Golem
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Basic Information

Derived from the Hebrew for a shapeless thing, or something incompletely formed, the word Golem has come to signify a construct, formed from lifeless matter and animated by theurgy or some other form of magic.

The most famous golem narrative concerns Rabbi Loew and the construct that he build to protect and serve the Jews of the Prague Ghetto, but there are a variety of others and all of them emphasise that golems are hard to make and harder still to control. How human they appear to be … varies.

Arguably Mary Shelly's tale of Frankenstein's Monster is a Golem narrative in which (pseudo) science1 replaces magic as the animating force - the creation, the hubris and the disastrous loss of control are the same and Frankenstein, not being any Maharal, is unable to bring his creation to heel again. some later interpretations have explored the golem aspect more explicitly.

The Hebraic tradition tends to show golems being made of fresh clay - in bringing it to life, the Rabbi is imitating God who formed Adam from clay2 - but later fantasy traditions have included golems of all manner of substances including blood, spider silk, mercury, stone and glass. In some traditions the clay golems are made from fired clay rather than flesh. "Flesh Golems" like Frankenstein's-monster, seem to hover thematically between construct and undead.

The Jewish Golem is at least partially powered (in some stories) by the chem - a piece of paper on which relevant parts of scripture and/or instructions are written. In some traditions this must be removed at nightfall to 'park' the golem and prevent it running out of control. In others, the animating force is the word "emet" ("truth") cut into its forehead, erasing the first character changes the word to "met" (death) and shuts the golem down.

Golem crafting may also be used to explain clockpunk, steampunk or dieselpunk automata, or even the improbable robots of rocketpunk - whilst there is always the possibility of rubber science as an explanation, magic masquerading as science works as well (as in the case of Frankenstein's monster). In these cases, the chem may be a punched card or a complicated mass of spinning gears or (for later models) some kind of magnetic tape. Alternatively, provide a brain in a jar as a primitive wetware processor.

Sources

  • novel: China Miellville's The Iron Council stars a powerful, instinctive maker of golems … called Judah Low3.
  • novels: Terry Pratchett's golems are Jew-ish: made of clay (albeit baked clay), containing a chem and using a font that resembles Hebrew characters. They are also created by holy men and unable to speak.
  • book: Golem; Petisk, Eduard ISBN 80-900129-2-2 - contains Jewish legends concerning the Maharal and his Golem.
  • graphic novel: The Cobbler's Monster; Amano, Jeff ISBN-13: 978-1582406299 - a graphic novel combining the Frankenstein story with the Golem myth. And featuring Gepetto…
  • comic: Ragman a comic book limited series from the early '90s by Keith Giffen, Robert Loren Fleming with art by Pat Broderick. In it, the title character's costume was made with rabbinical magic similar to that which created the Golem, and the protagonist finds himself having to fight the golem who has been wandering the earth.
Bibliography
1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Having a golem crop up in WW2 during the Shoah (or in Israel during the mandate or the 1948 war) would be sort of cool…
    • Roy Thomas did this in an issue of THE INVADERS set in the Warsaw Ghetto prior to the Warsaw Uprising.
  • The hard part of creating a golem traditionally comes after you create it - their response to commands can vary from the painfully literal to the maliciously inventive, depending on the exact tradition and unintended consequences are more or less to be expected.
    • This may depend on the source of the animating spirit - those provided by theurgy are likely to be most sympathetic, but very closely aligned to the patron power and sensitive to its laws and agenda, independent bound spirits are probably the easiest solution but likewise the most independent minded and prone to rebellion … artificial, fabricated spirits are probably most likely to do what they are told but may need painfully detailed instructions to avoid "bluescreening" at awkward moments.
      • This in turn brings up images of a wizardy silicon valley analogue with high-forehead types writing the mystical equivalent of programme code to go into the heads of golems - in a dungeon punk setting, expect "off the shelf" operating systems for golems to come pre-written from the magic shop, otherwise expect them to be amongst the arcane secrets horded by specific wizards or groups of wizards.
    • An interim design may be the "drone golem" - a pre-powered but unmotivated chassis that is designed to be possessed by the user (perhaps through astral projection or even by climbing inside like a battlesuit).
  • Transferring control of a golem may be even harder, especially without losing control over it - creators who need to pass control to someone else are likely to build in conditions under which a golem will obey someone else, whether being officially introduced to the golem as its superior, self identification by a password or possession of a specific symbol of office. Smart creators will also build in a back door that gives them super user control and/or failsafe protection in the event of someone trying to turn it against them.
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