*A note of warning: the topic I discuss this week, involves mention of genocide and death, which may not be suitable for listeners under the age of 13.
What makes Golems such strange creatures? In my opinion, it's everything. From their birth to their death, and the religious implications behind the myth. Golems are a lot more complicated than you might think.
- For more info on me and my podcasts please visit FascinatingPodcasts.com. There you can listen to all my episodes, find merch, leave reviews, and read my other published works.
- Do you have a strange story to tell? Email me at StrangeOriginsPodcast@gmail.com.
- Visit Patreon.com/FascinatingProductions to become a patron! You can donate any amount, from $2 up, and each tier comes with fantastic benefits including handwritten notes, stickers, merch, and exclusive podcast episodes!
- Follow me on Instagram at instagram.com/strangeoriginspodcast/ and DM me your strange experiences!
- THANK YOU to ParanormalityRadio.com for allowing me to be a part of your network and supporting me in my journey. Check them out on IG @ParanormalPodcasts.
- If you would like access to the online sources of this piece, please visit my Google Docs transcript at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1QSS_XpJIsyX2p49kkzuvD7kKq-SLJcbioFmK7LBd_Gw/edit?usp=sharing
- Intro and outro were produced by me, with the help of SoundTrap.com.
- Background Music: Disintigration - Myuu - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piFJVwr1YYA - royalty-free music | Support with Donations → http://goo.gl/tZy5p - Support Myuu on Patreon http://patreon.com/myuuji
(Before I started the episode I wanted to let everyone know the good news: I opened up a merch shop! While I work on an official website, I thought it would be fun to get a few designs up, mostly because designing helps me de-stress during these very stressful times, but also because everyone I know has been asking if I had made Strange Origins T-Shirts yet.
You can find the link in the description of this episode, wherever you’re listening. There’s everything, from T-shirts and hoodies and kids’ clothes to mugs, phone cases, notebooks, totes, and stickers. Right now all of the earnings I make from sales will be going towards better sound equipment and help with research so that I can keep making the show better and better and put episodes out on a more regular basis. I also want to preface the episode with a giant thank you to all the new listeners that have been tuning in. I recently hit 1400 downloads, and while that’s a small number, it’s a bigger number than I thought I’d ever see on my dashboard. So thank you. And now, onto the show.)
Hello my friends, and welcome to the fifteenth episode of Strange Origins.
I can’t believe I have been able to produce, record, and publish fifteen of these things, but here we are. I have to thank one of my listeners, Harold, for emailing me and suggesting this topic. If any of you have any requests be sure to email me at StrangeOriginsPodcast@gmail.com, which is listed in the description. If you want any personal experiences to be read aloud, please include them! I would love to share your spooky stories.
Golems are one of the stranger creatures I’ve researched. While they have been featured in shows like the Simpsons, books like Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and even videogames like Minecraft, you don’t often see Golems in pop culture. They are a bit of a non-descript creature. And before you get confused, no, I’m not referring to the creature from Lord of the Rings, but rather the humanoid-like creature from Jewish folklore.
While golems can be dated back to early Judaism, around the 6th Century BCE, images and stories of the creature are elusive. Technically speaking, a Golem is an inanimate creature, usually made of clay or mud, that can be seen as a protector or workman for the Jewish community. He has rarely popped up in history, at least from the stories that I've researched, but always has a profound effect on the people around him. Their lives are short-lived and are usually only created under times of extreme duress and under the guidance of God (or so they should be.)
One of those reasons a Golem is created is to show that a person has a mastery of what is called the Kabbalah. In the Jewish faith, Kabbalah, which translates to mean something akin to “the received tradition.” It is, from what elusive information I could find, a set of teachings concerning Jewish Mysticism.
While I’m sure I will delve into mysticism in later episodes, it’s such a large and at times confusing subject that I will just say this; mysticism is simply defined as a school of thought that states that extreme study and contemplation can lead to the attainment of hidden truths. Mysticism, while not designated to any particular religion, but a practice that can be initiated into any number of denominations is closer to a mental and emotional study of the world than anything concrete.
Though, Jewish folklore tells that through mastery of the Kabbalah, one can turn mysticism into reality with the same set of skills that God employed in making the universe a reality.
Other reasons for the creation of a Golem throughout history are as use as a trustworthy servant. In the days when farming was essential to the everyday existence of a majority of people, especially during times of plague or famine, Golem’s were sometimes employed as tireless servants who could help ensure the survival of their creators. While there was a certain amount of responsibility that went along with keeping a Golem in check, it could be a great way to ensure survival.
The last, and most popular reason for the creation of a Golem, at least in the stories that have become famous in the 21st century, was in pursuit of a protector during times of crisis. While fear and persecution, especially against the Jewish community, have existed for much longer, it was really the Middle Ages and after that, that the stories of Golem that we know now and draw from were shaped.
In the 17th Century, a barrage of events occurred that singled out the Jewish people. This included a large contributor to poverty in the 1600s, The Thirty Years War. For about 500 years before the events of the 17th century had even occurred, it was not uncommon that the Jewish population, in general, were blamed when politics went sour or uncontrollable weather caused bad crops. Rumors spread during the Black Plague of the mid 14th century that the Jewish community had deliberately poisoned the water wells of those affected. This led to several massacres of Jewish neighborhoods and a horrific nine hundred live burnings in Strasburg.
It was during the times that were most horrific for Jewish communities, (both during the middle ages and at other times,) when Golem became a sign of hope for people, and a form of much-needed help. Today it’s thought from a historical point of view that Golems were a metaphor for the isolation, despair, and helplessness many felt during any number of wars or mass execution that the Jewish people have been through.
The Golem of Prague
In the 1600’s one of the most famous folklore tales of Golem creation occurred. Rabbi Leow, a Jewish Mystic in Prague at the time gave life to a creature called the Golem of Prague. The story takes place during a period of extreme antisemitic violence, one instance of which saw Jewish people being killed over false accusations of using Christian children’s blood in rituals.
Rabbi Leow, seeking to help his community, asked God for help. His answer was told to make a Golem. He then sought the help of two other rabbis, each born with the power of one of the four elements. While the Rabbi’s represented air, water, and fire, the Golem stood in as a representation of Earth.
They collected clay from the river and shaped it into a rudimentary form of a man. After performing a ceremony where they walked around the table counterclockwise seven times and recited special letters, the Golem became animate. The creature was named Yosef. While he could not speak, he had other skills, such as that of invisibility through the help of a special amulet. He was told to protect the people of the community and did pretty his job pretty well. At one point he even rescued a kidnapped girl, and with his special powers summoned a dead woman.
The story had a climactic end, as myths usually do. One rule of thumb for Golems is that they must rest on the Sabbath day of each week, so Rabbi Leow made sure to give the Golem that needed break. He would take out the piece of paper put into the Golem’s forehead, on which was written one of the many names of God in the Jewish Tradition, therefore forcing it to rest.
In one of the several endings to the story, the Rabbi forgot to pull the paper from the creature’s head, causing it to fall to pieces when finally captured in front of a synagogue. Its pieces were stored in the attic of that building, in case its protection was ever needed in the future. Some versions say that a Nazi soldier went to the attic during WWII in order to stab the Golem, but instead was killed. None of these stories have had any proof behind them, as when the attic was renovated in 1883, there was nothing resembling a Golem found. It’s possible that he disintegrated, as he was simply just clay, and was mistaken for a pile of dirt, but I guess we will never really know.
Reality or Metaphor
Casting the possibility of reality aside for a minute, it’s most likely that the character of the Golem is meant only to serve as a way of storytelling. According to Moment Magazine, "the golem is a highly mutable metaphor with seemingly limitless symbolism. It can be a victim or villain, Jew or non-Jew, man or woman—or sometimes both. Over the centuries it has been used to connote war, community, isolation, hope, and despair." Most likely, Golems are a way of relaying to communities that through hard work, perseverance, and a strong belief in the good nature of people, they can survive through what were extremely difficult and dangerous times.
The Golem's Origin
Where did this idea begin though? And how have stories of the Golem lasted for so long? Simply put, religion created the Golem, and storytelling kept him alive.
In the Bible, the term Golem appears in Psalm 139:16, where it’s said that “you saw me when I was yet unformed, looked to my future, and saw all my numbered days.” Golem means “my light form” or “raw material.” In modern Hebrew, it often is used to mean “dumb” or “helpless.” So essentially aGolem is a form of creation whose purpose on Earth has already been seen.
It’s thought by some that the story of the creation of the first Golem was featured in the Book of Genesis in the Torah, which is known by others as the first five books of the Old Testament. In it, Adam was created by God out of the mud. Supposing you believe in the idea that God created humans from the materials of the Earth, then technically Adam was the first Golem, seeing as according to the Talmud his dust was "kneaded into a shapeless husk."
By that logic, are we all Golems? Well, not really. According to the oldest book in the Kabbalist tradition, which is called the Book of Creation, it is 22 letters and in which way’s they can combine to form the name of God that gives Golem’s their abilities at animation. Humans are created by God, who is all-powerful, but Golems are simply just the molding of materials, made by God, and brought to life through means of calling upon God’s power. It’s kind of like comparing a man and woman’s ability to create a child with that child's ability to play make believe with dolls. It’s a much more simple, crude version of life-giving, closer to animation than the gift of intelligent thought.
This is why in stories of Golems there is usually a common ending. They are tricky creatures to make, and even trickier to keep in check. It’s a test to be able to keep them directed towards the right goal, well-rested, and out of trouble. When his creator doesn't have the right motivations for creating him, things can go south pretty quickly. Either their creator has a desire to be closer to God, with his ability of creation, or the desire to be God’s equal, which is an act of hubris that is present in a lot of mythological stories. Think of every time someone wanted to be equal to the Greek Gods: Things never went well.
One of the reasons that Golems are thought to be a story of hubris, or rather a warning against excessive pride or self-confidence, is that a lot of the stories don’t exactly have happy endings. Sure, the beginnings of these stories sound amazing. You can simply create a protector, a servant for yourself that never needs to eat and only sleeps once a week. But Golem’s are obedient to a fault, meaning that they perform instructions exactly how their owners tell them to. This can lead to trouble, just as it would in the case of a genie granting wishes.
In one of the earliest modern versions of a Golem story, titled the Golem of Chelm, a Rabbi named Elijah created a Golem that grew too big to be handled. (In earlier stories it’s said that Golems could keep growing the longer they were alive.) When he had grown to the point that the Rabbi feared he might destroy the world, he attempted to take down the writing from the creature's head. One story recounts that he was badly scratched on the face before being able to take the creature down, while another states that when the Golem was destroyed large piles of mud came crashing down onto Elijah, killing him.
Golem and Frankenstein's Monster
If you want to put the idea into a more modern light, it’s thought by some that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was inspired by the story. While there are unsubstantiated rumors that Mary Shelley’s mother-in-law was a translator for the German Grimm Brothers, it’s more likely that she heard a story of a Golem from a collection of stories featuring creatures formed from magic that was written in 1808 by Jakob Grimm called The Journal for Hermits. This would have been when Mary Shelley was eleven years old. While the stories of the Golem and Frankenstein's monster have their notable differences, it makes sense to look at Frankenstein’s Monster as a type of Golem. They both were reanimated by humans through the use of galvanization, which can either mean to stimulate with a current or to startle to action. They also feature creators who weren’t quite sure how to be responsible for their creations and ended up in horrible situations because of their hubris.
While the original Frankenstein novel featured a monster that was a highly intelligent creature, the character later morphed into a simpleminded, brute of a character in film and television. It’s interesting to note, though, that the subtitle to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was A Modern Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the man that gave fire to the world and was punished by Zeus for eternity.
What many don’t realize is that Prometheus was, in some stories, a Titan, or rather one of the Gods that were born before Zeus’ generation, and therefore was much more powerful. Prometheus is also credited with molding humans out of clay in the same form as Greek Gods and allowing for life to be breathed into them, much like a Golem. As a believer in the teachings of the Greek philosopher, Pythagorean, Mary and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, were vegetarians and strong advocates for animal rights. Mary saw Prometheus as someone who had brought about the ability of men to eat meat by being able to cook it in a fire. Just like the rabbis in the stories mentioned earlier, and Dr. Frankenstein himself, Prometheus brought about destruction in one form or another through the creation of something ungodly.
Another way of viewing the myth in a modern light is through the realization that we have our own Golems. You’re probably playing this podcast through one right now, except instead of being made of clay, it’s manufactured in a factory. Robots assist us in everyday life, whether it’s in farming, making the clothes we wear, or setting a reminder for you on your phone. They’ve allowed us to do things other than be trapped in an existence of survival, which was kind of the point of the original golems. Something that I thought was strangely reminiscent of stories of golems is those stories of technology rising up and destroying their creators. This idea, at least with the subject of technology, has been present in science fiction since the 1920s in Rossum’s Universal Robots and has evolved to today’s movies franchises like Terminator and one of my favorite television shows, Westworld.
It’s a common theme; the idea that technology could become conscious and begin to fight back. Even Elon Musk, someone who is well known for dabbling in the technological world, has warned against us going too far. Just like with Golems, technology can and has been a double-edged sword. While it’s brought about many wonderful, necessary things that we couldn’t live without today, there’s always the chance that it will all come crashing down just like the Golem that grew too big and who ended up crushing and killing his creator.
Today you can see Golems hidden in plain sight. Throughout the Czech Republic, the Golem is a popular guy, and statues of him are featured everywhere. You can even find him placed into the cobblestones of the city’s sidewalks. Restaurants are named after him, and statues are placed as guardians of the city of Prague. He is remembered there as a protector, and a reminder of the perseverant spirit of God’s first Golems, us.