Focus

Golem

The Golem is one of the most widely recognized characters emerging from Jewish folklore. Through centuries the story of the Golem has maintained popular appeal, but also inspired global imagination. Today the Golem motif continues to appear with many meanings over time.  Internationally renowned artist have dedicated works influenced by the golem, video games and comic books continue to integrate its character, and in language usage and naming, the word golem carries imagery and metaphor. There has recently been extensive exhibition activity with regard to the Golem, for instance at the Berlin Jewish Museum, which has an extensive online catalog at www.jmberlin.de/en/golem-catalog-online. Another instance was the Golem Exhibition at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme in Paris:  https://www.mahj.org/en/programme/golem-avatars-of-a-legend-of-clay-48450 . In Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist As Maggid, artists Dina Goldstein and Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor create new works based on the Golem.

Though the exact origin of the Golem is disputed [1], without any doubt, the most popular of the Golem stories begins with the tale of expulsion or murder of Jews in Prague under the rule of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor in the late 16th century. To protect the Jewish community, Rabbi Loew gave life to a clay creation by carving the word emet (truth) into its forehead or some say placing a slip of paper in the Golem’s mouth on which he had written God’s name.  Though the Golem was a helpful servant, it eventually turned maniacal towards both gentiles and Jews and in some texts, the creature turned on its master. To reverse the Golem’s mystical life-force, Rabbi Loew is rumored to have either erased the first letter on the Golem's forehead; changing emet to met, which means death, or removed the paper from its mouth [2]. Today, it is widely told that the Golem’s crumbled remains are stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue in Prague [3].

The mystical power to bring forth a Golem is said to be sourced from Sefer Yetzirah is Hebrew for “The Book of Creation,” which describes the mystical powers of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 10 Sefirot,  the divine aspects of God. The Sfer Yetzirah is the oldest kabalistic text [4].

By the early 20th century, references could be found of the Golem in the mainstream.  One such example was Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel, The Golem, which centers on the life of Athanasius Pernath, a jeweler and art restorer living in the ghetto of Prague. The Golem had a worldwide reception, and the collected volume sold 200,000 copies. The spooky lithograph illustrations were made by the artist Hugo Steiner-Prag [5].

Hugo Steiner-Prag, Illustrations for the book Der Golem, by Gustav Meyerink. Portfolio of lithographs, Leipzig, 1916. Courtesy of The Center for Jewish History.

Hugo Steiner-Prag, Illustrations for the book Der Golem, by Gustav Meyerink. Portfolio of lithographs, Leipzig, 1916. Courtesy of The Center for Jewish History.

The 1920 silent film Der Golem: How He Came Into the World, directed and acted by Paul Wegener became the highlight of his acting career, and made its mark on cinema internationally. This classic silent film was a milestone in the horror genre. [6]

Literary and film examples of influences of the Golem continue.  One particular trilogy strands out, Israeli award winning Filmmaker Amos Gitai’s “Exile” Trilogy. Gitai’s trilogy includes “The Birth of a Golem” (1990) (with Annie Lenox), “Golem, the Spirit of Exile” (1991), and “The Petrified Garden” (1993). Gitai’s inspiration for his “Exile” trilogy came from his desire to find a story that was connected to his personal culture as an Israeli born Jew living in Europe and that also addressed the rise of Artificial Intelligence and the problems he and other artists anticipated with its growing implementation. [7] 

German artist Anselm Kiefer created works mining ideas of the Golem. 

Anselm Kiefer, Rabi Löw: der Golem, 1988–2012. Plaster, wood, oil, lead, glass, synthetic resin, steel and charcoal. 37,4 x 37,4 x 22,83 in. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London-Paris-Salzbourg. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (AKI 1369). 

Anselm Kiefer, Rabi Löw: der Golem, 1988–2012. Plaster, wood, oil, lead, glass, synthetic resin, steel and charcoal. 37,4 x 37,4 x 22,83 in. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London-Paris-Salzbourg. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (AKI 1369). 

Other artists inspired by the Golem integrated ideas more playfully, like French artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s grotesque yet friendly Golem Slide was commissioned in 1972 and stands out in Jerusalem’s Rabinovich Park. [8]

Niki de Saint Phalle, Golem (Mifletzet), 1972. Collection City of Jerusalem, district of Kiryat Hayovel, Rabinovitch Park, Jerusalem, Israel. © 2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved / ARS, NY / ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Gila Brand - Wikimedia Commons, released under CC-BY-SA 3.0

Niki de Saint Phalle, Golem (Mifletzet), 1972. Collection City of Jerusalem, district of Kiryat Hayovel, Rabinovitch Park, Jerusalem, Israel. © 2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved / ARS, NY / ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Gila Brand - Wikimedia Commons, released under CC-BY-SA 3.0

Lynne Avadenka explores the connection between the mystical sephirot and the Golem in her artwork, Breathing Mud: The Legend of the Golem.

Lynne Avadenka, illustration for the artist’s limited edition book Breathing Mud: The Legend of the Golem. Huntington Woods, Michigan: Land Marks Press, 1999. Courtesy of the artist.

Lynne Avadenka, illustration for the artist’s limited edition book Breathing Mud: The Legend of the Golem. Huntington Woods, Michigan: Land Marks Press, 1999. Courtesy of the artist.

The Golem as a comic character first appeared in Strange Tales, a Marvel Comics anthology. The Golem first emerged in Strange Tales vol. 1 #174 (June 1974), which was created by Len Wein and John Buscema. The character subsequently appears in Strange Tales #176-177 and has reappeared through the 2000’s. Marvel’s Golem is 8' tall and has superhuman strength. [9]

Cover of Strange Tales Vol 1 #174 (June 1974). Cover Artists: Gil Kane, Tony DeZuniga, and John Romita. © Marvel Comics. All rights reserved. Image source: Wikipedia, released under fair use.

Cover of Strange Tales Vol 1 #174 (June 1974). Cover Artists: Gil Kane, Tony DeZuniga, and John Romita. © Marvel Comics. All rights reserved. Image source: Wikipedia, released under fair use.

Comics have played with the similar narratives of the Golem and the Hulk and combined their stories in a number of volumes. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby while crediting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for their inspiration for creating the Hulk, have also pointed to the Golem as an inspirational tale. [10] Scholars have debated whether The Golem could have influenced Shelley’s Frankenstein as well. [11]

Joel Silverstein, Hulk Meets Superman, 2014. Acrylic on paper mounted on wood panel, 40 x 50 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Joel Silverstein, Hulk Meets Superman, 2014. Acrylic on paper mounted on wood panel, 40 x 50 in. Courtesy of the artist.

The Golem continues to make appearances in graphics and animation with The Simpsons episode Treehouse of Horror XVII You Gotta Know When to Golem" (2006), in which Bart Simpson finds the Golem of Prague backstage at a performance by Krusty the Clown. Bart steals the Golem and uses him to carry out his mischief-making commands. Bart’s sister, Lisa, thinks the Golem does not like doing the biddings of others; so Marge and Lisa create a Female Golem out of Play-Doh (voiced by Fran Drescher) to be the Golem's mate. [12]

Characters in the animated sitcom The Simpsons, by Matt Groening: Female Golem (left) and Male Golem (right). © 2017 Wikisimpsons. All Rights Reserved. Image released under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Characters in the animated sitcom The Simpsons, by Matt Groening: Female Golem (left) and Male Golem (right). © 2017 Wikisimpsons. All Rights Reserved. Image released under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The Golem has even found its way into gaming.  In Dungeons and Dragons, the first modern role-playing games introduced in 1974 as a tabletop (board) game, a golem first appeared in the original Greyhawk supplement (1975) written by Gary Gygax and Robert J. Kuntz . It has since then became one of the most well-known creatures of the Dungeons & Dragons game. [13]

The Golem transcends a physical embodiment; it also stands in popular culture as a powerful invention that gets out of hand. When Gerhard Scholem, the preeminent modern scholar of Jewish mysticism, heard the Weizmann Institute had completed the building of it new computer, he suggested to Dr. Chaim Pekeris, to name it Golem Alef (Golem Number One). And in his dedication speech expressed his hope that the machine would remain peaceful. [14] [15]

Circuit board of Golem Aleph, 1963. Courtesy of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel.

Circuit board of Golem Aleph, 1963. Courtesy of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel.

In the postwar period, the invention of the atomic bomb was compared to the creation of a golem. The Vienna-born physicist Wolfgang Paul reasoned in a letter from 1954:

“Physics has not only produced useful inventions, but also what is termed soulless technology . . . Indeed, it gave birth to the atomic bomb . . . Physics has thus been made into an 'autonomous phenomenon,' detached from the physicist and his soul, which is in fact what begets all of it. And so it becomes a sort of golem.” [16]

Lastly, a “I’m feeling trendy” Google search of the word “Golem” revealed that the term was searched most frequently in the past five years in Slovakia. Further research into the reason why revealed two very practical reasons: there is a chain of health clubs/gyms called “Golem Health” [golemclub.sk/] and there is also a pub restaurant by the name “Golem” [pivovargolem.sk/en]. 


Sources

1. Keith Bloomfield, “Danger, Danger Will Robinson,” Jewish Magazine, June 2008, accessed March 16, 2017,  jewishmag.com.

2. Howard Schwartz, Leaves from the Garden of Eden. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 293.

3. Dan Bilefsky “Hard Times Give New Life to Prague's Golem,” The New York Times, May 10, 2009.

4. “FAQ,” How to Create a Golem from the Comfort of Home, accessed April 12, 2017, http://golem.plush.org/.

5. “The Golem (Meyrink Novel).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, accessed March 23, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golem_(Meyrink_novel).

6. Cathy Gelbin, “Narratives of transgression, from Jewish folktales to German cinema” Kinoeye: New Perspectives on European film, Vol. 3, Issue 11, 13, October 2003, accessed March 23, 2017, http://www.kinoeye.org/03/11/gelbin11.php#4.

7. Boneteria Digital. “Amos Gitai on the Golem, 2006,” video, April 16, 2011, accessed April 13, 2017, https://vimeo.com/22479094. (Text transcribed by K. Mulcoy).

8. Jessica Steinberg, “Jerusalemites fear for the Monster Slide park,” Times of Isreal, February 20, 2014, accessed April 12, 2017, http://www.timesofisrael.com/jerusalemites-fear-for-the-monster-slide-park/.

9. “Strange Tales.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, accessed April 12, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_Tales.

10.“Golem (comics).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, accessed April 12, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem_(comics)

11. Schwartz, Ibid., 420.

12. “Tree House of Horror XVII,” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, accessed March 23, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treehouse_of_Horror_XVII.

13. “Dungeons & Dragons,” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, accessed March 23, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dungeons_%26_Dragons.

14. “The Golem—Emergency Helper of Volatile Monster?,” Jewish Museum of Berlin, accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.jmberlin.de/en/topic-golem.

15. “Gershom Scholem,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed March 30, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scholem/.

16. Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 335–340. Sourced from Google search: https://books.google.com/books?id=gfPP9SjPK4MC&pg=PA364&dq=gershom+scholem+and+Chaim+Pekeris&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjth8ig8v7SAhXolVQKHakSCMMQ6AEIITAB#v=onepage&q=gershom%20scholem%20and%20Chaim%20Pekeris&f=false