Sunday, 1 November 2009


Prague is an amazing city. After four years living in southern Germany I’ve become used to being around beautiful buildings but I must admit that Prague trumps even Bavaria. This may be in part because Prague managed to escape, almost completely, the bombing that most German cities were subjected to. As a consequence the town is a patchwork of all manner of buildings from all centuries.

Guarding the entrance to the old Jewish quarter is this guy, the Golem. Golem looks a bit like Darth Vader, I fancy the Star Wars designers had a pretty good look at all the classic monsters and drew on one of the most fearsome.

The Golem, in Jewish legend, is an artificial being who looks like a real person but is without consciousness. Legend says that very holy men could create such creatures from clay, as God created Adam, but only God could create a life that was truly conscious. The ‘quickening’ of a Golem involves the use of the true name of God, which was known only to very holy men. To activate him was necessary to put a clay tablet in his mouth.

The Golem in Prague was created to be a sentry on guard. One version of the legend tells how the creature fell in love, but it was rejected and then set about creating mayhem. Its creator then deactivated it. On its forehead was the word EMET which in Hebrew means truth, the E was erased to leave MET, which means death.

If you are anything like me you’ll probably have little trouble seeing a connection between Golems and those robots who, by long tradition, wreak havoc across classic black and white sci-fi films. Frankenstein’s monster, which according to the story was put together just down the road from Prague, in Ingolstadt, shares more than a few Golem traits.

In 1921 a play called, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) premiered in Prague. It was notable for the first introduction of the word Robot which is derived from the Czech word robota, implying the labour of serfs. These robots were biological machines, factory assembled from vat grown flesh, rather than those clanking suits of armour that were later considered to be robots.

While paying tribute to the name robot, Isaac Asimov was not impressed by the play but it was obviously a great success. It was translated and produced in London and New York, Chicago and Los Angles. In 1938 the BBC adapted it and broadcast it as thirty minute TELEVISION production, which is considered to be the first broadcast TV science fiction ever. The author, Karl Capek conceded eventually that what he had done was retell the Golem legend.

It’s hard to not be impressed by Prague, a place of Golems, Kafka and Cubism.

Now maybe it’s just me but this statue, which was actually erected to commemorate Kafka, seems to be saying as much about Golems and their ilk, as it says about Kafka. It seems to sum up the relationship between men and those who seek to control them. The rider requires from his mount only muscle and blind, mindless obedience. In the absence of the necessary magic to create Golems men who behave like Golems must be found. Mindless men, without conscious, or conscience. Unfortunatly, as history shows, such men can often be found.