In Jewish folklore, a golem (גולם, sometimes [as in Yiddish] pronounced goilem) is an animated being which is crafted from inanimate material. In modern Hebrew the word golem denotes "fool", "silly", or even "stupid", "clue-less", and "dumb", and literally means "cocoon". 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 "gal'mi", meaning "my unshaped form" (in Hebrew, root words are defined by sequences of consonants, ie. glm). The Mishnah uses the term for an uncultivated person ("Ten characteristics are in a learned person, and ten in an uncultivated one", Pirkei Avoth 5:7). Similarly, Golems are used today primarily in metaphor either as brainless lunks or as entities serving man under controlled conditions but enemies in others. Similarly, it is a Yiddish slang insult for someone who is clumsy or slow.
The earliest stories of golems date to early Judaism. Adam is described in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b) as initially created as a golem when his dust was "kneaded into a shapeless hunk". Like Adam (whose name literally means "red [clay],") all golems are created from mud. They were a creation of those who were very holy and close to God. A very holy person was one who strove to approach God, and in that pursuit would gain some of God's wisdom and power. One of these powers was the creation of life. No matter how holy a person became, however, the being they created would be but a shadow of one created by God.
Early on, the notion developed that the main disability of the golem was its inability to speak. In Sanhedrin 65b, it describes how Raba created a golem using the Sefer Yetzirah. He sent the golem to Rav Zeira. Rav Zeira spoke to the golem, but he did not answer. Said Rav Zeira, "I see that you were created by one of our colleagues; return to your dust."
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 attached to its forehead, or on a clay tablet under its tongue, or writing the word Emet (אמת, 'truth' in the Hebrew language) on its forehead are examples of such words. By erasing the first letter in Emet to form Meit (מת, 'dead' in Hebrew) the golem could be deactivated.
The classic narrative
The most famous golem narrative involves Rabbi Judah Loew the Maharal of Prague, a 16th century rabbi. He is reported to have created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto of Josefov from Anti-Semitic attacks. The story of the Golem first appeared in print in 1847 in a collection of Jewish tales entitled Galerie der Sippurim, published by Wolf Pascheles of Prague. About sixty years later, a fictional account was published by Yudl Rosenberg (1909). According to the legend, Golem could be made of clay from the banks of the Vltava river in Prague. Following the prescribed rituals, the Rabbi built the Golem and made him come to life by reciting special incantations in Hebrew. As Rabbi Loew's Golem grew bigger, he also became more violent and started killing people and spreading fear. Rabbi Loew was promised that the violence against the Jews would stop if the Golem was destroyed. The Rabbi agreed. To destroy the Golem, he rubbed out the first letter of the word "emet" from the golem's forehead to make the Hebrew word "met", meaning death. (According to legend, the Golem of Prague's remains are stored in a coffin in the attic of the Old New Synagogue Altneuschul in Prague, and it can be summoned again if needed.) 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.
The hubris theme
In all Jewish kabbalistic descriptions of Golems, they are incapable of disobeying the one who created them, but in one version of the story, Rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm created a Golem that grew bigger and bigger until it tore the name of God from its forehead, whereupon it fell over its creator. The hubris theme in this version is similar to that in the stories of the monster of Frankenstein and of the broomstick in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. It remains a standard feature of golems in popular culture.
The golem in European culture
In the late nineteenth 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 Low ben Bezalel. This book inspired a classic set of expressionistic silent movies, Paul Wegener's Golem series, of which especially Golem: How He Came Into the World (also released as The Golem, 1920, USA 1921) is 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 Duvivie]'s "Le Golem" (1936), a sequel to the Wegener film.
These tales saw a dramatic change, and some would argue a Christianization, of the golem. Christianity, far more than Judaism, has long had a deep concern with humanity presuming Godhood upon themselves. The golem thus became a creation of overambitious and overreaching mystics, who would inevitably be punished for their blasphemy, very similar to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the alchemical homunculus. In Norse mythology, Mökkurkálfi (or Mistcalfa) was a clay giant, built to help the troll Hrungnir in a battle with Thor. The Golem has also been considered by some to be an early android, further divorcing it from its roots.
In America, the opera "'The Golem' by Abraham Ellstein retells in 20th-century harmonic language the centuries-old tale of a creature fashioned from clay and brought to life by kabbalistic spells who ultimately threatens the very people he was intended to serve." (quote from Milken website) Selections are available on disc from the Milken Archive of American Jewish music.
In popular culture
Books, films and TV
Probably as a result of the popularity of Meyrink's work, the golem concept has found its way into various elements of popular culture. Examples include:
- The Golem of Prague has appeared in stories across many media, including the novels The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, A Calculus of Angels, He, She and It, Pete Hamill's Snow in August, the 1990s cartoons The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest and Gargoyles
- In the Bartimaeus Trilogy book The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud a golem is loose in London, but the golem's existence is blamed on Prague, even though it is untrue, because of a war.
- In the upcoming animated movie, Monster House, the living, man-eating house is, apparently, a "structural golem", a creature supposedly created by the merging of a vengeful human spirit and an average dwelling.
- In the movie Halloweentown 2, the man dating the protagonist's mother is a golem made out of frogs.
- 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.
- 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.
- Karel Capek (or Karel Čapek)'s 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) included robots which are not machines, but synthetic humans made from a claylike goo.
- The science-fiction novel Kiln People by David Brin features short-lived duplicates of people created from mud, and a character named Maharal.
- Golem XIV is name of a hyper-intelligent computer from a sci-fi novel written by Stanisław Lem in 1981.
- Stel Pavlou uses multiple golems created from carbon based nanotechnology as the guardians of Atlantis in the novel Decipher 2001.
- Roger Zelazny uses the golem metaphorically as an android sparring partner, literally called a golem, in the novel This Immortal.
- The Discworld novel Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett satirizes many of the cliches of the golem genre. Another Discworld novel, Going Postal sees golems trained as postmen, and compares them to the robots of Isaac Asimov. The oldest of these golems carries clay tablets on his arm and in his head, alluding to Jewish mythology.
- The television program The X-Files aired an episode "Kaddish", in which a young Hasidic woman creates a Golem who avenges her husband's murder by neo-nazis.
- In the anime series RahXephon, the main weapons are called "Dolems". Like golems, they are made from clay and may be difficult to control. The D in "Dolem" is a pun on " Do-Re-Mi".
- The DC Comics superhero Ragman was created using the same formula required to make a golem, though it substituted rags instead of clay and required a human host to function. Another DC hero, the Monolith, is a golem.
- A golem which is eventually destroyed by changing the word 'emet' on its forehead to 'met' is used in both an early issue of the Swamp Thing and The Invaders comic books. In Manhattan Guardian this simply makes the golem inactive.
- In 2005, the story of the Golem was returned to its Jewish roots, as a new comic strip in Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth depicted the Golem as a government-funded superhero protecting Israel from its domestic and existential difficulties.
- In the Dreamhunter Duet by Elizabeth Knox a young dreamhunter replaces her missing father with a golem.
- In the novel Iron Council by China Mieville a Thaumaturge named Judah Low learns how to create powerful golems from almost any material. These are used to assist a group of rebels.
- In an episode of the animated television series Batman Beyond, the young Batman fights a human controlled robot with the acronym G.L.M.
- Detective Comics # 631 features the beginning of a two-part Batman story: "The Golem of Gotham". In it, Batman confronts a clay golem made by an elderly Holocaust survivor, in the context of modern race riots.
- In Watch Your Mouth, a novel by Daniel Handler, one of the main characters creates a golem to get revenge on her family.
- The fourteenth track on As Smart As We Are, a musical collaboration between One Ring Zero and some of their favorite authors, is about a golem, and called simply "Golem."
- In the book El otro, el mismo (The other, the self) by Jorge Luis Borges, there is a poem called "The golem."
- In the anime series, Slayers, golems are summoned to do the spell caster's bidding. One of the main characters, [elgadiss, is a chimera made of a human, golem and demon/mazoku. In the 3rd Slayers movie, Slayers Great, golems are featured prominently.
- In the anime series, Rune Soldier, a flesh golem is seen guarding a sorcerer's hideout. Later, a clay golem is created to protect Merrill's money pot.
- In the webcomic series, Dominic Deegan, Quilt is a necromantic golem built by Jacob Deegan to help him in finding "the secrets of undeath", but turned out to be a very nice guy and comic relief after exposure to Donovan Deegan's eccentric sense of humor.
- In the Superboy television series episode, "The Golem", a golem was created to attack anti semites. Whilst doing so it accidentally killed its own creator.
- The Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer depicts a golem in his film Faust. The main character, while in an alchemist's studio, animates a clay infant by placing a shem in its mouth. The shem is a scroll or slip of paper containing the tetragrammaton. The golem child seems to go awry as its head ages rapidly until it becomes a deathshead. Faust snatches the shem out of the golem's mouth, returning it to it's inanimate state.
- In her book The Puttermesser Papers, Jewish-American writer Cynthia Ozick has a story entitled "Puttermesser and Xanthippe" in which an aging female lawyer unintentionally creates a golem.
- In the French dubbing of the Japanese live series known as "Message From Space" ("San-Ku-Kaï" in France), the villain's supreme leader is called Golem XIII; one of his many appearances is a gigantic flying stone statue.
Golems in modern games
Golems also appear as a popular feature of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games (including a playable race in the Eberron supplement called Warforged) and are almost ubiquitous in the many fantasy computer and card games inspired by it, such as NetHack, the Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft and Diablo series, and Magic: The Gathering. In these games the word is generally used as an umbrella term to refer to automata and simulacra from many mythologies. The convention is that they are named after the material of construction. Examples include Clay golems (most like the original Jewish golem), Flesh golems (reminiscent of Frankenstein's creature), Iron golems (animated metal statues), and a host of others including gold golems, stone golems, skull golems, and paper golems.
The White Wolf role-playing game Promethean: The Created also draws upon the legend of the Golem for inspiration.
The "mon" genre of video games often include a monster named "golem" or having golem-like qualities, usually animated rock or earth in a vaguely anthropomorphic shape, such as Golem, Regirock, Regice and Registeel from Pokémon, Golemon from Digimon and the breed called Golem in Monster Rancher.
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."
It is said that the body of Rabbi Loew's golem lies in the attic where the genizah of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague is kept. A rabbi visited the attic in the late 20th century, and came down "white and shaking". A legend is told of a Nazi agent during[WWII ascending the attic and trying to stab the golem, but perishing instead. The attic is not open to the general public.
- Moshe Idel. Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. State University of New York Press, 1990.
- Gershon Winkler. The Golem of Prague: A New Adaptation of the Documented Stories of the Golem of Prague. Judaica Press, 1980.
- Emily D. Bilski (Ed.) Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art. The Jewish Museum, 1988.
- Arnold L. Goldsmith. The Golem Remembered 1909-1980: Variations of a Jewish Legend. Wayne State University Press, 1981.
- Maureen T. Krause. "Introduction: Bereshit bara Elohim, A Survey of the Genesis and Evolution of the Golem." Journal of the Fantastic, 7.2/3, pages 113-36.
- Norma Comrada. "Golem and Robot: The Search for Connections". Journal of the Fantastic, 7.2/3, pages 244-54.
- Jonathan Stroud. "The Golem's Eye", Corgi, 2004
- Historical Figures from the Golem Legend
- Background on the Golem Legends
- Rava's Golem (essay in the Summer '96 issue of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts)
- The Golem
- The Golem in Literature, Film, and Stage
- The Golem Group (robot builders)
- The Golem Project - Automatic design and manufacture of robotic lifeforms
- German IT News