A book I recently read, Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret, makes heavy use of a nursery rhyme that’s apparently quite common in the United Kingdom, and dates back to at least the nineteenth century. The rhyme is as follows:
How many miles to Babylon?
Three-score and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light,
You may get there by candle-light.
There exist many variations, some of which replace Babylon with other cities. Some are other Middle Eastern locations like Hebron and Bethlehem, while others are more local places like London and Dublin. The Babylon version is the most common, however, and in the book it’s part of a longer rhyme that tells how to get to a magical place called Babylon. While this isn’t the same as the ancient earthly city of Babylon, there does seem to be some connection.
Due to the popularity of the Bible, the once powerful Mesopotamian city of Babylon is mostly remembered as the center of the empire that conquered Judah and forced its nobility into captivity. Later, the name became symbolic of any oppressive regime, most famously Rome in the book of Revelation. Babylon is also the setting of the tale of the Tower of Babel, which is both a rather far-fetched explanation of why people speak different languages and a reflection of a general distaste for cities and towers.
So why is it mentioned in this rhyme? I don’t know that there is a reason, beyond the fact that it has a sound that works, as well as a rather mystical feel. This page lists some places that are “three-score and ten” (i.e., seventy) miles from Babylon, but it’s unlikely the rhyme is supposed to be taken literally.
An interesting thing to note is that some variations on the rhyme use “Babyland” instead of “Babylon,” which suggests a connection between the poem and childhood. It’s even been proposed that “Babyland” is the original wording and “Babylon” a corruption, but since Babylon was an actual place as well as a symbolic name for other places, I find that unlikely. I did notice, however, that a few of Chris Dulabone’s Oz books mention Babylon as a place where babies come from. I’m not sure whether Chris was just going for the obvious pun or playing off the previously existing connection between Babylon and Babyland. Regardless, this Babylon might be located in the Land of Ev. Mind you, the earliest known association of babies with Babylon might be Psalm 137, which ends with, “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” A very pleasant sentiment, that.