Origins of the word
The word golem is used in the Bible to refer to an embryonic or incomplete substance: Psalm 139:16 uses the word "gal'mi", meaning "my unshaped form" (in Hebrew, root words are defined by sequences of consonants, ie. glm). The Mishnah uses the term for an uncultivated person ("Ten characteristics are in a learned person, and ten in an uncultivated one", Pirkei Avoth 5:7). Similarly, Golems are used today primarily in metaphor either as brainless lunks or as entities serving man under controlled conditions but enemies in others. Similarly, it is a Yiddish slang insult for someone who is clumsy or slow.
The earliest stories of golems date to early Judaism. Adam is described in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b) as initially created as a golem when his dust was "kneaded into a shapeless hunk". Like Adam (whose name literally means "red [clay],") all golems are created from mud. They were a creation of those who were very holy and close to God. A very holy person was one who strove to approach God, and in that pursuit would gain some of God's wisdom and power. One of these powers was the creation of life. No matter how holy a person became, however, the being they created would be but a shadow of one created by God.
Early on, the notion developed that the main disability of the golem was its inability to speak. In Sanhedrin 65b, it describes how Raba created a golem using the Sefer Yetzirah. He sent the golem to Rav Zeira. Rav Zeira spoke to the golem, but he did not answer. Said Rav Zeira, "I see that you were created by one of our colleagues; return to your dust."
Owning and activating golems
Having a golem servant was seen as the ultimate symbol of wisdom and holiness, and there are many tales of golems connected to prominent rabbis throughout the Middle Ages.
Other attributes of the golem were gradually added over time. In many tales the Golem is inscribed with magic or religious words that keep it animated. Writing one of the names of God on its forehead, a slip of paper attached to its forehead, or on a clay tablet under its tongue, or writing the word Emet (אמת, 'truth' in the Hebrew language) on its forehead are examples of such words. By erasing the first letter in Emet to form Meit (מת, 'dead' in Hebrew) the golem could be deactivated.
The classic narrative
The most famous golem narrative involves Rabbi Judah Loew the Maharal of Prague, a 16th century rabbi. He is reported to have created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto of Josefov from Anti-Semitic attacks. The story of the Golem first appeared in print in 1847 in a collection of Jewish tales entitled Galerie der Sippurim, published by Wolf Pascheles of Prague. About sixty years later, a fictional account was published by Yudl Rosenberg (1909). According to the legend, Golem could be made of clay from the banks of the Vltava river in Prague. Following the prescribed rituals, the Rabbi built the Golem and made him come to life by reciting special incantations in Hebrew. As Rabbi Loew's Golem grew bigger, he also became more violent and started killing people and spreading fear. Rabbi Loew was promised that the violence against the Jews would stop if the Golem was destroyed. The Rabbi agreed. To destroy the Golem, he rubbed out the first letter of the word "emet" from the golem's forehead to make the Hebrew word "met", meaning death. (According to legend, the Golem of Prague's remains are stored in a coffin in the attic of the Old New Synagogue Altneuschul in Prague, and it can be summoned again if needed.) The existence of a golem is sometimes a mixed blessing. Golems are not intelligent - if commanded to perform a task, they will take the instructions perfectly literally.
The hubris theme
In all Jewish kabbalistic descriptions of Golems, they are incapable of disobeying the one who created them, but in one version of the story, Rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm created a Golem that grew bigger and bigger until it tore the name of God from its forehead, whereupon it fell over its creator. The hubris theme in this version is similar to that in the stories of the monster of Frankenstein and of the broomstick in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. It remains a standard feature of golems in popular culture.
The golem in European culture
In the late nineteenth century the golem was adopted by mainstream European society. Most notably Gustav Meyrink's 1915 novel Der Golem based on the tales of the golem created by Judah Low ben Bezalel. This book inspired a classic set of expressionistic silent movies, Paul Wegener's Golem series, of which especially Golem: How He Came Into the World (also released as The Golem, 1920, USA 1921) is famous. Another famous treatment from the same era is H. Leivick's 1921 Yiddish-language "dramatic poem in eight sections" The Golem. Also notable is Julien Duvivie]'s "Le Golem" (1936), a sequel to the Wegener film.
These tales saw a dramatic change, and some would argue a Christianization, of the golem. Christianity, far more than Judaism, has long had a deep concern with humanity presuming Godhood upon themselves. The golem thus became a creation of overambitious and overreaching mystics, who would inevitably be punished for their blasphemy, very similar to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the alchemical homunculus. In Norse mythology, Mökkurkálfi (or Mistcalfa) was a clay giant, built to help the troll Hrungnir in a battle with Thor. The Golem has also been considered by some to be an early android, further divorcing it from its roots.
In America, the opera "'The Golem' by Abraham Ellstein retells in 20th-century harmonic language the centuries-old tale of a creature fashioned from clay and brought to life by kabbalistic spells who ultimately threatens the very people he was intended to serve." (quote from Milken website) Selections are available on disc from the Milken Archive of American Jewish music.
In popular culture
Books, films and TV
Probably as a result of the popularity of Meyrink's work, the golem concept has found its way into various elements of popular culture. Examples include:
Golems in modern games
Golems also appear as a popular feature of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games (including a playable race in the Eberron supplement called Warforged) and are almost ubiquitous in the many fantasy computer and card games inspired by it, such as NetHack, the Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft and Diablo series, and Magic: The Gathering. In these games the word is generally used as an umbrella term to refer to automata and simulacra from many mythologies. The convention is that they are named after the material of construction. Examples include Clay golems (most like the original Jewish golem), Flesh golems (reminiscent of Frankenstein's creature), Iron golems (animated metal statues), and a host of others including gold golems, stone golems, skull golems, and paper golems.
The White Wolf role-playing game Promethean: The Created also draws upon the legend of the Golem for inspiration.
The "mon" genre of video games often include a monster named "golem" or having golem-like qualities, usually animated rock or earth in a vaguely anthropomorphic shape, such as Golem, Regirock, Regice and Registeel from Pokémon, Golemon from Digimon and the breed called Golem in Monster Rancher.
The Golem in the Czech Republic
The Golem is a popular figure in the Czech Republic. There are several restaurants and other businesses named after him. Strongman René Richter goes by the nickname "Golem," and a Czech monster truck outfit calls itself the "Golem Team."
It is said that the body of Rabbi Loew's golem lies in the attic where the genizah of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague is kept. A rabbi visited the attic in the late 20th century, and came down "white and shaking". A legend is told of a Nazi agent during[WWII ascending the attic and trying to stab the golem, but perishing instead. The attic is not open to the general public.