The golem, an artificial man made by moulding clay into the shape of a man and reciting spells over it, has been described by Isaac Bashevis Singer as “the very essence of Jewish folklore”. Yet he has travelled far beyond the boundaries of Jewish folklore, starring on the silver screen and in Marvell comics, and inspiring novels and plays as well as an opera and a ballet. Who is he, where did he come from and why do writers periodically return to this figure from the Kabbalistic mist of the ghetto?
The word ‘golem’ means the unformed, or amorphous. It is the matter which God shaped into the form of Adam, before breathing the breath of life into his nostrils. The Kabbalah teaches that the virtuous (not the mad or evil scientist) can create in this way. However, just as God cannot create another fully divine God, man cannot create another fully human man (not without a woman anyway). The golem always lacks a characteristic essential to true humanity, often, but not always, the power of speech.
The ‘handbook’ to creating a golem is the Sefer Yetzirah, or Book of Creation, which describes the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as the key to all creation. Making a golem involves reciting combinations of letters derived from Sefer Yetzirah. At least two Kabbalists saw the point of the ritual chanting as being the achievement of a state of ecstasy, and not creating life. At any rate, in the Kabbalah, creating a golem is an end in itself. It is the later legends that portray the golem as protector of the ghetto and manservant for the Sabbath (Scholem).
A 16th century manuscript tells of Samuel the Pious, who created a mute golem that accompanied him on his travels and waited on him. In 17th century Poland this servant becomes dangerous. Another tale concerns Rabbi Elijah Baal Shem of Chełm (d. 1583). Written in 1674, it tells of the fasting that was necessary to create a (mute) golem which did the housework. The word emeth (‘truth’), written on its forehead, activated the golem, which grew steadily. Rabbi Elijah's grew so big he could not reach its forehead to rub out the letter aleph (changing emeth into meth, ‘death’). Instead he commanded the golem to remove his boots and when he bent down he erased aleph and the golem turned to mud again, collapsing on and killing Elijah. This is the ‘classic’ later golem myth, although the idea of writing emeth on the forehead is older than the Chełm story – 13th century Hasidic texts claim that it was written on Adam's forehead (Scholem). Other versions have emeth sewn onto the arm, or written on a parchment and placed in the mouth (in this case the trick to erasing aleph is kissing the golem).
Many versions of the myth concern Rabbi Loew of Prague, a respected figure in late 16th century Prague, who met with Rudolf II, otherwise famous for supporting Tycho Brahe and Kepler. Rabbi Loew would deactivate his golem before the Sabbath every week but in some versions he forgets and the golem runs amok. Loew tears away the shem, or name of God, and the golem collapses into dust, to be locked away into the attic of the Altneu Schul synagogue.
In the late 19th and early 20th century the golem became a popular figure in literature and cinema, thanks in particular to Gustav Meyrink's novel Der Golem, which appeared in book form in 1915, sold 200,000 copies and was filmed by Paul Wegener. Wegener also made The Golem and the Dancing Girl, while Julius Szomoggi made a film called The Golem's last Austrian Adventure, indicating how far the golem myth had come. Also worth mentioning are Alois Jirasék's version of the Rabbi Loew story, as told in Old Czech Legends of 1894, a part of the Czech national awakening, as well as Chajim Bloch's Der Prager Golem (1920), in which he writes that some regarded the golem as the ghost of Rabbi Loew. An electric man is created in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), while in Otto Rippert's film Homunculus (1916) an artificial man is created in a laboratory. Max Ernst painted pictures of cyborgs with electricity flowing through them.
Writers from Alfred Bester and Isaac Asimov to Jorge Luis Borges and Bruno Schulz as well as, arguably, Mary Shelley and George Bernard Shaw have been attracted to the golem motif. Singer, when asked why the interest in the golem, answered with a question: “why not?”. In the golem myth there is, he explained, the tension and suspense of the supernatural.