The Golem in the Attic, and Other Tales

Buried deep in the New York Times this weekend, you might have noticed the article entitled, Hard Times Give New Life to Prague’s Golem. This would be scary were it true; a golem is, after all, a monster. Yet the golem is a unique and relatively recent monster, one of debatable bloodlust.

The inhabitants of Prague might now consider it a deformed patron saint of sorts, akin to Quasimodo in Paris, when they see vendors hawking little statues and images of it. The Golem is a historically Jewish monster with a long history. Mentioned once in the Bible, the instructions for fashioning one are in the Book of Creation, part of the Kabala, and involve forming it in clay and bringing it to life with words. What results is a strong creature with blazing eyes and an inability to speak. It will keep going on whatever task it’s creator assigns it until it is destroyed.

The most well-known story of the golem is connected to a Rabbi Loew, called the Maharal of Prague, in the 1500s. It was said that he created a golem out of clay to protect the Jewish community from blood libel and to help out doing physical labor. (Medieval inhabitants sometimes even planted children in Jewish houses to spur riots against the Jews who were ritually killing and drinking the blood of Prague’s children.) The golem acted as a protector of the Jewish community for a time.

Then the golem ran amok, threatening innocent lives. Rabbi Loew removed the Divine Name he had written on the golem’s forehead, rendering it lifeless. He saved the clay body in case it was ever needed again. It is widely suspected the golem is still lying in the attic of Rabbi Loew’s temple in Prague.

Whenever times are tough, and people need protection, the golem becomes more popular. Unfortuantely, as the legend shows, golems literal and dogged following of instructions often has bad results. So this odd hero/protector/monster is returning to populairty in Prague, according to the New York Times. If he mad more artistic debuts, we’d be lucky.

The golem has sprung up all over the arts for the past few centuries. He had appeared in early silent films (since lost) and even a ballet. (This conjures up images of the elephant ballet dancers from the movie Fantasia, so I can’t even imagine what it a golem would dance like.) The golem of Prague has appeared in more recent novels, such as Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which Josef Kavalier helps save the Golem of Prague from Nazi invasion, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and Dara Horn’s The World To Come, about the life of artist Marc Chagall. All three of these books are fascinating reads of historical interest with great storylines.

Statue of the Golem of Prague

4 thoughts on “The Golem in the Attic, and Other Tales

  1. Very interesting post. I was not aware there was so much background to Golem. Recently during some research on witch hunting panics I came across your Medieval reference concerning Jews. Perhaps an early precursor to the Holocaust that I have seen a few scholarly paper on. I also found a tidbit from Harvard professor John Demos concerning the early (177AD) Christian community in Lyon France. They were accused of the same child blood drinking,etc. I haven’t read the Chabon book; I’ll have to look for it.

  2. It’s both fascinating and terrible what people believed, but drinking blood if you’re a vampire or using blood if you’re a witch/sorcerer are similar ideas, and all those myths were used to marginalize and attacke the outer edges of society: old single women, gypsys, and Jews.

    The golem seems to have been most prominent in Medieval and then WWII times, as least in legend and art. The Chabon book is WWII. Don’t let the length scare you–it’s a good read.

  3. I don’t know. I do know Tolkien was a master philologist at Oxford, and that many of the names in his books are reuses of words from European mythology and history, which is why I give some credence to the idea.

Leave a Reply