The Golem in Folklore
Mention the word 'golem' and most folks think of the creepy little critter in The Lord of the Rings, but the mythological creature is actually much more terrifying to consider. Imagine a being crafted of clay or another natural material, made in secret, and infused with life using mystical ritual, words that echo in the darkness and resonate with power. Consider this creature walking the streets in service to its master and deciding that it no longer wants to obey. It’s a creature of strength, much stronger than man, with the breath of life but no soul to tell it good from evil. Only the intentions of its creator guide its steps. This is the golem.
In Jewish folklore, the golem is said to have protected the Jewish community of Prague in times of trouble.
"This rabbi is believed to have lived at the end of the 16th century in Prague, which was then part of the Holy Roman Empire. At this time, the Empire was ruled by Rudolf II. Although Rudolf was an enlightened emperor, the Jews of Prague were subjected to anti-Semitic attacks. In order to protect the Jewish quarter, the rabbi created a golem. As the golem possessed incredible strength, it also helped out with physical labour in the rabbi’s household and the synagogue. Additionally, the golem was given a special necklace made of deerskin and decorated with mystic signs. This necklace made the golem invisible." (Dhwty)
Another legend states that Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel made a golem to protect the Jews during the Easter season of 1580 when an anti-Semitic priest tried to incite Christians against the Jews.
The golem of Prague is not the only golem in folklore. According to legend, Rabbi Eliyahu of Chełm created one of the creatures to perform manual labor for him.
Creation and Traits
The earliest known story of the golem’s creation is the creation of Adam. For the first few hours of his existence, he was little more than a moving lump of clay. It was only after he received a soul that he became human. The idea of God creating man from clay is the basis for the golem rituals, for if God can breathe life into dust, then the mystic, if properly pious, can perform a similar feat.
The same idea is mentioned in the following verses of Psalm 139:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be. (Osborne)
The difference here is that the poet is speaking of God’s knowledge of him in the womb.
Golems can be created using Kabbalistic rituals. The book Sepher Yezirah contains the instructions for creating the golem, but the instructions have to be interpreted, and each Rabbi who has decided to make a golem has interpreted them differently. One of the rituals that I came across years ago states that the golem must be created from virgin soil. The ritual itself contains about thirty hours of incantations, and even one mistake necessitates starting again.
Golems do not have the ability to think for themselves. All they can do is follow the commands of their creators. This being the case, the creator has to be extremely specific with instructions, for the golem won't infer from anything said. It will follow instructions literally.
Golems are said to be great creatures for manual labor and defense. However, over time they become unstable and will rampage and possibly harm others. For this reason, it is important that golems only remain active for a short period of time, for a specific purpose, before being deactivated.
Another familiar golem is Frankenstein’s monster, from the story Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. This creature differs from the golem of Jewish lore in that it isn’t created from clay. Instead, it’s made from the various body parts of cadavers and given life through science instead of through appeals to God.
Another difference between Frankenstein’s monster and the golem is his ability to react to others. The monster only becomes violent when he’s attacked and persecuted, though his functionality is limited in many other ways.
Shale, from Dragon Age, is another fictional golem. In this instance, the golems were created out of stone or metal then covered with the element lyrium. The golems could not be created without dwarven volunteers to serve as the core of the golem, so these have more autonomy than those created through Kabbalistic ritual or the science of Mary Shelly.
The golem is a fascinating creature, and the sources describing this being are too numerous for one short article. From ancient folklore to modern fiction, it’s a creature that captures the imagination and delves into the depths of our own creation and functionality. This creature gives us pause to consider our own origins and evolution from the earth who bore us.
Ḏḥwty. “The Golem: Talmudic Legend of a Clay Beast Created to Protect the Jews.” Ancient Origins. May 16, 2015. http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-asia/golem-talmudic-legend-clay-beast-created-protect-jews-003067
“Golem.” Dragon Age Wikia. http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Golem
Kaplan, Aryeh. Sepher Yetzirah. Weiser Books, 1997.
Michaelson, Jay. “Golem,” My Jewish Learning. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/golem/
Osborne, Rick and K. Christie Bowler. “Psalms,” The Bible. Zondervan Publishing House, 1998.
Zucker, Paul. “"Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah" by Eleazar of Worms,” The Entertainment Magazine. http://www.emol.org/kabbalah/seferyetzirah/commentaryeleazar.html