Thursday, September 4, 2008

G is for Golem

Image is a photo of a statue depicting the Prague golem. Taken from

The golem is a creature of Jewish folklore. According to The Golem by Alden Oreck, the term golem means "shapeless mass" in Hebrew. It is made of clay but animated to life. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythical Creatures states that golems can also be made out of wood or mud. However, it is of limited intelligence, and will only follow the directions of its creator. To possess a golem was thought to attribute wisdom and holiness to the owner. In order to be able to create a golem, its creator is closer to God, who is the Creator, than other humans. One of the most famous golems was said to be created to protect the Jewish residents of the Prague ghetto from persecution, created by Rabbi Judah Loew the Maharal. As it gains strength, it goes on a Gentile killing spree.

In many tales, the golem has magic words inscribed on its head to bring it to life. It is said that the one of the names of God is written on a scrap of paper and attached to the golem's head or directly into the clay, will animate it, and when the creator wants to inactivate it, the name is erased. Emet, which means "truth of God" can be written to animate the golem. When it is time to stop its life, the e can be erased to form the word met, which means "death." Another method is to write the name of the creator of the golem in blood on a sheet of calfskin, and to put it in its mouth. Deactivation can be accomplished by removing the paper from its mouth.

It is said that golems must rest on the Sabbath or they will go beserk. And the creator/controller of the golem must take care in the instructions given to the golem, for they will be taken perfectly literately. According to the Maharal story, the golem has magical powers such as invisibility, summoning the dead, and a heated touch.

According to The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythical Creatures, the rabbi who created a golem would often be punished for attempting to "play God." Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a more modern retelling of this cautionary tale.

Golems in Books and Other Media:

  • Gustav Meyrink's The Golem, based on the story of Rabbi Judah Loew the Maharal

  • Isaac Bashevis Singer also wrote a version of the golem myth

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

  • The Barmtimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud

  • Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

  • Snow in August by Pete Hamill

  • The Puttermesser Papers by Cythia Ozick

  • Iron Council by China Mieville

  • Dragon Tears by Dean Koontz features a villian with the supernatural ability to create golems out of dirt

  • Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

  • A Calculus of Angels by Gregory Keyes

  • The Tortuous Serpent by Donald Tyson

  • The Image Comics title Proof features a golem named Joe

  • A series of German silent expressionism movies were made based on the golem myth

  • Episodes of Gargoyles, X-Files, and Charmed have been built around the golem myth

The mythical golem is viewed as a sign of wisdom and holiness, revered as a savior for the persecuted Jews, and also can be seen as a sign of reaching beyond one's natural limits. It serves as a powerful metaphor for creation, but can also be used for destruction. The golem is deeply entrenched in Jewish folklore, but it has crossed over into the collective imagination, finding its way into tales enjoyed by many outside of the Jewish consciousness.


Golem-Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 28 September 2008. Last Modified 26 September 2008.

Dempsey, Colin. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythical Creatures. Published by Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2006. p. 87-88.

The Golem by Alden Oreck. Published by Jewish Virtual Library, A Division of the Israeli-American Cooperative. Accessed 28 September 2008. Last modified 2008.

1 comment:

Raymond Stuart said...

If anyone is interested, you can find golem statues on my website:
They look just like the one in the article.