Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

In Hebrew legend, the golem is a man made of clay (replicating God's creation of Adam) brought to life through words of power called a shem (see Magic Words) written on paper and inserted into the golem's mouth. The golem is thereby controlled by its master. The physical creation of a golem, though supposedly linked to Jewish and rabbinical lore, is most closely associated with Judah Loëw or Lowe (1512-1609), who is believed to have created a golem to protect the Jews of the Prague ghetto against a pogrom imposed by the Hapsburg Emperor, Rudolf II (1552-1612). The golem is only semi-human: it has no understanding of Good and Evil, it cannot speak, and it cannot reproduce itself. The tale of the golem has similarities to that of Frankenstein, particularly in a tale associated with Elijah of Chelm, in Poland, in the mid-16th century, who created a golem to protect the town, but the golem became too powerful and Elijah had to destroy it by recovering the shem.

While the legend forms the background to Gustav Meyrink's Der Golem (1913-1914 Die wessen Blatter; 1915; cut trans Madge Pemberton as The Golem 1928 UK; full trans 1977 US), it is not the golem per se that haunts 19th-century Prague but the power behind it. Golem imagery is ideally suited to works of Gaslight Romance, such as Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994) by Peter Ackroyd and Irene's Last Waltz (1994) by Carole Nelson Douglas, one of her Irene Adler Sherlock Holmes pastiches. The golem did not feature much as a story Monster in the intervening years. A modern treatment is The Master of Miracle: A New Novel of the Golem (1971) by Shulamith Ish-Kishor (1896-1977); a more traditional one is Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Golem (trans 1982). Sean Stewart used the golem as a potent image of magic returning to the world in Resurrection Man (1995), when golems start to appear in World War II death camps. The modern version of the golem may be more appropriately linked with the cyborg or android, a link made by Marge Piercy (1936-    ) in He, She and It (1991; vt Body of Glass 1992 UK). [MA]

see also: The Golem.

Mention should also be made of It (1967).


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.