Golem: Mysterious Prague

“The moon likes secrets,” Meran said. “And secret things. She lets mysteries bleed
into her shadows and leaves us to ask whether they originated from other worlds,
or from our own imaginations.”
Charles de Lint.

 

Prague is known as the City of a Hundred Spires and the home of Golem. The capital of the Czech Republic, it is often described as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Steeped in rich history, the Czech Republic was settled during the Paleolithic Age. Its first inhabitants are believed to have been the ancient Celtic tribe, the Boii, from whose name the land known as Bohemia derived. Later inhabitants included the German Marcomanni and the West Slavs.

During the 14th Century reign of the King Charles IV of the Luxembourg Dynasty, Prague became the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and King Charles was crowned as its emperor. The name of Charles’ son, the Duke of Bohemia, is familiar to many in America. We sing a Christmas carol about him during our most holy days, praising his bravery in overcoming a brutal winter blizzard in order to provide alms for the poor during the Feast of Stephen. Saint Stephen is regarded by many to have been the first martyr of Christianity after having been stoned to death for the crime of blasphemy. The carol in praise of King Charles’ son is entitled “Good King Wenceslas.”

 

Nightfall in Prague, the Capital City of Czech Repubic

Nightfall in Prague, the Capital City of Czech Republic

 

Antisemitism: Blood Libel

Beneath the stones of Prague’s old Jewish cemetery rest the bones of the Jewish Rabbi Loew ben Bezalel, most commonly known as Mahrahal. According to legend, during the 16th Century reign of the Holy Roman Emperor, King Rudolf II of Bohemia, the Jewish population suffered persecution for the crime of blood libel.  Accusations that the Jews murdered children and used their blood to make wine and Passover bread called matzah, as well as for medicinal purposes, were rampant.

The beginning of blood libel, one of the most vicious anti-Semitic myths ever created by man, can be traced to early 12th Century England. The catalyst is believed to have been an essay penned by Thomas of Monmouth.  This Benedict monk accused the Jewish population of murdering a twelve-year old child named William of Norwich.

 

Charles Bridge Statue

Charles Bridge Statue

 

The Birth of Golem

Czech folklore tells us that in an attempt to protect the Jewish citizens of the city from the terrible, ongoing allegations of blood libel, the rabbi Loew created Golem, a monster molded from the mud of the River Vltava. Mahrahal dressed the creature in the trappings of a Christian. Then he commanded him to roam the streets each night, searching for those who, because of their hatred towards the Jews, would accuse them of blood libel. Golem looked much like any other man, but was larger than most and did not have to capacity to speak, for the Jewish people believed that only God could give one that power.

The allegations of blood libel were widespread throughout the Crusades. They were used to justify mob lynchings, illegal trials, and pogroms. In 1475, another child, two-year old Simon of Trent, was murdered, and blood libel accusations led to the burning at the stake of fifteen Jewish men.

In Nathan Ausubel’s 1948 book, “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore,” he describes how in Bohemia King Rudolf realized that the accusations of blood libel were malignant and without the slightest degree of truth. He eventually  issued a decree “forbidding anyone from ever raising the blood accusation against any Jew or group of Jews. Neither were the courts of the kingdom to honor such charges because the sin of accusing the innocent of crimes they had not committed always falls like a blight upon the entire nation.”

 

Golem the Protector

Superstition was rife throughout the Middle Ages. According to European folklore, the homely clay-cast features of Golem could be seen, his bulging eyes appearing as if in a trance, hiding behind haystacks or leaning lifelessly against a rickety barn door as his dim wits monitored the movements of those whose venomous hearts sought to vilify the Israelites. And whether it was a wagon filled with bartered goods bouncing slowly down the cobblestone streets of the city or a matron clutching a bundle beneath her arm as she made her way through the wheat fields to visit a neighboring farm, all knew to expect the spiritless Golem to stop them. Following the strict orders of Mahrahal, the creature carefully inspected their wares, those same wares which might represent danger to those he protected.

 

Prague Architecture

Prague Architecture

 

When the winter snows began to melt and the crocus’ blooms had long faded away, and when the slush had accumulated in great piles alongside the shoveled country pathways, beneath the barren oaks, and below the lanterns which lit the streets of Prague, the Jews began to live in constant terror.  It was nearing Passover, a time when the Hebrew were most vulnerable to extreme anti-Semitism.

 

A Time of Fear

By the time the violets had begun to blossom and the clover had peeked its tiny head above the soil, the Jewish ovens were hot with unleavened bread baking inside. The plates on their tables  were piled high with shank bones symbolic of the lamb which was sacrificed the night before the Hebrew tribes fled from Egypt. Small cups had been filled with salt water and placed beside the bones. This was done in remembrance of the millions of tears shed as the Israelites labored alongside the Nile under the brutal African sun and as they buried their mothers and fathers beneath foreign soil. Passover was a day to once again tell the tales of how those who had been held in bondage in Egypt had desperately awaited the deliverer Moses who would dare to confront the pharaoh Ramses, or as some historians now believe, Thutmose II, demanding in the name of Yahweh, “Let my people go!”

 

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

 

The Death of Golem

Golem did such an excellent job of keeping the Jewish community safe that after a while, with the support of King Rudolf’s decree, his presence was no longer needed. So the Rabbi deactivated him and locked him in the attic of Prague’s Old-New Synagogue. Then the holy man issued a proclamation declaring that if any Jew dared to enter the synagogue, he would be excommunicated.

According to Ausubel’s writings, even today the Golem still slumbers in the attic, ready to once again be activated if need be. It is rumored that during World War II, the Old-New Synagogue was spared destruction because the Nazis were terrified of awakening Golem. It seems that even the Third Reich feared the deadly protector of Prague’s Hebrew community, with his dead, lifeless eyes and  empty soul.

 

The Faust House

When one tires of the Golem, he or she can find even more mysterious tales in a Baroque mansion called the Milodata Palace, or simply Faust House. The story of Faust is believed to have first appeared in Medieval Europe; however, the world considers the German Johann Wolfgang von Goeth’s play as the definitive story of the man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly delights and knowledge.

It is believed that Prague’s Faust House received its name because those who dwelled in it were involved in the dark arts of alchemy, chemistry, and astrology. The palace’s most famous inhabitant was the eccentric Karl Jaenig. Jaenig was rumored to have spent his nights sleeping in a coffin which was surrounded by walls covered in funeral texts. In his obsession with death, it is said that he collected human bones and even had gallows erected in his home.

 

Statue in Prague, Czech Republic

Statue in Prague, Czech Republic.

 

Sights and Sounds of Prague

In the heart of Prague’s Old Town just above the Charles Bridge, tourists can visit one of the largest royal residences in Europe. Prague Castle has served as the seat of emperors, presidents, and kings for more than one thousand years. However, one of the castle grounds’ most dominant features overshadows the castle. The St. Vitus Cathedral is one of the most imposing structures one could ever expect to see. Within its massive walls, highlighted by gorgeous stained-glass windows, rest the remains of the ancient kings and queens of the Czech Republic, including those of Good King Wenceslas. With its old, dark stone, towering spires, massive buttresses, and ever-watchful gargoyles, it makes one feel as if he or she has actually entered the medieval past.

 

Charles Bridge, Above the Vlata River where Golem Emerged

Charles Bridge, Above the Vlata River where Golem Emerged

 

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

 

Prague's Charles Bridge

Prague’s Charles Bridge

 

Prague’s Alchemy: Searching for the Elixir of Youth

Adjacent to the cathedral, in the shadows of its intimidating stone walls, one can visit the Golden Lane. Tourist find delight in  a maze of miniature houses that legend tells us were inhabited by Medieval alchemists who sought the illusive Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Youth in order to extend the life of the Bohemian King Rudolf II. Although cast in the shadows by the St. Vitus Cathedral, visitors should not neglect the Romanesque Basilica of St. George, the Renaissance Summer Palace of Queen Anne, and the Royal Gardens. Lined by galleries of Baroque statues, paved with cobblestones, and overlooking the enchanting Vltava River, Prague is filled with artists, mimes, and other entertainers. Its charm is undeniable.

 

The Golden Lane, Prague

The Golden Lane, Prague

 

Just as human life contains both dark and light, the history of a country does also. While lovers may delight in Charles Bridge, hidden in its history lurks a terrible tragedy of the 17th Century when the executioner Jan Mydlar put to death 27 Bohemian rebels for conspiracy against the Hapsburg emperor Matthias. Not content with the simple executions, Mydlar displayed the heads of the nobles, burghers, and scholars on Charles Bridge as a warning to other Protestants who were tempted to usurp the emperor’s power.

 

Staroměstské náměstí

In Prague’s Old Town, one can immerse himself in the delilghts of  Staroměstské náměstí, the Old Town Square. Pastel-colored Gothic and Romanesque buildings line the streets, and busy outdoor restaurants tempt passersby with steaming plates of pork, dumplings, and sauerkraut. Street vendors and shops sell marionettes, Bohemian crystal, and every imaginable object a tourist could want to purchase. Staroměstské náměstí’s magnificent churches, street musicians, and other entertainers provide lasting memories, rich with sights, sounds, and scents that are intriguing and extremely evocative.

 

Prague" Old Town Square

Shopping in Prague’s Old Town Square

 

Old Town Square, Prague

Street Musiciain in Old Town Square, Prague

 

One of the most popular tourist attractions of the Czech Republic can by found on the southern wall of the Old Town City Hall. Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock measures three times: Eastern European, Babylonian, and Sidereal (time measured by the earth’s rotation in relation to the placement of the fixed stars). At the beginning of each hour, hundreds of tourists from all over the world stand motionless, with cameras ready to flash. A mechanized dance begins. Twelve apostles appear in the clock’s windows to greet the citizens of the city and the visitors who have arrived to witness this Old World treasure. Then, a skeleton rings his bell, a miser holds his bag of coins, a Turk (the traditional enemy of the Czech Republic) shakes his head, and Vanity peers into his mirror in order to observe his beauty.

 

Prague's Astronomical Clock

Prague’s Astronomical Clock

 

Prague's Astronomical Clock

Prague’s Astronomical Clock

 

A Reminder from the Astronomical Clock

And as the wheel of time passes and the waters of the Vltava flow over the mud used long ago to mold the strange figure of Golem, we would do well to remember the statement made by the American ethnobotonist and mystic, Terrence McKenna.”Not to know one’s true identity is to be a mad, disensouled thing — a golem. And, indeed, this image, sickeningly Orwellian, applies to the mass of human beings now living in the high-tech industrial democracies. Their authenticity lies in their ability to obey and follow mass style changes that are conveyed through the media. Immersed in junk food, trash media, and crypto-fascist politics, they are condemned to toxic lives of low awareness. Sedated by the prescripted daily television fix, they are a living dead, lost to all but the act of consuming.”

The joy which can be had by breaking away from that “prescripted fix of the high-tech industrial democracies” can be transformational. To understand the happiness one can reach by living a more natural life and treasuring each and every moment, we need only to recall the beautiful voice of the teenager, John Gillespie Magee Jr., in his poem, “High Flight.”

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

We would do well to recall the Old World treasure, the Astronomical Clock, for when it strikes the hour a huge bell rings and a golden rooster crows, warning the demons and ghosts who might be lurking in the dark alleys and mysterious shadows of the beautiful old city of Prague to flee, for they, and even Golem, are unwelcome in the lands of the Czechs. And though our 21st Century demons may be different from those of Medieval Prague, it makes them no less dangerous. If we consider them otherwise, we might one day find ourselves repeating the words of Dr. Faust, “Alas, I have studied philosophy, the law as well as medicine, and to my sorrow, theology; studied them well with ardent zeal,  yet here I am, a wretched fool,  no wiser than I was before.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goeth, Germany, 1749 – 1832.)

 

Suggested Resources

Official Tourist Website for Prague

Czech Republic: Land of Stories

Blood Libel

Goethe’s Faust

John Gillespie McGee Jr., Spitfire Pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force

Faust Video: Verdi Aida – Starring Luciano Pavarotti