There are things that go bump in the night, and, then again, there are things that go bump in our psyches and rattle around with such fury that they can’t be quelled by any night light. In fact, at some point and in the full light of day, they will trip from our tongues or scurry across the pages of our books—out into the world, across eras, and even across cultures. These monsters may prove themselves useful to us, even noble at times—our defenders from the monsters that show up at our doors in human flesh– but they are problematic nonetheless. They are never really controllable.
To wit—the golem.
Long before Prague was Prague, “the Golem” began rattling around our psyches as a shadowy form in Hebrew lore. The word references an unshaped form, or possibly an unrefined person—someone who is clumsy. A clod.
Yes, a clod of dirt and dust . . . like Adam before Eden. But without the divine breath, the breath of life.
So, how did this golem come to be animated? Scholars can point to moments in the Talmud or the Hebrew Book of Formation when a golem was brought to life by use of a shem—a name of God. If one of the names of God was inscribed on paper and placed in the mouth of the mud man, or perhaps inscribed upon its forehead, then the golem became animated.
Something to remember: the name of God represented the reality and power of God. To invoke God’s name meant to invoke a truth and a power beyond any a mortal could/should wield. But this doesn’t stop mortals from prying in business beyond their wisdom, does it? (The atom bomb comes to mind.)
And so, tales of the golem took foot like so many clay men, trodding the shadows but living beyond a world they could understand or be understood in. Glimpses were reported in tales from Poland, Russia, Germany (at the hands of Jakob Grimm), and Prague.
Prague. There was a city ripe for things that go bump and holy incantations both. In 16th century Prague, these elements mixed to create a famous tale in which the golem was a being animated to protect the Jewish ghetto from oppressors.
Although tales of the golem had been around centuries before, this famous tale of the golem was created by Rabbi Yehudah Levi ben Betzalel (aka, Rabbi Loew) . Rabbi Loew had his reasons: anti-Semitic attacks were a fact of life, and rumors abounded that a local priest was about to launch a new accusation at the Jewish community in Prague. They were to be wrongly accused of ritual murder of Christian children. To avert this disastrous situation, Rabbi Loew formed his golem from the mud of the Vltava River and, in a god-like act, placed life into its mouth with the Shem Hameforash.
The golem was named Joseph, and he served as the protector of the Jewish Quarter. He was a hero, but he was also a monster–human-like, but not human. Created from the machinations of a man who, though holy, was less than God. And what happens when man meddles with the power of God? The story always turns dark.
The golem grew stronger and stronger as time passed, and more violent too. He couldn’t be controlled. And so, the shem had to be removed from his mouth and the noble monster had to be “decommissioned.” The clay figure was locked away in the attic.
If you are starting to think that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster has eerie undertones of the golem, then I agree 100%. Sure, Rabbi Loew had more noble intentions than Dr. Frankenstein, but nobody ever really controls these monsters once they come to life. And no one really understands them, either. There is something poignant and lonely about these beings–despite the danger and the grotesque qualities they possess, they are almost us. Oddly, they are better than us in moments–they have the physical power to protect and they have remarkable innocence despite their power. Until the story turns. But it turns, at least in part, because of the violent world they must confront.
Life is complicated, no?
And, having trod through the ages– from hints in the Garden of Eden, to full power in 16th century Prague, to the quintessential monster of British horror tales–the golem now prowls the streets of modern America in our dime store comics. Remember The Thing?
He was a rock-man. The character’s real name was Benjamin Jakob Grimm (hello!), and he was a Jewish New Yorker. Ben Grimm was a test pilot turned astronaut who was transformed by cosmic radiation. Bummer. Of course, he’s a good guy (like the golem Joseph), but he does have a temper (like Joseph). Uncontrollable? Not necessarily, but the golem influence is undeniably strong here. In fact, there is apparently even one story line in which Benjamin Grimm reanimates the dead body of an innocent neighbor by reciting a Shem or a Jewish prayer.
We’ve heard this tale before–at different times, in different places, for different cultures and eras–but it never fails to catch our attention. How could it? It’s one of those stories that looks outward: to a world we live in that’s dangerous, and where we need protectors from violent forces (forces that are usually all too human themselves). But it also looks inward at human nature as a story of incurable meddlers: we dabble in things when we think we have a little technical knowhow, but we are radically lacking in the wisdom to wield the power that knowhow brings. (It’s the classic tale of hubris, and it’s our specialty as a species.)
Prague claims the golem as one of its famous tales, and it should–that history is rich and deep. But we all know that the golem didn’t stay locked in that attic in Prague.
No, it’s afoot and will always be. Told and retold, as long as there is mud and there are meddlers.
8 thoughts on “Prague’s Golem, retold”
Ha, some fun backstory! I just finished reading Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett which is all about a golem. If you haven’t read it yet you should check it out!
Thanks for the tip–haven’t read it yet, but I’ll put it on my library list!
Cool! I’m adding this to my list of things to see during my trip to Prague.
If you go to the Jewish Quarter in Prague, you’ll run into some Golem lore. (Also, the Old Jewish Cemetery there is incredible–worth a visit!)
So I’ve heard. Looking forward to it. Do you have any more recommendations?
Absolutely fascinating – I didn’t know I knew so little about Golems!