The Golem is a monstrous creature of Jewish myth and legend. There are a few stories about a Golem’s creation and existence, but the definitive tale is about the Golem of Prague. It’s not a run-of-the-mill monster myth because it is tied to historical figures at a specific time and place. It’s been told and retold — even by the Simpsons on TV — and it’s inspired many great artists including the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. If you’re planning a trip to Prague, you will find it in every tourist guidebook.
For centuries, the city of Prague was a center of Jewish learning with famous scholars and mystics living in the city. Rabbi Loeb* (1512-1609) was the most famous of these. He defended his people against waves of anti-Semitism and was given the title, ‘The Exalted One’ by his followers.
In 1580 he believed that the Jews of Prague needed a champion. A priest was planning to accuse them of ritual murders and he feared for the lives of the Jews. So he used a secret Kabalistic ritual to bring a clay figure to life. It required two assistants — one represented water and the other fire. The Rabbi symbolized air and the creature earth, for the four elements.
The complicated feat involved walking around the clay body seven times and acknowledging the four directions (North, South, East, West) and ultimately, placing a parchment with the Shem Hameforash (the secret and true name of God) into the monster’s mouth. This word was not only sacred and secret, it was powerful, dangerous and known only to a few trusted holy men in each generation. Carelessly uttered, it could turn against the man who spoke it.
The name of God gave life to the Golem and he protected the Jews. But when the time of danger past, his presence created another kind of danger. He was simply too powerful and unnatural to live.
In some versions of the story, the Golem goes mad and in others he has simply fulfilled his purpose. The Rabbi removed the name — and therefore the life that had animated the clay monster — and the Golem returned to his lifeless state. The clay figure was stored in the attic of the synagogue and everyone was forbidden to go there.
Stories are still told about the Golem in the attic, but no one has found him.
* Some sources refer to him as Rabbi Loew or with other spellings, but the story is substantially the same and the version all refer to the same historical figure.
From the Borges Poem: The Golem (in translation from Spanish)
The rabbi watched it tenderly but
with some horror. How (he said)
could I engender this laborious son?
Better to have done nothing, this is insanity.