Sometimes we like to take a break from dark tourism and explore other aspects of culture, such as dark tales. One thing I absolutely love about Prague is the sheer abundance of ghostly tales and legends. In Prague we fell absolutely in love with the Golem of Prague.
I actually wish we had time for one of the city’s numerous ghost tours. Sadly, we were so overwhelmed with illness, blogging and heartbreaking day trips such as Terezín and Lidice that we were in no real condition to walk around with other people for a couple of hours. Add in how picky we both are about ghost tours (no seances or excessive jump scares and gimmicks, thank you very much!) and that on a good day I’m a socially awkward mess and it just wasn’t happening.
Instead, we spent a good chunk of our time in Prague just trying to stay off the beaten track and enjoying wandering around the city. We found some great unusual spots for any Prague itinerary, and had an absolute whale of a time hunting down weird-ass sculptures and statues all over Prague. Of course we also visited some of Prague’s dark tourism musts – including the Heydrich Terror Memorial which was conveniently down the road from The Globe Bookshop. This immediately became our favourite bookshop-cum-cafe. It was pretty touristy, though, since it very much catered to expats.
But it was at this bookshop that we were reminded of the Golem, one of Prague’s greatest stories. The Golem by Gustav Meyrink is by far the most famous book about the Golem. Many copies of the book, as well as other takes of the legend, such as The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Weckler and others I’ve not seen elsewhere are all on display and available.
Not a ghostly creature, though definitely otherworldly, the Golem is one of Prague’s most enduring legends. And though he pops up from time to time elsewhere, he is nowhere near as ubiquitous as he is in Prague.
(Many photos brought to you care of holding up Golem Bakery biscuits – #notsponsered – to our own photos. Most of the photos are NOT of Prague’s Jewish quarter and not related to the text #sorrynotsorry!)
The Golem of Prague Legend
There are a lot of origin stories about the Prague Golem. They all have the same baseline, though, but vary on some fantastic details.
I’ll just be picking and choosing what I like and tell it that way (probably with some alternatives thrown in). And I’ll be keeping the focus on Prague; although apparently he turns up in a few other places in the Talmud (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t read it).
During the 16th century, the Jews were being terrorised by Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. In general, Rudolf wasn’t the most well-liked of dudes, even by those he was genuinely trying to help (versus destroy).
Who is this Rudolf II dude?
His whole thing was creating a unified Christian nation across Europe. And, like, he had a lot of power, so he could have done it.
He just had to get rid of those pesky Jews and other undesirable groups.
Ah, a tale as old as time!
But it wasn’t Rudolf’s bloodthirsty, fanatical Christian views that got him in trouble. He was also weirdly obsessed with the arts and occult sciences (like astrology and alchemy) – at least, it was weird at the time – and his contemporaries weren’t super keen on the direction his patronages were headed (today many scholars attribute him with being a major player in the Renaissance).
His actions during his rule are also credited with starting the Thirty Years War.
So he started a war, you say?
(I’ll be honest, this section has nothing to do with this post. But if you’re a history geek like me, then read on. Otherwise feel free to scroll right on by to the next section. Also, have another photo of a Golem biscuit!)
So, anyway, Rudolf’s subjects declared him unfit to rule, ousted him and replaced him with his younger brother, Archduke Matthias in 1605. Over the next several years, Matthias seized increasingly more land from his brother until Rudolf died in 1612.
However, during this time, desperate to hold onto his power (and who wouldn’t be if their obnoxious little brother was trying to take over?), Rudolf II issued the Letter of Majesty in 1609. This effectively gave extra religious freedoms to Protestants in Bohemia.
Matthias was actually pretty cool about this and during his rule continued to allow the Bohemian protestants extra leeway.
Unfortunately, Matthias didn’t have any heirs and he was getting damn old for the time. So he named his cousin, Ferdinand of Styria, his successor. But Ferdinand, who came to power in 1617 (when Matthias was 60 years old), was a big supporter of the Catholic Counter Reformation and therefore he was less than keen on the protestants.
So he wrote some new laws, took over a bunch of Protestant churches under construction, and more or less told the Protestants to do one. This led to Protestants in Prague getting fairly miffed about the rights they were granted under Rudolf II – and upheld under Matthias – getting a tad curtailed.
The Protestants revolted and threw a bunch of very important people out of a window on May 23, 1618 as punishment for violating the Letter of Majesty.
This was known as the Defenestration of Prague and it started the Thirty Years War (even though the people tossed out the window were supposedly totally fine). This is also kind of misleading because there was another famous defenestration by the same name in 1419 that started the Hussite War.
I guess don’t stand too close to a high up window in Prague if you’re important, eh?
There is, of course, a lot more to it, but I’m not here to teach you all about Rudolf II. I’ve already strayed too much already (but history is cool, right?).
Back to the Golem of Prague Legend
And my, what a legend it is!
How the Prague Golem Came About
So Rudolf II wasn’t keen on the Jews, and therefore wasn’t particularly nice to them.
Cue Judah Loew ben Bezalel, or Rabbi Loew (sometimes spelled Löw).
Not much is known about him. Most believe he was probably born in Poznań, Poland. And he is believed to have magical powers. Which is probably why some versions of the Golem legend say that Rudolf II, who was obsessed with alchemy and finding the fountain of youth, actually invited him to Prague to discuss things such as the Kabbalah (a type of Jewish mythicism).
Others say he simply moved there and ran into Rudolf II later on.
Either way, Rudolf II definitely didn’t totally hate Rabbi Loew, despite his Jewishness. So one day, Rabbi Loew was granted an audience with Rudolf II.
Accounts differ here, some say he asked Rudolf for more protection, some say he tried to persuade him to lay off. Some say they worked together to save the Jews.
So, I guess, colour me confused because I kept reading about how much he hated everyone who wasn’t Christian. But also that he was apparently quite enlightened.
I dunno. The point is, shortly after this meeting, Rabbi Loew was endowed with the power to create the Golem.
Creating the Prague Golem
This is a really big deal because even though the Golem isn’t human, he’s still a life, and according to the Kabbalah creating life is forbidden (except, you know, the old fashioned way with sex, which apparently is God working through us, or whatever). The reason that one can play God and create life is if in doing so many (I’m guessing at least thousands?) will be saved (and even then it’s still not always okay).
Oh, also, to do this you also had to know the true name of God, an honour given to only a handful of people every generation.
Rabbi Loew moulded the Golem out of clay and then imbued him with life. It should be noted that the word Golem is often translated from Hebrew to mean many things, such as unintelligent, primitive, and dumb.
It feels like a weird name to give a supposed saviour. But maybe that’s just me.
Golems… What are they good for?
The Golem began wreaking havoc on the [non-Jewish] citizens of Prague. Rabbi Loew controlled him through various incantations. Some say that he essentially turned the creature on with a shem, a religious parchment with a secret word written on it. Without this, the Golem merely stood there, lifeless.
But the Prague Golem was growing stronger, and as his strength grew, so did his destruction. Soon, everyone in Prague was terrified of the Golem. Rabbi Loew promised to stop the devastation if they would lay off the Jews and stop killing and tormenting them.
(Some accounts, though, say he lost total control of the Golem because he forgot to remove the shem one evening and had to destroy him. Just thought that little tidbit might be of interest…)
They agreed without hesitation.
So Rabbi Loew said some incantations (or removed the shem in some scenarios), and voila, the Golem of Prague stopped.
(There’s also a version where he originally wrote the word emet on the Golem’s forehead, which means ‘truth’ in Hebrew. When he was done with him, he erased the ‘e’ and then it read met, the Hebrew word for death. I don’t speak Hebrew, though, so I can’t even tell you if those translations are accurate enough for this story to hold up…)
No one is really sure what happened to him after that. I’ve read that he disappeared, that he turned into dust and even that he died of a broken heart. The most popular story seems to be that once he was, for all intents and purposes, deactivated by Rabbi Loew, the Golem was brought to the attic of the Old-New Synagogue (it was new at the time, now it’s old) and he still lives there.
Sometimes you can even see him wandering around Prague’s Jewish quarter.
(Side note: Why is it still called a quarter when there are more than four districts?)
Where to Find the Golem in Prague
If you head to Prague’s Jewish Quarter, you’re bound to run into the Golem somewhere. Part of the fun is finding the Golems yourself, but here’s a few to get you started:
Clearly our first and foremost suggestion is to head to the Golem Bakery. It is located next to the Old Jewish Cemetery and down the road (a very short road) from the Golem’s potential resting place, the Old-New Synagogue. Which you should probably visit, too, if you’re serious about finding the Prague Golem!
Their golem biscuits are cute and delicious. And make great photo companions! We’re not weird, you’re weird.
Over the years, different statues have been erected and then removed. However, the most famous – and least likely to walk off – is Franz Kafka sitting atop a faceless Golem outside the Jewish Museum and Spanish synagogue . It’s a fantastic statue, but there’a good chance you might have to wait around for a bit to snap a photo.
There’s also a few hidden Golems in the streets, such as the one outside of Restaurant U Golema. But you might not be able to spot them due to foot traffic. We weren’t able to get one here, though we did spot him.
(Also, you could visit Restaurant U Golema, but we can’t personally recommend it as we didn’t eat here – and I suspect it’s a bit touristy and expensive. I also can’t vouch for how many Golems you’ll spot there!)
There are many more throughout Prague – for example, you’ll find lots of little Golem souvenirs in most gift shops.
Have fun and good luck!
Want more ghosts and legends of Prague? Or simply need more inspiration for your trip? Check out our ultimate spooky and macabre guide to Prague!
Have you been to Prague? Did you stumble upon the Prague Golem? Any Golem stories to add that we missed? Let us know in the comments!