G is for Golem


I recently asked, What is it with vampires? In other words, why don’t horror and fantasy writers make more use of all the other weird mythological monsters that exist in legendary lore; rather than offering us endless variations of the vampire myth.   Like Ammet, the Egyptian Devourer.  Or, today’s offering:

THE GOLEM.

I’ve always loved the word golem, and the idea of a Jewish monster called Golem, without ever understanding what it really is, or was.  There’s a golem in Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Klay which is rather cool, and is carried in a coffin by our hero.  Although to be honest the introduction of the supernatural Golem in an otherwise naturalistic novel struck me as a bit odd.

But recently, as part of of my research into a new project, I learned a bit more about the Golem.  It’s a demon; and it’s also also a Frankenstein’s monster,  but made of clay rather than out of cut-up body parts.

According to legend, the Golem was created by Jews in 16th century Prague in order to protect the Jews from persecution.  But the Golem ran amok, perhaps inflamed by its love of a Jewish woman – a love that was never meant to be. (For flesh and clay can never mix….imagine horny Play-Doh, and you have some concept of how terrible that might be.)  According to some legends, Adam was originally created as a golem; and it’s  legend that crops up in Medieval times too.  But the Prague Golem is the most famous example of the myth; it was  eventually killed by its creator Rabbi Loew, who cunningly rubbed out the first letter of the word ‘emet’ meaning truth or reality from the golem’s forehead, so that it now said ‘met’, meaning death.   Many believe the Golem’s body is still kept in a synagogue in Prague.

I’ve been reading some fascinating stories by Chayim Bloch about Rabbi Loew and his golem.  These are rememberings of legends, but with some embellishments along the way I suspect.

Rabbi Loew is very much the hero of these  stories – as much warlock as rabbi it seems.  At that time in sixteenth century Prague anti-semitism was rife, and it was commonly alleged that Jews were murdering Christian babies in order to use the blood in their Jewish rituals – the ‘blood libel’.  And then Rabbi Loew had a dream in which he was told: ‘Make a Golem of clay and you will destroy the entire Jew-baiting conspiracy.’ And so the Rabbi made a clay figure the size of a man; and gathered his pals around this artefact; and  told one person to walk seven times around the clay body, while reciting charms, from right to left; at which point the body became red like fire. Then a second person walked the same number of times from left to right, reciting other charms. And the creature grew hair; and the Golem was born.

The tales of Rabbi Loew are a little on the repetitive side – there’s a blood libel, the Golem comes to the rescue, and the blood-libel is disavowed. Or – a common story trope – a couple get married and they turn out to be brother and sister.  Or – an even more common story trope – the evil Thaddeus (a Christian cleric) wickedly persuades a Jewish girl to marry a gentile; but it is thwarted.  These are the legends of a distant age; and offer a fascinating insight into the fears and anxieties of that culture.

But the Golem himself is so darned CUTE.  He is not given the power of speech.  He’s a bit gormless – if you ask him to draw water from a well he’ll keep drawing water until there’s none left.  But he has superstrength and the gift of invisibility.  And he is a warrior against injustice – a kind of Private Eye in Prague.  He has an amulet of invisibility. One of his main tasks was to track down Jew-haters who were prone to murder children with the aim of planting the bodies in Jewish houses – but when that happened, they would have the wrath of the Golem to contend with.  The Golem was strong and was well able to beat up his enemies; but mostly he was guileful, adept at disguising himself even though he was made of clay and unable to speak.

In the Chayim Bloch stories there’s no mention of the Golem killing gentiles or Jews – it’s clearly the expurgated version. And so the story in which the Rabbi – on a whim – decides to kill the Golem is more than a little heart-rending.

But let’s assume the Golem DID run amok and start killing people – is it any wonder? He was treated as a slave, given no respect, and not allowed the power of speech.   He was deliberately created without any sex-instinct; ‘for if he had had that instinct, no woman would have been safe from him.’  He had a name – Joseph.  And he was referred to by the Rabbit as ‘Joseph Golem’.  But he was never treated as a friend of the family; just a tool to be used.

And he was a demon. Or rather the spirit of a demon – the demon Joseph – in a body of clay. That’s REALLY weird.

I saw a great production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre recently – directed by Danny Boyle – which managed to really make you feel the pain and pathos of the ‘monster’ created by Dr Frankenstein. I feel the same for the Golem.  Poor bastard.  He’s treated like shit, bossed about, not allowed sex; no wonder he started murdering Jews and gentiles.

It’s a sad story; the creature made of clay with no soul; just a broken heart.

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