as compared to the modern technological society of the “gods.” Yet, at the same time, this conflation of magic and technology also subtly questions just how sophisticated that modern society is. Describing the apartment of the dead god, he says, “In the washing-place, a thing said ‘Hot’ but it was not hot to the touch—another thing said ‘Cold’ but it was not cold. This must have been a strong magic but the magic was gone.” From this description, a modern reader immediately understands that John is looking at a sink where the water has been disconnected. John’s misunderstanding of what the hot and cold faucets are or are supposed to do is funny, and yet how many people actually know how hot and cold faucets actually, scientifically function to bring water? John explains things that he does not understand as “magic,” but modern people often feel comfortable talking about “technology” even when they don’t understand its underlying workings (or dangers). In this way, Benét subtly emphasizes how modern society venerates “technology” in much the same way that “primitive” cultures venerated magic. Further, the story suggests that the technology that we think we control could prove more powerful than we can imagine. Just as magic was conceived as a force that people are not always able to control, the “gods” inadvertently used the technology they had invented to destroy themselves.

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Superstition, Magic, and Technology ThemeTracker

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Superstition, Magic, and Technology Quotes in By the Waters of Babylon

Below you will find the important quotes in By the Waters of Babylon related to the theme of Superstition, Magic, and Technology.
By the Waters of Babylon Quotes

The north and the west and the south are good hunting ground, but it is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal […] These are the rules and the laws; they are well made. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place that was the Place of the Gods—this is most strictly forbidden. We do not even say its name though we know its name.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Related Symbols: Metal
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage opens the story, situating the reader in the world of the Hill People, which is governed by strict social taboos, while also disorienting us with unfamiliar terms like Dead Places and the Place of the Gods. John does not explain the laws, leading readers to doubt the laws’ validity and to question whether John himself knows the reasoning behind the laws or the true name of The Place of the Gods. Both John’s willingness to accept these seemingly arbitrary laws and his insistence that they are “well made” make him appear superstitious. The Hill People’s laws seem inflexible, but John does mention one loophole to the ban on visiting Dead Places—it is acceptable to go to these places when searching for metal. The exception implies that metal is important to the tribe—presumably for weaponry and tools—and that metal is scarce, perhaps only found in the Dead Places. We soon learn that, as the son of a priest, John helps his tribe search for metal, and that he is curious about technology and technical knowledge. In this passage, John does not seem like a person interested in the pursuit of knowledge, much less someone who disobeys (or even questions) his society’s dogmatic rules—and yet, over the course of the story, he goes on to break every single one of the laws he so piously introduces in the opening paragraph.

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I was taught how to read in the old books and how to make the old writings—it was like a fire in my heart. Most of all, I liked to hear of the Old Days and the stories of the gods. I asked myself many questions that I could not answer, but it was good to ask them. At night, I would lie awake and listen to the wind—it seemed to me that it was the voice of the gods as they flew through the air.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Page Number: 203-204
Explanation and Analysis:

After the priests discover that John (the son of a priest) can handle metal safely, they take this as a sign that he is meant to become a priest as well and begin to educate him. The priests teach John “magical” and medical skills, and he learns to read and write “the old way.” John’s fascination with the stories of the gods and his belief that the gods speak to him foreshadow his future journey to the Place of the Gods and his vision of the Great Burning. Furthermore, John is not just fascinated by the gods, but by learning itself. John’s desire for new knowledge propels him through the story, motivating him on each step of his coming-of-age quest—and even after its resolution. Throughout the story, John describes his desire for knowledge as a “fire,” and this description recalls the traditional association between fire and knowledge. According to Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus created humans, and then stole fire from the gods and gave the knowledge of how to make fire to humans. He was punished harshly by the gods—and like the myth of Prometheus, Benét’s story warns that human attainment of god-like knowledge usually results in disaster.

We are not ignorant like the Forest People—our women spin wool on the wheel, our priests wear a white robe. We do not eat grubs from the tree, we have not forgotten the old writings, though they are hard to understand. Nevertheless, my knowledge and my lack of knowledge burned in me—I wished to know more.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

As he learns the secrets of the priests and studies the “old writings,” John begins to differentiate his own tribe (the Hill People) from the rival Forest People in terms of cultural, religious, and technological differences. Just as the reader likely sees John and his tribe as superstitious and backwards, John sees the Forest People as “ignorant” and therefore inferior to the Hill People. John’s measures of ignorance—eating habits and religious garments—seem arbitrary, however, and the lack of logic behind John’s judgements emphasizes that the value of any practice is culturally relative. What’s more, we can see from our own world that cultural, religious, and technological differences are often sources of conflict between groups of people. By placing such a familiar conflict in an unfamiliar world, Benét suggests that this kind of conflict—like religion and technology themselves—is an intrinsic part of human society.

“This is a very strong dream,” he said. “It may eat you up. […] It is forbidden to travel east. It is forbidden to cross the river. It is forbidden to go to the Place of the Gods. [...] If your dreams do not eat you up, you may be a great priest. If they eat you, you are still my son. Now go on your journey.”

Related Characters: John’s father (speaker), John
Page Number: 204-205
Explanation and Analysis:

As part of John’s initiation as a priest and a man of his tribe, he goes through a ritual led by his father, the head priest. John’s father asks him to look into the smoke of a fire and describe what he sees. His vision, the story implies, will guide the journey he will make as an initiate. In the smoke, John sees the Place of the Gods. His father responds by warning that John’s dream is potentially dangerous and all-consuming, and he reminds John of the tribe’s three taboos banning him from traveling east towards the Place of the Gods; yet he also subtly advises John to go on his journey. Since initiates’ journeys are guided by their visions and their own interpretation of “signs,’ the directive “go on your journey” seems to mean “go to the Place of the Gods, even though it is forbidden to do so.” And this is how John interprets his vision and his father’s words. Within the archetypal hero’s quest, this ceremony can be seen as the threshold between ordinary life and the quest; in this context, John’s father plays the archetypal role of mentor.

If I went to the Place of the Gods, I would surely die, but, if I did not go, I could never be at peace with my spirit again. It is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit, if one is a priest and the son of a priest.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

After traveling east for eight days, John reaches the bank of the Ou-dis-san river. He believes that if he crosses it and enters the Place of the Gods, he will die, and he considers turning around. Yet in spite of his overwhelming sense of fear and the prospect of certain death, John decides that he will continue on his quest. John believes that the spirit and body can be separated from one another, and he makes a distinction between spiritual life and the life of the body. Ultimately, he believes, one’s spirit is more important that one’s physical body, and John is willing to sacrifice his life in order to pursue spiritual knowledge and remain true to himself. Furthermore, John says, it is a priest’s duty to do so. Throughout the story, John describes fearlessness as one of the qualities of a true priest, and here he attempts to face death without fear. Though John has not yet discovered the Dead God, he later applies similar language to describe the Dead God, saying he has lost his life but not his spirit.

There was a cooking-place but no wood, and though there was a machine to cook food, there was no place to put fire in it. Nor were there candles or lamps—there were things that looked like lamps but they had neither oil nor wick. All these things were magic, but I touched them and lived—the magic had gone out of them.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Related Symbols: Metal
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

Fleeing from the wild dogs who roam the Place of the Gods, John runs into one of the towers and bars the door. Exploring the building, he finds what readers easily recognize as one of many abandoned apartments, virtually untouched since the Time of the Gods. Here, John describes what we come to realize are kitchen appliances and electric lamps in a building where the gas and electricity have been disconnected. As John roams the apartment, we can guess what John will soon know—the Time of the Gods was in fact a past human society, one much like the society the reader lives in. John is living in a post-technological future where electric appliances are unheard of. John describes technology as “magic,” and this passage reveals that he sees magic (and perhaps technology, too) as potentially dangerous—something that might kill him.

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.

He had sat at his window, watching his city die—then he himself had died. But it is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit—and you could see from the face that his spirit had not been lost. I knew that, if I touched him, he would fall into dust—and yet, there was something unconquered in the face.
That is all of my story, for then I knew he was a man—I knew then that they had been men, neither gods nor demons.

Related Characters: John (speaker), The Dead God
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

The morning after his vision, John searches the apartment for clues that might further explain the Great Burning, and he enters a room he did not explore the night before. There, he finds the body of the Dead God seated in a chair by the window. John describes the Dead God’s face using language that he previously used while recounting his own decision to cross the Ou-dis-san river and enter the Place of the Gods. John continued his journey based on the rationale that “it is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit,” and he repeats that phrase here. Throughout the story, John has attempted to become truly fearless, but never quite succeeded; always the fear returns, and his fearlessness becomes an act of bravado. Yet the Dead God appears to have faced death and the destruction of his city without fear; his peaceful face is the embodiment of John’s notion of fitting “priestly” behavior. In finding the Dead God, then John makes the greatest and final discovery of his quest: the “gods” were humans. Within the archetype of the hero’s quest, this knowledge can be described as John’s “reward,” with which he will return home. Like any “hero,” John’s quest and the knowledge he acquires during the quest transforms him; on the journey home, he is amazed to find that he fears nothing.

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 father 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.

Related Characters: John (speaker), John’s father (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

Returning home, John tells his father that he has visited the Place of the Gods and discovered that the “gods” were humans. John wants to share this knowledge with rest of the tribe, but his father uses this argument to persuade him not to. John’s father uses the metaphor of a man chasing truth like a hunter chases deer to warn John against the dangers of gaining too much knowledge too quickly. “Eating” truth can nourish people, but consuming too much at once can poison them. John, narrating the story some time after this conversation with his father, theorizes that the “gods”—or rather, the humans who lived in the “old days”—consumed too much truth at once. This glut of knowledge, John implies, may have caused the terrible destruction of the Great Burning; the technological and scientific knowledge that allowed humans to build the towers, subways, airplanes, and kitchen appliances also led to the invention of devastating weapons. For the reader, who already lives in a world where kitchen appliances and weapons of mass destruction exist, Benét warns that we should use the knowledge we possess cautiously and pursue new knowledge with care.

And, when I am chief priest we shall go beyond the great river. We shall go to the Place of the Gods—the place newyork—not one man but a company. We shall look for the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the others—the gods Licoln and Biltmore and Moses. But they were men who built the city, not gods or demons. They were men. I remember the dead man’s face. They were men who were here before us. We must build again.

Related Characters: John (speaker), The Dead God
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

In spite of the fact that John agrees not to tell the Hill People about his journey to the Place of the Gods and his claim to recognize the dangers of “eating” knowledge too quickly, John plans to take the tribe to the Place of the Gods after his father’s death. Over the course of the story, John gradually breaks the tribes’ many taboos; he travels East, he crosses the river, he looks upon the Place of the Gods, and then enters it. Here, in the story’s final paragraph, he breaks the last taboo that was named in the story’s first paragraph: he speaks the name of the Place of the Gods. In doing so, he confirms for readers that the Place of the Gods is indeed New York City, or “newyork.” More importantly, John leaves the old laws of the tribe and his formerly obedient and “superstitious” self behind. We can infer that the tribe itself is changing too; John’s quest has ushered in a new era, and the old laws no longer apply.

Notably, John’s realization that the “gods” who built “newyork” were in fact humans has not ended his belief in gods; rather, he is scouring books to find new gods, suggesting that it is human nature to look to a deity or deities to explain the events of our world. We can assume that ASHING is George Washington and “Licoln” is Abraham Lincoln, and we know that neither of these men were gods, nor were Biltmore (a hotel) or Moses (a Biblical prophet who led the Hebrews out of exile in Egypt). John’s misreading of the texts he has gathered from the Dead Places suggests he does not know as much as he thinks he does, and he may in fact go on to repeat the mistakes of the past.