Monday, September 19, 2011

Magical Mondays #1: The Imperfect Creation of Man: The Golem

Welcome to my first Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly touching on various magical traditions and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical stuff to keep me busy for a while.

Disclaimer: These blog entries should not be interpreted as either the promotion or insults against belief in any particular magical system or religion. I find this fascinating from an intellectual and creative stand-point and respect the wide variety of human thought.

Today's topic: Golems


Modern humans take for granted the impressive scope of our current understanding of the world. Molecular biologists push at the very understanding of what defines and produces life. Physicists peer into the fundamental fabric of space-time. We've flown to the moon. For most of history, true understanding of any of the forces of nature has eluded us.

Our ancestors spent just as much effort trying to understand their world through various magical systems. In the end, despite the religious or spiritual elements that often accompanied them, magic systems were previous attempts to understand the universe or attempt to imitate the grandness they saw in nature.

Before genetic engineering or robotics arose, there were people who sought to create artificial life. Such was the case with legendary Jewish mystics and golems.

A golem, fundamentally, is an artificial magically-animated humanoid. Legends note they could be made from a variety of earthen materials with mud and clay the most commonly mentioned. According to the Talmud (the central written collection of Jewish Oral law and rabbi commentaries), when God created Adam, the first man, he remained as a soulless golem for the first 12 hours hours of his existence. Various methods have been described concerning the actual act of creation. Many of these procedures involve variations on invoking the name of God. Numerology based on the Hebrew alphabet often figures prominently. These methods basically involve borrowing the wisdom and power of the divine to invoke the power of the creation of life.

Despite all the links to the divine, there's still a heavy element of scholarship and analysis (this is a recurring motif in Jewish mysticism that I may revisit in a future article, though certainly not limited to Jewish mystical traditions), thus golem creation is typically associated with rabbis. The implication being that enough study and wisdom can grant the knowledge of creation. The magical power is not inherent to the rabbi. The details vary, but it is very common that the Hebrew word emet (truth) is inscribed on the golem's forehead. The construct can then be deactivated by removing the final Hebrew letter forming met (death). Another word-based activation involves Adam being inscribed on the head. The word inscription is not universal and one interesting variant includes walking around the golem chanting the secret name of God (also worth of an entire entry itself) backwards.

There are numerous other legends and details associated with golems, and mystical manuals in the Middle Ages even purported to offer detailed instructions on the proper creation methods.What is rather striking that despite the mystical and spiritual links to the divine, golem creation is still often defined in legend as a process that can be learned through the acquisition of knowledge. 

This human-limited creation can only manage a limited act of creation. Golems possess great strength and durability, but they lack intelligence and have to be given literal commands (in some legends these were oral, in others they were literally 'fed' instructions on paper). The inability of golems to speak is a continuing motif. Many legends focus on golems getting out of control.

The last point is an interesting theme repeating even to this day. In one of the more famous stories set in the 16th century (evidence suggests the legend didn't arise until the 19th century though), Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, created a golem to deal with a spate of antisemitic violence. Though it defended the Jews, it eventually fell to violent rampaging and had to be deactivated by the rabbi. Many variants of this particular legend claim the golem is still around in storage, deactivated.

Indeed, the Golem of Prague has made appearances in such diverse places as the beginning of Michael Chabon Pullitzer Prize's winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the far less literary The Simpsons. I doubt that any of those ancient rabbis were ever thinking about anything like that when they were trying to learn how to create life.


Michelle Fayard said...

I'm going to forward this post to someone I know who's doing research on this topic; excellent information!

J.A. Beard said...

I'm glad I could help.