A golem is in kabbalistic lore, an artificial living creature, usually a human, created with the sacred names of God. Golem means “shapeless” or “lifeless.”
The creation of living beings from images and idols by magic appears in many cultures, including the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Arabs. Popular legends about the golem as a magician’s slave were widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages.
In Talmudic usage, the term golem refers to something imperfect and unformed. In the Old Testament, Adam is called golem, meaning that he has a body without a soul. The concept of the golem that developed during the Middle Ages is tied to interpretations of the Sefer Yezirah, the “Book of Creation,” the central text of the kabbalah dealing with cosmology and cosmogony. According to the legends that gained favor, ancient Talmudic mystics gained the power to create a golem after intense study of the mysteries of the Sefer Yezirah. For example, one legend tells of two rabbis who met every Friday to study the book and create a three-year-old calf, which they ate. They did so by combining the letters of the Name (the most sacred name of God) by which the universe was created. This was not considered to be forbidden magic because all works were brought forth into being through the name of God.
The humanoid golem symbolized the highest level of achievement. In the 13th century, German hasidim—the pietists and mystics—were interested in creating a humanoid from the magical invocation of names. Numerous legends on into the 17th century sprang from their writings. The golem had no independent mind, usually could not speak, and was dominated by his master.
In one legend, Rabbi Samuel created a golem to accompany and serve him on his travels; the golem could not speak. In another legend, Elijah of Chelm made a golem from clay and animated it by inscribing the name of God upon its forehead. It, too, could not speak, but it grew to enormous size and strength, which alarmed the rabbi. He tore the name of God from the golem’s forehead, and the golem crumbled to dust. According to another version, Elijah’s golem ran amok and had to be destroyed.
Various formulae were given for the creation and destruction of a golem. Besides clay, it could be made from soil, wood, wax, metal, or pieces of corpses sewn together. It was given life by the carving into its forehead of the name of God, the word emet (“truth”) or “the seal of the Holy One.” The mystics walked around it in a circle while reciting the secret and powerful names of God. Walking around the golem in the opposite direction took the life away from it. A golem could also be destroyed by erasing the first letter of emet, the alef, which left met, or “dead.”
Eleazar of Worms, one of the most esteemed German mystics, recorded an elaborate formula for golem-making. It was to be made from “virgin soil, from a mountainous place where no man has ever dug before.” The incantation comprised “the alphabets of the 221 gates” and had to be recited over every organ. Eleazar’s formula called for inscription of emet on the forehead to animate, and its alteration to met to destroy.
The golem legends are related to other legends, such as those popular in Italy from about the 10th century on that tell of corpses being resurrected from the dead with the secret names of God and with the artificial beings of natural magic and alchemy, such as the homunculus of Paracelsus. In the 13th century, Albertus Magnus was said to have created a talking man–android. In the 16th century, the Rabbi Elijah of Chelm was said to have a golem, as was Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague in the same century. In some versions of the Loew legend, the golem aided the Jews by discovering plots against them.
The golem is said to have inspired Johann Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, among other literary creations.