The Golem of Prague and the origins of the myth of the clay giants6 min read
In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being that is magically created entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud). The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material in Psalms and medieval writing and it plays a very important role in the history of the city of Prague. In fact, the term seems to derive from the Hebrew word gelem, meaning raw material/lifeless earth clod. Not only that, it seems that the name recalls the mud of the Moldova river with which the small humanoids were made.
This mythological figure brings with it many stories and legends. The most popular are undoubtedly those related to the old Jewish cemetery in Prague and Rabbi Loew.
According to an ancient legend, in fact, those who learn about the Kabbalah, ie the esoteric Hebrew teachings, acquire the ability to manufacture Golems, clay giants generally used as servants and as an aid during particularly strenuous jobs. Not only that, this figure would also have the task of defending the Jewish people from the oppression and persecution they were forced to endure.
However, the history of the Golems seems to have an even more curious origin. In fact in the sixteenth century, more precisely during the 1500s, Rudolph II, the current king of Prague, showed intolerance and scarce esteem towards the Jewish people so much on want to remove them from the city.
Therefore, attacks in the Jewish quarter were particularly frequent. So the rabbi, saddened by the situation of the his Jewish people, asked for help from God during the prayers. Thus, one night, instructions appeared in a dream to give life to the giants made with the clay available on the banks of the river that ran through the city.
As mentioned, the Golems were created to be used as servants and because of their excellent obedience. These, in fact, were not endowed with a soul and therefore with feelings and emotions. For this reason they were totally dependent on the one who had made them. These humanoids also had an invincible and severe appearance.
According to the legend, a well-known intellectual in Europe, the late 16th century rabbi of Prague Judah Loew ben Bezalel (a figure with mythological traits but whose existence is actually verified), began to create Golem using a raw and muddy material, with the aim of exploiting them as servants and to assign to them some tasks within the synagogue. Also known as the Maharal, reportedly “created a golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks”.
During the magical ritual that saw the birth of these beings, two friends of Loew’s rabbis, they went around the Golem seven times reciting some charms.
During the creation, the man engraved on the forehead of the giants of clay the word “Emeth” which in Hebrew means “truth”. However, with the passage of time, these became increasingly larger and therefore useless. For this reason the rabbi decided to modify the engraving by deleting the E, and transforming it into the word “Meth”, which means death, to get rid of those no longer usable.
Not only that, he was forced, then, to hide some specimens inside the attic, in which, according to legend, they are preserved still today.
However, there is another equally interesting version of the same legend.
The Golem, as already mentioned, was not endowed with soul, feelings and emotions. For this reason he faithfully obeyed all the requests of his creator. The latter, having to move away from the action for religious reasons, left one of the golems to assist his sick daughter. However, before heading to the synagogue, he forgot to remove the stone that animated him and so, the mythological being without reason, began to demolish the house of Rabbi Judah Loew who, once returned, was forced to reduce it to dust.
Being a day of celebration for the Jewish religion, the man immediately had to join the faithful and only then did he make the difficult decision: to hide the golem’s ashes in the Jewish quarter of the city of Prague and more precisely in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue where according to the legend can still be found today.
Depending on the version of the legend, the Jews in Prague were to be either expelled or killed under the rule of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. The Golem was called Josef and was known as Yossele. It was said that he could make himself invisible and summon spirits from the dead. Rabbi Loew deactivated the Golem on Friday evenings by removing the shem before the Sabbath (Saturday) began. One Friday evening Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the shem, and feared that the Golem would desecrate the Sabbath. A different story tells of a golem that fell in love, and when rejected, became the violent monster seen in most stories.
Even if, according to legend, the body of Rabbi Loew’s Golem still lies in the synagogue’s attic, when the attic was renovated in 1883, no evidence of the Golem was found. Some versions of the tale state that the Golem was stolen and entombed in a graveyard in Prague’s Žižkov district, where the Žižkov Television Tower now stands. A recent story tells of a Nazi agent ascending to the synagogue attic during World War II and trying to stab the Golem, but he died instead.
The golem legend inspired many artists. In 1921, Karel Čapek wrote a play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) where the term “robot” was first coined. Robots in the play (and in the subsequent science fiction literature) share many characteristics with golems, even if the robots are products of science and not magic.
One of the main plots of the film comedy Císařův pekař, pekařův císař of 1951, released in the US as “The Emperor and the Golem” revolves around the Prague golem: it was depicted as a huge figure of clay only roughly similar to a human with large fissures in the torso crudely patched with iron plates. That film includes Communist propaganda which was the reason that it is one of the first Czechoslovak color films, and this is still popular because it is a good movie.
Golem is also one of the symbol of Prague. If you are in the city center you will soon find some references to the golem, like T-shirt with a picture or a figurine in a souvenir shop and so on. Golem is also the name of one of a popular restaurants in Prague (close to the Old Synagogue).