The Murphy Code

September 18, 2008

It was a dark, rainy afternoon in Bamberg, Germany, but Fr. G. Ronald Murphy wasn’t about to let inclement weather thwart his quest. The Jesuit priest, a professor in Georgetown University’s German Department and scholar of medieval literature, was not looking for an obscure manuscript or a quiet refuge in which to spend his sabbatical. Rather, he was seeking the single object that has had the power to capture the imaginations of men and women for centuries, a relic which has inspired works of art ranging from the Arthurian legend and The Da Vinci Code to Indiana Jones and Monty Python. He was looking for the Holy Grail.

The prize, which Murphy believed to be held in Bamberg’s diocesan museum, wasn’t just any Grail—it was the object which, he believes, inspired Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Middle High German epic Parzival, which he dates to approximately 1210 AD. According to Wolfram’s tale, the Grail was not a serving dish or a chalice, as it has often been portrayed, but rather a green gemstone embedded in a portable Catholic altar.
“But what is the Holy Grail?” Murphy asks in his book Gemstone of Paradise: The Holy Grail in Wolfram’s Parzival, published in 2006 by Oxford Press. A fine question indeed, considering the dozens—perhaps hundreds—of objects which faithful have claimed to be the one true Holy Grail over the years.

Widely considered the greatest Crusades historian in the world, Cambridge University professor Jonathan Riley-Smith identified the Grail in an email as “a creation of Chrétien de Troyes,” who wrote the original Arthurian myth on the subject of the mysterious relic.

In his masterpiece Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal (Perceval or The Story of the Grail), written between 1180 and 1185 AD, Chrétien identified the holy object as a golden serving dish studded with jewels which magically served the inhabitants of a mysterious castle under a curse, Murphy writes in Gemstone. The French epic, which fused Christian tradition with Celtic myth, would inspire storytellers (including Wolfram himself) for centuries to come—even though Chrétien died before he could finish it.

Many authors later attempted to bring Chrétien’s story to a conclusion by supplying their own “continuations,” Murphy writes, the most influential of these writers being Robert de Boron. Robert’s Joseph d’ Arimathie (Joseph of Arimathea), written between 1200 and 1210 AD, not only changed the Grail from a dish to the chalice used at the Last Supper, it tied the legend to Joseph of Arimathea who, according to Robert, used the vessel to collect the blood seeping from Jesus’s wounds as he hung from the cross.

Father Murphy and his Viking ship is setting sail for history
Lynn Kirshbaum

Unlike the French-language epics of Chrétien and Robert, Murphy explains in his book that Wolfram’s Parzival, written in German, was not read “in France, England, and beyond,” preventing it from achieving the widespread popularity across Medieval Europe of the other two narratives. Despite the story’s lack of popularity, however, Murphy, along with most Grail scholars, believes Wolfram’s narrative is the best of all because it focuses the reader’s attention not on a physical relic that must be discovered, but on the Sacramental mystery of the Holy Communion which was already present.

“Where Chrétien wove together Celtic and Christian motifs,” Murphy explains in Gemstone, “Wolfram wove together Muslim and Christian, husband and wife, astronomy and medicine, the contemporary and the ancient, into an incredibly rich medieval humanistic Christian tapestry.”

Chrétien’s myth was written in France in the 1180s while the Christians had control of Jerusalem, Murphy noted in an interview with the Voice. Wolfram, on the other hand, wrote Parzival after 1187, when Muslim forces recaptured Jerusalem, which created a vastly different historical context for his narrative.

Christendom had fallen into a “slump,” he says, and by the Fourth Crusade, the Christian soldiers were frustrated and needed money. So they attacked Constantinople, the capital of the Christian East.

Initially, “one of the two purposes for crusading was to help the Easterners,” Murphy said. “The other was to recover the Holy Sepulcher.”

This “fratricide” on the part of the crusaders, Murphy argues in his book, explains why Wolfram changed the nature of the Grail from a dish to a stone.

Roughly the size of a cigar box, a medieval altar stone cutout housed the relics of saints and three pieces of the Holy Communion—the Body of Christ—covered by a lid. This stone was called the “Sepulchrum,” Murphy explained, a sort of miniature Holy Sepulcher.

“Every priest and chaplain among the crusaders had one in his saddle bags—that’s my argument,” Murphy said. “There’s no need to go to Jerusalem and to kill Muslims to acquire the Holy Sepulcher.”

According to Murphy, Wolfram uses a “frame story” to further his argument against crusading: a man has two sons, one by a black Muslim woman and another (Parzival, knight of the round table) by a Christian queen. Years later, the two brothers, blinded by their helmets, fight and nearly kill each other. They quickly realize their folly, however, recognizing that they have a common father—symbolic of Christianity and Islam’s common father of Abraham and, ultimately, God.

This altar stone may be the inspiration for Wolfram’s Perzival
courtesy Father Murphy

“So, it’s a powerful argument that going to Jerusalem and attempting to kill to recover the Holy Sepulcher is unnecessary and unwanted, because you and the Muslims are brothers. You have a common father,” Murphy explained. “To kill kin is a serious sin.”

Gemstone of Paradise is not the first book Murphy has written on German literature, a passion he attributes to his upbringing in Trenton, N.J., “the only U.S. city to be occupied by a German army,” he quips, referring to the Hessian mercenaries employed by Great Britain in 1776.

The joke doesn’t end there. While searching for the former home of the Brothers Grimm in the Hessian town of Hanau, Murphy gave the same dry-witted introduction to a man who lived in the village.

“Which regiments?” the German villager asked. Murphy told him the two he could remember, to which the man replied that the soldiers were from a village 15 kilometers away.

“I thought these people really have a sense of history being still present,” he said. “More than we do, more than we do.”
A kind, soft-spoken man quick to find the positive, spiritual meanings of all things, Murphy would have fit in well in such a village. Even his sparsely decorated office exuded a German spirit in its cleanliness and functionality.
An interest in astronomy early in his life prompted Murphy to study German, the de rigueur foreign language of budding American scientists at the time.

“It was like learning early English….It seemed like I was being taught my mother tongue,” he said.

After joining the Society of Jesus, Murphy was forced to choose between astronomy and German for his Ph.D. studies. He chose the latter, realizing that it was his true passion.
Murphy’s earliest interest in German literature, he explained, was the celebrated dramatist Bertolt Brecht, who became the focus of his dissertation at Harvard. In the paper, Murphy argued that Brecht, an avowed communist, used Biblical imagery and quotations not always to satirize Christianity, as many believed at the time, but often to make his plays more appealing and grabbing. Thus, Brecht was more than just “a good communist”—he was a good human being as well, Murphy said. The dissertation eventually became Murphy’s first book, Brecht and the Bible: A Study of Religious Nihilism and Human Weakness in Brecht’s Drama of Mortality and the City, which provoked a hailstorm of both praise and criticism.

Murphy then set his sights on the oldest known epic in German literature, The Heliand, which couches the Gospel in Beowulf-like terms for its Saxon audience, casting Jesus as a chieftain and his apostles as warriors. His insights into the epic’s adaptation of Christian language into terms popular with the Saxons formed the basis for The Saxon Savior: The Germanic Transformation of the Gospel in the Ninth-Century Heliand, published in 1989, and The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel, published in 1992.

Such adaptations of Biblical images and language are “aimed at moving you as a person … speaking in your categories,” he said. Parzival is no exception.

top of the altar stone
courtesy Father Murphy

“This is the most beautiful anti-Crusading book ever written,” Murphy explained, “because it’s written in the most popular story of its day: the Grail [story]. And secondly … this is more Christian than Christianity. It’s arguing against Crusading because…of the nature of love.”

Murphy’s highly original analysis of Wolfram’s Grail, which Gemstone of Paradise elucidates in detail, has been well received by critics and academics in the field, earning the book awards from the New Jersey Council of Humanities, the Mythopoeic Society, and the American Library Association.

In an interview with the Voice, Riley-Smith described Murphy’s association of the Grail with the altar in Bamberg (which Murphy has named the “Paradise Altar” because of its artistic allusions to the rivers of Paradise) as “very convincing,” though he admitted he is not an expert on Parzival and points out that Crusades historians tend to not be very interested in the Grail.
According to Riley-Smith, the Grail is “the greatest and most enduring literary invention of all time.” Accordingly, it has largely been left to the expertise of literary scholars to unveil the relic’s deepest secrets. Still, as Murphy would eventually discover, in its own way the Grail offers a significant contribution to the study of Crusades history.
Indeed, Murphy’s interpretation of Parzival fits within, and even bolsters, Riley-Smith’s revolutionary historical framework of the Crusades. Prior to Riley-Smith, historians interpreted the Crusades as “nothing but a modern economic venture, just an attempt by poor third and fourth sons to acquire land somewhere because their family wasn’t going to give them any,” Murphy said.
After spending months in dark European monasteries hunched over deeds entrusted to the monasteries by crusaders, Riley-Smith found that most of the deeds were to entire castles. This led him to conclude that, in general, it was the father of the household who went on crusade for the salvation of his soul and to do pious work for Jesus—hardly the self-serving motive originally posited.

“The Crusades were done out of real, genuine piety, not a cynical desire to grab money,” Murphy said. Furthermore, he argued, Wolfram’s opposition to the Crusades, because it is framed in religious terms, proves how much the crusaders were motivated by religious beliefs.

“If you had guys who were killing Muslims because it’s worth a lot of money,” Murphy said, “do you think arguing, ‘Hey, this isn’t very Trinitarian’ will stop them? But if they are pious and religious and holy, and they are hacking away out of love of Jesus Christ, you can talk to them.”

Murphy admits he initially feared Riley-Smith would see his argument—especially its emphasis on Wolfram’s anti-crusade message—as a contradiction of his historical model, prompting Murphy to send an email to Riley-Smith explaining how the two arguments are, in fact, complementary.
However, Riley-Smith “saw that right away,” Murphy explained.
Many other prominent scholars have also taken Murphy’s side, including Rachel Fulton, a University of Chicago history professor who claims expertise in Parzival, which she teaches as part of her courses on the history of European civilization.

“Fr. Murphy has given us an exceptionally insightful reading of a complex story that works on literary, theological, and historical grounds,” she wrote in an email.

Albrecht Classen, an expert in medieval and early modern German and European literature and culture at the University of Arizona, likewise praised Murphy’s work in a recent email to the Voice.

“He succeeds in connecting Wolfram’s Parzival with fundamental Christian teachings about love, family, and friends that extends far beyond the narrow limits of one religion against another,” he wrote.

But Gemstone of Paradise is more than just a work of literary analysis: its first and final chapters chart Murphy’s search for and, he claims, successful discovery of the very Grail which inspired Wolfram’s epic. It’s a bold claim, but one which Murphy defends rather ardently.

Based on the research of Josef Braun, S.J., who in the 1920s catalogued nearly every type of altar in existence in Europe, Murphy concluded that there were only two medieval portable altars still in existence with the artistic motifs described in Parzival—one in Brussels and one in Bamberg.

“Because Bamberg is in Franconia, Wolfram’s heartland, and because there is a possibility that Bamberg is mentioned at one point in the narrative … and because its portable altar was in the reliquary-box form, I believe that the altar at Bamberg is the one that inspired Wolfram,” Murphy writes in the book’s final chapter.

So, like the tomb-raiding, fictionalized professor we often associate with Harrison Ford, Murphy set off in search of the object of his fancy.

After making a five-hour drive to the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels with no results to show for it, Murphy decided to call the director of the diocesan museum in Bamberg.

“[He] told me that they had the object that I had described but that I was wrong about any depiction of the rivers of Paradise on it,” Murphy writes. “‘Only the twelve apostles,’ he said.”

It was at this point when, Murphy whispered as he related his remembrances, he received a message from what he believes may be his guardian angel.

“Go anyway, you fool!” the voice commanded from inside Murphy’s head. And so he went.

As Murphy and the museum’s director ascended the winding stairway which led to the exhibition hall, the director turned to Murphy, smiled and said, “I was mistaken about the rivers of Paradise … On top are not only the rivers of Paradise depicted around the stone but also the four trees of the Garden of Paradise,” Murphy writes in Gemstone.
Murphy’s heart leapt at the news, which confirmed that the altar’s features matched the description contained in Parzival—with only one question let unanswered: is the stone green?

The stone, Murphy was overjoyed to discover, was indeed green. According to the priest, Wolfram’s relic was more than the figment of one writer’s wild imagination—it was a real, tangible object of Christian piety.

“The exciting aspect of Prof. Murphy’s findings is…that he is able to trace the descriptions of the Holy Grail in Parzival to a very real object, thereby linking the work of imagination and artistic creativity to something real, grounded in the religious practices of the time,” Peter Pfeiffer, a professor in Georgetown’s German Department, wrote in an email.

However, scholars disagree over whether the altar stone of Bamberg, Germany, is actually the Grail which inspired Wolfram’s narrative.

In her review of the book for Reader’s Report, Fulton declares Gemstone of Paradise to be “a sophisticated, challenging and rigorous theological reading of Wolfram’s masterpiece wrapped up in a successful quest for the Holy Grail—or, at least, Wolfram’s Grail…”

Others are more skeptical of the discovery, though, including Classen, who calls the connection between the physical object—the green gemstone—and the literary discussion “tenuous at best.”

Murphy “seems to have found an object which Wolfram might have had in mind, and which would have deeply influenced his thinking, but it is not, and never will be, a perfect match,” Classen wrote in an email.

Still, Classen admitted that Murphy “is on fairly solid ground to suggest that the vicinity of Bamberg, with its altar/Grail object, and Wolfram’s birthplace south of it matters greatly.”

Most of the scholars consulted for this article do agree, however, that the importance of Wolfram’s epic—and Murphy’s book—lies not in the physical existence of the Grail, but rather in the deeper theological meaning the altar stone conveys.

Though she believes Murphy has found Wolfram’s Grail—or at least that the discovery is “very, very likely,” as she qualified in an interview with the Voice—in her review, Fulton identifies Murphy’s main contribution as “the reading of Wolfram’s work as itself a theologically sophisticated rebuff to his own contemporaries who would look for the Grail not at home or, sacramentally, already in their midst, but rather in the possession of the Muslims in the city of Jerusalem, lost to the Crusaders with the conquests of Saladin.”

Likewise, Classen recognized that “the ultimate purpose of [Murphy’s] investigation” was not merely to discover the Grail, but rather to show that “Wolfram rewrote the story of the Holy Grail in such a way as to tell the Christian world what the passion for fighting and dominance … signified about the state of Christendom in his day.”

So does the “True” Holy Grail really exist? Though many have found Murphy’s claim to be plausible, none of the scholars consulted believes there existed, or currently exists, a one true Grail—at least not in the form of a relic.

Like Murphy, Prof. Fulton believes Wolfram was right: “the true ‘Grail’ is the altar on which we celebrate Mass,” she said. Murphy’s Gemstone, Fulton argues in her review, is “a powerful wake-up call to pay careful attention to the theological arguments embedded in what many of us would prefer to read as … secular texts.”

As Murphy explains in Gemstone of Paradise, Wolfram ties the Grail “neither to the objects of the Last Supper nor to the relics of the Crucifixion, but rather to those of Holy Saturday—and to the present,” rendering its pious message—much like the legend of the Grail itself—timeless.

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