“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
(Genesis, 2:7, KJV)
With this biblical quote finished rabbi Löw his speech on the twentieth day of month Adar, five thousand three hundred and forty years since the world was created. His son-in-law Katz and his disciple Sosson helped him with the ceremony. They represented two from the four elements. Katz symbolised fire, Sosson water, rabbi himself was wind (air). The fourth element, earth, was represented by the Golem. Preparations for the rite lasted for seven days. After that, at four hours in the morning, three of them went by the river to create figure of a man from clay and with help of cabal ritual brought it to life. Rabbi named him Josef (inspired by Josef Sheda, half human, half ghost), and gave him identity of mute beggar and hired him as his servant.
I will stop flow of the story for a while, because it will go two different directions. Instead of that I will concentrate on a background of the event in question.
Today, we see Golem as something connected to Prague and famous rabbi ben Bezalel. There however exists plenty of legends about other golems. From the classic story of rabi Eli from Polish Chelm to artificially created girl by Spanish and Jewish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol. In early middle-ages, according to Talmud, nearly everyone could create the Golem. Only things necessary were faith and knowledge. These talmud golems weren’t main protagonists in their stories, only something to spice-up their creator’s biography. Golems started to show everywhere, where bigger group of Jews lived.
People were talking about the legend of the Prague Golem long before the birth of rabbi Löw. Prague was the important European centre mainly at times of reigns of Charles IV. and Rudolph II., and because of this, big group of Jews settled there. They brought many traditions and legends. Löw’s story has many original parts, however it’s based on another story, despite many patriots trying to prove otherwise.
For example Oldřich Eliáš deduced from the sentence about “clay hole near the river at city outskirt”, the exact location of Golem’s birth – old brickyard in Košíře or Smíchov. It’s bold deduction, but in my opinion it’s built ex-post, with good intention to build solid base for the legend. Thinking about where did the Vltava flow in the past and whether it was inside Prague itself or outside city borders is for sure constructive, however at least most of Czech sources have forgotten one very simple thing. It is known that some parts of the legend were imported and it seems to me that nobody got the idea to look at the map of Worms. While the Vltava River flows through the city of Prague, the Rhine just misses Worms. Simple solution aren’t always the most popular.
Now back to the Jewish Quarter.
There are many reasons why Jehuda ben Bezalel brought his clay assistant to life. One source says that he just wanted a servant to work for him six days a week. Only six, not on Sabbath, when rabbi took Shem HaMephorash (piece of paper with magical words on it that gave Golem life) out from his mouth. One day he forgot. This story is exactly the same as the one about Golem from Chelm. There are more stories about servants that got out of control. More appealing is the one based in rabbi Löw’s hometown, Worms. In that time Jews were being pursued through Europe, so people fabricated stories just to have reason to attack the Jews. Of the most common was the myth about Jews mixing dough with the blood of christian babies to make macess bread. It went so far that people took bodies of dead babies to Jewish ghettos. Father Bezalel proclaimed that fate of his son would be stopping these false accusations.
Many years past, son grew up and became wise man. At first he worked as a rabbi in Poznan, later he moved to Prague. When once again same things started to happen to Jews, as they did when Jehuda was born, the God spoke to him and gave him instructions how to build a golem.
We usually imagine golem as a clay giant (thanks to first Golem movies), however then golem looked like a thirty years old man with darker skin, because of which people thought that he was a foreigner from the south. Mystics then operated more with spiritual powers and golem was more of a term for amorphous substance. Later, when people indulged themselves more in symbolism, they gave golems particular form. Besides human golems there were also animal golems that sometimes served as a food.
Back then, height of golem wasn’t important. They become giants later, mainly because superhuman strength is commonly linked with body height. Lesser know is the version according to which the Golem grew from little statue to giant and rabbi must erase some of his magical letters so it doesn’t turn into the uncontrollable monster. At first it didn’t grew physically, its magical power increased, however later he literally grew.
One thing common to all golems is the inability to speak. There was no need for them to speak. Only duty of the Prague golem was to guard the Jewish ghetto. He had an amulet made from deer hide on his neck that made it invisible. If he saw something or someone who it deemed to be dangerous, he intervened with physical or magical force. Intruder was usually bound and brought to the city hall with corpus delicti (usually body of a dead baby).
There are two ends of golem stories. In Golem – a servant version rabbi Löw just never brought him to life again, afraid that he would forget to “turn it off” once again and golem would destroy the city. Servant was then placed in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, where many people searched for him. According to some sources, many years later it was awoken by rabbi’s great-grandson only to return it back there after a while. Other story states that clay servant was stolen and is now buried at the execution grounds on Vítkov. There is connection to the ancient motive of the sleeping hero buried in place where he will guard even after his death, however this role is in Czech filled by Blaník’s knights.
The second possible end of golem (Golem as the protector of the Jews) takes place in time, when Jews had no need to be afraid of pogroms. Rabbi called his two apprentices and together they turned golem back to clay. According to Egon Ervín Kisch, in times of First World War, Polish Jews still thought of golem as their liberator.
Time, or more precisely space for one Bestiary article, has run out. As I look at it, I left many things out and many more were lost in translation. There is a lot of minor Prague stories that connect to golem. I also left out legends about other golems. Descriptions of techniques used to bringing golem to life, mainly legendary shem. There was also no time to speculate about political connections of rabbi Löw and imperial court. Nevertheless, I hope, that everything written here will be enough to make you interested in these things. I apologize to the readers that were expecting more devoted article, it’s not easy with me.
Idea of living statues and creating own servant is of course much older and nearly every culture has one. One can say that Egyptian Ushabti were also golems, although they had to work for their master in afterlife (we can find similarities even in Japanese mythology). Technically even Greece story of Pygmalion and Galateia, sculptor and his sculpture, which he made and fell in love with and which came to life thanks to the Aphrodite. On the other hand we have plethora of other magically animated servants, for example zombies of Haiti voodoo, alchemic homunculi (which are more or less golems in christian form). And about the homunculi – ending with very traditional sentence – I will talk sometimes later.
Illustration by Mikoláš Aleš [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This little human is simulacrum of a human created by alchemy. At least that’s what this word meant in the past. Since the middle-ages – thanks to the progression of human knowledge – meaning of this term was constantly changing.
Later homunculus served as a utility used to explain functions of human body. At the end of seventeenth century, this name was given to newly found sperm and to their content, because people believed that sperm is actually a little complete human that is just growing in mother’s body. Scientists in middle-ages tried to create a human artificially. It was commonly accepted that person that will be made this way wouldn’t be, mainly from psychological aspect, perfect, however it could still be used as a servant or experimental material.
Carl Jung, who studied alchemy very carefully, believes that first note about artificially created human can be found in a file from the third century AD, however the word homunculus wasn’t used for it yet. Alchemists used this term for every artificial humanoid, only in late middle-ages was this narrowed down to the explanation mentioned above.
The most popular way of creating own homunculus was using root of a mandrake. This is more of a folk tradition, instead of bubbling colourful liquids in glass vials that people could imagine. Instead of science, this method uses more of a magical approach. Homunculus can be created from mandrake’s root on which fell ejaculate of an executed man. Then the flower has to be buried only to be dug up by a black dog on Friday before dawn, then washed in milk and honey (sometimes even blood, procedures may vary). Another way how to create this loyal servant is using an egg of a black hen. Man’s sperm must be implanted in the egg, and it’s then buried on the first new moon of March. This is all nice folk magic, however it has nothing to do with alchemy as we, laics of the twenty-first century, imagine it.
There are many beings with this name in Greek mythology. I will be writing about two of them. The first one – the most famous one – was just a simple sailor or a fisherman that one day found out that one species of grass (of ancient origin, planted by Kronos in times called the Golden age) can bring people back to life. He found out by putting dead fish on it and, suddenly, the fish were moving once again. Because Glaucus was quite shocked by this incident, fish managed to jump back to the sea. As is common with very old myths, there are many variants that differ in details. One version says that there were rabbits instead of fish, however in the end it doesn’t change anything.
Glaucus was very intrigued and because he was really just a simple sailor/fisherman, he without thinking ate stalk of this miraculous grass. Let’s look at quote from Metamorphoses by Roman poet Ovid to see what happened next:
My throat had hardly time to swallow those
unheard of juices, when I suddenly
felt all my entrails throbbing inwardly,
and my entire mind also, felt possessed
by passions foreign to my life before.
“I could not stay in that place, and I said
with shouting, ‘Farewell! dry land! never more
shall I revisit you;’ and with those words
upon my lips, I plunged beneath the waves.1
It resembles effects of some hallucinogenic drugs. People after using them sometimes could feel as if they could fly without wings, without any mechanism that involves hundreds of mathematical calculations, skill of mechanics and experiments of Otto Lilienthal. Nevertheless, Glaucus didn’t drown. He became an immortal god of the seas and moved to Delian shore. Every year he travelled to every Greek harbour where he was foretelling the future. Thanks to him being exact and understandable in his prophecies, sailors revered him. Some gods, namely for example Apollo, did as well.
His divinatory skills weren’t the thing that made Glaucus famous across Greece. Even next to revelling gods Glaucus excelled with his affairs. Infamous is the story of Skylla. Yes, that Skylla, who later became the legendary monster of Messenic strait. She rejected Glaucus and thus he went ask for help of Circe, the witch. Circe fell in love with Glaucus and knew she must get rid of Skylla. She cursed waters where her rival lived and when unwitting girl went to take a bath – she turned into a monster.
In the end Glaucus wasn’t reciprocating her love and Skylla took revenge anytime she could. For example by eating six of Odysseus’ friends (because Odysseus was Circe’s lover).
Second Glaucus I mentioned above was human as well. He was member of very important family – son of king Sisyphus and father of Bellerofont. He enjoyed horse races and people gossiped that he feeds human meat to his horses in order for them to be fiercer. We won’t ever know if it was true or not, however what we know is that Aphrodite used this gossip to complain to Zeus and later she was the reason why Glaucus’ horse-drawn vehicle fell over and horses ate him. His ghost, nicknamed Taraxippos (horse disturber), haunted horse races that he liked so much while alive.
1 OVID. Metamorphoses. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922.
Illustration by Bartholomeus Spranger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A very interesting boogeyman can be seen on Koryčany castle near Bučovice, Czechia. As usual with this kind of creatures, it was created because of bad behaviour of local authority. It wasn’t the spectre of evil burgrave Richtr himself, that was wandering around the castle’s granary, his boots walked there all alone. They were searching their former owner. Until local priest decided to act, people were reporting that they saw Richtr’s body outside his grave. I wonder what he did while he was alive, but if holy ground wouldn’t accept him, it had to be something terrible.
If you would visit certain Vietnamese ministry, you will be probably baffled, as are many other tourists, by unreasonably placed roundabout. At first glance you could think there really is no point in placing such thing in middle of straight wide road. It however has its purpose – confusing demons. These demons were responsible for sudden deaths of people working at the aforementioned ministry. Intelligence of these creatures wasn’t exactly high so simple roundabout was enough to make them go back wherever they came from.
It is disputable how much truth is in this story, however demons called ma play very important part in lives of Vietnamese people. Above all they are blamed for every inconvenience.
The word ma is general term for plethora of boogeymen. For example Ma lai rút ruột are beings that sleep in forests and in the night they take form of headless men who are looking for their victims. They mess with people’s intestines which make them die from hunger. Ma trởi live in swamps where they spook passers-by. Ma loạn and Ma ôn are spreading plague and other dangerous diseases. Most of the time these mas are of human origin, born from souls of inappropriately buried beggars and prisoners, or drowned people. This is very common in folklore of multiple cultures, not just Vietnamese.
Ma are mischievous and – as mentioned – not that bright. Despite of that they are often objects of rituals and sacrifices. These serve to repeal demons, not to worship them (Expect some professions on the edge of human society, for example poisons sellers). When there is ma, it is necessary to get a wizard. Only they have the knowledge (ability to distinguish different demons and hexes to use) and sometimes they even have their own domesticated ma. It is best if ma doesn’t notice people or misses them, see aforementioned roundabout.
The most common targets of demons are children, and mas aren’t exception to this. Some parents use this to scare their children so they behave well, however in more rural areas it is still believed that ma kidnap and bring illnesses to kids. This led to parents giving their offspring ugly names so the ma would think that if they gave them these names, they don’t like them so much so kidnapping someone like this isn’t worth it. These names are later changed. First-born boys are the most vulnerable so they get the name “Second”. Boys wear girly clothes … there are many ways people try to avoid the ma. Healing illnesses works similarly. Parents pretend to leave their ill child behind town borders, so ma once again wouldn’t hurt him because it isn’t worth it.
Not well-known Czech bogeyman of a disgusting visage. It looks like big lizard with sparks coming from its tail. A target of it isn’t people, as is usual, but livestock. Commonly this creature scares cows, sometimes it even kills weaker ones.
Short story about Dobytčí děs comes from Šumava, or more accurately from Černá in Pošumaví:
Two respectable citizens of Černá drove through forest one silent night. Their carriage suddenly burst forth very fast. Both men were so shocked that they forgot to grab the reins. Suddenly something shrieked from the forest nearby and night turned to day.
The monster jumped out and scared the horse and both men.
The horse started running faster so before men had time to cross themselves, the creature was far behind them. They didn’t stop until reaching the closest village.
They knew very well what attacked them, and they knew that their horse is not to blame…
21.11.2017 (11.4. 2001)
Peg o’ th’ Well is evil ghost that haunts people of Waddow Hall, near Lancashire town of Clitheroe. There is nothing known about it’s origin, however it is said that it belongs to the nearby well. As many other similar creatures, Peggy is usually to blame for everything that happens in Waddow Hall. When wind slams a window or howls in a chimney, it’s Peggy. Someone falls from a horse and breaks his leg? Peggy. Storm that damages the house? Peggy.
There used to be a statue next to the well, that served to personify Peggy. That statue lost it’s head (literally), when Mrs. Starkie from Waddow Hall lost her head (figuratively), when she was waiting for a priest to exorcise a demon (Peggy) that possessed her son. Priest however didn’t show up, because he, thanks to the storm (Peggy), slipped on a rock while crossing the river Ribble and fell into the water. The angry lady knew who was the reason of this all and proceed to decapitate the aforementioned statue.
Nobody knows if Peggy stopped haunting after this, however all British folklorist are happy, that the trophy in form of stone head, is being kept in Waddow Hall, alongside with this story.
25.11.2017 (6.2. 2011)
"Things just happen. What the hell."
* Terry Pratchett. Hogfather
Welcome to my world. For the longest time I couldn’t think of right name for this place, so I left it without one. Amongst things you can find here are attempts of science fiction and fantasy stories, my collection of gods, bogeymen and monsters and also articles about things that had me interested, be it for a while or for years. (There is more of this, sadly not in English but in Czech, on www.fext.cz)
Picture of the Month