The Golem legend, although it refers to the real historical figure Rabbi Loew, didn’t really appear until the 19th century. It seems to draw on or at least play to two separate traditions - the Jewish golem tradition and the Slavic folk story of the clay child. In the latter a childless couple make a child out of clay which, like the gingerbread man, outgrows its creators and becomes a destructive force. This last story is of course a universal myth - human beings losing control of the being they have created. It appears in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and can be read as a warning against hubris.
But the story is more than that: as Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, the golem myth “is based on a faith almost as old as the human species namely, that dead matter is not really dead but can be brought to life. I am not exaggerating when I say that the golem story appears less obsolete today than it seemed one hundred years ago. What are the computers and robots of our time if not golems?”
The Golem is born of mud and to mud he is returned - earth to earth, ashes to ashes. But the Golem can rise again.
If Meyrink wrote the definitive novel, then in 1920 Paul Wegener created the definitive movie: The Golem, how he came into the world. It is an amazing production and still powerful after all these decades. See image above.
When a woman looks at the Golem, she sees more. He is male to her female, the elemental man made of mud combined with the elements of fire, water and air, supremely strong and, let us remember, sexual (in the legend it is his love for a woman that proves his downfall). Or is that just me fantasizing?