Monday Monster Profile: Golems

We’ve looked at werewolves and zombies – now for something a little more obscure: Golems!

Golem by Philippe Semeria

What is a Golem?

Golems have their origins in Jewish folklore. They are human-shaped creatures usually fashioned out of mud, that are animated by a holy person. Golems typically can’t speak (the folklore explains this as a means of differentiating creatures made by man from creatures made by god). In most cases the golem is animated by means of mystical Hebrew words that are either inscribed in the clay or written on a substance and enclosed within the clay (this is referred to as a shem or chem). These words are taught to an adept of  the Kabbalah, but it is often believed that the word that is inscribed is ‘emet’ (truth) and that the golem can be returned to dust be erasing the ‘aleph’ so that the word becomes ‘met’ (death).

What do they look like?

Golems are clay-men, often depicted as larger than life. They can be rough hewn or smooth and well-sculpted but generally give the impression of bulk.

How do they become a problem?

Golems are animated but not intelligent. They are a kind of ‘living’ automaton, used to carry out some kind of ‘work’ (often unpleasant or dangerous to flesh and blood humans). You need to be careful about the instructions you give them. Most golem tales involve either the golem following instructions too literally with disastrous consequences, or failing to adapt to changing circumstances.

What should I do if one is after me?

You can try to run away, but if someone has set it on you, they are relentless and won’t give up. You could try talking nicely to the Jewish mystic you’ve evidently offended – but if you can’t think of who that might be you don’t have too many options but to try and destroy the Golem. As mentioned above you need to get to the ‘words’ that animate it and either destroy them entirely or erase the aleph from ‘truth’ that makes it ‘death’. If the words are just inscribed you can scrub it out, if the words are baked within the clay you may have to try and smash the golem to gain access (no- this won’t be easy – maybe impossible – but what other options do you have?).

Famous Golems

The most famous golem is the Golem of Prague, believed to have been created by the rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in order to protect the city of Prague during pogroms in the sixteenth century (there’s still a statue of the golem at the entrance to the Jewish sector in the city) . Most of the literary and film depictions of the golem are based on this story such as Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel, Der Golem, and the film by Paul Wegener The Golem, 1920. Golems also feature in the work of British fantasy author Terry Pratchett, Marge Piercy’s novel He, She and It (1991), David Brin’s science-fiction novel Kiln People (2002), and the The X-Files episode ‘Kaddish’ in Season 4.

I want to know more!

Golems have been the focus of a number of academic studies. See:

Goldsmith, Arnold L. (1981). The Golem Remembered 1909-1980: Variations of a Jewish Legend. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Idel, Mosche (1990). Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. Albany (NY): State University of New York Press.

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8 Responses to “Monday Monster Profile: Golems”

  1. Golems also feature in the third Bas Lag novel by China Meiville – Iron Council. His dark fantasy / New Weird book features the character Judah Low a master Somnambulist (golem maker) is able to not only create golem traps, and golems out of unusual substances – at the climax he is able to create a time golem. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Council)

    Legendary golems are not evil, but always portrayed as tools of their creator. There are moral tales about them, but it always reflects on the creator – not the golem themselves as the golems are not sentient.

    For Warpspawn games I created the game parts for the Golem game incuding the hebrew characters for emet (aleph is the first letter of the alphabet) – http://www.curufea.com/games/warpspawn/
    Please excuse the bad PHP, I’ve not yet moved it over to my wiki.

  2. Seventy-Two Letters by Ted Chiang (in “Steampunk” eds. Jeff and Ann Van Der Meer) (http://www.amazon.com/Steampunk-Ann-VanderMeer/dp/1892391759#noop) is one of the best golem stories I’ve read.
    Cheers
    K

    • I was actually thinking of putting that in as well 🙂
      Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life and Others” I bought 2nd hand from a bookshop in the USA is the best collection of short stories I’ve ever read. I’m always looking to lend this book to people (if they have a spec fic inclination).

  3. I’ve just started collecting Golem stories so these links are fantastic! I think golems have just as many social ‘uses’ in horror as zombies but are in many ways more interesting (and certainly less ‘done’)

  4. Ah well, programs are made of words. It’s a different kind of logomancy.

  5. Gad Yair Says:

    Look for The Golem and German Social Theory by Gad Yair and Michaela Soyer (Lexington Books 2008). It shows how the German myth of the Golem pervades modern social theory – from Marx to present day Ulrich Beck.

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