The legend of the Golem is known worldwide. This post is the second in our series of eerie Bohemian stories leading up to Halloween. Last week I took you to a very special house in the center of Prague which, while not haunted per se, is rumoured to have been the scene of some legendary demonic activity. This week we’re taking a stroll through the streets of Old Town, examining Prague’s deeply seated Jewish history, and another world-famous monster…
Almost inconspicuous amongst Prague’s towering spires of Christian churches lies the home of the city’s other great religious tradition: the Jewish quarter. Tragically now the neighbourhood is almost entirely a historical memorial, its once bustling synagogues preserved as the Jewish Museum.
While the museum tells the true and terrible tale of Prague’s Jews and their near-annihilation under the Nazi regime, the market stalls outside the synagogue peddle a far more tourist-friendly tale, and one just as ingrained in the city’s history: formed from stone, wood and even plastic, tiny souvenir figures stare out onto the streets where their namesake, the Golem of Prague, was once said to roam.
The Golem of Prague is by no means the first of his kind. In fact, the Hebrew word golem, meaning ‘shapeless form’ has been in literature since the early days of Judaism. In the legendary sense, a golem is an automaton created from mud and given life using a shem or an inscription of one of God’s holy names placed on the golem’s head or in its mouth. In Jewish lore, the ability to create a golem is granted to holy men with a great understanding of God’s own creative powers, and the creation of a golem from mud and a holy word mirrors the story of Adam’s own creation.
Our own golem’s story begins with the Vltava river – the life-blood of Prague and the living landscape from which the golem was created. The legend states that in the 1500’s Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel – a man as real as the river itself – took mud from the banks and formed it into the shape of a man, bringing it to life through his Kabbalistic understanding of God’s creation of Adam. Rabbi Loew was indeed well-versed in Jewish mysticism – in fact he was summoned by Rudolf II, a Czech Emperor famed for his interest in the esoteric, to discuss Kabbalah. Stories of golems are found in Jewish mystical literature such as the Talmud, in which Loew had a particular academic interest. These facts blur the line between legend and genuine mystical belief and some orthodox Jews truly believe that a golem was created in Prague.
The golem was given life with the best of intentions – his purpose was to defend the Jewish people of Prague from a series of anti-semitic riots. This part of the legend at least is sadly not difficult to imagine. While in comparison to earlier and later experiences the Jews of Prague are considered to have experienced a ‘golden age’ in the 16th Century, general opinions toward the population remained ambivalent at best, and the Jews were officially expelled from Prague in 1542 and again in 1561. The legend states that the golem was able to protect the Rabbi’s persecuted people through its size, strength and in some accounts power over spirits of the dead.
The facts of the Golem’s transformation from a willing tool of mankind into a legendary Czech monster differ depending on the retelling, but most versions involve one of two variants: the older stories state that Rabbi Loew neglected to release the golem from its servitude on a Sabbath – a transgression against God’s commandment to keep the Sabbath as a day of rest. The more recent variant gives the story a hint of Gothic romance: the golem fell in love with a human woman, and was driven into a rage by her rejection of him.
The latter is deeply reminiscent of the story of Frankenstein in which another creature is designed by a man attempting to play God. While initially docile, Frankenstein’s monster becomes enraged and monstrous after realizing that it will never experience human love, family or friendship. Some sources suggest that Mary Shelley was directly influenced by Jewish golem stories when writing Frankenstein, as at the time of the novel’s writing the legends had been recently brought into popular consideration through Jacob Grimm’s Journal for Hermits.
The final dramatic act of Prague’s golem story takes place in the Old-New Synagogue, where Rabbi Loew confronts the now dangerous golem, who is desecrating the Sabbath with his furious rampage. Loew is said to have removed the Hebrew incantation from the monster’s mouth, deactivating it. The lifeless golem was then placed in the attic of the synagogue, where he could be brought back to life in any future time of need.
Although no evidence of such unusual contents have been reported, the otherwise publicly accessible synagogue has staunchly kept the attic locked and private ever since. Other versions of the tale state that the remains of the Golem were later taken and buried in the Jewish cemetery beside what is now the iconic Television Tower.
Walking through Prague’s Jewish Quarter, I wonder about what makes this curious story so vital to Prague’s history. Certainly it has more than a little to do with the question of what makes one human – the trope of an enslaved creation taking on a life of its own has appeared throughout fantasy literature, and continued into the realm of science fiction – indeed, the word robot was introduced to the public by the Czech interwar writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), published in 1920.
Yet there is something more chilling to this tale than simple spookiness. The story revolves around the far longer saga of Jewish persecution in Europe, offering Prague’s Jewish population hope in the figure of the golem, and then symbolically removing that hope in the creature’s madness and demise. While it is far from me to suggest that the legend foretold the tragedies awaiting Czech Jews in the 20th Century, I can’t help but feel that the scariest motif in the golem legend is not necessarily the monster itself, but a human monstrosity far closer to home.