Etymology: gelem “raw material”
Pronunciation: “GOH-ləm,” “goilem” in Yiddish
The first time I heard of the golem has a place in folklore outside of tabletop gaming with Dungeons & Dragons is with the Disney cartoon series Gargoyles in the episode “Prague.” Where an animated statue of a human-made from mud or clay is brought to life.
Disclaimer – Not to be confused with Gollum from Tolkien’s Middle Earth series.
What’s In A Name?
The modern term golem comes from the word gelem and means “raw material.” In more modern times, the Hebrew use of the word is used to mean “fool,” “silly,” “stupid,” “clueless,” and “dumb.”
In the Bible and more accurately, the Torah, the word golem is used when referring to something that is still in embryo or incomplete. The passage for Psalm 139:16 has the word “gal’mi” which means “my unshaped form.” In Hebrew, the root words are written with the consonants “glm.”
The Mishnah uses the word when referring to an uncultivated person. Modern usage of the word sees golem being used as a metaphor for “brainless lunks” or those serving others under controlled conditions or seen as enemies by others. In Yiddish, the term golem is used as an insult for someone who is clumsy or slow.
Creating a golem seems to be pretty straightforward. Create a life-sized human figure from either mud or clay. This figure is then given life when specific holy words are carved into the brow or hung around the neck with the words being spoken by a skilled Rabbi who knows the arts of Kabbalah. The golem can also be returned to lifelessness by changing the words.
Talmud – In the earliest stories of Judaism, Adam whose name means “red [clay]” is first created as a golem from the dust of the earth when he is created into a shapeless form.
In Judaism, only a very holy person who was close to God or strived to be could gain the wisdom and power needed to create life. However, no matter how holy a person became, the golem they created is but a shadow compared to God’s creation.
Sefer Yetzirah – Or the Book of Formation, this book dates from the Middle Ages and has passages that expound on how to create and animate golems. It must be noted that it is very little in Jewish mysticism that supports this work.
Weakness – What makes the golem a pale shadow of God’s creation of humans is that golems are unable to speak. In the Sanhedrin 65b, Raba creates a golem using the Sefer Yetzirah. When Raba sent the golem to Rav Zeira, they spoke to the golem. When the golem was unable to answer, Rav Zeira comments that the golem was created by a colleague and for it to return to dust.
Another weakness of Golems is their inability to disobey any orders from those that created them and that can lead to folly and problems.
Ultimate Wisdom & Holiness
Creating a servant was seen as the ultimate act of one demonstrating their wisdom and holiness to make and create life. There are numerous stories throughout the Middle Ages era of many prominent rabbis having done so.
That makes sense. There’s the Tiamat and Abzu creating the Anunnaki and in turn, they created the Igigi who in turn go on to make humans.
Plus, the creation of homunculi was pretty common during the Middle Ages by alchemists. Plus the idea follows us into the current age with stories like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein novel.
Modern Hubris – More current literature and media tend to see the creation of another being as an act of hubris and folly where the creation turns on the creator.
Limitations – Of course, over time, there would be other limits and aspects added to the tales of golems. Many such stories include where it is the use of magical or religious words that will animate the golem. Examples are where one of the names of God is written on the forehead, writing the name on a piece of paper and sticking it to the forehead, or playing the paper or tablet under the tongue of the golem. Another word is “Emet” meaning “truth” in the Hebrew language. Then to return the golem to a lifelessness, the first letter of Emet is erased to form the word “Meit” or “dead” in Hebrew.
As I previously mentioned further up, the earliest stories from Judaism, namely the Talmud, Adam, the first man is a golem created by Yahweh or God from the dust of the earth. Adam’s name means “red [clay].”
The Golem Of Prague
This is the story referenced in the Disney Gargoyles episode “Prague.” The story of the Golem first appears in an 1847 collection of Jewish tales called “Galerie der Sippurim” by Wolf Pascheles of Prague. Another, fictional account of this story was published by Yudl Rosenberg in 1909.
In Czechoslovakian legend, in 1580 C.E., the Jewish community was under a lot of threats of violence, massacres, and blood libels.
For those that don’t know what a blood libel is, these are false accusations thrown towards the Jewish communities, claiming they kill people, usually claims of children in order to use their blood in their rituals. Add weight to these grisly accusations, a child would be killed and then left near the home of a prominent Jew. Sometimes a child just outright disappeared. These accusations would get so bad, as was happening in Prague, Jews were getting murdered by mobs, if they weren’t getting arrested and put on trial.
Unfortunately, these types of accusations still continue in the modern day, though the term has broadened more to include any unpleasant accusations. You would think even in more modern, current times people would be better aware of this. But we still have those who persist in their misinformation and conspiracies where any efforts to correct them, tend to cause them to double down on their cognitive biases and misinformation.
The chief rabbi in Prague at the time was Rabbi Yehudah Loew Ben Bezalel, a renowned scholar of both Jewish law and mysticism. Loewe was no stranger to the persecution his community suffered from. He grew up with constant persecution to his people and was familiar with how communities would grow and settle where they were better treated until such time they would have to move and leave when the locals eventually turned on them.
To confront this, Rabbi Loew and two of his colleagues set about to create a life-sized golem that they animated by inserting a piece of paper with the word “shem” written on it into the golem’s mouth. In Kabbala, the word “shem” is regarded as being an interpretation of God’s divine and holy name. This golem was known by the names of Josef and Yossele. He was known to be able to turn himself invisible and summon the spirits of the dead.
Loew would use the golem to perform several menial tasks that required a lot of strength. Then, every Friday evening, Loew would remove the piece of paper so the golem would not interrupt people on the Sabbath.
As luck would have it, there came a Friday when Loew forgot to remove the piece of paper and the golem ended up running rampant. By the time the rabbi learned of the problem, he left the service in search of the golem. When he found the golem, Loew removed the paper from it’s mouth and he and his colleagues carried the golem back to the synagogue. The companions sealed the golem away in the attic of the Prague Synagogue. A ban was placed on those entering the attic. Legends hold that a rabbi and a later generation went up the stairs and saw the golem, that rabbi placed a ban on even going up the steps.
Over time, people forgot about the golem and even today, no one is allowed inside the synagogue’s attic area or shul. In other places around the Czech Republic, visitors can access the attic or shul areas of other synagogues.
Variation – Another version of the Golem of Prague holds that Rabbi Loew dreamt that the Lord commanded him to create a golem in order to protect the Jewish people. It is this version of the story that is the basis for the Disney Gargoyles’ episode “Prague” and possibly the inspiration for Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein.
Another minor add-on to this legend is that during WWII, a Nazi agent is said to have gone up to the attic area and later died of suspicious circumstances.
The Golem Of Chelm
In this story, rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm created a golem that kept growing in size to the point that it tore the name of God off its forehead. At that point, the golem became inert and toppled over to crush its creator.
The Golem Of Vilna
This story is about Vilna Gaon or “the saintly genius from Vilnius,” circa 1720-1797. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin presented several different versions of a particular passage from the book Sefer Yetzira to his teacher the Gaon. Chaim made a comment on how he should be able to easily create a live human from these passages. In response, the Gaon confessed, saying that he once began to create such a being when he was a child under the age of 13. However, the Gaon received a sign from Heaven to cease doing such a process due to his young age.
The Clay Boy
This is a Yiddish and Slavic folktale that takes and combines elements for the golem and The Gingerbread Man. Essentially this story follows the childless couple motif and archetype.
An older couple whose children have grown up and left home decided one day out of loneliness to make a child out of clay and dry him on the hearth. To their delight, the clay child comes to life and the elderly couple treats him as a real child. However, the Clay Boy doesn’t stop growing and in soon enough time, he has eaten up all of the couple’s food. The Clay Boy continues his voracious appetite by eating all of the couple’s livestock and eventually, he eats the couple themselves. Unsatiated, the Clay Boy goes on a rampage through the village and doesn’t stop until a goat goes and rams them, smashing them to pieces.
Late Nineteenth Century
When we get to the later part of the 20th century, we see many non-Jewish or Gentiles become interested in stories of Golems, using them in various media for literature, movies, T.V. series, even an opera, and so on. These stories show the Christianization of the golem. Notably in the Christian idea that humanity should not presume to be God or play God lest hubris visit them horribly. That such acts end in folly and disaster. Notable stories, again Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Stories that don’t feature a golem, but other creations would be like H.G. Well’s Island of Doctor Moreau and any number of various science fiction featuring a robot uprising.
Similar Folkloric Figures
Androids – Robots, Cyborgs, Automatons, the idea of an artificial, mechanical being has been a part of the science fiction landscape and examples of these can be found in a few various mythologies. In the early part of the 21st century, we are seeing advances in AI and robotics that these beings are here, real, and no longer part of a what-if, speculative science fiction.
Clones – This is another area that has gone from science fiction to science fact with Scientists able to clone humans or animals in labs. There are many science-fiction literature and media that go into the ethics of cloning and what rights a clone has.
Frankenstein’s Monster – Or Frankenstein’s Creature, this is an artificially created man by the title character in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. In the book, the creature is created in a vat, via means of alchemy. Whereas many movie adaptations have the creature created from various body parts of cadavers. Later literature and media will give the creature the name Adam in reference to a line where the creature says “I ought to be thy Adam.”
Galatea – This is the name of a statue brought to life by the goddess Aphrodite in answer to the sculptor Pygmalion’s prayers.
Homunculus – This is a small person that Alchemists were purported to be able to create from alchemical journals. These anecdotes were popular during the 16th century.
Mökkurkálfi – In Norse mythology, the Mökkurkálfi is a clay giant created by the troll Hrungnir that helped to fight against Thor.
Tulpa – A bit more esoteric, Tulpa, or thought forms that can be created. Unlike golems, a tulpa is not likely to have a physical, tangible body.