What is it that makes Prague special? Its many medieval turrets? The views from the Charles Bridge? That beer is often cheaper than water? Well, yes. But all that pales in comparison to the fact that Prague is home to an ancient, vengeful, and mythical (…or is it?) monster.
A local legend dating back to the 16th century, the Prague Golem stems from Jewish mysticism, and the story is native to Josefov, the city’s historic Jewish quarter. A mysterious, shadowy creation who many claim really walked the Earth – and might still be lingering in Prague landmarks – the Golem myth has captivated this city for the last 430-odd years.
For some people, the Golem is a hero. For others, he’s a monster. But in Prague, the Golem myth represents the strength of the Jewish people in defending themselves against anti-Semitic attacks.
Many trace the origins of the Prague Golem to 1580, when Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel was leader of the city’s Jewish community. In the face of violent threats to his people, Rabbi Loew was supposedly endowed with the terrifying power to create life, and in so doing, he conjured up the fearsome Golem.
Formed out of clay from the banks of the River Moldau, the Golem grew hair and fingernails and came alive when a divine message was chanted, and a sacred inscribed tablet was placed within his mouth. A huge, shadowy figure who many say was granted powers of invisibility, he stalked the quarter’s streets at night, foiling evil plots – and saving those who were under threat.
But the story also has a darker ending: in many versions, the Golem turns to violence, and has to be destroyed before he himself becomes a force of destruction.
It’s been a long, long time since anyone has claimed to see the Golem stalking the streets of Prague. But for myth lovers and legend hunters, there are some important Prague landmarks to discover.
The first and most essential location is the Old-New Synagogue. A petite, gabled building that happens to be the oldest active synagogue in Europe – and one of the most important locations in Judaism, full stop – it’s also supposedly where the Golem’s remains were left, with some claiming that an outline of a large body can still be seen on its attic floor. Unfortunately, the attic is off-limits to visitors – but isn’t it best to leave some of the mystery intact?
Another main stop on the Golem tour of Prague is the atmospheric Old Jewish Cemetery, where Rabbi Loew’s grave can be found amongst the crooked and weather-beaten gravestones. Visitors leave pebbles to commemorate the deceased.
Several other landmarks around the city hint at the pervasive myth of the Prague Golem. One popular stop on the Golem trail is a statue of Rabbi Loew, which can be seen today in front of the city hall, after having been removed during WWII. Additionally, a statue depicting Kafka riding on the shoulders of a giant, faceless Golem can be witnessed in Prague’s Old Town.
Beyond the history and the landmarks, though, visitors to Prague will notice that the Golem legend is ubiquitous. Based on a mid-century film about the Golem, these days the figure looks less like the giant from the original myth and more like, well. . .a mud monster. Figurines of this Golem are sold throughout Prague, while restaurants, hotels, and other locations around town are named in his honour.
The Golem has also appeared in a number of pop culture works – everything from the Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon to serving, supposedly, as inspiration for Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series. Real or not, it’s hard to deny the pervasive power of the Prague Golem – even 400 years on.