The Prague Golem revisited

A formidable monster of clay protects the Jewish community of Prague since the 16th century. It sleeps in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, the oldest active Synagogue in Europe, ready to be summoned again.

The Golem of Prague was a feat of sorcery. Life was given to a large clay man who became a powerful slave to its master, the famous Rabbi Loew (Judah Loew ben Bezalel), who then controlled this monster without a will of its own. There are various versions of the legend, of course, and in most of them the monster is very effective but eventually turn on its master, wrecking havoc.

Just as alchemy, the Golem story is a major theme for the Prague visitor, which can hardly be avoided. I ended up gazing curiously at the attic of the Old New Synagogue, eating Golem cakes and bringing a nice little clay figure home with me.

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The Old New Synagogue of Prague, from the 1270s. A Golem sleeps in the attic, some say.

The Golem narrative is a great story, and just as alchemy it fits very well with the gothic blocks of Prague old town. Why shouldn’t there be a mystical clay monster roaming these cobbled streets? Why shouldn’t the masterful Rabbi Loew have made one? Its moral is great too – those who create powerful monsters must beware of them turning on their masters.

The general idea of Golems is much older than the story in Prague and emerged from biblical and Kabbalist Jewish texts. The coming alive of clay monsters seems to have been a legend occurring in several places in medieval Eastern Europe. As laid out in History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe vol 4 (edited by Marcel Cornis-Pope & John Neubauer, 2004), the Golem, in fact, didn’t come to Prague until the early 19th century. It was brought alive not by Rabbi Loew but by the Bohemian Jewish community, trying to establish a new literary tradition.

The Golem story got very popular. It was probably the basis for Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and for numerous similar sci-fi plots such as in Bladerunner or the Terminator series.

A fantastic story, the current Golem presence for tourism purposes in Prague is also a sad reminder of an absence. The absence of once vibrant Jewish life here. Some managed to escape, but estimations say that about two thirds of the Jews in the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were murdered in the Holocaust and no Golem rose to protect them.

Alchemy in Prague

Alchemy is a main theme for the Prague visitor and understandably so since it goes so very well with the twisted, bohemian mood of the city. There are alchemy bars, alchemy museums and all sorts of alchemic stories around, some of them even true, and as a visitor you can’t avoid it.

Alchemy was big among the learned in renaissance and early modern Europe, a sort of pre-scientific quest to understand nature and neither as crazy nor as underground as often portrayed, though an obvious field also for charlatans. Sure alchemists were trying to make gold, but how would they have known it wasn’t possible? In the process and among all failed experiments they managed to gain some new insights. Alchemy wasn’t generally done in secret labs but by the most high-ranking learned at royal courts.

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The Alchemist’s lair, as presented at the Speculum Alchemiae museum in Prague

The historical background to the present alchemy fuss in Prague revolves around the melancholic Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612). Rudolf was a great patron of occult learning. He moved the imperial court to Prague castle in 1583, where it remained for the rest of his life, and welcomed occult experts there such as John Dee and Edward Kelley. Astronomist Tycho Brahe was his court astronomer and astrologist, while sometimes active in the royal alchemy lab. Emperor Rudolf also met with the Jewish learned Rabbi Loew (Judah Loew ben Bezalel, dead 1609), legendary maker of the Prague Golem. You get the full story of Rudolf II and his magic circle in Prague in The Mercurial Emperor by Peter Marshall (Pimlico 2007).

There is a range of privately run museums in Prague focusing on alchemy. Most important the Speculum Alchemiae and the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of old Prague. In Prague castle there is an alchemist’s laboratory to be seen. All these places are reconstructions centered on good stories. I found the cellar of the Speculum Alchemiae most fascinating, where you can take an excellent guided tour. It left me puzzled concerning what was fact and what was good stories though. The range of alchemist’s bars offer more or less curious alchemy-themed drinks.

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What is completely true is that the Danish astronomer and alchemist Tycho Brahe spent the years before his death in 1601 at the court of Rudolf II, doing many things but also alchemy, and Tycho was buried in Prague in the Church of Our Lady before Týn where his grave can still be seen. Chemical analysis of his preserved beard has shown high levels of mercury, possible due to alchemical activities.

Walking the winding, cobbled streets of central Prague, the intense pre-modern feel of it tells you there could be a black magician’s lab around any corner. Though alchemy in Prague is based on a true story, most of what meets the tourist’s eye is made-up props which, of course, is fully consistent with the theme of alchemy.

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