You approach a huge hulking stall, gravelly rocks crunching underfoot and a waft of earthy smells greet you. The stall appears to be crudely formed of clay, tall wonky posts rise up to support a slanted roof meters above your head. A very short man with a wide brimmed black hat that casts his face into shadow and a long white beard that flows from his chin down out of sight, is waiting for you. The table top dips low in the middle allowing the strange man to see over it.
The table is covered in dirt and grass and cluttered with various materials, stones of all sizes, chunks of wood and balls of clay, all strewn about amongst strange scrolls with unusual symbols and scribbled writing in various languages. The man beckons you forward with one knarled bony finger.
As you step closer he picks up two fist sized stones, one grey with a granite like appearance and the other appears to be a chunk of pink quartz.
What do you seek? he asks with a voice as rough as the stones he holds.
What do you offer? you reply.
I offer to you, the Legend of the Golem. And with that he leans over and drops the two heavy stones either side of you. They immediately begin to grow in size and elongate around you. Before you have time to so much as gasp they circle round and up like great stone snakes until you are complete encircled in a stone cocoon.
In the complete darkness a disembodied voice speaks.
I take you into the world of Jewish Folklore, to the legend of the Golem. This is not a creature that occurs naturally, but rather it is created. From an inanimate material, given life, a humanoid creature is formed. This is the Golem.
Pinkish light begins to filter through the quartz spirals around you. As your eyes are adjusting, your stone cocoon begins to grow to a large dome around you. Littering the floor is a similar scene to the old mans table, with stone, clay, wood, coal and many other organic materials in all sizes and shapes laid out around you. You begin to walk towards a large statue of a muscled man sat hunched on the ground with some clay atop it. Upon closer inspection the clay is still wet and you can see finger marks upon it as if someone had just stopped kneading it.
You reach out and just as your about to touch it it begins to move, invisible hands squeezing and pushing the clay into shape. The voice sounds again making you jump, this time it sounds as if it’s coming from the stone in front of you.
Stone for strength and clay for malleability, the best for forming a Golem.
The invisible hands have now formed a small shape from the clay, a crudely formed man.
A wind with seemingly no source blows across the floor, sand and ash spiral around your feet and then from nowhere a log of wood falls from your left into the stone, like a falling tree in a storm. The stone splits and crumbles, the clay man is flattened in the rubble. The wind stops and the sand and ash has settled in patterns, like phrophetic tea leaves in a witches cup, in vague humanoid shapes.
From all around you planks of wood, aswell as branches that appear to have been snapped straight from a tree, leaves and all, start to be pulled towards the fallen log, blurring the grainy images on the floor. They move and join together to form a great hulking shape only just resembling a man hunched over on all fours.
Stone or sand, clay or wood, a Golem has no mind of their own, they can only obey. Created to serve, as warrior or labourer they work without question.
They are not commonly created with the ability for speech as they are created as a tool for another to use. What they lack in intelligence however, they make up for in obedience.
The tree-Golem begins to move. Around it little houses are formed from the clay on the ground, the Golem walks straight over them, crushing them underfoot.
This of course means when issuing commands to a Golem it pays to be clear and specific as they are simple minded and could end up causing more havoc than help.
As you watch, a little clay man runs from one of they clay houses about to be crushed, wielding a flaming torch. He throws it at the Golem and it catches alight. Within seconds it is reduced to more ash on the ground and chunks of burnt wood.
Some claim a Golem grows continuously in size and strength until it can no longer be controlled and must be destroyed.
This comes from behind you. You turn around and the man from the stall is there, stood behind his table as if nothing had happened.
But how? you ask. How do you create such a creature? And how would you destroy it?
The man motions to the paperwork in front of him. You look closer and see incredibly old books and scrolls and pieces of parchment with symbols and diagrams. You can make sense of none of it.
To bring life to a Golem, you will need words of power. There is a book – The Sefer Yetzira – that describes the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as the building blocks of creation, and the words God used to create humans. It is said through years of study they can be used to bring life to a Golem.
It is for this reason that you will invariably find that it is a rabbi who is described as the creator of a Golem.
A rabbi, he says to your unspoken question, is a Jewish scholar or teacher, often a leader of sorts in Jewish communities.
I’m sure you want to know how it is done. It’s more complicated than I could explain but I can give you a very simplistic account.
There are various methods, depending on who you ask. However the most common is by etching a word of power, Truth or one of the names for God, into its forehead or alternately onto a clay tablet or piece of parchment that is placed in the Golem’s mouth, chest or forehead.
Others tell of more complex methods that require rituals to invoke the elements and Hebrew incantations.
As you’re thinking this over, the stone walls around you start the flicker with light.
Let me take you back, to 16th century Prague.
The walls flicker once more and then become transparent, a window to another time. As the man continues speaking you stare amazed as his story plays out before your eyes.
Around the year 1580, there were many instances of anti-semantic attacks on the Jews led by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.
The legend tells of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century rabbi of Prague. He was of course in despair at what was happening to his people, and although he knew that the creation of life was strictly forbidden unless it would save many many lives, and sometimes not even then was it allowed, he decided the need was great enough.
And so Rabbi Loew took it upon himself to create create a golem in order to protect his people.
Some versions of the legend say the Golem was a huge hulking creature barely recognisable as being human in shape, whilst others claim it was indistinguishable from a human, and was given the name Joseph. Either way he was as strong as Rabbi Loew could make him and the Golem spread fear and havoc amongst those who tried to harm the Jews. Eventually the Emperor begged Rabbi Loew to call his Golem off. He agreed on the condition that all persecution of the Jews cease.
Once de-activated, the Golems body was said to be stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, the unspoken threat, that it could be reactivated if needed, lingering. The attic was sealed off and the stairs later removed. Although when it was explored many years later, no trace of the Golem was found.
The walls flicker once more, the vision gone. You can still see the image of the Old New Synagogue when you close your eyes.
But how? How was the Golem destroyed? you ask.
Well, the old man started, to destroy a golem the parchment or tablet must be removed from its body. Alternatively in the case of having EH-Met carved into it’s forehead, the first letter can be removed to leave the word Met, the Hebrew word for death.
Other than that, in cases of long complicated rituals it involves yet another ritual, usually done in reverse of the original and once again the invoking the elements.
And why, you ask, is it named a Golem?
The man appears to be becoming agitated. He keeps looking up to the sky as a man might check a watch.
Oh who knows, he says impatiently. The word ‘golem’ was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material in Psalms and medieval writing. Also Goylem is a Yiddish slang word for someone who is clumsy or slow. So maybe these had some influence on why we name this creature Golem, or perhaps they came after, I do not know.
The look on his face tells you not to ask anymore questions of him, he seems to have told you either all he knows or all he is willing to share. As you are about to make your excuses he tosses you a small object. You catch it reflexively. Opening your hand you look and see he has thrown you a small clay man.
When you look back up the man is gone, his stall empty.
You turn and head to the next stall in the market.
The golem is still referenced today in pop culture (for example Terry Pratchett novels) and literature. It features in many novels, poems and films. It is also popular in comic books, cartoons and RPG’s.
It is probable that ‘Frankenstein’by Mary Shelley was partially inspired by the legend of the Golem.
There are so many variations to the method of creating and destroying a golem, the mediums they are created from, their characteristic and uses; I cannot possibly mention them all. These are the most famous and my favourites but if you feel I’ve missed something vital please do tell me! -Emily x