Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Golem of Prague

The Golem

I love is an mysterious city where strange tales abound. It just looks magical...doesn't it?

For those of you who have never been to Prague,
it seems to me that there are two influences that you can't escape when visiting. One being that of the angst-filled, paranoid, and fantastical writings of Franz Kafka.

He lived in Praque and wrote stories of Metamorphosis, where the protagonist awakes as a human sized beetle.

The other influence that struck me when I was there, was the Golem of Prague (not to be confused with Gollum from Lord of the Rings). The Golem is as Jewish tale whose primary narrative comes from the late 1500s.

As the tale goes...
It starts with wave of anti-Semitic violence (pogroms) in the Jewish section of the city. Riotous acts of vandalism and murder occurred in the Jewish Quarter.

In some versions it is the Emperor, himself who encouraged the violence, intending to expel or even kill the Jewish population of Prague. The Jews needed some protection from the madness.

Enter the chief rabbi of Prague, Judah Loew ben Bezalel.

Rabbi Lowe, being learned and wise devises a plan using ancient and secret methods.

Out of clay he forms a large man. This is known as a Golem.
It is said in the Talmud that Adam was initially created as a Golem when dust was "kneaded into a shapeless hunk". The Golems were all made of clay and could be made by holy men who were privy to divine secrets, but they lacked that spark that makes a human, human.
Without the direct hand of God, they were merely obedient hulks. Clay robots in essence.

In some versions of the tale speak of a scroll with the names of God written on it, place in the mouth of the creature is what brings the creature to life. Other version speak of the word "truth", in Hebrew: Emet (אמת), written across his forehead; this activates the Golem.
By erasing the first letter aleph (א), Emet turns to Met (מת) meaning death, and the Golem is destroyed.

So Rabbi Loew creates the Golem and the clay man does his duty, but he does it a bit too well...not only defending but he starts to go amok and killing gentiles. The Emperor promises to stop the persecution of Jews if Rabbi Loew will deactivate the Golem.

Loew agrees and erases the first letter from his creations forehead changing "truth" to "death". The Golem was then stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue of Prague where he could be reactivated in the Jews ever needed there protector again.
Here is where he is supposed to be...up those rungs...

The legend doesn't stop here. It is said that the Golem is still up in that attic after all these centuries. In fact it is rumored that during WWII Nazi soldiers broke into the attic. The Golem then proceed to ripped them apart limb from limb.

Here's an nice artistic rendering by Hugo Steiner-Prag from 1915. Notice the structure behind him...that is the Old New Synagogue.

Golem as Protector:
The idea of a super-human protector for the innocent and the persecuted is that theme that boldy appeared in the 1930s and 40s in the form of comic books. It is no coincidence that many of the superhero creators came from Jewish heritage, in a time when a protector was needed the most. One of the first was from the collaboration of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who created Superman.

Two other comic book pioneers teamed up many a couple decades later to create a different type of Golem, Stan Lee (Spider Man) and Jack Kirby (Captain America). In this case the Rabbi Loew persona (creator) and the Golem (hard to control defender) house the same body, in the Incredible Hulk

There is a great novel that addresses the comic industry during the second World War and the Golem (he is even the flesh...clay, that is) called "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" by Michael Chabon. Great read.

Mad Machines
Mary Shelly is said to have based her story Frankenstein on the Golem legend.

In fact there is a great German silent film from 1920 called The Golem: How He Came Into The World.

What is interesting is that in both the Frankenstein film and "der Golem" there is are very similar scenes with a child and the creature.

In "Der Golem" it is actually the child that deactivates the clay hulk.

Of course the real similarity in the Frankenstein story is the idea of that man's creation goes awry...this is from the the Phantom Creeps...a Golem of sorts...and yes that is Bela Lugosi on the left.

This is the risk of stealing fire from the gods. By the way the complete title of Shelley's book is "Frankenstein; the Modern Prometheus" for a number of years I've been wanting to do a Golem piece. Ultimately I would like to to a life sized one. I remember being inspired when when I was at the Met in NYC and looking at the ancient armor. For now I'll settle for my little Golem Action Figure Set.
Here he is lurking...waiting

And here we se his attic.

Once again protecting...this time looming in the background behind the evil Emperor.

And here is the whole piece. I call it Golem's Attic.

As for the "real" Golem
He's up in here somewhere...or so they say....


Debbie said...

WOW! Fascinating bit of history. Michael Chabon, he wrote "Summerland" too didn't he? That was a great book. Read it after Artfest one year and as it is set in an area not far from Port Townsend, it was especially magical.
It's wonderful how you've taken a journey and created something so compelling at the place where all of these ideas meet. Fantastic piece!

Vickie said...

very cool! howse about a few severed limbs sticking out of the attic? i cannot help myself :)

deMeng said...

thanks Debbie
as for you Vickie...leave it to you....limbs sticking out of the attic ...geez...

kathy said...

Is this preparing us for an art trip to Prague? I feel ready...

Andrea Saujani said...

Excellent piece! I've heard about the Golem before, but didn't know about the synagogue in Prague. I'll have to check that out this summer when I'm in the Czech Republic. Any other travel tips when I'm there?

Ooooh, I just saw Kathy's inquiry, ARE you going to be teaching in Prague, like this summer maybe? ;)

ArtSnark said...

Fantastic piece & excellent post. You touched on so many of my faves I'm swooning ;D

Jo Archer said...

I knew of Prometheus, but have never heard this story before. Thanks for enlightening us. Fabulous piece Mr. D!

Samantha Marshall said...

He is amazing!! Love the Golem!!!

Ann Renee Lighter said...

What a great piece Michael, and I thoroughly enjoyed the background story and pictures.

Kathy said...

Your post is as beautiful and complex as your actual piece...most entertaining and informative, just love this story and pictures and the piece...Kathy P.

Judy Wise said...

Oh man, scary stuff and fascinating too. Your pieces are moody and delicious, as usual and have a compelling back story to support them. I never knew all these stories were tied together; thank you for the brain fodder.

Anonymous said...

Love your rendition of the golem. I remember reading a book where the protector was a golem, don't remember the name but it was a good read. Thank you for sharing so much information about the golem.

Susan Feldkamp

Alan R Jones said...

Very cool story. Your work and your writing (Secrets of Rusty Things: nice) is very motivating for me in my own explorations.

cheryl simpson said...

Thanks for the history of the "golem." I saw the X-File version of a golem and was intrigued but didn't know it was a real legend. Very cool. Happy Holidays to you and Judy!

karen (me-shell) said...

love it!!

marcella said...

Thank you for this comprehensive story about the Golem.
I brought home a Golem and a book about Golem when we went to Prague.

JonesMoore said...

Very entertaining reading Michael! Love it...btw, one of my Top reads ever is the original "Frankenstein".

Anonymous said...

Gosh, you can spin a story! situr

Candace said...

When I taught Modern Myth and Movies class, right after 9/11, I showed The Golem to my (Unitarian) class (all adults, several Jewish).
We all loved it, spoke about some of these same ideas, and when I left that place, one of the men had found a Golem action figure and gave it to Me, telling Me I was considered their "Wandering Gentile" and hoped I would always have The Golem's protection if needed, also.
That can't be a bad thing...
Wonderful photos of Prague. Wonderful new interpretation of Golem.
Candace in Athens.

zoe said...

what a cool post, and i love your creation! i hope you get to make a life-sized version :)

Amy said...

This is my favorite thing out of all you have been doing lately. It is scary, but with a sort of divine redemption. Sometimes I wish I could have my own, personal Golem.

Shawn Caro said...

History --I can't get enough! Thanks Michael for again awing us with your talent..You always inspire me.. I'm off to tell my daughter the story of the Golem. I love your rendition of him.

Anonymous said...

FYI, the earliest golem tales placed it in the village of Chelm.
After Rabbi Loew of Praha died, the scene of the story was shifted to Praha aka Prague.

Distressing Delilah a.k.a. jenn said...

amazing work here! Great post!Happy New Year!