In the Alters’ World (and the series of books found here), creatures of legend reveal themselves to the world. Born through genetic abnormalities, defects and mutations, the Alters have lived for centuries as outcasts of human society, hiding their true nature from the world while colorful stories have been written by many to describe what they’ve seen. How are these creatures different from what was described in the stories? What relationship do they have with humanity? Every entry of the Alterpedia will delve into a new creature from around the world. This week we cover:
Brought to life with sacred rites by holy men in need, the Golem is a symbol of divine protection. As time goes on, these creatures have evolved from simple living clay statues to elementals willed to life by a variety of means. However they’re depicted, these creatures stand as guardians over those who have summoned them and the people of their community.
But where would the Jewish have gotten the idea to bring to life earthen figures? How would they know that such a feat were possible? Why is it that they were so sure such a spell would work when few miracles of this sort did not involve actual intervention from the heavens?
Are Golems truly among us?
The word Golem gives the first indication of its appearance in the original context. Meaning variously “unfished”, “unshaped” or “raw” – the Golem was seen to be something which was similar to an incomplete human. This lacking of refinement, completion, or even a soul meant that this creature looked as close to human as it could while still being essentially an inanimate lump of Earth. This reflects the fact it is, as far as the biblical stories are concerned, a lesser recreation of the same miracle that created Adam – earth being fashioned into a human form before being given life. And, as it is an imperfect recreation, it also holds an imperfect form.
For the most part they still have the same general human shape that you would expect. A Golem could be as similar to humanity as the person giving them life was capable of doing. A simple Rabbi creating a creature from clay would likely have a very simple entity at their command, while an artist could in theory create a life-like statue. In the end, while the realism of their appearance was subjective, the fact would remain that they would be firmly within the “Uncanny Valley”, lacking a soul and free will required to move and behave as a human would. Though in some cases it was merely a lack of voice that distinguished them from humanity.
On their bodies, Golems of this origin were often inscribed with Hebrew text including terms such as “emet” (“truth”) which could be used to act as an on-off switch for the creature. As the word remained, the Golem would have the ability to move. But as the word was changed it would become the Hebrew word for “death” and the Golem would be rendered lifeless again. Other markings common to these creatures included various names of God, which could either be carved into the figure or placed in its mouth on a slip of paper. However, even with the name of God invoking divine power, these creatures never quite matched with humanity.
As time went on, this lack of humanity began to be emphasized in depictions, becoming almost entirely represented by moving elements. These Golems, found particularly in modern fantasy stories and games, can be made of almost completely unshaped Earth, cobbled together into a vaguely human form but clearly not shaped that way by a skilled hand.
Whatever version should be depicted, however, what is always present is the fact that these creatures will be hulking, lumbering, and immensely powerful looking.
Borderline giants, Golems are hulking figures with powerful bodies and remarkable skin. The typical Golem is generally six and a half to eight feet tall, with enlarged hands and feet and strong features. Facially, they resemble those of East European, Mediterranean or North African descent – hailing from regions where Hebrew ancestry was most common. However, their actual ethnicity is rarely obvious due to the fact their skin tones are almost universally stone colored.
Golem skin is impressively thick, resembling the armor-like hide of a Rhinoceros and taking the same grey tone as these tank-like mammals. Unlike most humans, Golem skin rarely sheds and instead continues to thicken over time. This constantly growing skin results in thick, dry, and even cracking skin which can resemble and even behave as stone would. This will continue for the lifetime of the Golem, only shedding once in a while when the cracking has rendered the outermost layer of skin a husk which can be shed off in large, stony segments – a sight which inspired some Russian artists to fashion dolls after the concept.
Despite this, Golems still appear quite human and with appropriate makeup may even just appear to be larger people with abnormal skin conditions. Golem skincare actually takes an immense amount of effort, involving lotions, oils, and tools which would be seen as above and beyond the usual call of human grooming. However, without this careful attention a Golem’s skin may become uncomfortable and even harmful to the individual while becoming incredibly apparent to others around them that they are not quite…normal.
Their hair, which is rarely noticed in older depictions of them, was traditionally shaved off through most of history due to the inability to effectively groom it until modern hair-care products. Often thick and unruly itself, Golem hair is rough, once again resembling the hairs of a Rhino, and has been known to be distracting and unusual when left natural. Modern conveniences have since resolved this issue, but many Golems continue to shave their head to this day. Those who do not are known to use incredible amounts of hairspray, resulting in an almost helmet-like appearance in extreme cases.
The markings known of throughout history were often present on older Golems as a means of trying to appease God’s will. With thicker skin, the traditionally Jewish Golems often had difficulty with traditions such as circumcision which would be seen as a problem for orthodox Jews. Wishing to compensate, these Golems would try to show their faith through markings on their skin dedicated to virtues and their loyalty to God. This began to fall out of practice as Orthodoxy gave way to more Modern Judaism, but some modern Golems are still known to carve “Truth” into their foreheads as the stories told – often in only the most Orthodox of regions.
Given divine power, the Golem in legend is said to have several key traits that made it capable of defending those who summoned it. One of these was the obvious strength a being made of earth would have, being dense and able to strike with brute force. It was also known to be incredibly durable and difficult to stop, having to be rendered inanimate again to be stopped when some went on rampages. This earthen body provided it with most of its ability to fight off outsiders in many stories, but was not the only ability it would have.
It was also known that Golems can, with special items or different inscriptions, turn invisible at will. This invisibility proved to be beneficial in dealing with superior numbers, a problem that Golems generally had to deal with most often as they were appointed the sole protector of small communities. This ability was often attributed to a talisman made of deer skin inscribed in the same fashion as the Golem itself, to be slipped on and off much like the one ring in Lord of the Rings and grant invisibility whenever it was put on.
Besides this, stories of the abilities of Golems can veer from the original lore. Golems have been depicted to be able to raise dead spirits, summon elemental forces, or reassemble themselves from their parts. They can sometimes be impervious to all damage, rather than simply durable, and can sometimes even be known to grow out of control. Essentially, while the powerset of Golems was limited early on, the later interpretations of these creatures is wholly left up to the writer of the time. And stories of their abilities have gone on forever, with even the most recent urban story of the Golem of Prague speaking of how it not only killed a Nazi that entered its attic but made that individual disappear entirely.
Essentially, Golems are forces of nature, controlled only by the word of God and his believers.
But this, like with most Alter races, is merely an exaggeration of real abilities. The Golem skin, thick and durable, does actually make them incredibly durable against harm. Stories of Golems being struck with bullets, cannonballs, and even tank shells without being killed are peppered throughout history as peculiar incidents where humans simply “lucked out”. One such example was Matt L Urban, a Jewish Colonel of the US military during WW2 and suspected latent Golem who survived a gunshot wound to the neck, shrapnel to his chest, and a tank round to his leg.
Matt lived to the age of 71 despite this.
In addition to their immense durability, Golems have incredible strength to be able to move their dense and heavy bodies. Though their maximum strength has never been tested, it is believed that a Golem’s density continues to increase as its skin continues to thicken. Because of this, the older a Golem becomes, the stronger it is to be able to move its increasing weight. As a result, Golems in their senior years are known to be able to lift almost twice as much as a human of comparable size.
Unfortunately, while the Golem of the stories could not be stopped without removing the inscriptions that gave it life, actual Golems suffer debilitating illnesses. Due to the constant growth and hardening of tissues throughout their body, many Golem begin to struggle to breathe or move over time. Though still incredibly strong, older Golems will shuffle and experience great pain in trying to move in their golden years. Eventually, losing the elasticity of their tissues and being squeezed by their own weight, Golems often die of cardiopulmonary problems.
The Golem is depicted in two very different ways depending on the nature of the story. Seen as both an example of the power granted to the pious and as a mark of hubris for those who wished to play god – the Golem is both a force for good and a force of unspeakable evil.
In the right hands, a Golem can be an incredibly dilligent worker and loyal protector of the people. Golems are said to have great work ethic and be helpful by nature, going out of their way to do tasks that they were not originally created for. Even simple chores were not beneath this mystical creature. Meanwhile, its true calling and the purpose for its creation, defending the people, would remain with it for the rest of its life – even centuries after its creator has passed as seen with the Golem of Prague reacting to the presence of a Nazi in its home.
However, if they stray from the path, Golems can be incredibly destructive. One well known example showed that a Golem, falling in love but being rejected, soon turned to a violent rampage. Killing people indiscriminately and growing far beyond the ability of its creator to control it, this Golem was able to resist all attempts to stop it until they were finally able to remove the clay tablet which gave it life from its mouth.
These stories are not far from the truth. Dedicated to their causes and quite passionate, Golems are known to take on tasks with great zeal. Though often seen as stoic, with their range of expression being quite limited due to their condition, many Golem are described as passionate by those who know them well. It is a restrained passion, introverted but still present in their actions. A Golem which has found a calling will dedicate their life to it without question.
However, this does give rise to the ability for them to go astray. The same passion and dedication they have for some causes may be a detriment to society if it were turned towards negative purposes. A Golem criminal is dedicated, cunning, and willing to go to any lengths to achieve their ends. As a result, many Golems have come into conflict with other Golems, with the defenders of society often taking it as a personal responsibility to put a stop to their wayward brethren.
Because of this dedication to duty, stories of Golems have remained fairly positive throughout history despite the rare rampage. These creatures, though not always depicted the same, still hold a special place in human cultures, and can be found almost anywhere…
Protecting the people whenever possible.
(I write novels. There is a Golem commissioner in them. I also write tweets, there may be a Golem writing them.)