Tuesday, 27 September 2016

What are the Roots of the Golem Legend?

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.

The most famous book about the Prague Golem is that by Gustav Meyrink. Meyrink deserves an entire post on this blog dedicated to his extraordinary life and works and he will get it some day. Here let us just look at Meyrink's portrayal of the Golem. Although his book is titled The Golem, the Golem is not the central character. He is an elusive figure appearing every thirty-three years in the Jewish ghetto, terrifying those who meet him. He is in some ways the embodiment of the Jewish community’s collective suffering, coming to life in a room without a door. But he is also the reflection of the individual he meets. When the central character meets the Golem, he finds with horror that the creature has his own face. 

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. 

It seems to me that one of the most important reasons for our ongoing fascination with the Prague Golem is that he does indeed reflect deep aspects in our psyche. As I said in my earlier posts, we are all golems. When we look in the Golem's face we see our own, stripped of intellect and language, containing a natural and unnatural power, driven by the need to protect but at the same time capable of extreme acts of destruction. He is in Jungian terms a Shadow. In the story of the Prague Golem, he is presumably Rabbi Loew’s Shadow. 

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?

No comments:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...