Monster Made of Clay, Part 2

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

For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to interpret the word “clay” to mean clay, mud, dirt, and all other forms of earth. Maybe that’s not in keeping with the spirit of the question, but you’ll have to forgive me. To interpret the question with clay, mud, dirt, and earth being separate things, I would have to go back to primary sources and that would mean learning Hebrew.

I love you guys, but that’s a lot to ask.

With this question a little bit revised, the answer becomes simple. And complicated.

Yes, the true golem is made out of clay.

Let me tell you why. It’s a straight parallel with the Genesis Creation story. As God made Man out of clay, so Man can make the Golem out of clay. But it also contrast with God’s creation. God can breathe on clay and give it a soul. Man can never do that. When Man ‘breathes’ on clay, animating it using words, all Man with his limited powers makes is a thing that moves around, but doesn’t live. So Man becomes a creator, but not THE Creator.

Kinda nifty, huh?

Now here comes the complicated part of the question. Does a golem have to be made from clay?

No. Philosophically speaking.

See, the guy who wrote the first robot story in 1921 (R.U.R. = Rossum’s Universal Robots), a Polish guy named Karel Capek, denied basing his robots on the story of the golem. But Capek grew up in Prague, and almost certainly would have been familiar with the story of the Prague Golem when he created his tale of mechanical creatures with no souls who did work at the bidding of their masters. If you look at his plot, there are some real similarities–I mentioned in the last post that most golem stories have a hubris theme… well so does R.U.R.

Robots, like golems, are non-living entities that have no souls and do not live. They can’t decide things for themselves. They perform tasks specifically assigned to them. Sound familiar?

So are robots golems? Not traditionally, but they might just be the Golem’s spiritual descendants.


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.