The Mystery of Prague´s Golem

23.03.2009 17:31


                  The Mystery of Prague´s Golem

 The metal doors engraved with the Star of David opened with difficulty. They creaked, as though unwilling to surrender their secret. With one hand, I held on to the metal hooked nail implanted in the wall, hanging in a height of ten meters with the metropolitan traffic humming below me. Then a single step… and I found myself in a dark room where time stood still. Old roof frames protruded from the darkness, resembling the ribs of a mythical creature. I balanced on the long wooden beam leading into the innards of the legend-shrouded attic of the Old-New Synagogue—the places that allegedly conceal the body of the legendary Golem of Prague.


The path to Golem’s secret leads to the whimsical world of ancient sorcerers and magicians. It’s not a world of fairytales and fantasy, as many people presuppose, but a world of reality, although different from that everyday reality to which we are accustomed in our “civilized” life and whose borders most of us never cross. Sorcerers of all ages and cultures learned how to transcend these borders, allowing them to communicate with otherwise invisible spirits and natural forces. Of course, they also tried to influence them and use them for their own gain.

Western magicians most commonly did through complex rites of ritual magic. Enclosed in their magic circle, which was guarded by the traditional names of archangels and pentacles as a fort by cannons, robed according to ritual rules and armed with a ritual knife and, most importantly, their strong will, they invoked spell formulas and the names of demons. When a connection was made, they threatened the demons and used deity names to force them to cater to their wishes. These frequent invocative rituals were draining and capable of throwing even the most stable of minds off balance, and so a simpler method soon became widespread. If a magician wanted to permanently entrap a demon for long-term personal services without having to laboriously invoke him time after time, he had to create a magical bond between himself and the demon and seal it with his own blood. This led to the creation of blood pacts which, after a certain period of time, gave the demon the right to the magician’s body and soul. There’s probably no need to mention the tragic pact between doctor Faustus and the devil Mephistopheles.

But there was also a second, much safer method in which the magician permanently bound the shapeless demon to some physical body that he then gained control over. He had several options. One class of beings that were created in this manner was bound to bodies of human or animal origin, another class, the Alraune, took its substance from the plant kingdom. And finally, the highest order was made up of beings created directly from an inorganic substance. A human corpse (zombie), mandrake root, but even a clay statue could therefore serve as a potential body. Golem originated from the latter.

Golem therefore belonged to the extensive family of artificially created, servile beings. However, only Jewish Kabbalists could create him. Bringing a body to life from dead dirt was known as the pinnacle of magic art and an act that demanded from the creator not only wisdom and deep piety, but also an expert knowledge of work with a shem. But the shem was not some pre-programmed input module, not some switch that activated some technical device or robot—it was a magic Hebrew word, intangible letters arranged in a certain order. According to Kabbala teachings, Hebrew letters are not just plain communicative symbols, as is the way with letters of other tongues—they’re the creative powers and building blocks of the cosmos that God used to create the universe. Whoever knew how to correctly combine Hebrew letters and use them to assemble magic words and formulas knew how to affect the physical world, or, simply put, perform magic. The strongest, highest power was always attributed to the secret, unspeakable name of God JHVH and his multiple-letter description, or, in Hebrew, Shem ha m’forash. This combination of Hebrew letters was either read by someone or directly written on Golem's forehead or on a little sign that would hang around his neck. The words had a magic power that would make the clay figure a living being. Even though a being that was imperfect, dull and mute.

 In the depth of subconscious

"To make a dead clay alive is not possible", skeptics and the so called rational people might object. "May be only in dreams or one's fantasy". However, people who work with the old esoteric sciences or modern transpersonal psychology know, that it's possible in the so called extended reality. That is easily accessible to experienced kabbalists who "retune" their brains. Imagine a group of rabbis and their students, closeted after fating and prayer, while they shape the figure of a Golem and circle around it, chanting Hebrew letters. Imagine them fixing their minds on the letters until they fall into a trance and, in they altered state, command that golem into life.

Descriptions of 13th Century rituals performed by Spanish kabbalist Abraham Abulafia support this theory. The accounts describe his Holotropic Breathwork and ecstatic concentration that transported him into an alternate reality. which would bring transpersonal experiences beyond common reality.

...Afterwards let him take a cup full of pure water and take a small spoon, and fill it with dust...and after he will fill it, he shall pour it in the water, and he will gently blow during his pouring onto the surface of the water. And when he will begin to blow on the first spoonful, he will recite a letter of the Divine Name, loudly, with one breath, until his spirit (of the person) will go out by (his) breathing, and his face being (turned) to the earth. And he shall begin with the head of the head, until he will end the first eight houses, (in order to) preserve head. And he shall recite the eight second houses, to preserve the body, acording to the order. And he shall recite the eight houses of the third (in order to preserve) the end and the spirit. And an image will emerge...

By concentrating on the groupings of Hebrew letters (houses) and directing the breath (blowing into the water and chanting the letters in one single breath), Kabbalists entered an altered state of mind in which they could begin to communicate with their subconscious. On the highest and most inaccessible level of our subconscious dwells our doppelganger, or the suppressed form of our being—the one we don’t want to admit to. And it is this “other we” that steps out of our body during this mystical trance, and although it is a part of our inner self, it stands before us in the form of a foreign creature. This is even attested by the sensations described by the rabbi Eliah of Vilna, who attempted to create the golem in his youth. “When I was already working on him (golem),” he recalled, “there came through my mind a vision of a kind of figure, and so I immediately ceased in my work.” The rabbi was still too young at the time, and was frightened by his creation.

But even experienced Kabbalists were apprehensive of their golem, as he often escaped from the control of his creator and turned against him. But in the instructions of the Kabbalist Abulafia, we won’t find a destruction ritual. This indicates that he was aware that this was not a real, permanent being from the tangible world, and didn’t consider it necessary to destroy it. He knew that, upon the conclusion of the mystic ritual, it would vanish on its own.

A logical question presents itself: Why, then, did they create the golem? Prof. Gershom Sholem from the Hebrew university in Jerusalem, who studied the golem question in detail, thought that it was a consecration (initiation) ritual. According to him, the golem was not created for performing housework or guard the Jewish community, as the later myths say. Creating golems was some form of a test of the spiritual and religious progress of Kabbalists, and a touchstone of their abilities.

Someone may wrongly think that it basically was their fantasy or their hallucination. But it's not true. This completely different world that opened up in front of those people wasn't individual like a dream, i.e. different for everyone depending on their personal unconsciousness and fantasy. Those who ventured there reported seeing and hearing the same things. Apparations in the other world live there, they can be seen. That alternate reality is as genuine as our own – it´s just an unfamilar level for most of us. 

  The Most Famous Golem Legend

Ancient Jewish lore tells of many rabbis who brought Golem to life. The Talmud names five of them. Later also Rabbi Eleazar from Worms and Eliahu Ba'al Shem of Chelm joined the gifted ones. But of all the Golem legends, the most famous is the story of Prague´s Golem.

Prague´s Golem was most likely created at the end of the 16th century by Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel. He moulded some clay into the shape of a man and brought it to life by inserting a stripe of pergamen with God´s divine Name written on it, under the figure´s tongue. Golem's main duty was to protect Prague's Jewish community from pogroms, especially during Passover when the infamous blood libel – the false accusation that Jews killed Christian childern to use their blood for baking unleavened bread (matzoh) – often surfaced.

At first, Golem was put, unsupervised, to heavy labor. But with its incredible strength and limited thinking abilities, the creature often proved destructive. Every Friday evening, as Shabbat approached and the Jews forbidden from all work prepared for their day of rest, the rabbi removed the shem from Golem's mouth, and it again became a statute that could do not harm while untended.

Once, however, the rabbi forgot to remove the shem and went to performed the Shabbat service. That day Golem, for no apparent reason, Golem went berserk. First the creature demolished its room, then it began destroying the ghetto as well. The terrified ghetto dwellers ran to the rabbi at the synagogue. Interrupted by their shouts, the rabbi stopped the service and rushed home. He found the raging Golem in the streets and by pulling the shem out of his mouth he made him motionless. The rabbi then returned to the synagogue repeated the 92nd Psalm (which he had barely finished when inerrupted) and concluded the service.

 The next day, the rabbi hid Golem's body it in the attic of Prague´s Old- New Synagogue. To keep the clay body undiscovered and undisturbed, the rabbi forbid all the people from coming to the attic. He not only locked the attic, but removed the wooden staircase leading up as well.

 This, very briefly, is the most common version of the legend that became an appreciated topic for writers, poets, and later also for film makers. Oddly enough, according to historians, this particular legend, unlike the others, doesn't have any historical basis. Rabbi Loew did not create a Golem and neither managed the practical Kabbalah. No chronicle or historical document from the 16th or 17th centuries mention the Golem of Prague. The whole story may have been invented in the early 1800s by a group of Polish Hassidic Jews, and later brought to Prague. The opinion that rabbi Loew had nothing to do with Golem and that the legend was artificially connected with his person is now officially accepted even among Jewish historians and this way appears in all dictionaries, scientific publications and historical guide books. Romantic defenders of Golem believing in the truth of the story are usually Hasidic authors. Also an American researcher, Gershon Winkler, believes in the truth of the legend backing it up by an early anonymous Hebrew manuscript about Golem found in the Metz library archive in France in the early 1900s. Golem defenders believe that the document was written by Loew's son in law.

Who is right? The document wasn´t easy to find. Its age has never been determined because no historians have seen it. The only version that exists is a 1909 transcript called Nifloas Maharal published by Yudel Rosenberg in Warsaw. The Nifloas Maharal  contained details that have never appeared in any other publications. I knew that if I could verify its names and dates, I could prove Golem´s existence. The specific names and times were just asking to be verified.

I based my research on a German translation of the cited manuscript by Chajim Bloch, published 1919 in Vienna. Weeks of searching in various Prague archives yielded little. Studying old maps of Prague Jewish quarter never revealed the places and buildings named in the text. No "Green Monastery". No "Palace of the Five". Neither of the "Books of Conscience" stored in Prague's library archive held any information about court cases between Christians and Jews. Nor did they mention the transcript´s central figure - an anti-Semitic Dominican priest named Thaddeus. The fact that the name of a Czech cardinal from that time was false cast doubts. At the mean time I also received an answer to my inquiry at the Metz library saying that they had never owned Golem manuscript. When I learned that rabbi Loew had not been in Prague between 1584 and 1588 – the years described in the manuscript – I completely lost trust in the work. I had to admit that the most extensive document on Golem was not a historical report made by rabbi Loew's son in law, but obvious fiction. 

Even so, that didn´t mean the legend wasn't based on a real story. After all, entrance to the Old-New Synagogue's attic is still forbiden, while admittance to other synagogues' attic is unlimited. Until the end of 19th century, the attic doors, placed 12 meters above the ground, were accessible only with a long ladder. These days, one has to climb up using metal hooked nails. The order forbidding entrance has been provably renewed and enforced. In the 19th century, the renowned Lvov rabbi Josef Saul Nathason and, later, the Jewish community mayor Dr. Rosenbacher were denied entry there.

And why is there an unusual liturgical custom in the Old-New Synagogue that during the Friday service Psalm 92 is sung twice? Jewish officials explain it as a remembrance of the night when rabbi Loew had to interrupt his service and ran to save the Jewish town from a crazed Golem. Some real event must have initiated the legend. Someone – or something – was uquestionably threatening Prague´s ghetto. Who was it? 

                                                    My own theory

I immediately discarded any theory of a mechanical figurine. A man-made mechanical puppet could never make any other moves and activities than it was created for. Even if the mechanism of the figurine broke, a Golem-machine could not rage in the manner described. The limited energy of the spring engine used at that time would not be enough for forceful acts creating panic and fear. And such a strange event would not go unnoticed by the chronicle writers. It seems more likely that the uproar was caused by someone ordinary and only the centuries turned him into a creature.

To me, the very word golem is a key to the mystery. This Hebrew word has several meanings, among them: "artificial man created by magic" ... "matter without form" ... and "fool"! Suddenly it hit me that a mentaly ill person, may be an epileptic, could be behind the legend. I of course have many proves for such  a statement.

 First of all, some mentally ill people can resemble Golem by their behavior. They suffer by attacks of madness, when the patient often creates an incredible strength, which are exchanged be states of complete relaxation or even motionlessness, the so called stupor. The impression of an artificially made man can be created by automatically repeated motions, typical for epileptics in a sleepy-like state.

It is also very remarkable, that Prague´s Golem was different from other Golems. It seems like he didn't belong among those mystical occurrences. If he was cutting wood, bringing water and meeting the inhabitants of the ghetto, then he couldn't be something out of the common reality. When bringing him to life, the shem wasn't written on his forehead nor hang around his neck as it was usual, but just inserted under his tongue. He wouldn't grow in size as the other Golems did but he kept his features. He lived as a human for 12 years and he even had a name: Jossile. And these are only few of the many proves I could lay out here.

 So the whole story that through out the time led to the creation of the Prague Golem legend could have gone like this: Rabbi Loew felt sorry for a mute and mentally handicapped man who worked as a Shabbes goy (servant) in the temple and therefore he hired him as his personal helper. It would not be surprising, if a rabbi, an universally educated man, had tried to cure or at least restrain the fits of epilepsy the poor man from time to time had suffered. And maybe that by putting some kind of medicine into the servant's mouth that caused a temporarily state of sleep, the legend about a shem being put into Golem's mouth was created. It could have been supported also by the fact that a piece of skin or a rag is placed between epileptic person's teeth so that they don't bite their tongue. From here it's just a step to the story about piece of pergamen with Divine Name. A big uproar in the ghetto though happened, when the rabbi forgot to give his servant the medicine. The servant, Jossile, suffered a really strong epilepsy fit, escaped his house and ran in the streets. Terrified people ran to the synagogue to get the Rabbi who had to interrupt the service in order to stop his servant. Therefore the 92. psalm is always being repeated in the Old-New Synagogue during Friday's services. Despite rabbi's help, the servant didn't survive his fit. He may have choked, it may have been an accident - or he may have been given too much medicine. To avoid unpleasant consequences for the rabbi and the whole ghetto, the death wasn't officially reported and the body was hidden to the Synagogue's attic. After that the rabbi made entering the attic taboo – thus, the whole story was never told in a single manuscript or a chronicle. The secret, however, eventualy reached the people, even though the story was a little altered. The servant behaved like a puppet, Rabbi Loew was putting something in his mouth ... probably a shem - and maybe it was at that time when the Polish Hassids first spelled out their thought: Wasn't it a Golem? And the legend was born.

                                                  What is in the Attic?

Trying to unravel the mystery 400 years later, I needed to explore the Old-New Synagogue attic where Golem's body was supposedly hidden. I knew that several people had been searching there before me. But the Jews alleged : „He who dares to set foot in the attic will die at once.“ And, as is written in Ruth’s Chronicle of Royal Prague, it happened that “when the community mayor once entrusted some carpenter to fix the roof, the carpenter fell from the roof along with his helpers.” Similarly, the roofer Vondrejc fell from here in 1883 and died on the spot. There were people, however, who survived searching for golem in the attic, like former Prague highest Rabbi Landau in the 18th century. He had a long ladder built reaching all the way to the door, and before he stepped up there he prayed for a while. He had been in the attic not even for few minutes when he emerged pale and shivering in horror. He didn't say a word to anyone about what he had seen up there. But he immediately renewed the restriction and never mentioned the attic again.

Another attic investigator was a well-known Jewish reporter, Egon Erwin Kisch in 1920. After a long negotiation he was permitted to enter the attic. Although the space was empty and he didn't find Golem, he suggested that something could be hidden under the gravel on the floor. He didn't do a thorough search, because he didn't have the permission. The Old-New Synagogue, built in 13th century, is the oldest synagogue in Central Europe, and therefore strictly protected. It was clear that not even I would be allowed to dig in the floor but fortunately for me there are technologies in these days, that by using ultrasound or electromagnetic waves can suggest what's behind walls and under floors. Finding such a tool is not easy for an amateur researcher and obtaining a permit to enter the Old-New Synagogues attic is even harder. But as we say, patience brings roses. And mainly I´ve got extremly good luck. So after many weeks of running around, begging and filling up forms, I was finally standing, under the ancient roof of the synagogue, and together with my assistants I was carefully placing wooden boxes with our tools to the centuries old dust flying all around. It took me two years of hard work and research to be able to came there.

The attic of the Old-New Synagogue is fairly small and easy to oversee. It has no hidden corners, no niches. It's about 15 meters long and 10 meters wide and it feels sort of like a granary. Even though we didn't expect candle holders piled up in every corner, old chests and tons of prayer books, the absolute hollowness of the place surprised us. Everywhere, there where only massive roof beams, dust and pigeon droppings. Six large, even jaggedneses protrude from the floor, made of rock and interconnected by mortar. It takes a while before one realizes that they are really the upper ridges of the chapel vault. Several chains, which are tied to the beams, disappear into the floor, so that, somewhere down below us, in the chapel hall, the heavy chandeliers hold.

Our geophysical radar was finally plugged in and installed, and a stripe of paper started slowly with a quiet humming coming out it. The machine recorded the arches of temple's vault underneath us and according to the gauge masonry, it wasn't thicker than 40 centimeters. That ruled out anything being buried under the floor. Our attention though was caught by a hollows above the columns, filled up with dirt and broken bricks, where already Kisch suggested that "something might have been hidden there". We took a close look, but we couldn't see anything interesting. No strange object, no hollow space. When we dragged the device above the second column, the machine reacted. We immediately grabbed our shovels and began digging, but a thick cloud of dust stopped us. We slowly went through piles of pigeon droppings, broken roofing tiles, rotten wood and plaster – as well as the remains of dead pigeons. When we were about 50 centimeters deep, we finally hit something hard. But it wasn't a part of a human body neither a mechanical puppet. It was a crumpled piece of metal-plate from roof and it definitely wasn't coming from Golem.

 So as we found out, these days the old attic doesn't hold anything from Golem. But it doesn't mean that at some time, something could not have been there. We found the year 1883 carved into one of the beams, which proves somebody visited the attic even before Kisch. Did that person remove what was left of Golem? And who was this unknown visitor of whom no one knew or spoke of? He had to have had a permit, in any case.

Searching the State Jewish Museum archives again, I found a few yellowed bills and old letters regarding a major synagogue renovation in 1883. During reconstruction, the workers replaced beams and made a temporary ladder of metal hooks on the outside wall. Whatever they found in the attic, they burried in the Jewish cemetery. Nobody knows now what were things they found, I didn't find any list, any other report. If members of the Jewish community found human bones among holy books and prayer sheets, they may have chosen to bury them secretly. Otherwise they would have difficulties as another strong anti-Semitic wave was just in its peak. Jews were again being accused of murders of Christians and of ritual using their blood. Everyone can imagine what speculation such a discovery would make and how many Jewish enemies could abuse that.

 So what is the conclusion? Did Rabbi Loew really have a Golem? The widely accepted idea that the whole legend was made is definitely not right. I showed that it could have been created by altering of a fairly real story. Despite my efforts, I unfortunately could not find a direct evidence to prove my theory. So I don't want to argue with historians that it really was this way. What's important, that it could have been.


Ivan Mackerle



The Old-New Synagogue

1) Begining of 20. century


2) Today

3) Cross section of the Old-New Synagogue´s floor


4) Geophysical radar´s record


Danny Mackerle

Běchorská 2231, Praha 9, 193 00, Czech Republic, EU.

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