23 Feb Golems
“The golem is a highly mutable metaphor with seemingly limitless symbolism. It can be a victim or villain, Jew or non-Jew, man or woman – or sometimes both. Over the centuries it has been used to connote war, community, isolation, hope, and despair.” – Moment Magazine on the golem
Golems are beings from Jewish folklore that are animated from inanimate matter, typically mud, clay, or stone. They have been mentioned in writings since Biblical times, and are generally depicted as mindless servants similar to homunculi that are created to serve a powerful master. According to some lore, they are animated by a single word of power that is written on a scrap of parchment and pressed into their mouths or foreheads – removing these objects will cause them to return to the inanimate goop that they were made from.
Golems are anthropomorphic creatures formed from mud or clay, much like how God is said to have created Adam in Genesis. However, those who create golems lack the divine ability to breathe proper life into their creations, and thus no golem could ever be considered fully human. In early stories, the main thing separating a golem from a person is that they cannot speak and show little intelligence.
According to lore involving them, golems can be both a blessing and a curse to their creators. Because they are not intelligent or discerning beings, they will perform a task exactly as instructed, without applying reason or common sense to their actions. They are incapable of taking instructions in anything other than a literal manner, which can cause some trouble for those who would have them do work unsupervised.
Another problem for the creators of golems is when a golem breaks their obedience, either wholly or partially. In the legends of the Golem of Chelm, it grew to a massive size and stopped cooperating with its creator’s demands. In some versions of the tale, the rabbi that created it had to resort to trickery to deactivate it, only for it to crush him afterwards.
In the Middle Ages, people began studying passages from the Sefer Yetzirah (an early book of Jewish mysticism whose title can be translated as “Book of Creation”) to try and figure out how to create a golem. At the time, it was believed that you could activate the vessel you created through some kind of ecstatic experience induced by a ritual involving various letters from the Hebrew alphabet. The result was a “shem” – any one of the seven holy Names of God from Rabbinic Judaism written on a scrap of paper. You would then insert this paper into the mouth or press it into the forehead of your clay or mud creature, and it would come to life. To deactivate the golem, you would simply remove this paper from its form.
In other traditions, a golem would be inscribed with a Hebrew word on its forehead. Most commonly, this word is emet, which translates to “truth” in Hebrew. To deactivate your creation, you would then remove the aleph character from emet, changing it into met, which means “dead”.
The earliest written description of these processes appears in a text called Sodei Razayya by Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, which was written in the late 12th and early 13th century.
One of the most famous historical golems was said to have been created by Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who was a rabbi in Prague in the 16th century. According to the legend, he created a golem from clay that he dug up from the banks of the Vltava River. He created the creature to defend the ghetto in Prague from anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms aimed at the Jewish population. Depending on which version you read, Jewish people living in Prague at the time were either being banished or killed by the order of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor.
The golem that Rabbi Loew created was named Josef, but they also called him Yossele. He was an unusually powerful golem – he could turn himself invisible and summon ghosts to his aid. To allow him to rest on the Sabbath, Rabbi Loew removed his shem every Friday evening.
However, the golem is a metaphor for hubris at its core, so things didn’t remain peaceful for long. In one version of the legend, Rabbi Loew forgot to deactivate Josef on Friday evening, and fearing that he would desecrate the Sabbath, he deactivated him. In other versions, the golem falls in love with a local girl, but she rejects him. At the end of either of these tales, the golem goes on a violent rampage, terrorizing the citizens of Prague until Rabbi Loew corners him on the steps of the synagogue and removes the shem from his mouth. Josef crumbled into pieces that were stored in the attic genizah in the Old-New Synagogue – he is kept so that if he is ever needed again, he can be reactivated.
According to the legends, Josef’s body is still in storage – however, when the attic of the Old-New Synagogue was renovated in 1883, no pieces were found. To explain this, some believe that the pieces were stolen from their place in the genizah and entombed or buried in a cemetery somewhere in Prague’s Žižkov district, possibly where the Žižkov Television Tower now stands. A more recent urban legend tells of a Nazi agent breaking into the synagogue’s attic during WWII and attempting to stab or destroy the golem, but he mysteriously died instead. The attic is currently not open to the general public, so we have no way of knowing whether there is an ancient golem up there or not.
Some Orthodox Jews believe that Rabbi Loew really did create a golem in the 16th century, and this belief is fueled by many reports that originated in the 1800s. Many scholars believe that the tale of the Golem of Prague was entirely created for literature in the early 19th century. The legend is thought to have originated in the following fictional works:
- Spinoza by Berthold Auerbach (1837)
- Der Golam, eine Legende by Gustav Philippson (1841)
- Der Golam des Rabbi Löw by Franz Klutschak (1841)
- Der Golem des Hoch-Rabbi-Löw (1842)
- Der Golem by Leopold Weisel (1847)
All of these accounts were originally written in German by Jewish writers – scholars believed that this and other tales emerged as part of a sort of “Jewish folklore movement” in tandem with the German folklore movement, which was emerging at around the same time.
The story’s origins have been glossed over in the years after their creation, likely for two reasons: to exaggerate the story’s age and to lend credence to its authenticity.
The Golem of Prague isn’t the only legendary golem – there’s a similar account related to a figure called the Vilna Gaon, AKA Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the “saintly genius from Vilnius.” He was a rabbi in the same period as Rabbi Loew. According to Sifra de Tzeniuta by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, a student of the Vilna Gaon, he once gave the Gaon ten slightly different versions of a passage from the Sefer Yetzira and asked if he could tell which one was correct. The Gaon immediately identified the correct text and then confided in his student that he had once begun the process to create a golem in childhood before he turned 13. However, he received a sign from God at some point instructing him to cease these attempts because he was too young.
This account only appears in Sifra de Tzeniuta, so there’s no way to determine the veracity of this story. Considering the Gaon never created a full golem, there is no evidence to back up this claim.
Yiddish and Slavic folktales also contain golem-like figures, though the process of animating them and the results are markedly different. The Clay Boy is essentially a cross between a golem and The Gingerbread Man – a lonely, childless couple forms a baby from clay that is miraculously animated due to their longing. The results of this impromptu creation of artificial life are mixed; they are sometimes comical, sometimes horrifying.
In a Russian version, an elderly couple whose children have grown up make a little boy out of clay and dry him out next to their hearth. Sometime during the drying process, the boy comes to life. Initially, the couple loves their new son and attempt to raise him exactly like a normal child. However, things go horribly awry when they start to feed him. It turns out that he would not stop eating, causing him to grow larger and larger. He eats all of the food in their house before moving on to their livestock, and finally, his own parents. He then proceeds to rampage through the nearby village, eating everything in his path, until an unlikely hero appears – a goat. The goat smashes the Clay Boy and defeats him, thereby saving the village. We hope that goat got an awesome reward.
With their mysterious animation process and obvious metaphorical ties, it’s no wonder that the golem is a very common pop-culture figure today. In the Czech Republic, there are multiple businesses and restaurants named after the creature, as well as a prominent Czech strongman named René Richter whose stage name is “Golem.” A Czech monster truck team calls itself the “Golem Team.”
The tale of the golem has inspired authors for over 100 years. The themes of hubris are reflected in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), even if the hubris is more related to science than to magic in that narrative. In 1991, He, She, and It by Marge Piercy featured a subplot that retold the story of the Golem of Prague. This book won the Arthur C. Clarke award. A fantasy short story called “In This Season” was published by Harry Turtledove in 1992 – it’s about a golem named Emes that helps three Jewish families escape from a town called Puck in Poland during Hanukkah in 1939, just after the beginning of WWII.
In 1993, a book called The Golem: What You Should Know About Science was published. Its authors, Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch use the parable of the golem to argue that science is neither good nor evil, and that it’s up to humans to use science for good purposes.
One of the most prominent uses of golems in fantasy is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Pratchett introduced multiple golem characters in Feet of Clay (1996). They are all named with Yiddish words and have been given “holy days” to rest, reflecting the rabbi’s keeping of the Sabbath in the legend of the Golem of Prague. Golems have also appeared in novels by Robert Jordan, Cynthia Ozick, Pete Hamill, Ted Chiang, Michael Scott, Jonathan Stroud, and Alice Hoffman.
Filmmakers love the golem almost as much as fantasy authors do; golems made their film debut in silent films directed by Paul Wegener in 1920. A trilogy was created, but only The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) has survived until the present day. Golems have even appeared in episodes of hit TV shows like Gargoyles (episode 41), The X-Files (S4E15), Supernatural (S8E13) and The Simpsons (S15E8).
Video and tabletop games have also caught golem fever – golems are featured in the most famous tabletop RPG of all time, Dungeons and Dragons. In 5th edition D&D, you can find the stat block for an Iron Golem, a Clay Golem, and many others in the Basic Rulebook. There is a Pokemon called Golem, and golem characters in Diablo II, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Runescape, Infinity Blade, and Magic: The Gathering, just to name a few.