Friday, June 22, 2012

Folklore Friday: Feet of Clay: The Golem

Feet, hands, and heads of clay, Folklore Friday looks into the tales of the Golem and similar creatures in tales from around the world.

The Golem.    While many, if not most, of my readers play Dungeons and Dragons, those who I speak to seem to encounter very few actual dragons.  Even with this lack of draconic love, I cannot recall a single game where some form of the Golem has not appeared.  Heck, the Golem is so popular that an entire monster type (Construct) appeared in the 3.x edition of Dungeons and Dragons with specialized rules for all of the creatures produced under the imaginative umbrella of this simple man of clay.

The Golem has had a history with players of roleplaying games since the beginning of the hobby… but did you know that the concept of the Golem as presented in fantasy roleplaying is one of the newest additions to the classical monsters found in Dungeons and Dragons and its spinoffs?  Indeed, the Golem both predates and postdates the creation of dragons, wyverns, and other beasts that creep and crawl.  Indeed, the Golem serves an interesting place in modern history that is not seen in the narratives of any of the creatures discussed in Folklore Friday so far.

The Golem, from the Hebrew גולם, is defined as an animated anthropomorphic entity, formed from clay.  The term Golem comes from גלמי, which appears in Psalms 139:16, meaning ‘my (unshaped/shapeless form’).  Adam, First Man of the Judeo-Christian tradition, was created from mud and given the breath of life, seemingly the ‘first’ appearance of the Golem per the tradition.  It is interesting to note that the traditional Golem is strictly made from mud fired into clay, and that in some legends and folklore representations a ‘flawed’ Golem containing metal piece can be driven into rage akin to the Berserk features of a Clay Golem in the game.

Two major tales in the post-Middle Ages outline our traditional view of the Golem.  These stories, discussing the Golems of Chelm and Prague, provide for the entirety of the Clay Golem’s unique traits.  Indeed, the Clay Golem is probably one of the purest folklore-to-stats interpretations of a creature in fantasy roleplaying.

The only step that is not included in most interpretations of the Golem is the animating word.  In the stories of Chelm (also known as the City of Fools) or Prague the Golem bears the phrase אמת (emet, "truth") upon its brow as part of its awakening.  When the golem's creator must destroy his creation this word may be changed to אמת, (met, "dead").  In some tales of the Golem of Chelm this symbol is actually writ upon the Golem's tongue, in the form of a secret name of G-d.

My own poor prose cannot possibly cover the great oral and written traditions of the Jewish faith and its telling.  My favorite interpretation of the Golem of Chelm is retold here in this video, a telling by Ben Russell of  This steps away from the traditional 'man of clay', but can definitely provide for an interesting tale to tell.

If you want an interesting city in your own setting you can do worse than Chelm.  A place of fools who are wiser than their counterparts, Chelm is a great source of Jewish humor and worth looking into.

Again I sincerely apologize about the delay from last week.  I do hope to get everything back on track this coming week. 

As Always,

Good Gaming.