Friday Folklore: How to Build a Golem

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Originating in Jewish folklore, a golem is a burly being fashioned from clay or mud and brought to life via magic.

Tasked with protecting a vulnerable Jewish village or community during the middle ages, the golem was a supernatural defender. The only thing standing between a persecuted minority and an angry mob out for blood.

Golem FAQS

“How Do I Know I’m Looking At a golem?”

With a name that roughly translates to “incomplete substance” or “raw material”, golems are brawny mud men with literal feet of clay and rudimentary facial features. In traditional folktales and artworks they look a bit like a muddy Michelin man or The Thing from Fantastic Four, minus the personality.

In movie depictions, like the 1915 German silent film Der Golem and the more recent 2018 Israeli feature, The Golem, the creature looks more like a really muddy human being.

Photo by Mahdi Bafande on Unsplash

“How do you build a Golem?”

Step 1: Be a rabbi (or extremely well versed in Hebrew mysticism).

Step 2: Get yourself some mud, preferably by the banks of a river or lake. Mould it into the shape of a man.

Step 3: While surrounded by a circle of torches, breathe into its nostrils “the breath of life”.

To activate your golem:

Write the true name of god on a piece of paper and slip it into the mouth of the golem.

OR

Carve or write the word “truth” in Hebrew on its forehead.

To de-activate:

either remove the paper

OR

erase the first letter of the Hebrew script, thereby changing it from emet (truth) to met (death)

Photo by Matt Walsh on Unsplash

“What is the threat level of a golem?”

If you’re part of a pogrom or just a violent, murderous anti-Semite: very high

If not: also high.

It really depends.

“Wait, I thought golems were a good thing?”

Eh, It’s iffy.

In the most referenced folktale, The Golem of Prague, the creature uses his physical strength to defend the Jewish ghetto. However, in later versions, it becomes a little too into its work. After wiping out the immediate threat, it begins killing indiscriminately and destroying the same businesses and homes it was created to protect.

The inclusion of this dark twist, makes the Golem not unlike the protagonist in a vigilante movie. When he’s killing bad guys you root for him, but when he starts punishing people for minor infractions like chewing gum or, y’know, existing, it becomes clear that this is not a valiant saviour but an unhinged monster.

Photo by Luke Southern on Unsplash

“So the golem is a morality tale?”

More a complex moral dilemma that touches on themes of: creation, control, power, hubris, salvation, the responsibilities of the artist and many, many more.

“So what have we learnt?

The Golem is a powerful supernatural being created from mud and desperation. Without it, a community will most definitely perish. They really have no other option. Unfortunately, perhaps because he has no soul or perhaps because he is all brawn and no brains, he runs amok, leaving its creators with blood (as well as mud) on their hands.

Photo by Chris Yang on Unsplash

RESEARCH AND FURTHER READING

https://www.jmberlin.de/en/topic-golem

The Golem of Prague: Man or Monster? by Jayden Lewis
(University of Hawai‘i at Hilo HOHONU 2019, Vol. 17)

https://theculturetrip.com/europe/czech-republic/articles/the-legend-of-the-golem-of-prague/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem

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