By the Rivers of Babylon

To traditional Christians, Babylon is a name instinct with meaning.  It is an apocalyptic symbol that parts a veil of illusion and casts light on hidden reality.  This is because Babylon is not only the name of a city in ancient Mesopotamia, but also the name of a mystical city that Christians believe is one of two possible homes to the human spirit.  St. Augustine calls it the “mystical name” of the city where “the devil is king,” and the spiritual home of all those who are his (1).  This is why we find the words “Mystery, Babylon the Great,” written on the forehead of the Scarlet Woman in the Apocalypse of St. John.  The Whore of Babylon personifies the diabolic glamor that entices spirits to declare themselves citizens of this mystical city (2).

This mystical city was, of course, inspired by a corporeal place, and we cannot begin to understand the apocalyptic meaning of mystical Babylon until we understand the geopolitical meaning of historical Babylon.  The apocalyptic symbol of Mystical Babylon is, after all, an instance of what rhetoricians call topothesia, or communication of an idea through vivid description of a place (3).

Historical Babylon was a dangerous neighbor, so Judea kept a wary eye on this colossus.  The little kingdom in the hills of Palestine was a border nation precariously perched on the rim of the fertile and populous Mesopotamian plain.  Judea thus lived under constant threat of annexation by the protean empires that ruled the great valley to the east, and yet remained fiercely jealous of its independence and sovereignty.  There were in those days other border nations in the hills that line the shore of the eastern Mediterranean, all of them pinched between the great riverine empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt.  In the words of the geographer Emil Reich, “they lived on the frontiers of vast and powerful empires, and naturally apprehended to be swallowed up by them.”  Through much of ancient history, the struggle not to be swallowed up turned this borderland into “the slaughter-house of western Asia” (4).

There are many ways in which a border nation may be “swallowed up.”  Imperial conquest and political subjugation is one; economic domination and exploitation is another.  But such swallowing often proves temporary, since empires decay and economic fortunes change;  a border nation that retains its identity as a separate people may well survive these debacles.  Irreversible swallowing and digestion occurs when a borderland people assimilates to the culture of the metropolis, and is thereby absorbed into the hoi polloi of the empire.  Assimilation to the imperial culture and religion—most especially that of Babylon—is what the Old Testament prophets call “playing the harlot,” since to lay down with Babylon was infidelity to the fathers .  According to Reich, the only certain prophylactic against playing the harlot and being swallowed is the sense of “spiritual superiority which border nations . . . must have or else perish” (5).

The Bower of Bliss

In the geography of the Bible, Babylon is most often represented as the place of Jewish captivity.  The best-known passage is almost certainly Psalm 137: 1, where one reads of the captive Israelites sitting down “by the rivers of Babylon” and weeping, as they “remember Zion.”

These rivers by which the Israelites sat and wept were not only the Tigris and Euphrates, but also the innumerable canals and irrigation ditches by which water from these streams was carried to the green fields of Mesopotamia.  What this means is that the Israelites sitting “by the rivers of Babylon” were to all outward appearances environed by a terrestrial paradise or a locus amoenus (6). The rivers of Babylon sustained a green and pleasant land in the Plain of Shinar, a lush and fruitful oasis.  Yet the Israelites wept because they had the apocalyptic vision—faith, if you like—to apprehend that this paradise was, in truth, a beguiling Bower of Bliss.

Bower of Bliss is the name that Renaissance literature gave to a spurious locus amoenus, to a garden of earthly delights that had been conjured into being up by an evil enchantress seeking to waylay a questing knight and keep him from his destiny.  In Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (1575), the enchantress is Armida; in Spencer’s Faerie Queen (1590), she is Acrasia; by the rivers of Babylon, she is that great mother of all enchantresses, Mystical Babylon, the Scarlet Woman (7).

This is why, in Christian symbolism, to weep beside the rivers of Babylon is to be a captive in the sensual world of delectable pleasures, and yet to apprehend that this sensual world is really a Bower of Bliss conjured into being by the enchantress Mystical Babylon, who seeks to waylay Christians and keep them from their destiny in Zion.  Thus St. Augustine wrote that the rivers of Babylon are “all those things which are loved here and which pass away,” and that to weep beside these rivers is to declare that “we are not dwelling as citizens in this life . . . but as captives.”

There are, needless to say, men who rejoice when they find themselves sitting by the rivers of Babylon.  “Men given up to the pride of life and its pleasures” are, St. Augustine writes, “in the thick of Babylon.”  The insignia of these “citizens of Babylon” is that they “place their whole delight in this world, and in this world alone” (8).

In his Confessions St. Augustine employs topothesia when he tells us that, in the days of his reprobate youth, he “walked the streets of Babylon, and wallow in the mire thereof” (chap. 3).  In the City of God, he calls Babylon an “earth-born city” of “men living according to man under the domination of the fallen angels” (chap. 17).  In this same book he points to the imperial capital of Rome as a “second “or “western” Babylon because it is both the seat of secular power and the site of sensual indulgence.

Babylon is a seductress, spreading her worldly doctrines to the ends of the earth.  Thus Jeremiah described Babylon as “a golden cup . . . . that made all the earth drunk.”  “The nations drank her wine,” he writes, and “are deranged” (51: 6).  In Revelations the content of this cup is described as “the wine of the wrath [i.e. passion] of her fornications” (14: 8).  The glamor of Babylon swallowed many Jews, as we find in Ezekiel’s tale of the “harlot” sisters Oholah and Oholibah.  The pair were first seduced in the stews of Egypt, but then “lusted” for “Assyrians . . . looking like captains in the manner of the Babylonians,” and were “defiled by them” (23: 5-17).  To be swallowed by the worldly ways of Babylon was, in the language of the Old Testament, to “dwell with the daughter of Babylon” (Zechariah 2: 6).

The Bible assures us that Babylon will one day be destroyed—even the skulls of its infants battered to pieces on a stone (Psalm 137: 9).  On the Day of the Lord, we are told, Babylon will be overthrown and its desolated ruins given over to owls, ostriches and wild goats.  “I will make it a possession for the porcupine, and marshes of muddy water,” the Lord says by way of Isaiah; “the hyenas will howl in their citadels, and jackals in their pleasant palaces” (13: 19-22).  On that day, the material and spiritual empire that was “the hammer of the whole earth” will be “cut apart and broken,” and forever after “everyone who goes by Babylon shall be horrified” (Jeremiah 50: 23, 13).

In another passage from Isaiah, the terrible fate of the great city is told as a story of the humiliation of a fine and imperious princess—a “virgin daughter of Babylon”—who is reduced to a miserable, grain-grinding slave.  In the days of her prosperity, this princess supposed that she would “be a lady forever,” and thus forever above the vulgar morality and vulnerabilities of ordinary folk.  She blasphemously claimed equivalence to God with the words, “I am, and there is no one else besides me.”   She proudly hoped to preserve herself by way of “sorceries,” “enchantments,” “counsels,” “astrologers,” and “stargazers.” Yet she comes to nothing in the end, and is burned like worthless stubble in the field (Isaiah 47).

The best known image of the destruction of Babylon is no doubt Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, as told and interpreted by Daniel.  In this dream there appears a splendid effigy of a man, compounded of gold, silver, brass, steel and clay.  This effigy is then smashed to pieces by “a stone cut without hands,” and this stone then grows into “a great mountain” that “filled the whole earth.”  Daniel explained the effigy to Nebuchadnezzar as a symbol of “kingdoms” or worldly power.  The golden head was Nebuchadnezzar’s own Babylonian kingdom, the silver arms, bronze belly, iron legs, and feet of mingled iron and clay were kingdoms yet to come.  And the “stone cut without hands” is the Kingdom of God, which will come at last and endure forever (2: 31-45).  Later writers interpreted these kingdoms yet to come as the empires of Persia (silver), Alexander (bronze) Rome (iron) and Rome’s aftermath (iron and clay).  The stone is, of course Christ; the mountain, his Church.

In the apocalyptic vision of St. John, the fall of Babylon is the end of “the world.”  This is why the destruction of the great city will desolate “the kings of the earth who committed fornication and lived luxuriously with her,” and why, watching the smoke rise from her ruins, they will cry, “Alas!”  Likewise, the merchants “who became rich by her” will survey the ruins with “weeping and wailing.”   Meanwhile “a great multitude in heaven” (i.e. the citizens of mystical Zion) will rejoice over the end of “the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornications,” and sing Alleluia that “her smoke rises up forever and ever!” (19: 2-3).

The rivers of Babylon will one day run dry, and the illusory Bower of Bliss will fade into a desert haunted by owls and porcupines.  The golden cup will run dry, the glamor will fade, and the vanity of Babylonian idols will be revealed.  This is one part of the meaning revealed by the apocalyptic symbol of Babylon.

The Mighty Hunter

According to scripture and tradition, Nimrod was the world’s first emperor, and as such founder of both mystical and historical Babylon.  As a sixteenth-century writer put it, “he was the first that took upon him the empire and government over his subjects, and his abiding was at Babylon, which city he builded” (9).  Nimrod was, again according to scripture, the great grandson of Noah in the line of Ham; and he was a “mighty hunter” who became, in time, a “mighty one on earth.” From his throne at Babylon on the green Plain of Shinar, Nimrod commanded an empire that stretched from the Tigris to the mountains of Lebanon.

An alternative pedigree of Nimrod is given by the Babylonian historian Berossus, who was writing in the third century B.C..  He describes Nimrod as the “first great commander of the world,” but says that Nimrod was the son of Jupiter Belus, another mighty warrior, later euhemerized as the Babylonian god Marduk.  Drawing on sources now lost to us, Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 300 A. D.) claimed that this Jupiter Belus was one of the “giants” that Genesis tells us walked the earth in the days before the Deluge.  These giants, also called Nephilim, were the issue of illicit unions between “sons of God” and “daughters of men” (Genesis 6:4).  Josephus and the apocryphal book of Enoch tell us that these “sons of God” were nothing less than angels sent by God to guard the earth and counsel men, but that some of these “Watchers” succumbed the to the temptation of lovely women, and  by them “engendered outrageous infants, and contemners of all good, by reason of that trust they had in their forces” (10).

The bastard spawn of the Watchers and the daughters of men were “evil spirits” and “giants” who, as Enoch puts it, “afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth,” but propagation of these “giants” was not the end of the Watcher’s mischief (14:11).  The Watchers also taught men “all the secrets of the angels, and all the violence of the Satans” (65: 6).  One Watcher taught men “all the blows of death” and “all the weapons of death” — “the shield and coat of mail, and the sword for battle.”  Another taught men “writing with ink and paper,” an art by which “many sinned . . . until this day.”  Yet another taught men necromancy and “the smitings of the embryo in the womb, that it may pass away” (69: 6, 9, 12).

A central purpose of the Deluge was to rid the earth of these haughty half-breeds, and of this forbidden knowledge—“the sorceries which they have searched out and learnt”—but many ancient writers were of the opinion that the Deluge did not perfectly accomplished its purpose.   Indeed, even Genesis appears to concede that some Nephilim survived the Flood: “There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them” (6:4).

Even if we set aside the apocryphal story of his diabolical ancestry, the founder of Babylon is a very dubious character.  As a grandson of Ham, Nimrod lived under the curse of Noah, who had, you will recall, anathematized his grandfather for the impiety of making sport of the old man when he (Noah) was fuddled by drink (Genesis 9: 20-17).  Although Nimrod did not himself become in any obvious way a “servant” to the children of Shem and Japheth, as the curse foretold, he does appear to have inherited his grandfather’s vice of mockery and irreverence.  Josephus (who describes Nimrod as the nephew of Ham) writes that he was “a man valiant and apt for arms,” but that he also taught his followers that “they should not believe that their good fortune proceeded from God, but that they ought to attribute it to their own virtue” (11).

St. Augustine concurred in this, and translated Genesis 10:9 as saying not (as in the Authorized Version) that Nimrod was “a mighty hunter before the Lord,” but that he was “a hunter against the Lord” (12).  Thus began the long tradition that Nimrod was the first “great rebel” among humans (or at least semi-humans).  He was the first man to declare himself a deity equal if not superior to God, as is evident from the name he gave to his city, Bab-ilu, or “gates of God” (13).

Nimrod’s rebellion began when he gathered men into his city on the plains of Shinar, for this defied God’s command that the sons of Noah “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).  In the words of Josephus, “they were commanded by God that . . . they should send certain distinct colonies to inhabit diverse countries,” but they “did not obey him, but rather suspected that God sought to betray them . . . that being thus divided he might the better subdue them.”  In all of this, “Nimrod incited them . . . to mock and contemn God,” and to presume “that their force was the only cause of their abundance” (14).

The name of Nimrod was somewhat spoiled as an apocalyptic symbol when the cartoon character Bugs Bunny used it to taunt the “mighty hunter” Elmer Fudd.  When I was a boy, “nimrod” was an epithet applied to incompetent dorks, quite possibly under the mistaken impression that it was related to the synonymous taunt of “numb nuts.”  Fortunately, this impertinence of slang is increasingly lost to memory, and we can once again use the name of Nimrod to symbolize the archetypal Humanist: the first man who attempted to put himself and his creation in the place of the Creator and his.

The Dark Tower

Nimrod’s most famous creation was, of course, the Tower of Babylon.  This project was undertaken for several reasons, not the least of which was to bind men together in the Leviathan of Nimrod’s empire.  Nimrod proposed to build a tower “whose top is in the heavens,” but he did not do this not because he proposed to “ascend into the starry heaven,” as the third Sibylline Book tells us.  He did it to defy heaven.  The main reason the men of Babylon constructed the Tower was, they said, to “make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11: 4).  In other words, the Tower was a collective project that would swallow up the men of Babylon and form them into a disciplined Leviathan that could swallow up all mankind, thereby defying of the divine command to “fill the earth.”

What is more, the Tower was built as a human refuge in the event that God should attempt to punish men with a second deluge.  These faithless men had no confidence in God’s promise to do no such thing.  As Josephus describes it, Nimrod told the men of Babylon that they should place their trust in Nimrod and his empire, and that “if God should once more send a deluge . . . he would build a tower, to whose top the water should not attempt.”  With this refuge in hand, Nimrod told the men of Babylon, it would be “pusillanimity in themselves, if they should obey God” (15).  Later writers found it significant that the Tower had “asphalt for mortar,” and said “it was made of brick and bitumen, least the water should loosen it” (16)

Construction of the Tower of Babylon was the first organized human rebellion against God.  At the head of this organization stood Nimrod, the first rebel organizer.  It was not the first ungodly act, of course, for there had been before that time any number of ungodly and unrighteous men; but it was the first undertaking of an ungodly polity.  Thus St. Augustine wrote, “with this symbol of godless exaltation, the city or society of the wicked [first] becomes apparent” (17).

With the diversification of tongues that ended work on the Tower, God compelled men to carry out his command that they “fill the earth.”   As one early modern writer put it, “the princes of the earth” were thereby “driven to search new countries to inhabit,” with every man “following his language as an ensign under the which they might plant and multiply” (18).

I call the Tower of Babylon a “dark tower,” not only because its corporeal body was made of black tar and umber mud, but also because its mystical body was made of black rebellion.  This dark tower is an apocalyptic symbol of the Leviathan state that aspires to swallow all the nations and absorb them into Nimrod’s empire, thereby prematurely realizing the unity that can truly come only in the mystical Zion.

Modern Babylonians

Babylonians are, in the corporeal sense, an extinguished race of long ago.  We encounter them in ancient texts, books of history, or artifacts displayed in museums.  But in a mystical sense, Babylonians walk among us.  It is far from certain that we are not, ourselves, Babylonians.  After all, we live in an age that might well be titled the Babylonian Renaissance, and the Scarlet Woman has lost none of her charms.

The Babylonians of today may be known, first of all, as the men and women who are not weeping beside the rivers of Babylon—they are, on the contrary, delighted with this Bower of Bliss and determined to sample and savor every one of its delectable fruits.  They live their lives as Epicureans, savoring the pleasures afforded by the oasis that human ingenuity has caused to blossom in the desert, and deliberately forgetting Zion.  To remember it is, they believe, nothing but morbid folly.  In many ways they resemble Isaiah’s “virgin daughter of Babylon,” the princess who declared “I am, and there is no one else besides me,” and who placed her faith in “sorceries,” “enchantments,” “counsels,” “astrologers,” and “stargazers.”  Modern Babylonians are, in a word, Humanists.

These modern Babylonians may also be known as the men and women who rally round the standard of Nimrod, by which I mean that they rally round men who propose a New World Order.  These modern Nephilim are what T. S. Eliot described as the “tribe” of “serious and eccentric moralists” who assume the mantle of a “modern messiah” and preach ideas “of their own making.”  These men are “giants” who reject “tradition and orthodoxy,” fall back on an “inner light,” and thereby make themselves instruments of “demonic possession” (19).  Like the virgin daughter of Babylon, modern Babylonians are in thrall to these “monthly prognosticators,” these “outrageous infants” who speak for the Age and are forgotten in a day (47:13).  Modern Babylonians are, in another word, Energumen.

We also find our modern Babylonians swallowed up in the project of building the dark tower of a global state.  Their aim is to create a Leviathan to replace the mystical Zion they have forgotten, or are doing their best to forget. This Leviathan will, in turn, swallow up the nations, partly through physical power, but more importantly through the enticements of the Scarlet Woman, who asks every one of us to “play the Harlot” and become a citizen of Babylon.  If she succeeds, there will be no more nations, only the hoi polloi of the empire.  Modern Babylonians are, in one last word, Globalists.

Historical Babylon rose and fell, but mystical Babylon lives on.  The former was built from sun-dried bricks on the once-green Plain of Shinar; the later was built from human depravity in the spiritual structure of the world.  Mystical Babylon will not endure forever, but there can be no doubt that it endures. The day is yet to come when we will see the smoke rise from her ruins—when some will cry Alleluia, and others will cry Alas.  Until that day, each of us would do well to meditate on the apocalyptic symbol of Babylon.

(1) St. Augustine, Exposition on the Book of Psalms, 62.

(2) James Edmond Thompson, The History of the Fall and Dissolution of Christendom (Nashville, Tenn.: McQuiddy, 1917), p. 133.

(3) “The feigning of a place, when a place is described, as peradventure none such is.  Example of this is the Utopia of Sir Thomas Moore.  Or else is not such a place as it is feigned to be.  As is hell and heaven in the sixth [book] of Aeneid.” Richard Sherry, A Treatise on the Figures of Grammar and Rhetoric (London: Richard Tottel, 1555), p. xlvii

(4) Emile Reich, General History of Western Nations, vol. 1, Antiquity (London: Macmillan, 1908), pp. 141

(5) Reich, General History, p. 165.

(6) Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (New York: Pantheon, 1953), p. 183-202.

(7) Torqunado Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered, Canto 15, 53-16-29.  Edmund Spencer, The Faerie Queen, Book 2, Canto 12.

(8) St. Augustine Expositions on the Psalms, 137

(9) Richard Grafton, A Chronicle at Large and Mere History of the Affairs of England and Kings of Same Deduced from the Creation of the World (London: Richard Tottle and Humffrey Toye, 1569), p. 14.

(10) Flavius Josephus, History of the Jews.

(11) Flavius Josephus, History of the Jews.

(12) City of God, chaps. 3 & 4

(13) Arthur W. Pink, The Antichrist (I. C. Herendeen: Swengal, Pa., n.d.).

(14) Flavius Josephus, History of the Jews.

(15) Flavius Josephus, History of the Jews.

(16) Heinrich Bünting, Itinerarium Totius Sacrae Scripturae (London: Adam Islip, 1636), p. 254-255.

(17) City of God, chap. 10.

(18) Geoffrey Fenton, Golden Epistles (London: Rafe Newberry, 1575), p. 113.

(19) T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (London: Faber and Faber, 1934),

8 thoughts on “By the Rivers of Babylon

  1. Pingback: By the Rivers of Babylon | Aus-Alt-Right

  2. It all goes to show that there is considerable sociological insight to be had in Scripture. Having buried one empire after another, the Abrahamic tradition is in a privileged position to have a purchase on the nature of these sorts of things. What we know as Leviathan today isn’t the first historic specimen of Babylon; it may or may not be the last; but we will eventually bury it, too.

  3. Babylon is Globalism, sure enough. It is also the Desert of Globalism, or what Voegelin, defining his term ecumene, describes as the graveyard of dead societies that is the inevitable outcome of imperial voraciousness. Pardoning Shelley’s adolescent radicalism, but he got it right in these lines:

    I met a traveller from an antique land,
    Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

  4. Pingback: By the Rivers of Babylon | Reaction Times

  5. Thomas @ Many years ago, when I was still living in upstate New York and working in a shoe store, I memorized Ozymandias to pass the time. I will confess that I associated that “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” with the owner of that shoe store, and took some consolation in imagining his “trunkless legs” and “shattered visage.” Not really fair, of course, since he wasn’t half bad and I was a slacker reciting Shelly when I should have been sorting the size tens from the ten-and-a-halfs,

    I have some notes for a post I hope to write about decadence soon. The fall of empires is a fascinating subject. What is perhaps more fascinating is the way elites are always sure that they will get it right this time. Even as they become soft and lazy, and their children decide to become artists, and the barbarian invasion breaches the inner wall, and the internal proletariate becomes unsustainably expensive–even then, they are sure they are going to get it right this time.

  6. Pingback: Babelonian Synchronicity – The Orthosphere

  7. Pingback: What the Well-Dressed Wolf is Wearing Nowadays – The Orthosphere

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