According to Jewish tradition, the golem is a human-like creature created from clay and animated by magic. (The word golem means ‘unformed’ or ‘shapeless mass’.) Its usual purpose was to protect the Jewish community from outside threats. While typically male in form and stronger than the average human, it was generally not given a name, and it could not speak.
Various versions differ in detail, but most golem creation stories go something like this: A rabbi or initiate forms the creature out of water and virgin soil. He then walks or dances around the figure reciting the activation words. These may be the letters of the sacred name of God, the Tetragrammaton (one of the names of God used in the Torah), or other sacred words or phrases such as adam (the first man), or emet (truth). Bereshit (Genesis) 2:7 works as well: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” According to some legends, the sacred letters, words or name of God should be written on a parchment, and placed in the golem’s mouth. To stop or deactivate the golem, the parchment need only be removed.
The most famous story of the golem is connected to Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal of Prague (c. 1525 – 1609). The good rabbi created his golem out of clay from the VltavaRiver to protect the city’s Jewish ghetto from those who would threaten it, and to help out with physical labor. Exceptionally, the golem was named Josef (but for some reason known as Yossele). According to one version of the story, one night Rabbi Loew neglected to take the magical parchment from Josef’s mouth and the creature ran amok, unfortunately injuring or killing several innocent people. Loew eventually managed to deactivate the golem and put the body or remains thereof in the attic of Prague’s Old-New Synagogue.
Fast-forward a few hundred years. It is rumored that Nazi soldiers broke into the synagogue during World War II and Rabbi Loew’s golem ripped them limb from limb, although there is no proof of this. Today, the synagogue receives dozens of requests every year for visits to the golem’s attic lair – visits which are politely declined as the attic is closed to the general public.
Like other creatures of legend, the golem has found a place in modern literature and film. Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel, Der Golem, was inspired by the tales of Rabbi Loew’s golem. In 1958, the celebrated Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges published a poem entitled, The Golem, again referring to Rabbi Loew’s creature. In 1983, best-selling author Elie Wiesel wrote a beautiful children’s book based on the legend and entitled – what else? – The Golem. The golem had a main role in Paul Wegener’s silent film, The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920), and in the Czech movie, The Emperor and the Golem (1951). On television, the golem has appeared in a number of series, including The X-Files, Extreme Ghostbusters, R. L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour: The Series, and Supernatural.