What is a Golem?

A Golem is a giant, handmade monster, usually enslaved to a Jewish Rabbi or a magician. Although Golems are born to serve, a few of them have outgrown their masters and unleashed disasters in their native homes.

Characteristics

Physical Description

A Golem is a crude, clay figure, usually shaped like a human. Since they are often enlisted to do manual labor or fight in battles, they are built with massive proportions. Their arms, legs, and bodies are thick and full of power, while their heads are small and close to their bodies. Sometimes, their heads have no faces, but eyes and mouths are common too.

Many Golems have gemstones or intricately carved eyes. They might also have spells engraved on their foreheads.

Personality

On the surface, Golems don’t seem to have much personality. They are slaves to their creators, and they are thoughtlessly obedient. Indeed, they can be quite unintelligent, so their masters have to give them very detailed instructions about what to do. Otherwise, these clumsy giants could make dangerous mistakes.

Some stories describe Golems as warlike creatures. In a few cases, they manage to shake off their masters and develop their own plans—which usually involve destruction and mayhem.

Special Abilities

Golems themselves don’t have many talents. They are super-large and super-strong, and many of them have grow continuously, getting larger and stronger as they age. Beyond this, they don’t have any special abilities of their own.

However, because Golems are created by magicians, they often have extra magical charms, weapons, or amulets. For example, the Golem of Prague wore a magical amulet that could make him invisible when he wanted. His master also taught him a spell that allowed him to summon dead spirits to his aid.

Golem Stories

Creating and Destroying Golems

Over the years, various magical and spiritual texts have described the Golem-creating process. All sources agree that the first part of the process is to build a giant, humanoid creature out of clay. When it comes time to bring the creature to life, the instructions vary.
Some sources claim that magicians should dance around the creature, singing letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the secret name of God. When the magicians reach a state of ecstasy from all their singing and dancing, the creature will come to life. To destroy this type of Golem, magicians must corner the beast, dance around it again, and sing the same incantation backwards.

Other sources claim that the Golem’s forehead should be inscribed with the Hebrew word for “truth” (one of God’s secret names). When this word is engraved in its forehead, the Golem will come to life. It can be destroyed by removing the first letter from the word “truth,” which leaves behind the word “death.”

Finally, some sources claim that a paper with one of God’s secret names written on it must be inserted into the Golem’s eye or mouth. Destroying these Golems is a risky business, as the creator must find a way to climb up the active Golem and remove the scroll from its eye or mouth.

The Golem of Chelm

The oldest known Golem was created by the Rabbi Eliyahu (the Prophet Elijah). Various letters mentioned Eliyahu’s Golem, describing the incredible works that it undertook at Eliyahu’s bidding. However, when Eliyahu realized that the beast would never stop growing, he became afraid of it and removed a magical scroll in its forehead, thus reducing it to rubble.

The Golem of Prague

History’s most famous Golem, this clay beast had awesome powers and a nasty temper. He was created by Rabbi Judah Leow ben Bezalel to protect the Jewish citizens of Prague from anti-Semitic attacks. Because of his amazing strength, he was also recruited to help with building projects in Prague. Eventually, the guardian turned into a predator. He went on wild rampages, destroying buildings and killing innocent people. The Rabbi caught up with his servant and removed a magic scroll from its mouth, causing the clay giant to crumble to dust.

Legend claims that the pieces of the Golem giant were hidden in the attic of the synagogue, in case Prague ever needed another protector. For centuries, entrance to this attic was forbidden.

The Golem of Vilna

The Rabbi Vilna Gaon is the only rabbi in history who has admitted that he attempted to make a golem. All other legends formed around rabbis after they were dead. According to Rabbi Vilna Gaon, he began creating a giant clay creature to fight the forces of evil who threatened Jerusalem, but he received a message from God telling him to stop his work.

Cultural Representation

Origin

Golems come out of Jewish folklore. Although they are only mentioned in the Bible once (as a synonym for “raw” or “unfinished”), they are described in detail in other Jewish texts like the Talmud (written in the 4th century CE) and the Book of Creation (written in the 2nd century CE). Jewish rabbis and mystical scholars continued to discuss Golems well into the seventeenth century.

Modern Appearances

To Jewish people, the word Golem (or “goylem” in Yiddish) has come to mean anyone unintelligent or clumsy. It is a popular insult, similar to the words “dult” or “dimwit.”

In the fantasy world, Golems continue to thrive. They are mentioned in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, and they star in Jonathon Stroud’s The Golem’s Eye, Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst. They also appear in video games and role-playing games, including Dungeons and Dragons and Pokemon.

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