Libris Monstrum #22: Golems
Today we get to visit a creature voted on by you, the readers. Well, those of you who follow the blog on Twitter. This entry into the Libris Monstrum features a classic monster from Dungeons & Dragons: the golem. In it we are going to explore some of the inspirational sources for such a creature. There are more than I thought and learning about them has been great!
To begin I want to go over what golems are in D&D. The key here is the fact that they are constructs made from a variety of material. In fact there are dozens and dozens of materials from which stat blocks for golems have been developed. There are, however, a couple of classic versions that you are most likely to see in game. These are the stone, mud, flesh, and iron golems. Each of them have some unique abilities but, as golems, they all share a common set of traits. First these things are difficult and expensive to construct, generally requiring a manual of golem building of some kind. That book, in and of itself, is generally very expensive and quite rare. Despite the commonality of magic and magic items in many settings, golems are most often found in dungeons and the making of them restricted to the long dead or the very powerful. An interesting fact that binds these creations together is also the way in which they are animated. The makers summon and bind an elemental spirit to the construct to control it. Almost always this construct is an earth elemental. There have been exceptions, because why not, but I would bet that the earth elemental is a hold over from the golems of Jewish mythology.
The original golems were those of Jewish folklore who get their name from a word that roughly means raw materials. Classically this material was amorphous and malleable, often clay or mud. Interestingly enough, the word has come to mean dumb or helpless in modern Hebrew and has developed into a Yiddish word that means slow and clumsy. Stories of the golem are incredibly varied, though. It has many rolls from hero to villain to victim and can take on all kinds of forms. How it is created also varies though it still aligns close to D&D including rituals and incantations. Though, to be fair, D&D hasn’t ever specified what those are either. Among the most common themes of these tales comes down to hubris. These are powerful and unintelligent things who will obey the creators commands often with perfect accuracy and quite literally. This creates many problems as the creature causes issues based on the creators inability to confer the internal moderation of intent and it is very difficult to stop it. There are even stories where the only way to stop the creature is to destroy it and, in the process, the creator is also killed.
The theme of hubris and the troubles of creating life, even for good purposes is echoes in many narratives beyond the stories of Jewish folklore. Perhaps the most famous example to people today is that of Frankenstein’s monster. What D&D players have come to know as the flesh golem, is almost assuredly based on the creature from Mary Shelly’s famous story and all the films based on that work. Dr. Victor Frankenstein sought to advance medicine to create life from the bodies of those who were deceased, believing that death did not have to be the end. He strode the line of genius right into obsession and madness, not questioning the ramifications of what might happen should his experiment succeed. While versions of the monster have been diverse in tales and film over the years, one classic take looks to the monster’s brain as a reason to blame for its monstrous qualities. Other scenes reveal that it might just be a side effect of creation and young life with the monster accidentally killing a young girl and not understanding what happened. Regardless to how you might play out a flesh golem, the D&D version gets many of its attributes from those stories though including its stupidity, strength, looks, and fear of fire.
Another version, which I found in my research, is that of the clay boy. This comes from a variety of different cultures and has Yiddish, Slavic and other versions. These tell the tale of a couple with no children, or children who have left home, who are desperate to have children in the house. The result is much like the golem but comedy might also be added to the disaster of creating such a monster. The couples always create a small child from clay which ends up coming to life. They almost always regret it. In fact, one version tells the tale of a clay child which grows and grows and grows. In order to grow it eats and eats. First all the food. Then the livestock. Finally it eats its own creators and more. Like many such tales the end is rather odd. In this case it is a goat who thinks of something to destroy the golem. Who knows, maybe it was someone’s familiar. Or A druid?
We Are The Golems
For inspiration on how to use golems not just in adventures or as crazy constructs and strange NPCs, we need only to look at Greek mythology. The great titan Prometheus is said to have made mankind, despite the fact that we are meant to worship and even look like the Greek gods and not the titans. His love for his creation was great, great enough to disobey the wishes of others and bring fire to mankind. As punishment, Zeus chains Prometheus to a rock for all eternity and an eagle is sent to eat out his liver (the seat of emotion in this mythology). The immortal’s liver grows back each day and, each day, the eagle returns to rip it out and devour it again. What does this have to do with the golem? Well it is because we, the humans, are the golems of this story. While not a direct part of the story, we take fire and progress into greater intelligence and civilization. Of course the result of that comes with wars and other destructive forces. More than that Prometheus was punished for his actions. The themes and trends are different, but they are still there. What ways could you combine the classic golem and this story to create a mythology for your own world? I think the possibilities are endless!
Next time in the Libris Monstrum we are going to cover genies! I love genies and there are so many types and similar creatures all around the world. In the mean time let me know what you think about golems. What are your favorite tales like these? What are your favorite RPG golems? Have an idea for one of your own? Let us know!!