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The Golem

The Golem is a legendary creature which has been constructed from an inanimate substance, such as clay or soil, and brought to life by magic. It is normally the same size as a man, and exists to serve whomever has given it life. The name Golem is of Hebrew origin, meaning unshaped or unfinished, and it is in Jewish folklore that the origin of the Golem legend can be found.

Two passages from religious scripture hint at this origin. The first of these is from the Book of Psalms (139:16), where it is written: “Your eyes could see me as an embryo (golem), but in your book all my days were already written; my days had been shaped before any of them existed.” Hebrew to English translations vary and in the preceding case embryo was used to communicate the sense of unfinished or incomplete.

The second passage is from the Talmud’s Sanhedrin Tractate (65b), where the Babylonian sage Rava created a man and dispatched him to the Rabbi Zeira, who immediately saw what this ‘man’ was when he tried conversing with him and received no reply (the ‘man’ Rava created was incapable of speaking). Upon seeing this, Rabbi Zeira declared: “You belong to that crew (i.e. to magicians), go back to dust.”

This passage goes on to detail how two other rabbis, Haninah and Oshea, were able to create a calf on the eve of every Sabbath which was then eaten by them on the Sabbath. They created these calves using the white magic of an ancient Jewish text, the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation). It was on this basis that the legend of the Golem took wing.

During the Middle Ages, Western European Jews avidly studied the Sefer Yetzirah in the hopes of creating their own Golem. Different recipes for doing this were the result of these studies. One such method was to mould a man-like figure from soil and perform a dancing ritual around it, chanting God’s secret name. Defeating such a creature entailed doing the ritual in the opposite way and chanting the name backwards.

Another technique was to write this name on a screed and place it in the mouth or on the arm of the creature. Removing the screed would defeat it. Alternatively, you could write the name, or the word ‘truth’ in Hebrew (emet) on the figure’s forehead to bring it to life, and erase the name to ‘kill’ it. Erasing the first ‘e’ in emet gives you the Hebrew word ‘met’, meaning death, and doing this would be sufficient to do away with a Golem.

The best summary of the Golem was perhaps best described by Jakob Grimm (1785-1863), one half of the Grimm Brothers whose fairy-tales are so familiar to children. He describes the Golem as: “…the figure of a man from clay or mud, and when they (his creators) pronounce the divine name over him, he must come to life. He cannot speak, but he understands fairly well what is said or commanded. They…use him as a servant to do all sorts of housework. On his forehead is written emet”

Grimm went on to state that, because this servant was unable to leave the house in which he worked, he would start to gain weight which made him larger and stronger than his masters, and this bred fear in these masters, who would erase the emet before the Golem became too powerful and thus reduce him to the clay and mud that he once was. This depiction has influenced the popular depiction of the Golem right up to the present day.

While no concrete case exists of a Golem actually having been created, there is one famous account from the 17th Century by a Polish Kabbalist attributing such a deed to Rabbi Elijah Ba’al Shem of Chelm (1550-1583). This creature, popularly known as the Golem of Chelm (a city in eastern Poland), was to have become so monstrous as to have threatened the existence of the entire world, so Rabbi Elijah destroyed the creature at the cost of his own life.

Another famous story (entirely fictitious) tells of a Golem that was under the power of Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1520-1609), a prominent Talmudic scholar of Bohemia and Moravia. He reputedly created a Golem for the protection of the Jews of the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic violence, but this Golem had one weakness: it could not be alive on the Sabbath as this would desecrate Judaism. So Rabbi Loew would deactivate the Golem by erasing the “emet” on its forehead during the Sabbath, and reactivate it after the Sabbath had passed. The source for this was an 1834 work by Josef Kohn titled Der Judische Gil.

One of the characteristics that make a Golem a problematic servant in those works of literature that harness the legend is his rigid obedience to order. He interprets his instructions too literally and carries them out too pedantically, often frustrating the intentions of his master as a result. This can be seen in literary works that have adapted the legend in other forms, particularly in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

The Golem legend has been an integral part of many other literary and artistic creations since Shelley’s masterpiece was published. Both Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991) and Elie Wiesel (1928-) have written directly about the creature, and Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) wrote a poem inspired by the Rabbi Loew fable. Popular television shows such as the X-Files, the Simpsons and the Sopranos have all dedicated episodes to the Golem in some form or fashion.

One of the most influential artistic influences that the Golem legend has had is on the work of the Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938), whose play R.U.R. (1920, with the acronym standing for Rossum’s Universal Robots) introduced the concept of the robot to science fiction. The robots in Capek’s play are not the metallic automatons that we associate with the word, but are biological beings that are nonetheless assembled rather than born. While Capek himself disavowed any influence that the Golem legend had on his robots, the similarities between the two concepts are all too apparent.

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