Definitions

golem

golem

[goh-luhm, -lem]
golem [Heb.,=an undeveloped lump], in medieval Jewish legend, an automatonlike servant made of clay and given life by means of a charm, or shem [Heb.,=name, or the name of God]. Golems were attributed in Jewish legend to several rabbis in different European countries. The most famous legend centered around Rabbi Löw, of 16th-century Prague. After molding the golem and endowing it with life, Rabbi Löw was forced to destroy the clay creature after it ran amok.

See J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939, repr. 1961); M. Idel, Golem (1989).

Golem (right) in the German film Der Golem (1920)

In Jewish folklore, an image that comes to life. From the Middle Ages stories were told of wise men who could bring clay effigies to life by means of magic charms or sacred words. Golems began as perfect servants, whose only fault lay in fulfilling their master's commands too literally or mechanically. Later golems were imagined as protectors of the Jews in times of persecution, but also had a frightening aspect.

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In Jewish folklore, a golem (גולם, sometimes, as in Yiddish, pronounced goilem) is an animated being created entirely from inanimate matter. In modern Hebrew the word golem literally means "cocoon", but can also mean "fool", "silly", or even "stupid". The name appears to derive from the word gelem (גלם), which means "raw material".

History

Origins of the word

The word golem is used in the Bible to refer to an embryonic or incomplete substance: Psalm 139:16 uses the word גלמי, meaning my unshaped form. The Mishnah uses the term for an uncultivated person ("Seven characteristics are in an uncultivated person, and seven in a learned one", Pirkei Avot 5:9). Similarly, golems are often used today in metaphor either as brainless lunks or as entities serving man under controlled conditions but hostile to him in others. Similarly, it is a Yiddish slang insult for someone who is clumsy or slow.

Earliest stories

The earliest stories of golems date to early Judaism. Adam is described in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b) as initially created as a golem when his dust was "kneaded into a shapeless hunk". Like Adam, all golems are created from clay. They were a creation of those who were very holy and close to God. A very holy person was one who strove to approach God, and in that pursuit would gain some of God's wisdom and power. One of these powers was the creation of life. No matter how holy a person became, however, a being created by that person would be but a shadow of one created by God.

Early on, the notion developed that the main disability of the golem was its inability to speak. In Sanhedrin 65b, is the description of Raba creating a golem using the Sefer Yetzirah. He sent the golem to Rav Zeira; Rav Zeira spoke to the golem, but he did not answer. Said Rav Zeira, "I see that you were created by one of our colleagues; return to your dust." It is said that if a golem were made able to speak, that would give it a soul, and — because a golem cannot be made perfectly — that ability could make it very dangerous.

Owning and activating golems

Having a golem servant was seen as the ultimate symbol of wisdom and holiness, and there are many tales of golems connected to prominent rabbis throughout the Middle Ages.

Other attributes of the golem were gradually added over time. In many tales the Golem is inscribed with magic or religious words that keep it animated. Writing one of the names of God on its forehead, a slip of paper in its mouth, or enscribed on its body, or writing the word Emet (אמת,"truth" in the Hebrew language) on its forehead are examples of such words. By erasing the first letter aleph in Emet to form Met (מת, "dead" in Hebrew) the golem could be deactivated. Another way is by writing a specific incantation in the owner's blood on calfskin parchment, and placing it in the mouth. Removing the parchment will deactivate the golem. It is likely that this is the same incantation that the Rabbi recites in the classic narrative. Golems also need to rest on the Sabbath lest they go berserk.

The classic narrative

The most famous golem narrative involves Rabbi Judah Loew the Maharal of Prague, a 16th century rabbi. He is reported to have created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto of Josefov from Anti-Semitic attacks. The story of the Golem first appeared in print in 1847 in a collection of Jewish tales entitled Galerie der Sippurim, published by Wolf Pascheles of Prague. About sixty years later, an account was published by Yudl Rosenberg in Lwow (1911). It was reportedly the found diary of Rabbi Lowe's son-in-law, who had helped in the creation of the golem, but there have been doubts as to the authenticity of the manuscript. It is a bi-lingual book, printed in Hebrew and Yiddish.

According to the legend, the Emperor made an edict proclaiming that the Jews in Prague were to be either expelled or killed (depending on the version of the story). A golem could be made of clay from the banks of the Vltava river in Prague. Following the prescribed rituals, the Rabbi built the Golem and made him come to life by reciting special incantations in Hebrew. The Rabbi's intention was to have the Golem protect the Jewish community from harm. As Rabbi Loew's Golem grew bigger, he also became more violent and started killing the Gentiles (non-Jews) and spreading fear. Some versions also add that the Golem turns on his creator and attacks either his creator alone or the creator and the Jews as well.

In the face of the strength demonstrated and violence perpetrated by the Golem, the Emperor begs Rabbi Loew to destroy the Golem, and in return he would promise that the persecution of and violence towards the Jews would stop. The Rabbi accepted this offer. To destroy the Golem, he rubbed out the first letter of the word "emet" or "aemaeth" (God's truth) from the golem's forehead to make the Hebrew word "met" or "maeth", meaning death. It was made clear to the Emperor that the Golem of Prague's remains would be stored in a coffin in the attic of the Old New Synagogue in Prague, and it can be summoned again if needed.

It is said that the body of Rabbi Loew's golem still lies in the genizah of the Old New Synagogue in Prague. In some documents, the golem was stolen from genizah and entombed in a graveyard in Žižkov. In this very place, the great Žižkovská tower now stands. A legend is told of a Nazi agent during World War II ascending the attic and trying to stab the golem, but perishing instead. The attic is not open to the general public.

The existence of a golem is sometimes a mixed blessing. Golems are not intelligent — if commanded to perform a task, they will take the instructions perfectly literally.

In some incarnations of the legend of the Maharal's golem, the golem has powers that can aid it in its tasks. These include invisibility, a heated touch, and the ability to use the Maharal's walking stick to summon spirits from the dead. This last power was often crucial, as the golem could summon dead witnesses, which the medieval Prague courts would allow to testify.

The hubris theme

In many depictions golems are inherently perfectly obedient. However, in its earliest known modern form the story has Rabbi Eliyahu of Chełm creating a golem that became enormous and uncooperative. In one version of this the rabbi had to resort to trickery to deactivate it, whereupon it crumbled upon its creator and crushed him. There is a similar hubris theme in Frankenstein, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and some golem-derived stories in popular culture. The theme also manifests itself in R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), Karel Čapek's 1921 play which coined the term robot; the novel was written in Prague and while Capek denied that he modeled the robot after the golem, there are many similarities in the plot.

The golem in European culture

In the late 19th century the golem was adopted by mainstream European society. Most notably Gustav Meyrink's 1915 novel Der Golem based on the tales of the golem created by Judah Low ben Bezalel. This book inspired a classic set of expressionistic silent movies, Paul Wegener's Golem series, of which The Golem: How He Came Into the World (also released as The Golem, 1920, USA 1921--the only surviving film of the trilogy) is especially famous. Another famous treatment from the same era is H. Leivick's 1921 Yiddish-language "dramatic poem in eight sections" The Golem. Also notable is Julien Duvivier's "Le Golem" (1936), a sequel to the Wegener film. Nobel prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer also wrote a version of the legend.

These tales saw a dramatic change of the golem. The golem became a creation of overambitious and overreaching mystics, who would inevitably be punished for their blasphemy, as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the alchemical homunculus. The homunculus appears occasionally in the folklore of Eastern Europe as a construct made from natural materials such as dirt, roots, insects, feces, and other substances. In these stories the creature is revived through incantation and acts as a vehicle for the astrally projected mind of a sorcerer.

Dutch novelist, Harry Mulisch's 1999 novel, The Procedure is in part a modern re-interpretation of the Golem myth, starting with a 'historical' description of the kabbalistic experiment which results in a murderous female Golem.

The golem in the Czech Republic

The golem is a popular figure in the Czech Republic. There are several restaurants and other businesses named after him. Strongman René Richter goes by the nickname "Golem", and a Czech monster truck outfit calls itself the "Golem Team".

The golem had a main role in the 1951 Czech movie Císařův pekař a pekařův císař (released in the US as The Emperor and the Golem).

In modern culture

Golems appear in a wide variety of books, comic books, films, television shows, fantasy anime and games, ranging from an umbrella term for automata and simulacra. Golems are specially usual characters in computer RPG videogames and tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Diablo or Heroes of Might and Magic, being usually made of earth, but also metal or blood or other substances. Typically, a golem is a creation of a wizard or sorcerer to act as a servant or guardian.

These are some notable contemporary uses of the golem mythos:

  • The Golem of Prague has appeared in stories across many media, including the novels The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which Josef Kavalier helps save the Golem of Prague from Nazi invasion, A Calculus of Angels, Foucault's Pendulum, He, She and It, Donald Tyson's Tortuous Serpent, and Pete Hamill's Snow in August.
  • Also inspired in part by the story of the Golem of Prague, Ted Chiang wrote a short story, Seventy-Two Letters, which explores the role of language in the creation of golems. The story won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2000. It can be found in the collection Stories of Your Life and Others.
  • The first trilogy of movies about Rabbi Judah Loew and his golem were Der Golem (1915), the Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), and Der Golem, wie er in die welt kam (1920) Directed by Paul Wegener. Only the last film, which is a prequel, has survived, though stills exist of the earlier films. This Golem is the main subject of the British film It!, Gold Star Productions Limited (1966), staring Roddy McDowell as Arthur Pimm, who evokes (brings to life) the Golem.
  • Edward Einhorn's Golem Stories appearing in his book of plays entitled The Golem, Methuselah, and Shylock includes a golem that has the soul of a young man who was the fiance of the Rabbi's daughter.
  • In Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy, golems were used by Prague in their war against the British Empire in the story's late 19th century alternate history. The name of the golem's master was written on a parchment on its mouth, and the golem would be destroyed if its master was killed.
  • In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel, Feet of Clay, the Golem Dorfl becomes conscious and is given free will after Captain Carrot alters his "Chem", the slip of parchment in the Golem's flip-top head so that he 'owns' himself. The novel also features a number of other encounters with golems, and even a Golem-made Golem, which commits murderous atrocities across Ankh-Morpork. Golems appear as supporting characters in Going Postal and Making Money. Free (self-owned) golems buy the freedom of owned golems. The economic and social impact of slave-like labor is a theme, as well as the morality of sentient labor without liberty or free choice.
  • In The Puttermesser Papers, a National Book Award finalist by Cynthia Ozick, the main character Ruth Puttermesser, a Jewish lawyer, creates a golem, who loyally serves Puttermesser's quest to convert New York City into an urban Utopia.
  • In The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror XVII", Bart steals a Golem from Krusty and uses it to do his own. This cartoon Golem is drawn to resemble the golem in Wegener's film. Krusty gives a brief history of the "Jewish Golem of Prague", given orders by placing a written command in its mouth.
  • Gargoyles, Season II, Episode 28, "Golem"; Charmed, Season IV, Episode 5, "Size Matters"; and the The X-Files Season IV, Episode 15, titled "Kaddish" all feature golems as a plot element.
  • A golem named Joe appears in the first issue of the ongoing Image Comics title Proof. He is a bulletproof cryptid who defends New York's Jewish population from crime and persecution. Joe later appears in the third arc, "Thunderbirds Are Go!" (issues 10-15), having left his post and gone in search of something or someone hidden within New York's sewer system.

References

Further reading

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