Monster Made of Clay, Part 1

A long-time reader writes
“Does a gollum need to be made out of clay, or can other materials be used?”

Simple answer:
A Gollum is made completely out of the Lord of the Rings, Precious.

But I think you mean “golem,” which is a completely different animal. Er, not animal. And that makes the answer to your question far more complicated. Oh, it sounds easy, but it opens up some translation/spiritual/philosophical issues.

Before I get to that, I’d better explain what a golem is.

In Jewish folklore, a “golem” is a soulless homunculus (say that three times fast) larger than a man, but who can pass for one. A golem is created and animated by a Hebrew scholar, usually based on Talmudic/Kabbalistic magic. General consensus is that golems don’t speak, or speak very seldom. They do understand human language.

Various stories say golems are animated by the holiness of the Jewish scholar; one of the holy names of God, written on a scroll placed in the head; or by writing the Hebrew word for ‘truth/reality’ on the forehead. Erasing the first character of ‘truth/reality’ leaves you with the word ‘dead,’ and is the way to deactivate the golem. There are also intense, specific rituals involved. One of the tales warns that a when a group of students flubbed the ritual, the ground opened up beneath their feet. Bye, bye, students.

The golem is closely associated with the city of Prague, where legend has it that a wise man created a golem to protect the city’s Jewish population from attacks, or ‘pogroms’ in the sixteenth century (also some claim that this ‘legend’ was fabricated in a nineteenth century novel).

Tales of the golem generally tend toward having a moral that is hubris-related. That is, that maybe creating a golem isn’t a great idea. Having no soul, the golem can be a useful tool for protection, but the golem has no moral compass of its own. So the creator must keep control over the golem or it may become violent and have to be deactivated/destroyed.

The Prague legend says that its golem was not destroyed and is stored either in a graveyard in Prague’s Žižkov district or the attic of the Old New Synagogue in that city. The attic is not open for viewing. Rumors say people who have tried to enter died or went insane upon opening the door. The Prague Golem may be called upon again in times of need.

Okay, for the actual answer to our reader’s question “Does a golem need to be made out of clay, or can other materials be used?” come back on Saturday.


Evil Dead. Claymation. What else do I have to say?

Done by a guy named Lee Hardcastle of Missing Head Animation. Go see the rest of his stuff on Vimeo.

Evil Dead done in 60 seconds with CLAY – 2010 from Lee Hardcastle on Vimeo.

Stop the Presses! DotW just got its first write-in question!

Super exciting news. I’ve been asked to settle a bar argument.

No, not kidding. Apparently a DotW reader got into a beer-fueled discussion about a certain demon and I have been called upon to answer the question.

I’m so honored.

Come back on Wednesday for the question, and on Saturday for the demonic answer.


Vampires we know and love #8: Churel/churail/chudail

Think vampires are all the same? Think again! Vampires come in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins ice cream. So, this special DotW feature, Vampires we know and love, spotlights different kinds of bloodsucking fiends from around the world.


Attention ladies:
When in India, avoid at all costs dying during the Dewali festival, in childbirth, or while you’ve got your period. If you do, you run the risk of becoming a churel/churail/chudail.

While the jury is out on how to pronounce the name of this Indian vampire, sources agree that you will develop tiny, sharp teeth; a black tongue; huge lips that shine without the use of any gloss whatsoever; filthy, unmanageable hair; and boobs that hang down to your knees.

Attention guys:
If your girlfriend/wife dies during Dewali, during childbirth, or while having her period, run. The churel will come after you first.

She’ll move on to the rest of the family after that.

Elemental Air: Sylphs

I’ve talked about all of Paracelus‘ elemental spirits (Undines, Gnomes, Salamanders) except for one, so now it’s time to cover Sylphs, the Air Elementals.

First off, no one’s ever seen one. Paracelus said they were invisible. This hasn’t stopped people from describing them. In the Eighteenth Century, the Abbé de Villars, in his Comte de Gabelais, said they are fierce-looking, but docile–if you’re a smart person. Dumb humans, they can’t stand.

Besides that, Sylphs are slippery spirits, so we don’t really know anything about them. They seem to have a strong connection with the Undines, but neither one of them will talk about it.

The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says that chaste humans become Sylphs when they die, but in my opinion, they got that from a misreading of the very tongue-in-cheek epic poem by Alexander Pope, the Rape of the Lock.

Melville Faeries
The Book of Faeries: A Guide to the World of Elves, Pixies, Goblins, and Other Magic Spirits

by Francis Melville

Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock

Kick your cerebral consumption addiction with “Ugly Americans”

Check out these propaganda posters for Comedy Central’s new cartoon “Ugly Americans.”

From the Comedy Central press release:
Take New York City, add every horrifying beast, science-fiction freak, and fantasy faerie, shake thoroughly, and you’ve got “Ugly Americans.”

This animated horror-comedy series follows one Mark Lilly, social worker at the Department of Integration, as he helps new citizens both human and “other” adapt to hectic life in the Big Apple. There are easier tasks than weaning vampires off of blood, socializing land-whales, and housebreaking werewolves, but Mark is up to the challenge. Between his stressful job, a zombie roommate, and a demon ex-girlfriend, Mark’s lucky if he can sneak in a few minutes of sleep. But who can sleep when there’s a drop-dead gorgeous Mermaid sitting at the bar?

Ugly Americans was created by Devin Clark and developed by David Stern. Executive Producers are David Stern and Daniel Powell, with animation by Augenblick Studios and Cuppa Coffee. Premieres March 17th at 10:30pm (9:30 Central) on Comedy Central.

Elemental Fire: Salamanders

Paracelsus, a Medieval alchemist, identified four magical creatures that symbolized the elements that make up our world: air, fire, water, and earth. Today’s DotW brings you one of them.

When is a salamander not a salamander?

Some of us know salamanders as crawly amphibians that look sort of like geckos, but are actually more related to frogs than reptiles.

Salamander, the amphibious kind

Salamander, the amphibious kind

But if you watch the Food Network, as much as I do, you know that sometimes chefs refer to a type of broiler often used to melt cheese as a ‘salamander.’

Salamander, the cooking kind

Salamander, the cooking kind

So how did a cold-blooded amphibian get to be associated with something so hot? The answer lies in some interesting history.

Let’s say you’re a medieval farmer. Remember that you don’t have any education at all, no training in logic. You can’t even read. On your way home after a hard day in the field, you grab a log off the pile for the fire. When you throw it in, it looks perfectly normal. The next time you turn around, there are a pair of beady eyes looking back at you from the flames. There’s a little creature sitting on the log, completely unburned.

The sight is terrifying. It wasn’t there before–where did it come from? Why isn’t it burned? It must be a kind of tiny dragon, with the ability to withstand fire!

Well, today, armed with our logic, living in a world where we jump to magic as a last resort, we might figure out that the creature lived in the log. It hid when we picked up the log, and came out only because it was getting too hot in its hiding place.

But the study of natural history wasn’t a strong point for your peasant back then, so stories of the magic of these creatures grew. In fact, it grew to the point where the salamander took on mythical proportions, with the ability not just to withstand fire, but to cause it.

Salamander -- the magical kind

Salamander, the magical kind

Famous alchemists and magicians, like Paracelsus, began to think of the salamander as an elemental creature of fire. In Jewish folklore, it was said that smearing yourself with the blood of one would give you immunity to flames. But the mythical salamander seemed to diverge from the natural one, to the point where it was said you could make a salamander by burning a fire in the same place for seven years.


The Book of Faeries
The Book of Faeries: A Guide to the World of Elves, Pixies, Goblins, and Other Magic Spirits

by Francis Melville

Elemental Earth: Gnomes

Paracelsus, a Medieval alchemist, identified four magical creatures that symbolized the elements that make up our world: air, fire, water, and earth. Today’s DotW brings you one of them.

In 2008, a French man was arrested for stealing garden gnomes. By the time he was caught, he had accumulated a donsy (Yes, that’s the collective noun for them. Look it up) of 170 gnomes.

Gnomes have gotten a bad rap. There’s more to them than silly-looking bits of statuary. Just about the only thing that Gnomes have in common with garden Gnomes is that they are both small creatures with a connection to the Earth.

According to Paracelsus, gnomes are one of the four kinds of creatures that represent the fundamental building blocks of our natural world: the elementals. Gnomes represent the most core element–Earth. The other three are:

  • Salamanders (Fire)
  • Undines (Water)
  • Sylphs (Air)

In their original form, Gnomes are more like what we think of as Dwarves, more likely to mine for gold than to stand around in pointy red hats. Personally, I wonder if there’s a connection between that distinctive cap and Redcap, who we talked about earlier.

In the Middle Ages, Gnomes were depicted as small, old men, usually with a hunched back. They lived underground and a Gnome named Gob ruled as their king.

The females of the species are called Gnomides.

In the Eighteenth Century, the Abbé de Villars, in his Comte de Gabelais, claimed that Gnomes are docile creatures, willing to serve human magicians, in particular giving them all the gold they needed.

While garden Gnomes might just seem like a whimsical addition to a rose patch, the theory behind them might actually go back to a pagan idea that they also helped out with things that grow. So maybe instead of just kitsch, garden Gnomes are actually a form of sympathetic magic, calling on earth spirits to bless the garden. Ever think of that one, huh?