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Literature / By the Waters of Babylon

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Original cover with its original title.

A 1937 short story by American writer Stephen Vincent Benét, which was published originally in The Saturday Evening Post, and first titled "The Place of the Gods". It was republished in 1943 with The Pocket Book Of Science Fiction under its later title. This prescient tale details a young man, John, from a future where his people and others live as foragers. He is the son of his tribe's priest, and they alone can handle metal found in the homes of long dead people, called "Dead Places". There is also The Place of the Gods, where no one may go.

He crosses a long river John calls "Ou-dis-sun", entering The Place of the Gods, and is moved by its power. Seeing a statue of a god (really, a human), he reads "Ashing" on its base. A building which he sees reads "Ubtreas". He is chased by wild dogs, taking refuge in a building. There he sees an image of another dead "god", and realizes suddenly they were human just like him, with power that overrode their sense.

The story is not only notable as a probable Trope Maker of many postapocalyptic tropes, but also seemingly predicting the effect of nuclear warfare with scary accuracy, prior to the atom bomb even being invented, let alone used. Whether by pure coincidence or not is hard to say (Benét actually died prior to the first bombings). It's possible however that this was simply extrapolated from uses of current weapons (he wrote it after the Guernica bombing, when the German Luftwaffe destroyed most of a Basque town in northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War) and the possible contamination lingering from using poison gas. If so, Accidentally-Correct Writing is in frightening effect.


  • After the End: The story is revealed to take place in the future close to the former New York City, after the city was ruined during a war long ago, with the survivors of the region tribal foragers once again. Due to loss of knowledge, they view the long ago humans as gods, and New York City has been forbidden to enter (apparently initially out of fear because poison was leftover there from the war, before it grew into a superstition).
  • And Man Grew Proud: John, after seeing how human civilization was destroyed, says this had been due to them gaining power through knowledge so quickly it had overridden their sense. This ended up resulting in a cataclysmic war which killed most people and left the rest like his surviving as simple foragers who long thought of those before as gods.
  • Apocalypse How: It's probably a Class 0 at least (Regional Scale, Societal Collapse), with the US having been destroyed in the past, New York City left a ruin and tribal humans living nearby who view it as a forbidden place where gods lived. This may well be more widespread, though John in the story only knows of his region.
  • The Beforetimes: John likes hearing of The Old Days, when the "gods" lived. He and his father can read old books that tell a bit about the time past, and they collect metal at "Dead Places" (houses left from in that time), which no one else in their tribe is allowed to do.
  • Earth All Along: The narrator John, the son of a priest who is "immune" to a certain kind of metal that can kill everyone else in his tribe, narrates in such a way that you think he is a member of a primitive tribe that may or may not possess magic of some kind. By the end it is clear that while there may be magic involved (specifically the flashback sequence), they most definitely are in the future, close to Washington DC. The holy metal spoken of is most likely radioactive, and John, like his father, has inherited his radioactive immunity (this was quite prescient, because little public knowledge of radioactive material, let alone bombs, existed at the time). Its title is a reference to the Biblical prophecy that Babylon would be destroyed as a result of the Babylonians' sins (like the protagonist believes the people in the past were).
  • The End of the World as We Know It: A war called the "Great Burning" later destroyed the US at some point in the past, with only ruins left and tribal humans surviving with myths surrounding what happened.
  • Forbidden Zone: No one is allowed to go into "The Place of the Gods" (formerly New York City). It's for fear of poison initially (left behind by the war that destroyed the city), from what John says, but by the time he visits its harmless (aside from wild dogs).
  • From Cataclysm to Myth: John describes the apocalyptic event that ended the "gods" era as "The Great Burning" while also describing it with language ("fire falling from the sky", "deadly mist") that is suggestive of bombs, poison gas and or nuclear fallout. In the future, surviving tribal humans believe that the ruins of New York City are really The Place of Gods, where none can go.
  • Future Imperfect: The humans of the past who destroyed themselves in a war with bombs and poison gas have been remembered by tribal future descendants as "gods", and only a few have even dim knowledge as to what happened. The Hudson River is now called "Ou-dis-son" due to linguistic drift, though "New York" remains secretly remembered by priests of the hill people (though it's not said aloud). Publicly, it's called "The Place of the Gods".
  • Future Primitive: The story is likely the Trope Maker for the "postapocalyptic future all along" twist ending version of this trope. In the story, a young man of the primitive Hill People tribe travels to the forbidden "Place of the Gods", violating his tribal taboos. The Place turns out to be a bombed-out New York City, and he realizes that the gods were actually human beings who were overwhelmed by their own power, raising the question of whether his own pushing at boundaries is such a good idea. However, the protagonist decides that once he's the high priest "We must build again".
  • I Am X, Son of Y: The protagonist declares himself "John, son of John".
  • Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair: John surveys a statue of George Washington (which reads only "Ashing" in the future) along with Federal Hall, where only "Ubtreas" is left of its inscription. He is moved by these remnants from the past "gods", who built up a great civilization but then destroyed themselves in a war, before realizing they were human like him, and fell due to their hubris, too much knowledge gained quickly having undone them.
  • Lost Common Knowledge: After a war had destroyed the US long ago, the future tribal humans no longer know much of how people lived then (they even think those once living were gods). John goes to the former New York City, referring to "god roads" (probably paved ones) he traverses, and is unable to figure out how food they had is still in some cases edible through preservation, thinking they had magic containers. He eventually does realize they were not gods however, just humans, optimistic that through reading those books that are left behind eventually humanity can learn what they did and create it again.
  • Magic Realism: The story is a realistic postapocalyptic fiction story, aside from what appears to be a genuine vision which John has in the ruins of New York City, showing him how the "gods" of the past lived there, plus their destruction during a war (with some survivors fleeing).
  • Monumental Damage Resistance: A statue of George Washington and Federal Hall remain standing in New York City (not that the protagonist recognizes them as such) when it's mostly in ruins, although both are quite worn down, with only fragments from their inscriptions left.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: John finds food from prior to the fall of the US which is still edible somehow. He also enters a building while in the ruins of New York City which has intact books and other furnishings. With his father he'd already found books in other houses as well (from which they know how to read English). Given the state of things which he describes (the city is overgrown by plants, stone inscriptions worn away, not to mention it suffering destruction from the war) this would not be realistic. Books rot, and food would have long since decayed (or been eaten by animals), even if kept in jars, since this implies that the fall was centuries before.
  • Religion is Magic: John was taught by his father, their tribe's priest, to do magic. He says it's something that a priest has to know, and his father uses divination by throwing sticks before John leaves for a long journey. It's left unclear whether this works, but John does later have a genuine vision of the past.
  • Ruins of the Modern Age: The son of a priest goes on a spiritual journey to the ruins of an American city which was once New York — they call this "the Place of the Gods". This came out in 1937 and was written in response to the Bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, where the Luftwaffe destroyed around two-thirds of a Basque town. It's strongly implied that civilization was destroyed in a war with bombings and poison gas at the least.
  • Shout-Out: The title is a reference to Psalm 137 in The Bible, which expresses the longing of the Jews in the Babylonian exile that they can return home, hoping Babylon will fall and its people be destroyed as well. In the story, such destruction is essentially what happened with New York City and the rest of the US due to a war.