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.
Superstition, Magic, and Technology ThemeTracker
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Quotes in By the Waters of Babylon
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.