By the Waters of Babylon

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By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét (published 1937)

Strange Vocabulary: Dead Places, Old Days, Ou-dis-sun= (Hudson), Bitter Water= (Atlantic Ocean), UBTREAS= (Subtreasury), ASHING= (Washington), newy ork

  1. In one paragraph, explain what you think our society will look like in 100 years from now. Consider some of the advancements and regressions in government, education, technology, lifestyle, religion, entertainment, and health.

In approximately 100 years from now, our society will be electronically based. We will all be cyborgs. We will be immune to disease. Everyone will have smart phones. We will be short on resources for food and energy. There will be little human interaction and all interaction will be through phones or social networks. Life will not be the same.

  1. Why does the author use a priest and the son of a priest to tell his story?

We think that the author used a priest and a priest`s son to tell the story because priests were more educated than others in that time.

3. When a character is in conflict, there are THREE possible solutions:

  • Defeat

  • Success

  • A lack of resolution

Summarize the conflict in this story. If there is more than one, summarize each one. Include the solutions for each conflict.

The main conflict is the internal conflict with himself. He wants to see the Place of the Gods and he is scared of what the outcome will be if he goes there. Solution = He finds out they were men who built the city, not Gods or demons, so he`s not in fear or in loss anymore. He says `we must build again`shows his vanished fear.

  1. Benet suggests the boy’s internal conflict as he courageously faces his fear of the forbidden.

  2. He sees the panther’s quick death as a sign, resolving his inner conflict over continuing into the forbidden area.

  3. The narrator’s inner conflict becomes a choice between risking physical death and spiritual death.

  4. John’s inner conflict is his wish for knowledge versus his superstitious fear.

  1. What does the narrator tell about the Place of the Gods?

It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the Place of the Gods.

  • It is across the great river, but no one is allowed to look upon it or say its name. Spirits and demons live there, and there are ashes from the Great Burning.

  1. What do these beliefs suggest about the narrator’s society?

His society is very religious and strong followers of god.

  • The society is one based upon fear and superstition. The people are controlled by strict laws. A catastrophe of some kind (the “great burning”) occurred at an unspecified time in the past.

  1. Why does the author use first person point of view in this story?

To make it easy to understand and not so complicated for readers.

  • Benet uses first-person point of view to confine the reader’s knowledge to that of the narrator, John, the son of a priest.

  1. Why is it that only priests can touch the metal?

Priests and sons of priests are the only ones allowed to touch the metal. It is forbidden for anyone else except the Gods to touch it. This is because its such a sacred material that has much value to them, so if they let anyone have some of the sacredness of it, it won`t last.

Since this is a society based on fear and superstition, this makes sense. The priests are the most respected, most educated, and considered to be of a higher power.

  1. Explain why the author included the narrator’s out-of-body experience (253). In your opinion, was it necessary to our understanding of the story? Why or why not?

I think the author made this an out-of-body experience because it was a very important moment in the narrator`s knowledge development . He learned about the past and destruction of cities. He was able to see gods on foot and in chariots for there were many.

  • He says that the spirits drew his spirit from his body

  • He may be dreaming, but he is definitely seeing sights of which he has no experience. As a member of a priest’s family, he may have psychic powers.

  1. Why does John’s father send him off on his own? What is a Rite of Passage?

His father sends him off to become a man. A Rite of Passage is a ritual performed in some cultures at times when an individual changes status (as from adolescence to adulthood)

  1. Characterization: What characteristics does John reveal about himself along his journey? Be sure to support your answer with proof from the story.

He reveals his intelligence, resourcefulness, and self-reliance as he finds a door to close against the attack of the wild dogs.

  1. Plot – Climax: The climax of the story occurs when John realizes what?

John realizes that the Gods are like us and we should rebuild.

The climax occurs when John realizes that men, not gods, built the city and caused the destruction of their own civilization

  1. The narrator says, “Perhaps in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.” In a well-supported paragraph, show how “eating knowledge too fast” might have devastating effects in our society.

``Eating knowledge too fast`` might have devastating effects on our society today, in the way that today people just look for the answers right away. No one wants to go looking for the answers they just want to find the answers instantly. If you want to know something now you just google it. There is no adventure in finding the answer. We are the age of information, everything we want to know we have at our fingertips, and honestly it’s a bummer. My dad tells me stories of learning through experience of doing dumb things, I feel like I am not going to have these. Our generation can know anything at any time, but it isn`t making us smarter. Its having the opposite effect, learning is a lazy thing now, its just on our phones.

Passages from the story where the writer forms a picture in the reader`s mind:

``After a time, I myself was allowed to go into the dead houses and search for metal.`

````This is a very strong dream`` her said `it may eat you up.````

``I go into the dead places but I am not slain.``

``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…``

``All the same, when I came to the place of Gods, I was afraid, afraid. The current of the river is very strong.``

``I looked out of the window – the great vines of their bridges were mended and the god-roads went east and west.``

``He bade me look into the smoke of the fire and see- I saw and told what I saw. It was what I have always seen-a river, and beyond it a great Dead Place and in it the God`s walking. I have always thought about that.``

``I shouted and the panther lifted its head``

``I was taught how to stop the running of blood from a wound.``

``Once I made a fire on the edge of a dead place at night``

``I saw the skin on the back of his hand- it was like dry leather``

``When I came to the Place of Gods, I was afraid, afraid. The current of the great river is very strong – it gripped my raft with its hands``

``I myself was allowed to go into the dead houses and search for metal. So I learned the ways of those houses – and if I saw bones, I was no longer afraid. The bones are light and old-sometimes they will fall into dust if you touch them. But that is a great sin.``

  1. Part II: Extracting Difficult Material

This selection can be read as a “guessing” game. You will have to recognize ordinary objects described by someone with very little knowledge of what they are or what they are called. Identify as many items in the list below as you can. In Column A notice the terms given, these are the narrator’s terminology; in Column B, list the current terminology.

Column A: Narrator’s Terminology

Column B: Current Terminology

Great Burning

Nuclear holocaust

Great Dead Places


Eight suns

A week

Great river

Hudson River




Hudson River

Place of the Gods

New York City

Old Writings


Too big to be houses

Tall buildings

God-roads across the river


Fire fell from the sky


Great spike of rusted metal sticking out of the river

Piling – support for bridge

High towers of the gods


A fair island



Subtreasury aka Federal Hall National Memorial



Shattered Image


Carved stones with magical numbers and words

Cornerstones; addresses

Enchanted boxes and jars


Great temple with roof painted like the sky

Grand Central Station

Caves and Tunnels

Subway system

Fruits from jars


Drink that made his head swim


Towers high enough, but not so high


Strong door, many stairs

Apartment building

Bronze door with no handles




Coverings on the floors


Chairs soft and deep

Easy Chairs/Recliners

Picture of a bunch of flowers

Impressionist Painting

Figure of a bird in hard clay

Ceramic Statue

Washing place with no water


Cooking place with no wood


Lamps with no wicks

Electric Lights

“Hot” and “Cold”


Place to make fire


Night, but not dark

His vision of the city, dream; lights of the city





Turned night into day

Street lights/signs

Mist that poisoned


The destruction

Result of War

Poison still in the ground

Fallout – radiation

Flew in the air


All the magic they had


Dead god

Body – mummified

Magic tools are broken



New York

Gods – Lincoln, Biltmore, Moses

Abe Lincoln, Biltmore hotel, Biblical Figure

Hill people

Primitive hunting society

Unbelievable tools

Bulldozers, cranes, etc.

Big room looking over the city




Bitter water

the Sea; Ocean

Enchanted box with food


Roaring in my ears

Sounds of traffic

2 Towers

Twin Towers

Great windows

Picture Windows

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