Friday, September 11, 2009

Reanimating the Golem

This is for my former classmate Jordan who was fascinated by the Golem legends.

Contemporary Alchemy: Petr Nikl offers a ritual to reanimate the Golem

The Golem, Prague's most mysterious and enduring Jewish legend, is closely associated with Rabbi Loew, also known as the Maharal of Prague, who died 400 years ago and is currently the subject of an exhibition at Prague Castle. Meanwhile, local artist and performer Petr Nikl is offering a different take on the Golem at the Robert Guttmann Gallery in Josefov.


Nikl is drawing on a legend with many roots. In the Hebrew bible, there is a word similar to Golem - "Golmi" - used in the Talmud to describe something that is unfinished and requires completion. It can also refer to a primitive person. The Talmud contains a story about an artificial man created by a third-century scholar named Ravi, and it also describes other scholars studying the mystical Book of Creation to create a small calf in an effort to imitate an act of God.

There are also medieval records from the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe referring to the creation of Golems from earth and water, which were animated by the mystical efforts of scholars through a combination of Hebrew letters. For Sephardic Jews, this same effort of combining letters involved ecstatic meditation, leading to the creation of a spiritual Golem.

Elijah Ba'al Shem of Chelm, who was a practitioner of the Kabbalah, is said to have created a Golem that went out of control and injured him. According to this legend, Elijah, who died in 1583, then had to destroy his creation. A variation on this story ends with the Golem killing him.

Prague's Golem is a legend first found in Bohemia and Poland in the 17th century. It grew in popularity at the beginning of the 19th century through the German Romantics, then was used in Czech art by National Revival figures such as Mikuláš Aleš and Alois Jirásek.

The Prague Golem is a figure of revolt and destruction, an artificial man who ends up threatening his creator. In 1909, a book by Yudel Rosenberg, The Wonders of the Maharal, told how Rabbi Loew created the Golem on the banks of the Vltava River to protect the Jewish community, which was under attack due to the blood libel, a rumor that Jews were making Passover bread from flour, water and the blood of Christian children. This gave the Golem a new face, which was developed further in Gustav Meyrink's novel The Golem (1915), illustrated by Prague native Hugo Steiner-Prag. Meyrink brought the Golem into 20th-century literature as a "formless phantom, a figure appearing from time to time in the ghetto streets like the materialization of collective thoughts, feelings, dreams of its inhabitants."

The best part, of course, is the possible connection between the Golem stories and the creation of the character of Superman, but this story doesn't go there.

HT: Paleojudaica

No comments:

Post a Comment