The creation of golem stories have survived over time, persisting in written and oral folklore. But it was during time of genocide and war that the story of the golem holds the most significance.
In 17th century-Europe terrible events were affecting Jewish communities. The Thirty Years War, the Cossack revolt, and massacres of the Jewish people.
They were also accused of “blood libel”, or the ritual murder of Christian children. They needed a redeemer, a symbol of hope. So they turned back to their folklore and to the golem.
This mud and earth-formed humanoid creature turns up in many tales, and not only in Jewish but non-Jewish stories.
Reasons to Create a Golem
Some kabbalists claim that, with the right ingredients and the proper formulas, devout kabbalists can create a man like, soulless creature called a “GOLEM” and bring it to life.
In Jewish folklore, there are three reasons to create a golem:
- As a way to show one’s mastery of the Kabbalah.
- To have a trustworthy and dependable servant for labor.
- To provide protection for the Jewish community.
You’ve likely seen a golem, even if you didn’t recognize it at the time. He’s taken lots of different forms in recent years, inspiring characters in The Simpsons, Pokémon, Dungeons and Dragons, Arthur, and even the X-Files.
The Golem of Prague
But golems can be traced back to 6th century Jewish culture. He’s old, old as dirt. The golem story most widely known is the early 20th century version of the golem of Prague.
In it, Rabbi Loew asked the Heavens how to stop the persecution of his community, and he received an answer— make a golem.
To do this he seeks the help of two other rabbis, each “born with” the power of one of the four elements. The rabbis represented air, fire, and water.
Clay collected from the river served as the earth element. The rabbis take the clay and shape the form of a man. They each walk around the form counterclockwise seven times, reciting special letters.
The body begins to glow and vapors rise from the form. The golem opens his eyes—now a living thing.
The golem of Prague is named Yosef and looks human but cannot speak. Rabbi Loew tells the golem he was created to guard the Jewish people from their enemies.
Yosef has supernatural strength and can become invisible with the help of a special amulet. He completes many tasks serving as a watchman, rescuing a kidnapped girl, and even summoning a dead woman.
The golem of Prague is only one version of the golem. Others have existed for thousands of years.
One could be brought to life by a Jewish scholar, usually a rabbi, and God’s name is required in some way to actually bring it to life.
How To Create a Golem
You can animate a golem by reciting the proper letters of God’s name, placing God’s name into the golem’s mouth, affixing it to the forehead, or by placing the Hebrew word for “truth” into the clay body.
To understand why the golem is created from dirt, first we have to take a quick look at another creation story. One found in the Torah, the foundational text of Judaism.
There it is said that God created Adam, the first man, by forming him from the dust of the earth and breathing life into him.
Jewish scholars developed the golem legend based on the Adam creation story. Historians point to a section of the Talmud, where a rabbi created an artificial man who was like any other, except he could not speak – for only God could give that power, which explains why all traditional variations of the golem are mute.
In later versions, the creature becomes dangerous or hard to control because it gains power the longer it is animated, or it simply takes direction too literally.
Looking back to the golem of Prague, perhaps the singular most important character in these stories, even more so than the golem himself, is Rabbi Loew, a real person and noted leader of the Jewish community in the 16th Century.
Interestingly, Loew himself didn’t believe in miracles, condemned magic, and never wrote about the golem.
But In 1909, a manuscript supposedly written by Rabbi Loew’s son-in-law was “discovered” by Orthodox Rabbi Yudl Rosenberg – although it’s generally agreed that this document never existed.
He then published his version of the golem of Prague which became one of the most important golem legends.
The late 19th Century was the first time the golem became not just a means of labor, but a protector of the Jewish people.
Throughout the 19th century, there were multiple cases of blood libel, an anti-Semitic accusation that claims a Jewish person ritualistically murdered a Christian, usually a child.
Rabbi Rosenberg was all too familiar with this. There was a blood libel case near Prague in 1899, as well as organized violence against the Jewish people in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century.
It makes sense that he would portray the golem in his story as a protector at a time when his people really needed one.
In 1917, “The Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague”, the next popular text featuring Rabbi Loew, was published. The Jewish author was part of the community forced to relocate to the interior of Austria after the Russian invasion.
Although similar to Rosenberg’s version, in this story, Rabbi Loew is forced to destroy the golem, because he becomes a danger to the entire city.
Nevertheless, the story ends with the golem waiting in the attic of a synagogue in Prague to be reawakened the next time persecuted Jews need protecting.
The increase in Jewish migration throughout the twentieth-century helped spread the golem story. We’ve seen it in movies, ballet, children’s books, and comics. But in each new version, it has continued to change form.
The original goal of creating a golem was to make something more powerful than yourself. In most cases this was not done to oppress or control anyone, but to give the creator and their community agency, even freedom.