The Golem, Clay Giant of Judaism (history and description)

The term golem is still little understood today. Mysterious secret of the Jewish people, this creature appears in numerous tales and legends, and constitutes a key to understanding Hebrew mysticism.

Golems have existed for a long time in the mythology of this religion but, as we will discover in this article, one legend in particular has propelled our astonishing giants to the forefront.

Enslaved to its creator, a golem is in any case an intriguing monster whose strength and prowess can only amaze the eyes of young and old alike.

Contents :

What is a golem? (description)

How to bring a golem to life?

The legend of the Prague golem

Even older origins!

The symbolism behind the Jewish golem

Other mythological creatures parallel to the golem

Clay statue in a museum, some of which represent golems.

What is a golem? (description)

The origin of the concept of golem is therefore found in the Hebrew religion. It appears that the term comes from the Hebrew word "galmi", which literally means "shapeless mass".

Golems are large animated creatures made of earth, clay or dust. They are brought to life by a rabbi who, by means of secret formulas known only to Jewish mystics, brings matter to life that normally should not be.

The appearance of a golem is defined by the material from which it was constructed. Its creators will try to give it a humanoid appearance but, being neither an artist nor a sculptor, most of the golems have crude features. Their face is often made of a shapeless mass, and some of them don't even have fingers on their hands!

However, this is not a problem: even crudely created, a golem to fulfill its main mission, namely the protection and defense of the Jewish community.

Although these giants are normally subservient to their masters, sometimes they are the cause of great disasters. Indeed, a golem will always strictly follow the orders given to it, regardless of their consequences.

Some legends explain to us how one creature who had to bring water into a kitchen caused a flood in the room, while another, having received the order to go fishing, emptied an entire lake of its fish!

Yes, as Jewish tradition teaches us, life created by man is always inferior to that created by God. The golem is thus incapable of speaking and has no free will.

If Judaism and its mysteries interest you, then continue reading…

You can also take a look at our collection dedicated to the Judaic religion.

In the same spirit, this one dedicated to magic, witchcraft and esotericism might please you given its link with the forces which animate the golems.

Anyway, let's continue.

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How to bring a golem to life?

The way of bringing the golem to life will in fact depend a lot on the legends that will tell them. The first step is always building the creature. When the time comes to make it animated, the question becomes complicated.

Some traditions teach us that breathing life into a golem is a divine process that only the rabbis closest to God can carry out. Concretely, only the holiest, wisest and most pious Jews could create golems.

Other stories tell us that it would simply be enough to know the right magic formulas, contained in Kabbalah. According to this version, anyone with access to this esoteric knowledge could make and then animate a golem.

In the Jewish religion, however, the animation of a golem will often involve the use of names of God (or Yahweh, or Adonai, or Elohim in Hebrew) written on pieces of paper or on clay tablets, which are then placed on the golem's forehead. Through the divine and the sacred which surround these names, the golem thus obtains life.

It's quite practical but as a result, we simply have to remove these scrolls when we want to "deactivate" a golem.

Drawing of Rabbi Loew and the Prague golem.

The legend of the Prague golem

Among all the stories that touch on our creature, the legend of the Prague golem is clearly the most popular.

She tells us how a rabbi of the city, known as Rabbi Yehudah Loew, the chief rabbi of Prague then nicknamed “the Maharal”, managed to save the Jewish community from the persecution that was hanging over their noses.

This is how, more than 500 years ago, this mysterious man apparently managed to animate a golem...

The persecution of the Jews of Prague

Towards the end of the 16th century, the city of Prague experienced great atrocities: children regularly disappeared only to be found dead a few days later.

All the men in the city naturally wanted to find the culprit(s) of these heinous crimes. An answer was given to them by a priest from the region named Taddeus: according to him, it was the Jews who were at the origin of these kidnappings.

More precisely, he accused them of capturing the unfortunates in order to recover their blood which they would have used during dark rituals.

Feeling the anger of the population against the Jewish ghetto and fearing a massacre, the Maharal prayed all night to ask God for advice. He received a vision in response. In this vision, a simple sentence was revealed to him: " You will create a golem, a thing of clay and which will destroy your enemies. "

Building the golem

The rabbi then went to the edge of a river with a few disciples to build a clay giant. The creature must have been 4 or 5 meters high and weighed several hundred kilos.

When they had finished making the golem, the Maharal and his students began to circle around it, while reciting magic formulas from Kabbalah.

After turning seven times, the golem began to move, as if a burst of life had just entered it. The rabbi then approached his creation and carved the word “emet” on its forehead, which means “truth” in Hebrew. He also placed a shem, a sacred scroll, in his mouth.

His work was thus finished, the creature stood up and looked him straight in the eyes.

A servant and protector for the community

The golem had the appearance of a vigorous man of around thirty years old, except that he was exceptionally tall. Its strength was also monstrous, the beast being capable of lifting enormous rocks at arm's length.

Despite its frightening characteristics, the golem was not a monster. He had no desires or thoughts of his own, yes, but was morally upright in the sense that he would never attempt to do harm on his own. In fact, he was doing exactly what he was told to do, until he was told to stop.

In short, Rabbi Yehudah Loew named him Joseph, and gave him a magical talisman that would make him invisible.

He also gave him a rather special mission: to follow anyone he saw carrying a large package in the streets of the Jewish quarter of Prague, and immediately notify its creator if this happened.

This is how one night, the golem surprised the priest Taddeus bringing a strange package. He therefore went to warn the Maharal who came to confront the priest.

The truth coming to light

Taddeus had in fact come to deposit the body of a child, wanting to accuse the Jews of the crimes of which he was the author. Without too much difficulty, the golem was able to overpower the culprit, tie him up and deliver him to the city authorities.

The honor of the Jews of Prague was thus cleansed and no more persecution was on the agenda.

The golem having fulfilled its mission, the rabbi decided to deactivate it. It only took him a few moments: he removed a letter from the word "emet", which he had previously carved on his forehead, to make it the word "met", which translates to "death" in Hebrew. He also removed the mouth shem.

The golem's body thus stopped moving, as if asleep, and it was transported to one of the basements of the great synagogue of Prague.

Legend has it that it is still there and that it will be enough to change the word on its forehead again for the golem to one day be able to return to service.

Rabbi who studies Torah and Kabbalah in a synagogue.

Even older origins!

The Jewish legend that we have told you is the most widespread, but there are many others. In fact, many medieval tales allude to the golem, and a whole bunch of legends quite similar to this one emerged in Jewish communities in the 16th century.

This period is not trivial. It corresponds in fact to that of increased persecution of the Jews by the triumphant Christianity specific to the Renaissance.

Even if most golem legends appeared in the 16th century, the image of this creature is much more deeply marked in Jewish tradition.

Some speak of a link with the construction of Jerusalem, and others evoke certain rituals specific to Shabbat. Between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, points of view diverge, and the diaspora does not always have the same vision on the history of the Jewish people. In short, there are many opinions.

Hasidic Jews, for example, link it to Kabbalah, and therefore to a mysticism dating back several millennia. Perhaps you are already familiar with what Kabbalah is. If, however, this is not the case, here is a good description provided by the site chabad.org.

Esotericists often speak of the Sefer Yetzira, a major Kabbalistic text, which deals with the process of creation of the universe and life... and where many references to the concept of golem would be found.

In a more official way, the term golem appears once in the Torah (and therefore in the Bible), at the time of the creation of man.

After making the earth, God created Adam from mud and clay. Once the first man was built, he brought him a breath of life, a breath of soul to make him truly human.

We can also find this extract in Psalms 139: “ When I was a shapeless mass, your eyes saw me […]

In the original text written in Hebrew, the term “shapeless mass” simply gives “golem”

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The symbolism behind the Jewish golem

Like the amorphous clay from which it is generally formed, the golem is a highly mutable metaphor whose interpretations are limited only by our imagination.

Many elements of this story have left their mark. We can in particular talk about Rabbi Loew (of whom here is a biography by Wikipedia ) or the persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages (of which here are a few words by nationalgeographic.fr ).

Here, however, we will limit ourselves to the symbolism of the golem. .. which is no easy task!

Its symbolism and its interpretations are therefore very numerous, and the four of us will now present to you have been chosen with our subjectivity and our own biases.

A crystallization of anti-Semitism

In almost all the legends that tell us about them, golems are created by the Jews in moments of crisis, when they are in danger and their lives are threatened.

As we told you earlier, most of the stories appeared at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in Europe and many religious tensions were building everywhere.

The legend that we have presented to you is a perfect example of how the figure of the golem can crystallize the fight against anti-Semitism.

Faced with anti-Semitic acts of all kinds (ranging from the Nazi Holocaust to "simple" discrimination), Jews around the world hold the golem in their hearts as a symbol of emancipation.

Teachings on the sacredness of life

We also mentioned it when we were discussing the description of the golem and, in particular, the way of giving it life: the breath that is found in it is only a pale imitation of that which God can bring.

A whole bunch of stories also describe how poorly created golems can become dangerous for their master or how it can be complicated to deactivate them.

The image of the golem can thus remind us that only God has the capacity to bring the essence of true life, the soul and free will... and above all that human beings should not seek to imitate this power.

These messages are also found in sacred Israeli texts, notably in the Talmud. Jewish prayers and holidays (such as kippur, purim or bar mitzvahs) are marked with this wisdom.

The physical vs the mind

Most Hebrew words can have multiple interpretations. Golem thus means “shapeless mass”, but also “mute” or “powerless”.

This may seem surprising given the undeniable physical power displayed by these giants. In fact, we can see it as a characteristic of Jewish culture.

Intelligence is valued much more than simple physical power. The golem possessing none, it is seen as a weak creature, whose power of pure destruction is to be opposed to that of creation of the rabbis who made it.

That said in passing, it seems that some kabbalists even view the creation of a golem as proof of an adept's intelligence, connection to the sacred, and mystical knowledge.

The golem and artificial intelligence

An interesting parallel can be established between the figure of the golem and the fairly recent phenomenon of artificial intelligence.

In legends, the golem is a kind of machine capable of carrying out the tasks asked of it, but which does not have a will of its own.

In this sense, this monster could represent the first artificial intelligence that humanity conceptualized.

Like modern AI, a golem will be able to find the most suitable solutions to carry out its task, with discovery and learning, but will never decide on the final goal.

When we also learn from certain stories that golems were able to turn away from their primary role, stubbornly following poorly formulated instructions which can endanger their creators, this leaves us thinking.

Here again, the rabbinic wisdom of Jewish thought benefits us all.

Drawing of Frankenstein's monster.

Other mythological creatures parallel to the golem

The golem is thus a creature of Jewish mythology, and undoubtedly the best known in fact.

However, many other traditions have been able to present us with others that are quite comparable. We are now going to tell you about two of them: Frankenstein's monster and the homunculus.

The golem and Frankenstein's creature

“Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus” is one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time.

Written in 1818 by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, its story has many similarities with that of the golem. In terms of their appearance, for example, the two creatures are a sort of giant humanoid with titanic strength.

There are, however, many differences between the two characters, the main one undoubtedly being the philosophy behind their creation: while Doctor Frankenstein is an atheist scientist seeking to create life through his scientific experiments, the rabbis have a more religious and sacred of their creations.

Israeli or scientific creature, the creation ritual has similarities and folklore expresses the same ideas.

The golem and the homunculus

The term homunculus (sometimes also called homunculus) describes a kind of artificial human that could be created as a result of alchemical processes.

The figure of the homunculus is very present in European gnosis and esotericism, and great thinkers like Paracelsus were thus able to dedicate certain works to him.

In short, the golem and the homunculus have many points in common. We are indeed talking about two human-like creatures constructed in opposition to what natural law teaches.

Here again, there are obviously notable differences, such as the material at the base of these creatures (the homunculus comes from mandrake root undergoing several operations, while the golem is made of clay), their fixed character ( the homunculus can continue to grow after its creation, not the golem) or their fair character (the homunculus can do good and evil, the golem will just follow orders).

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Discover the author: Cyril Gendarme

Cyril Gendarme is a writer whose website "The Lucky Door" ("La Porte Du Bonheur" in French, his native language) has become a reference in the field of esotericism. Born in Belgium, Cyril has been attracted to the mysteries of the world since he was a child. When his interest in occultism was awakened, a particular subject caught his attention: lucky charms.

After years of study and in-depth research on esoteric traditions from around the world, Cyril decided to share his knowledge with the public through the internet. In 2019, he launched "The Lucky Door," a website dedicated to exploring lucky charms, magical symbols, and esoteric arts.

The Lucky Door is much more than just a showcase for those curious about magic, divination, or tradition. It is the result of Cyril's passion for researching and understanding the mysteries of the universe. Every piece of information available on the site testifies to his dedication to sharing his knowledge of the most hidden symbols and their unique powers.

In addition to his online work, Cyril regularly organizes workshops and conferences in different countries. His presence on social media is also highly appreciated, where he offers personalized advice and happily answers questions from his community.