The Legend of the Prague Golem

Fantasy readers – like me – have probably met a golem or two in the books they read. Stemming from Jewish Folklore it is a figure artificially constructed in the form of a human being and brought to life by magical means. A golem lacks free will and must obey the commands of its master.

Illustration of Rabbi Loew and Golem by Mikoláš Aleš, public domain

Rabbi Loew and Golem by Mikoláš Aleš, public domain

You may have noticed that one golem is also a symbol of Prague, as well as part of Czech culture and pop-culture. This particular golem – as the legend says – was created in Prague during the era of Emperor Rudolph II. Rudolph lived in Prague and was fond of science, alchemy, and astrology. He spent a lot of money to obtain the philosopher’s stone and elixir of youth – in vain. Nevertheless, his court hosted top scientists of the time (e.g. mathematician Johannes Keppler and astronomer Tycho de Brahe) – but also charlatans.

Rudolph had also heard of a Jewish scholar, Rabbi Jehuda Löw ben Bezalel (also known as Maharal), and invited him to come to Prague. Rabbi Löw indeed settled in Prague and several legends are connected with his stay here. The best-known is the one about his golem.

Rabbi Löw’s golem

Perhaps every Czech knows the story: Rabbi Löw created the golem to protect the Jewish Town in Prague during a time of intensive anti-Semitic moods in the city. The golem was allegedly activated by insertion of a shem – a piece of parchment with a secret word written on it. Without the shem golem stood motionless. The Prague golem looked exactly like a human and even had a name, Josef or Yosille. However, it could not speak. Rabbi Löw was also able to make the golem invisible.

Everything – especially the golem – worked well until the day when Rabbi Löw forgot to remove the shem as he had done every Friday. He had to turn the golem off because the golem would otherwise gather too much strength and be difficult to control. After Rabbi Löw went to synagogue, golem started a rampage. Frightened people alerted Löw who stopped golem and took the shem for good.

 Golem’s demise

Old Synagogue in Prague, photo: archive of prague.tips

Old Synagogue in Prague, photo: bkm / prague.tips

There are conflicting accounts about what happened to the golem afterwards. One version says that the golem turned to dust. Two others tell us that the golem can still to be found and could be activated again. That means even you can try it! Perhaps you will be luckier than all those who tried before you. According to some of the legends, the golem was buried at the Jewish cemetery in Žižkov. But I would not bet my money on this one because the Žižkov Television Tower was built exactly on the spot where the golem is said  to lay. You can imagine that the foundations of the tower run very deep and the excavations would have revealed the golem.

A second possible hiding place is the attic of the Old Synagogue in Jewish Town. However, it is almost impossible to gain access to the attic. One of the very few who went there was the Chief Rabbi of Prague named Landau, who entered the attic in the 18th century. He returned pale and shivering with terror and immediately declared the attic forbidden territory. He didn’t tell anyone what he saw. However, in the 1980s the attic was closely examined and no remains of the golem were found. Nevertheless, the Synagogue is worth seeing itself, with or without the golem.

The real Rabbi Löw

The Prague golem is perhaps only a legend but Rabbi Löw was a real historical figure. His life was very remarkable even without the legendary tales. Rabbi Löw died in 1609 at the age of 89 and is buried at the Jewish cemetery in Jewish Town. Shortly after his death it was believed that Rabbi Löw could fulfill one’s wishes and people started to put pebbles or small pieces of paper with their wishes written on them on his grave. Some people do it even today, so if you visit the cemetery, you can easily tell Löw’s grave from the others.

Golem’s legacy

Tomb of Rabbi Löw at the Jewish cemetery in Prague, photo: archive of prague.tips

Rabbi Löw is buried at the Jewish cemetery in Prague, photo: bkm / prague.tips

The golem legend inspired many artists. In 1921, Karel Čapek wrote a play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) where the term robot was first coined. Robots in the play (and in the subsequent science fiction literature) share many characteristics with golems. Perhaps the only difference is that the robots are products of science and not magic.

One of the main plots of the film comedy Císařův pekař, pekařův císař of 1951 (which was released in the US as The Emperor and the Golem) revolves around the Prague golem. Golem was depicted as a huge figure of clay only roughly similar to a human with large fissures in the torso crudely patched with iron plates. Although the legend is consistent that the Prague golem looked like a man, if you try to search images of Prague golem on the internet, you will likely get pictures from the film or similar ones. The message is clear – do not underestimate the power of film! Ironically, that film was meant to be influential. It includes Communist propaganda which was the reason that it is one of the first Czechoslovak color films. However, the film is still popular because it is primarily a good comedy.

“Our” Golem sometimes is also a symbol of Prague. If you are in the city center you will soon find some references to the golem – either a T-shirt with a picture or a figurine in a souvenir shop and so on. Golem is also the name of one of the few kosher restaurants in Prague (close to the Old Synagogue). In Czech, “Golem” could also refer to a strong but not very clever man who is rather prone to brawling.

As you can see, among the many things you can do here in Prague you can trace Golem and other legends related to the mystic era of Rudolph II. Don’t be sad if you do not find Rabbi Löw’s golem – nobody has managed to do so, so far. But it is still better than meeting one of our brawling, modern “golems.”

Author: Pavel Janecek

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