How Did Golems Go From Jewish Mysticism to D&D Icons?

How Did Golems Go From Jewish Mysticism to D&D Icons?

Critical Intel takes a look at the Golem, from its fascinating roots to its tabletop and video game dissemination into popular culture. So the next time you face down a stone monstrosity in Castle Ravenloft, be careful - that's centuries of history you're up against.

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I don't understand the perceived separation between the lore of golems and robots.

Both are created through specific ritual, be it scientific or mystical. A mystical golem is brought to life through a talisman or sigil/word. A robot/AI is brought to life by circuits and code.

Both types of stories features the theme of the arrogance of man in creating something that ultimately turns on them.

There are other themes of course, but my point is that simply pointing out that robots come from science and golems from magic, does not mean the two are different; that is simply the means by which they are created. The motivations and egos that spurned the endeavor are still the same, that of the humans.

Solkard:
I don't understand the perceived separation between the lore of golems and robots...There are other themes of course, but my point is that simply pointing out that robots come from science and golems from magic, does not mean the two are different; that is simply the means by which they are created. The motivations and egos that spurned the endeavor are still the same, that of the humans.

The main difference is that the golem is usually a singular creation, formed by an esoteric ritual known to only a few, while the robot, a product of science and industry, can potentially be mass-produced into an entire servitor caste or race. Frankenstein can be seen as the bridge between the two concepts: the monster's creation resembles that of the golem, but knowing that Dr. Frankenstein used a scientific process to create it, the monster demands he make it a mate. Likewise, the robots in R.U.R. (the play that introduced the word "robot" to the English language), are actually biological, but created through a factory process.

The other shift you see is that the golem is generally portrayed as dumb--like Rob said, it's basically a really strong autonomous club. The robot usually has enough intelligence or ability to perform basic manual skills like simple tool use. That's what makes the robot uprising a very different thing than the berzerk golem.

The lines are definitely blurrier now, as magic in a lot of fantasy fiction, especially in games, works on reliable, codified rules. So in that context, yeah, the golem is basically a sword-and-sorcery version of a robot. But this is a pretty recent development in both the golem and robot's literary history.

Solkard:
I don't understand the perceived separation between the lore of golems and robots.

Both are created through specific ritual, be it scientific or mystical. A mystical golem is brought to life through a talisman or sigil/word. A robot/AI is brought to life by circuits and code.

Both types of stories features the theme of the arrogance of man in creating something that ultimately turns on them.

There are other themes of course, but my point is that simply pointing out that robots come from science and golems from magic, does not mean the two are different; that is simply the means by which they are created. The motivations and egos that spurned the endeavor are still the same, that of the humans.

Golems come from the Ashkenazi Jewish culture of eastern and central europe alone. Unlike robots, Frankenstein's monsters or dracula they haven't really gone beyond those roots. Its product of culture that has been largely wiped out and only exists in tiny fragments in its original heartlands. In all the golem stories they are aminated by Rabbis using Kabbalah rituals to create the golem and they exist only in the world of the european religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Central Europe changed with the 18th century's age of enlightenment and governmental emphasis on humanism and equality before the law. Anti semitism still existed but jewish communities under Austrian and Prussian control were no longer on a knife edge.

Edited with correct dates. Getting up at 5am means my brain runs out of steam by about 7pm

the lore they're referring to of the artificial mystical constructed servant can be traced all the way back to the 4th century BC, they haven't really bastardized the concept of the jewish Golem (which still remains pretty much the same if you think of your basic clay golems in things like MTG) so much as they've taken it's name and applied it to its forefathers, cousins, and descendants so as to create an easy point of reference for large targeted audiences.
they didn't really take the ancient jewish golem and twist it into something entirely different so much as they've started using its name as a sort of phylum encompassing all humanoid mystically animated constructs. If you were to take Cadmuths stone soldiers or Hephaestus golden handmaidens from way back when and put them in a setting like D&D, chances are they'd probably be classified as 'golems' since systems like that have to create their own sort of taxonomy in order to make sure things react with each other properly.

Nice article Rob, and I learned a little more about them. Well, technically I learned a lot more about them, since my main "source" of info on them was from reading the Bartimaeus Trilogy

It's worth mentioning that, in many tellings of the story, the Golem was a purely defensive entity, not a weapon. Something really powerful and, in theory, violent, but purely reactive.

That's, I think, the main difference between it and modern fantasy/sci-fi golems. The Golem, despite it's power, was a shield. The proper response to encountering it wasn't, "Erasing the Aleph from it's forehead," as we tend to see in pop culture, but to simply not attack.

Granted, there are variations, but that's the one I think I like best--a defender, not a weapon gone wrong.

Solkard:
I don't understand the perceived separation between the lore of golems and robots.

Both are created through specific ritual, be it scientific or mystical.

Well, the first major difference I'd say is that there's no such thing as a "scientific ritual". Rituals are a set of actions performed in a set manner because they are symbolic in some way of the change to be invoked. That's got nothing to do with science.

A mystical golem is brought to life through a talisman or sigil/word. A robot/AI is brought to life by circuits and code.

There's another major difference. Golems are never "brought to life". That's built into the lore. They are animated by a wise rabbi tapping into a power greater than themselves. A robot may or may not be brought to life depending on the philosophical bend of the person writing the story.

Both types of stories features the theme of the arrogance of man in creating something that ultimately turns on them.

Superficially, that's true. But the reason why the creations may turn is what makes them different. A robot turns because the creator's knowledge was incomplete. Something happened that was beyond their reckoning or the programming was imperfect. A golem turns because the Rabbi who created it is inherently imperfect and all things created must be inferior to the work of YHWH. In theory a robot is perfectable- eventually if people keep at making them one that actually works exactly as intended could be made. For that to happen with a golem, the Rabbi would have to rise to the level of YHWH in perfection. Which I'm not familiar with whatever tiny and unpopular branches may exist, but in at least mainstream Judaism is a notion that is simply unacceptable.

... because like 99% of the western conception of what a 'wizard' is and how one behaves goes back to the Jewish kabbalists (the most blatant ripoff of their style outside of gaming probably being the old golden temple of hermes silliness), and 99% of D&D was cribbed from late-middle-ages to renaissance popular fiction (ergo, the "dragons" half of the title)?

Wizards animating golems is probably the least surprising and creative element of D&D, and given how much of D&D was just word-for-word ripoffs of things just old enough for it to not be copyright infringement, that's saying something.

(The other 1%s are Paracelsus and Beholders, respectively, if you're curious.)

Quantum Glass:
It's worth mentioning that, in many tellings of the story, the Golem was a purely defensive entity, not a weapon. Something really powerful and, in theory, violent, but purely reactive.

That's, I think, the main difference between it and modern fantasy/sci-fi golems.

Wait... difference?

Have you never actually encountered them in a game? The most moble golems get in modern SF&F is that sometimes they follow their wizard around to bodyguard for him, their overwhelmingly dominant role in modern literature is to sit around and guard things, usually not even being animate until you done messed with their charge. And the most common thing for them to be guarding? Old temples.

There really isn't much of a gap between modern pop-culture golems and 1600s pop-culture golems, apart from the brand names being scrubbed off. Trying to make a distinction between the two is like arguing that Acetaminophen is a completely different drug than Tylenol... the D&D model is just the generic version based on the patent being long-expired.

Robert Rath:
Importing golems into a world where Judaism didn't exist largely broke them with their religious overtones

I'm not convinced of that at all. There is plenty of religion in D&D, most of it drawing very heavily from real religions, if not lifting them directly and just giving them a new name and false nose. There's absolutely no reason why the fact that Judaism doesn't exist in D&D would require removing the religious overtones from golems, they could easily have fitted into D&D with no changes other than not using the word "Jew". You even mention yourself that the clay golem did almost exactly that, being a creation of a cleric rather than a wizard.

I think it seems much more likely to have been a deliberate choice. Golems, like virtually all monsters in D&D, exist as things for the players to fight. Importing them directly from the real-world legend would effectively mean that players would be constantly being called on to kill the evil Jews. No matter how you try to mix it up with fantasy religions, if the basic origins and mechanics of the golem remained the same, the connection would be unavoidable. If the goal is to have a monster with similar mechanics to the legendary golem, the only way around that is to change the origin story for it. So it's not important golems into a world where Judaism doesn't exist that removed the religion from them, but rather that importing them from a world where Judaism does exist requires removing the religion from them to avoid all kinds of unfortunate connotations.

DANGER- MUST SILENCE:

Solkard:
I don't understand the perceived separation between the lore of golems and robots.

Both are created through specific ritual, be it scientific or mystical.

Well, the first major difference I'd say is that there's no such thing as a "scientific ritual". Rituals are a set of actions performed in a set manner because they are symbolic in some way of the change to be invoked. That's got nothing to do with science.

A mystical golem is brought to life through a talisman or sigil/word. A robot/AI is brought to life by circuits and code.

There's another major difference. Golems are never "brought to life". That's built into the lore. They are animated by a wise rabbi tapping into a power greater than themselves. A robot may or may not be brought to life depending on the philosophical bend of the person writing the story.

Both types of stories features the theme of the arrogance of man in creating something that ultimately turns on them.

Superficially, that's true. But the reason why the creations may turn is what makes them different. A robot turns because the creator's knowledge was incomplete. Something happened that was beyond their reckoning or the programming was imperfect. A golem turns because the Rabbi who created it is inherently imperfect and all things created must be inferior to the work of YHWH. In theory a robot is perfectable- eventually if people keep at making them one that actually works exactly as intended could be made. For that to happen with a golem, the Rabbi would have to rise to the level of YHWH in perfection. Which I'm not familiar with whatever tiny and unpopular branches may exist, but in at least mainstream Judaism is a notion that is simply unacceptable.

I do agree to a great extent with your post but I do have a question about "scientific ritual".

I've mentioned this a few times but some anime like Toaru Majutsu no Index has symbolic magic that pulled from myths and legends through something called Idol Theory. Why is this not considered scientific since there is an actual set of rules to draw power from the respective religions?

OT: I do certainly find it intriguing how golems have changed over time. At this point though, I do think that we need another version of the golem myth since I keep seeing the concept of golem as crafted gate keeper all the time. I suppose there's only so much you can do while staying in the myth but some variety would be nice.

That story about the golem tearing apart the Nazis sounds like it'd make for an excellent movie. Er. Ahem.

This article reminds me of a book I read not so long ago, The Golem and the Jinni (I highly recommend it). The golem's Jewish origins were a pretty important aspect of the novel. I had no idea that it's where the whole idea originated from.

There's a very interesting portrayal of a Golem - from the Golem's perspective - in Helene Wecker's novel 'The Golem And The Djinni'. Highly recommended.

Linkie: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15819028-the-golem-and-the-jinni

"In desperation, the community's rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel went down to the banks of the Vltava River and sculpted a hulking man out of mud. [...] The risen golem patrolled the streets, defending the people from anti-Semitic mobs. He could turn invisible and summon the dead to his aid. But one day the Golem went mad and began a murderous rampage. To protect the people, Rabbi Leow smeared mud on the creature's forehead, changing the word emet to met, or dead. The creature fell lifeless on the spot, its animation gone. Rabbi Leow stored its body in the attic of Prague's Old-New Synagogue, ready to resuscitate the monster should Prague's Jews ever be under threat again. Legend has it, when German soldiers broke into the Synagogue during World War II, the Golem rose again and tore the Nazis apart with its gigantic hands."

I loathe DLC, but I'd be dammed if I wouldn't want this in Wolfenstein New World Order. Hell, playing as a golem sounds awesome (albeit it would be difficult to give the player total control over it, while still reinforcing that it's dumb/literal.)

Brilliant article. Love learning more about stuff like this, golems are my fave. IIRC Zombies went under a similar change when they went mainstream (Voodoo where a living person is put in a trance willing to do anything for it's master and appearing dead, to brain eating living dead). In a few centuries time, will Marvel's Thor be considered an adaption of the original mythology?

 

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