Father Burrows

Dear Dick:

I promised to tell you about a mystery by Agatha Christie that I think will shed some light on the origins and history of your biblical flood. The novel deals with a murder that occurs at an archeological dig in Mesopotamia with the the usual cast of mystery characters, not unlike that more famous story by Dame Agatha, Murder on the Nile. Of course everyone -- the more dignified the better -- is a suspect. Like all writers Agatha borrowed from real life, usually surreptitiously. But here she evidently got a little careless on this one, patterning it so closely after certain events and characters that she encounteed in Iraq that she worried for years afterwords whether she had revealed too much about her hosts at the remote archaeological digs at Ur where the action takes place.

Of the various characters one might expect, weel, you might guess it! The the murderer turns out to be the priest, a Jesuit member of the expedition who in real life was an Irishman named Eric Burrows. I got interested in this guy and looked him up. The historical Father Burrows was a paleographer and his responsibility was the translation of the various tablets of which the enclosed illustration is an example which happens to be the tablet which I have enclosed (Not the real tablet, of course....)

It seems that this father was a certain classcal character type. He spoke Sumerian, Babylonian, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Hebrew, among the ancient languages. But according to Max Mallowan, assistant to the director with whom Dame Agatha, divorced shortly before her visit, had a love affair, and who later married her, Fahter Burrows was unable to bend his mind to the vernacular and remember (according to Dame Agatha) Arabic words like "hot water". Far removed from the realities of life Burrows distressed his fellow scholars with his lack of normal social skills, exemplified perhaps by his insistence on doing his morning toilet in full view of visiting dignitaries. Nonetheless he was an interesting character clever, friendly, and yet aloof: there was something faintly inhuman about him according to Agatha. She says he once suggested an idea for a story to her, which she later used in one of her books, I dont know which one.

From what I make of his published work Burrows seems to accept the story of the biblical flood put out by Leonard Woolley, as I wrote to you before. He wrote an article published soon after Woolley found the famous layer of silt that he called the flood layer, in the January 1930 Dublin Review, which is an attempt to reconcile the Genesis and Mesopotamian stories. He describes how the flood obliterated the the world of an older pre-Deluge people who live in reed huts and paint pottery in a strikingly beautiful manner.

Burrows' provides a translation of the cuneiform tablets that describe the moments leading up to the flood, when the rebel God Ea, defying the council of gods who have determined to exterminate man because he is noisy and troublesome, decides to warn Noah of the impending disaster. According to other Sumerian versions of the story, this is not the first time disasters have struck; already the state of civilization has been plagued by disease,, drought, and other creeping problems, just like in oour own times. It turns out that Ea cannot simply warn Noah by addressing him directly -- this is evidently against the divine rules. He circumvents this by using the wall of a reed hut as an intermediary. One night the Noah of this story was sitting by his hut when a breeze sprang up and he thought he heard a kind of whispering. The more he listened the more he thought that it was a voice talking to him. At least that's the way he remembered it years afterwards wehn he would be trotted out to tell his grandchildren. Here is what he would say he remembered ttha he heard:

Reed-hut! Reed-hut! Wall! Wall!

Reed hut listen! Wall understand!

Man of Shurrappah,

Tear down the house. Build a ship!

Leave riches! Seek life!

Possessions hate, and life save!

Bring the seed of life, all of it, into a ship!

Interesting advice from the dim past! Sounds like what my freshmen dormmates used to tell their parents when they went homw for the big Christmas dinner!

I thought of this as I was lying in bed the other night. I couldn't sleep, jet lagged. Outside I could hear the faint hiss of traffic and blaring of horns way below on the avenues. At 2 am it started to rain and as it pelted the window I translated it all into the sound of wind in the walls of the hut, the listeners, children perhaps, huddled in the dark as the storyteller tells of the sounds of wind rustling in the reeds, and how the "man of Shurrappah," I wondered whether I should give up my career as a management consultant, counting beans for the Sun God. But this Sumerian Noah is able to hear the message that he should abandon his material possessions and build a boat. The story rings true, dont you think? Isnt it almost necessarily true that at some time there must have been soem one soemwhere who for some reason came to think that he escaped the great flood because the wind had warned him in advance. Why wouldn't any man think this if he lived in a place and a time was the world so fresh (or did it seem old and weary event then??) and have this story told of him?

Anyway Father Burrows dates the flood in this article at about 3700 BC., a little earlier than Woolley. All of these dates without benefit of radio carbon. Not so bad for a father!

Well that's about it for now. Look forward to seeing you on the tenth.

Love, Cessair

Copyright 1996 Kirribili Press. Return to Scientific Summary Chronological Index Ignatius Donnelly and the End of the World