Spooky folk figures:  Tales of the Golem

Now that we’re past Allhallowtide, perhaps it’s time during The Dead Season to take a look at frightful creatures from non-Christian traditions.  Given that Hannukkah will be coming up before Christmas, the Jewish story of the golem comes to mind.  A golem is a mythical being from Jewish folk culture, but it really made an impression on the Jews of Eastern Europe, especially the Czech Republic and Prague in particular.  There’s even a recent Czech film called The Emperor and The Golem.

In fact, I realized just how timely this post would be when I was writing the first draft last Friday night … when what should appear on my favorite Friday night TV show, Grimm, but – you guessed it – a golem!  Whoa.  That one was in red clay and summoned by a rabbi with text from an ancient scroll.  A classic case:  can’t get more traditional than that.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A figure of the Prague Golem used for the Czech film The Emperor and the Golem.

A figure of the Prague Golem used for the Czech film The Emperor and the Golem.

Typically a life-sized figure made from dirt and/or clay, the soulless, mindless golem is a dangerous thing brought to ‘life’ via incantation and will to do the bidding of its maker, kind of like a zombie that can take instruction.  It’s not alive nor can it think, yet it can act.  But as is usually the case, be careful what you wish for:  the golem – particularly when misused as an instrument of vengeance – can be difficult to control and may end up doing more harm than its maker intended, even when summoned for protection.  A runaway golem that misunderstands its purpose can terrorize an entire countryside.  It’s also sometimes hard to put down a golem once you’re done with it.  Ooops.

The author Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote a famous novel named The Golem.  In that story, a saintly rabbi creates a golem to save a Jewish banker who is unjustly accused of a crime and faces a death sentence.  Oddly, this is considered a children’s book and is in the juvenile section of my local library.  Go figure.

The story takes inspiration from what is reputedly a true tale about the holy Vilna Gaon, a devout rabbi of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, when that tiny country was in the grip of Imperial Russia for more than a century until 1918.  Through the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, the Russians led pogroms to exterminate Jews whenever they felt like it.  Lithuania was generally safer for Eastern European Jews than Russia, the Ukraine or Belorussia (White Russia, now known as Belarus), and there were some famous synagogues and rabbinical schools in Lithuania.  They’re virtually all gone, of course: what the Russians didn’t destroy, the Nazis did.  The story of the Vilna Gaon (Vilna is the old name that Poles, other Slavs and Yiddish speakers used, whereas Lithuanians aren’t Slavic and so reject that name for their city) is the only case in which a real historical person – in this case, a famous rabbi – said he personally knew of an actual instance when a golem was called into being.  And this was done for the protection of the Jews facing a pogrom.

mud figure 1 (golem) - blog inset (MRTraska)

A handmade mud figure resembling both a golem and a voodoo doll (photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

The Jews aren’t the only ones whose folklore includes the use humanoid mud figures in unorthodox rituals.  Mud or clay stick figures are sometimes created as voodoo dolls, to be clothed and wrapped with some fragment of an intended victim’s clothing, belongings or hair.  In that instance, however, the doll becomes a vehicle not of protection but of vengeance.  The mud figurine in the photograph above is a more artistic rendition of a mud figure, intended for Halloween decoration only – but even this elongated doll wrapped in cotton gauze looks sufficiently empty-eyed, creepy and enough like a voudou figure to give an observer pause.

Of course, using a golem can backfire – and that’s been the gist of many a story, in print and on television.  An old episode of The X Files titled “Kaddish” (the prayer for the dead) dealt with the creation of a golem made in the image of a slain newlywed.  As you might expect, that story was permeated with grief and sadness.

A more recent script, this one an episode of the current TV series Sleepy Hollow, deals with a charmed doll meant to protect a child who loses his white-witch mother to a great evil – and in his grief, the bitter boy (who is a powerful sorcerer in his own right but wild, untaught and without control) renders the doll his mother made for him into a real protector:  a golem.  It ends badly, of course, as few golems are created for a truly righteous cause, and the boy himself turns on the living, becoming the kind of epic horror he himself once feared:  the embodiment of the second of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (yes, I know:  amateurish overkill, completely over the top, jumped the shark, etc.; really, the screenwriters shouldn’t have reached that far, certainly not so soon – that episode was part of the first season, and already two of the four horsement have appeared; the writers must not have thought the show had the ‘legs’ to make it to a second or third season, for why else rush to the worst-case scenario so precipitously?  But I digress).

In its way, the golem is to Jewish lore what Frankenstein’s monster is to Christians:  made of mud or clay, the same material that God reputedly used to make Adam, it’s a cautionary tale about what happens when men trespass on a deity’s turf and try to create life from dead things, and how only the noblest reason – the protection of innocents – can ever justify such a thing.  In making reanimated life, Victor Frankenstein sought not just knowledge but power, glory.  Bad reasons.  The Vilna Gaon’s reason was just, however, therefore forgiven.

So, the moral of our story:  should you find yourself dabbling with clay, stick to porcelain vases or pottery ash trays.  No creating lifelike figures, except for Art.  And stay out of the reanimation business:  it never ends well.

Until next time,
Your spooky storyteller, Marie


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