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Father G. Ronald Murphy Studies Myth and Meaning

Father Murphy explains an object important to his research: this is an example of a type of altar used during the Crusades and alluded to, according to Professor Murphy, in "Parzival." (Photo: Roland Dimaya)

By Akoto Ofori-Atta

As the season changes from summer to fall, and leaves float to the ground as deciduous trees prepare for a cold winter, the evergreen tree—whose role as the Christmas tree is a staple of the holiday season all over the world—remains verdant and vibrant.

"Because evergreen trees stay green all winter, they are a sign that spring will be back," said professor of German Father G. Ronald Murphy. "This tree is a sign that life is everlasting," he said.

Murphy, whose body of research focuses mainly on Christian values, subjects, and the origin of Christian symbols, saw the connection between the evergreen tree and the 12th century stave churches of Norway, the shape of which reflects the Christmas tree. On a recent trip to Norway, Murphy confirmed his long-time suspicion that the early Norwegian churches were purposely designed to resemble an evergreen tree. Specifically, it was his discovery of a flying snake carved around the doorway of each stave church that made him realize that the door is designed to suggest the trunk of the Tree at the End of the World.

"In Germanic mythology, it is the evergreen at the center of the world that will save the last boy and girl at the end of the world. The multi-tiered structure of the stave church, with six or seven ascending roofs, confirmed for me the deliberate attempt to make the church resemble an evergreen tree at the End of the World," Murphy said. He continued, "Thus, opening the door to the church is like opening the trunk of the tree, and going inside is salvation from the End, expressed in Germanic terms."
His discovery of the meaning of the shape of the Norwegian stave churches constitutes only part of Murphy's body of research. Since arriving at Georgetown University in 1974, after completing his doctorate at Harvard University, Murphy has completed research on German literature and the Holy Grail: his most extensive research to date.

Murphy combined his love of German literature and his interest in the Holy Grail, which is according to Christian mythology the dish used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. In his most recently published book, "Gemstone of Paradise: The Holy Grail in Wolfram's 'Parzival'," Murphy examines the symbolism behind the Holy Grail in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Middle High German epic "Parzival," composed around 1210 AD. In Wolfram's epic, the grail was a gemstone in a portable Catholic altar, not a serving dish.  Murphy notes that Wolfram changes the role of the Grail from a dish to a stone in his epic to disprove the legitimacy of the Crusades—the religious-driven wars against Muslims in the 12th century.

According to Murphy, Wolfram uses the story of two brothers to speak out against the Crusades. The brothers, who have the same father but different mothers (one has a Muslim mother; the other a Christian mother), fought and nearly killed one another. Once their identities were revealed, according to the epic, they realized the uselessness of fighting because of their kinship. Murphy noted that Wolfram used the two brothers to describe the relationship between Christians and Muslims during the crusades, citing the foolishness of their bickering when both religions believe in the same God. 
"He wrote the Holy Grail story in such a way to make possible that only a Muslim and a Christian brother could approach the grail together, holding hands because they share the same father," described Murphy. "That’s quite a change from the way the King Arthur stories were told in the Middle Ages."

Murphy's love for all things German takes him beyond Grail lore, and is evident in his greater body of work. Prior to his work on the Holy Grail, Murphy completed research in other German-related topics. His first published piece, his dissertation at Harvard entitled "Brecht and the Bible," focuses on the work of Bertolt Brecht, a German poet and playwright. Murphy, who said he is fascinated by Brecht, admired Brecht's ability to think beyond Christianity.

"He was able to mix his Christian values with humanistic values, and it's very admirable," Murphy said.

Even prior to that research, in 1989 Murphy completed work on what is widely considered to be the earliest German epic, entitled "The Heliand." In it, he examined the spirituality of the author, which led to a published translation and commentary. In 2000, Murphy published "The Owl, the Raven and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms' Magic Fairy Tales," an examination of the use of magic in the works of the famous German writers, the Grimm Brothers.

The latter is connected to the Ignatius Seminar Father Murphy taught in the fall of 2008, titled "Myth and Realization," in which he taught students to consider the realities that exist within German myths.

As Murphy prepares to put the final touches on his work on the stave churches of Norway that he hopes to publish soon, he is not certain what research pursuit he will conquer next. If his prior works are any indication, he will continue to uncover some of the most captivating subjects hidden within German literature and culture. 

"Perhaps it’s the fact that I come from the only American city ever occupied by the German army," the Trenton, NJ, native jokes. Murphy is referring to 1776, the only time in history when German military was able to overtake an U.S. city. "But I have a deep passion for Germany and German literature, and I’m sure my work will always lead back to it."

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Insight: Father G. Ronald Murphy
What is your favorite book? The Bible, of course. But I also count "The Iliad," "Parzival," and the "Grimms' Tales."
Student Q & A: Elizabeth Saam
Father Murphy, more than any other teacher or professor I've ever had, focuses on truly ringing home the messages of whatever we are studying.
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