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....