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"
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.
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 Judah Loew ben Bezalel the late 16th century chief rabbi of Prague known as the Maharal, who reportedly created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks. This story of the Golem first appeared in print in 1847 in Galerie der Sippurim, a collection of Jewish tales published by Wolf Pascheles of Prague. In 1911 an account in Hebrew and Yiddish was published by Yudl Rosenberg in Lwow, supposedly based on the found diary of Rabbi Loew's son-in-law, who had helped create the golem; but the authenticity of this manuscript is in dispute.
Depending on the version of the legend, under Rudolf II the Holy Roman Emperor the Jews in Prague were to be either expelled or killed. To protect the Jewish community the rabbi constructed the Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava river and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations. As this golem grew it became increasingly violent, killing gentiles and spreading fear. A different story tells of the Golem falling in love, and when rejected, he became the violent monster as seen in most accounts. Some versions have the Golem eventually turning on its creator and perhaps even attacking other Jews.
The Emperor begged Rabbi Loew to destroy the Golem, promising to stop the persecution of the Jews. To deactivate the Golem, the rabbi rubbed out the first letter of the word "emet" (truth or reality) from the creature's forehead leaving the Hebrew word "met", meaning death. The Emperor understood that the Golem's body, stored in the attic genizah of the Old New Synagogue, would be restored to life again if needed. Accordingly, the body of Rabbi Loew's golem still lies in the synagogue's attic, although some versions of the tale have the golem stolen from the genizah and entombed in a graveyard in Prague's Žižkov district where now the great Žižkovská tower stands.
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, the Maharal's Golem had superhuman powers to 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 to testify in Prague courts.
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 Loew 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).
Composer Karel Svoboda finished his last musical based on the legend of Golem only two months before his suicide. This musical seems to be a flop due to an overcomplicated plot and a lack of musical ideas in songs.
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 common 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.
- The Golem: It! is the 1966 British-made film about a golem run amok in England. Well-known actor Roddy McDowall stars as mad assistant curator Arthur Pimm who evokes, i.e., brings to life the museum's golem statue. Pimm finds an ancient scroll in a hollow compartment of the golem's right foot and, following the tradition, places it under the golem's tongue. Suffice to say, all hell thereupon breaks loose.
- Several creatures in the Pokémon universe and video game series are named after, or based on, golems. "Golem" is the name of a very heavy rock-like Pokémon that serves as the second stage evolution of Geodude. There is also a trio of legendary Pokémon directly based on golems: Regirock, Regice and Registeel. Their master is Regigigas, a colossal white golem. In the games, it must be awakened before coming to life, much like the mythological golem; however, in this case, this is done by having the aforementioned golem trio as party members when encountering Regigigas.
- In the Fablehaven series, there is a golem named Hugo on the Fablehaven preserve.
- 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.
- In Batman Beyond "The Golem", A giant robot was created as piece heavy construction equipment but is used as deadly weapon by confused and mis-treated teenager to destroy his tormentors.
- In the third episode of The Sopranos, Denial, Anger, Acceptance, Tony Soprano is enlisted by a Hasidic Jewish hotelier to persuade his son-in-law to accept divorce from his daughter and disinheritance from his business. As events unfold, the hotelier calls Tony a golem, clarifying when questioned, "a Frankenstein". Tony later relates this exchange to his therapist, Dr. Melfi, who proceeds to ask Tony whether he feels like a golem, a creature lacking a soul.
- 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.
- In Mendy and the Golem, the title character is a Golem named Sholem.
- Science fiction novel Gridlinked Author Neal Asher Mr. Crane - a two and a half meter tall psychotic (modified Golem Twenty-Five) android controlled by Arian Pelter. Pelter and his crew take out the agents one-by-one, including their Golem Twenty agent - who is no match for the Golem Twenty-five Mr. Crane.
- Another novel referring to the Golem Mr. Crane Brass Man Author Neal Asher
- Bilski, Emily B. (1988). Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art. New York: The Jewish Museum. ISBN 8-7334-0493-0.
- Faucheux, Michel (2008). Norbert Wiener, le Golem et la cybernétique. Paris: Editions du Sandre.
- Dennis, Geoffrey (2007). The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. Woodbury (MN): Llewellyn Worldwide. ISBN 0-7387-0905-0.
- Winkler, Gershon (1980). The Golem of Prague: A New Adaptation of the Documented Stories of the Golem of Prague. New York: Judaica Press. ISBN 0-9108-1825-8.
- Goldsmith, Arnold L. (1981). The Golem Remembered 1909-1980: Variations of a Jewish Legend. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-16832-8.
- Idel, Mosche (1990). Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. Albany (NY): State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-0160-X.
by Alden Oreck
In Jewish tradition, the golem is most widely known as an artificial creature created by magic, often to serve its creator. The word "golem" appears only once in the Bible (Psalms139:16). In Hebrew, "golem" stands for "shapeless mass." The Talmud uses the word as "unformed" or "imperfect" and according to Talmudic legend, Adam is called "golem," meaning "body without a soul" (Sanhedrin 38b) for the first 12 hours of his existence. The golem appears in other places in the Talmud as well. One legend says the prophet Jeremiah made a golem However, some mystics believe the creation of a golem has symbolic meaning only, like a spiritual experience following a religious rite.
The Sefer Yezirah ("Book of Creation"), often referred to as a guide to magical usage by some Western European Jews in the Middle Ages, contains instructions on how to make a golem. Several rabbis, in their commentaries on Sefer Yezirah have come up with different understandings of the directions on how to make a golem. Most versions include shaping the golem into a figure resembling a human being and using God's name to bring him to life, since God is the ultimate creator of life..
According to one story, to make a golem come alive, one would shape it out of soil, and then walk or dance around it saying combination of letters from the alphabet and the secret name of God. To "kill" the golem, its creators would walk in the opposite direction saying and making the order of the words backwards.
Other sources say once the golem had been physically made one needed to write the letters aleph, mem, tav, which is emet and means "truth," on the golem's forehead and the golem would come alive. Erase the aleph and you are left with mem and tav, which is met, meaning "death."
Another way to bring a golem to life was to write God's name on parchment and stick it on the golem's arm or in his mouth. One would remove it to stop the golem.
Often in Ashkenazi Hasidic lore, the golem would come to life and serve his creators by doing tasks assigned to him. The most well-known story of the golem is connected to Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague (1513-1609). It was said that he created a golem out of clay to protect the Jewish community from Blood Libel and to help out doing physical labor, since golems are very strong. Another version says it was close to Easter, in the spring of 1580 and a Jew-hating priest was trying to incite the Christians against the Jews. So the golem protected the community during the Easter season. Both versions recall the golem running amok and threatening innocent lives, so Rabbi Loew removed the Divine Name, rendering the golem lifeless. A separate account has the golem going mad and running away. Several sources attribute the story to Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, saying Rabbi Loew, one of the most outstanding Jewish scholars of the sixteenth century who wrote numerous books on Jewish law, philosophy, and morality, would have actually opposed the creation of a golem.
The golem has been a popular figure in the arts in the past few centuries with both Jews and non-Jews. In the early 20th century, several plays, novels, movies, musicals and even a ballet were based on the golem. The most famous works where golems appear are Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Karel Capek's R.U.R. (where the word "robot" comes from), Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Golem and The X-Files. There is also a character named Golem in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic series The Lord of the Rings. Today, there is even a golem museum in the Jewish Quarter of Prague.
Sometimes, someone who is large but intellectually slow is called a golem. Other civilizations, such as the ancient Greeks, have similar concepts.