Make your own free website on

The Golem as a Transpersonal Image:

1. A Marker of Cultural Change

Brian L. Lancaster, School of Human Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, Trueman Building, 15-21 Webster Street, Liverpool L3 2ET, UK..


Abstract: The golem a human creature brought into being by ritual means is a recurring theme in Jewish mysticism and folklore. Qualitative changes in the portrayal of the golem may be discerned from the mediaeval period down to our day. The nature of these changes is examined for the light it casts on currents in European thought as the proto-scientific worldview and the Age of Reason were developing. The motif has particular relevance to Wilber s (1995) distinction between the path of ascent and that of descent in psychological and religious terms. The golem relates to those mysteries of incarnation and resurrection which are central to the conflict in worldview between Judaism and Christianity, an understanding of which is relevant to issues of a transpersonal nature in our day.

His disciples said to him, From above to below we know but from below to above we do not know.

He replied, Is it not all one from below to above and from above to below?

They asked further, Master, ascending is not the same as descending because one who descends may do so running, which is not the case with ascending. Not only this, but ascending may be achieved through diverse paths which is not the case with descending.

He said to them, Go out and observe.

The Bahir

The aims of the Transpersonal Psychology Section make explicit reference to Eastern psycho-spiritual traditions, an emphasis which led me to the question, What of Western psycho-spiritual traditions? Of course, there is sufficient breadth within the other stated aims for any such traditions to be included within the Section s scope. Nevertheless, the emphasis leads to a consideration of what exactly we both we in this Section, and we as a society more broadly mean by the term, Eastern. My intention here is briefly to examine this question by way of introducing a discussion of a specific strand of Jewish mysticism, the tradition of the golem a human creature formed by magical means. In this article I focus on the history of the idea of the golem and its cultural context, illustrating the way in which its relationship to currents in European thought becomes relevant to transpersonal psychology. In Part Two I shall examine the ritual of the golem in more detail in order to focus on its psychological features.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines Eastern as Of or pertaining to the East side (sic) of the World. But where exactly does this side begin and end? The OED s other offering, Oriental, is more helpful since this is defined as referring to lands east of the Mediterranean. It is clear, however, that in most cultural uses, and certainly in juxtaposition to psycho-spiritual traditions, Eastern and Western are not being used in simply a geographical sense. As has frequently been remarked in relation to left and right, there are deeper symbolic meanings to spatial directions (Daniels, 1992, pp. 18-27; Domhoff, 1973; Walker, 1977, pp. 146-150). In particular Eastern and Oriental refer to the direction of sunrise. Etymologically, East derives from a range of words referring to dawn and to gods associated with the sun. The OED records a view that Easter celebrating resurrection, and in this sense the rising of light over dark seems to have gained its name from Eostre, a goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox. Even the word yeast, the rising agent, may be derived from this etymological complex. The whole range of meaning connected to East thus revolves around the bringing of light and the arising of the new.

The etymology of West ties it in with evening. Other cognate words include waste: the sun wastes as it sets. Colloquially, something has gone west when it is old and broken.

I would argue that our conceptions of Eastern and Western depend as much on these deeper psychological associations as they do on our perception of the obvious differences in wealth between developed and third world countries and/or our knowledge of any differences in religious traditions.

Returning to the aims of the Transpersonal Psychology Section, the emphasis on Eastern traditions must reflect this sense of the new arising in the East to rejuvenate a wasting West. But, geographically speaking, stultified traditions, as well as those which continue to give rise to genuinely challenging experiences, may be found across the globe. The important point for transpersonal psychology is to find the appropriate language with which to reformulate spiritual traditions wherever they may be found in ways more generally accessible than may be the case were they to remain confined within the parent culture. Such a challenge will, hopefully, not only enrich psychology but also bring fresh insights to the religious tradition in question. One only has to consider, for example, the impact that Jungian psychology has had on many contemporary theologians to recognise this influence from psychology to religion.

An equally fundamental issue is, what exactly constitutes a psycho-spiritual tradition? The problem with this term is that it tends to perpetuate the dualism in our thinking which I believe transpersonal psychology should seek to reduce. The term seems to imply that the physical realm is divorced from where the action really is, namely in the psychological and spiritual realms. The term might be classed a form of cultural imperialism, for it derives from an essentially Christian worldview, in which the physical world in general and the body in particular is somehow antithetical to spiritual progress. Neither Islam nor Judaism ever embraced such a worldview. Using Wilber s recent framework, psycho-spiritual is a term biased towards ascenders (Wilber 1995, 1996).

Wilber s distinction between religious, psychological, or philosophical movements focused in ascending and those focused in descending strikes me as highly pertinent, since, unlike the East-West distinction, it suggests what kind of models transpersonal psychology might usefully employ. For Wilber, ascenders seek the One which lies behind the many forms of experience, and generally deny the physical; descenders emphasise the descent of the One into manifestation, and tend to affirm the physical. Each movement on its own is imbalanced; the ideal is for an integration of the two an ideal which transpersonal psychology should seek to foster. Although Wilber may be correct in suggesting that [a]n almost exclusively Ascending ideal dominated European consciousness for a thousand years (Wilber, 1996, p. 257), that is until the time of Copernicus, there can be little doubt that more esoteric traditions within Europe maintained the quest for balance, as the extract at the head of this article intimates.

The golem tradition superficially represents one of the more extreme examples of the descenders art. Like the Alchemists, the adept engaged with physical matter in order to progress towards his aim. In this case, he would mix earth and water to make the form which he intended to bring to life. Moreover, the many literary and cinematic versions of the basic myth, Frankenstein for example, tend to emphasise the darkness and physicality surrounding the magical procedure itself. (Cinematic use of copious bubbling liquids and sizzling electrical arcs ensure the audience s recognition of the role of magic in the procedure.) Whilst meditation and allied practices are currently typically viewed as Eastern and therefore motivated towards the light (see above), this golem ritual is seen as darkness-motivated. As Cohen remarks in relation to Frankenstein, The monster is a symbol of the darker side of his maker s self (Cohen, 1980, p. 61). I wish to i, however, that such a dichotomy is not only a simplification but, more importantly, serves to hold back our quest for integrative models which may be of value for the development of transpersonal psychology. Descent into the physicality of the golem was, in fact, primarily employed by mediaeval Jewish mystics as a means of ascent to a state of imitatio Dei. As Knapp (1979) suggests, the whole ritual of the golem engages the transcendent function. Exactly how we might understand the transpersonal features in the golem ritual will be explored in Part Two. My interest for the moment lies in the history of the idea of the golem for the light it casts on various changes in European culture, an understanding of which is relevant to the aims of transpersonal psychology.

The key early references for the entire golem tradition appear in the Babylonian Talmud (redacted fifth century CE) and the Sefer Yezirah, thought to have been composed in the Land of Israel around the fourth century CE. Whilst the tradition s inception thus lies East of the Mediterranean, its major elaboration in the mediaeval period was in Northern France and Germany. Of more interest than this trivial East-West question is the substantial split in the development of the Jewish mystical tradition between the communities of Northern Europe (Ashkenazi) and those of Southern Europe, especially Spain (Sefardi). Despite its extremely short length, the Sefer Yezirah formulates two key ideas. Firstly, it states that a system of ten emanations, or sefirot, are the means through which God created the world a notion undoubtedly influenced by Neoplatonism. Secondly, it explores the role of Hebrew letters as agents of creation and their relationships to structures of the human body. In essence, the former doctrine became the centre of the Spanish tradition and the latter underpinned the golem tradition as it developed in Northern Europe.

Idel (1990, p. 278) explains this split in terms of the impact of alien philosophical theologies on the respective Jewish populations. The Jewish élite in Spain from the tenth to the twelfth centuries had considerable dialogue with Islamic philosophers, and Neoplatonic and Aristotelian concepts strongly penetrated their thought. The Northern European Jews, by comparison, were considerably more isolated intellectually from their Christian fellows. The reasons for this are many and complex and would take us on too long a historical detour, but essentially reflect the isolation forced on the Jewish community as a result of Christian anti-Semitism. Most importantly for our present purposes, there was a fundamental conflict of worldview between Judaism and Christianity, which was not the case between Judaism and Islam. This conflict of worldview reverberates down to our day and is therefore of considerable importance for an understanding of Western spirituality. In Wilber s terms, the more mediaeval Christianity stressed the ascending movement, the more Judaism was viewed as espousing the descending.

Despite this intellectual conflict between Judaism and Christianity, there can be little doubt that major currents in the wider society did influence Jewish culture, especially as the impact of the Renaissance reached these Northern regions. In fact, the history of the golem idea symbolically mirrors those currents quite clearly. In mediaeval manuscripts, the golem is not depicted as a creature having any existence or function separate from the ritual in which it is created. The creation of the golem which some manuscripts imply was of the nature of thought forms (Scholem, 1969, p. 188; Idel, op. cit., p. 111-3) was apparently an end in itself. By the sixteenth century, however, the golem began to be viewed as an externalised automaton, accompanying its maker and even waiting on him (Scholem, op. cit., p. 198-9)! Finally, in this transformation of the golem, the seventeenth century sees it growing to enormous size and becoming potentially uncontrollable. Foreshadowing Hollywood s Terminator of our day, this trend culminates in eighteenth-century rabbinic concerns that such a golem might even destroy the world.

I would suggest that these transformations in the idea of the golem reflect shifts in European outlook related to the origins and developmental course of modern science. As Wilber has suggested, the rise of modern science generally dated from Copernicus publication of De Revolutionibus in 1543 only came about once the emphasis on the ascending movement had been replaced by that on descent. As he remarks, [from the Renaissance onwards] the Ascenders were out, the Descenders were in (Wilber, 1995, p. 370). The seeds of the age of Reason were being sown:

Reason, fed up with a millennium of (frustrated) upward-looking, turned its eyes instead to the glories of this manifest world, and followed that descending God who finds its passion and delight and its perfect consummation in the marvels and the wonders of diversity (Wilber, op. cit., p. 370).

The first mention of the golem as an external being created to serve the needs of its creator appears to be in the German Christian scholar, Reuchlin s De Arte Cabalistica, published in 1517. It seems that Reuchlin added this idea himself since it is an emphasis completely absent from the thirteenth-century Hebrew golem text which he was translating (Idel, op. cit., pp. 67 & 177-9). The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries witnessed a rare degree of interchange between Jews and Christians (the Jews concerned having converted to Christianity), and spurred the development of the Christian Kabbalah (see Yates, 1979). These currents played a major part in the development of the Renaissance, for, as Masters notes, Kabbalah contributed significantly to the renewal of spiritual awareness on the part of Renaissance humanists (Masters, 1992, p. 148). Following Reuchlin s work, and the printing of a Latin edition of Sefer Yezirah in 1552, the Jews golem tradition became one of the kabbalistic ideas which fascinated many European thinkers. Perhaps, bearing in mind Wilber s formulation above, this interest may be attributed to the golem s apparent place in the descenders arsenal.

The golem was, of course, irrevocably distorted through this encounter. It is especially noteworthy that the externalisation of the golem as a serving creature came about through Reuchlin s translation. The golem, as it were, escaped from its hermetically sealed (Jewish) world and became a victim of the nascent dualistic spirit. By dualistic, I refer to a worldview in which the physical world becomes separable from thought. For the mediaeval Jewish mystic, the golem was not conceived of as an external creation, for the simple reason that the physical world itself was not an external entity not, at least, in the sense of being independent of thought. The physical world had mentalistic properties, and thought forms generated that world, be they human thought forms or, more generally, those of God.

The externalisation of the golem seems to have been one of the first manifestations of the shift in European thought towards an emphasis on permanence, which Whyte (1962) sees as marking the rise of modern consciousness. His statement that, around 1600-1700 ... transformation was apparently reduced to permanence could aptly be applied to the golem. Moreover, the growth of the golem into an ever larger and more dangerous creature marks its development from victim of the developing scientific worldview to a status as Jungian shadow of the collective mind which began to embrace science and technology with unchecked enthusiasm. The golem is in this respect certainly the forerunner of Frankenstein s monster, which in both its inception and its transmutations in the popular mind, may be seen as a shadow of scientific progress.

As with other esoteric traditions, the sacrifice of the golem was the price to be paid for the all-conquering march of the dualistic worldview which became a necessary forerunner of the growth of science and the Age of Reason. But there is, perhaps, a peculiar poignancy in the fate of the g. The golem can be viewed as an image which goes right to the heart of the split between Judaism and Christianity. Creating a golem entailed vivifying matter, an act which bears comparison with the Resurrection. However, the human role is crucially reversed in the two myths. For Christianity, God descends into the body of Jesus, and the role of mystics became focused on the upward movement represented in the Resurrection and Ascension. In the case of the golem ritual, it is the human who descends to base matter in order to ascend to the divine by imitation of His act of breathing the spirit of life into Adam. Under the influence of the cultural pressures discussed above, the second, ascending, limb of the Jewish ritual became compromised, and, where the Eucharist had introduced the mystery of transubstantiation in ascended form, the golem came to represent the same mystery in descended form.

This fundamental conflict lies at the root of the divergence in the respective religions view of the creation of artificial life. Any parallel to a golem tradition in Christianity became associated with the devil. It is reported of St. Thomas Aquinas that he was on one occasion greeted by a robot created by his teacher, Albertus Magnus. Conceiving the robot to be the work of the devil he cast it into a fire (Cohen, 1966). Similarly, Faust s powers to create artificial life were granted by the devil. Judaism, by comparison, viewed such creation in a positive light: Jewish sources endorsed the propriety of the artificial creation of life as an act of imitatio Dei and as an experience of mystical rapture (Sherwin, 1995, p. 317). The Maharal of Prague writes of the mystic s use of Sefer Yezirah for this purpose that it is in accord with the natural order of the world, a point with interesting ramifications for transpersonal ecology!

Let me focus the argument and draw out its relevance to contemporary transpersonal psychology. With very few exceptions, any and all spiritual traditions Western or Eastern comprise elements potentially of interest to transpersonal psychologists. Beyond the particularities of specific teachings and practices, however, questions of worldview should occupy a prominent place. Transpersonal psychology does not merely seek to add to the subject matter of psychology, but rather it questions the scientific worldview upon which its parent discipline is based. Whether we like it or not, it is inherently radical. Central to its aims, therefore, should be a project to comprehend those historical changes in European society which enabled secular science to develop.

The history of the golem casts a two-fold light on those changes. Firstly, the golem s historical transformations seem to index the psychological impact of the rise of scientific dualism. Secondly, its shadowing of the risen Jesus intimates the conflict between Christianity and Judaism which saddled pre-Renaissance European culture with an imbalanced worldview, one, that is, in which the descending spiritual limb was squeezed from the picture. This conflict was, accordingly, at the root of the subsequent pendulum swing to an over-emphasis on the descending dimension, which catalysed the growth of science. In seeking to conceptualise the transpersonal quest in contemporary psychological terms, we should note that this conflict amounts to a split in the European psyche, for it transcends the particularities of each individual religion. It is a split that, significantly, Wilber overlooks. The events of World War Two, however, testify to the power of that split to penetrate even secularised elements of society. Insights from Eastern traditions can certainly blow a breath of fresh air through tired religious forms. But a transpersonal psychology in Europe should, perhaps, also be especially cognisant of its own backyard.

What of our day? I would argue that the idea of the golem very much lost its worth as a transformative experience from the time that it began to be viewed as a creature having its own existence independent of the adept and of the ritual involved in its creation. Clearly we cannot turn the clock back; we cannot simply reject the cult of individuality to which we are heirs. But, through examining exactly how the golem ritual in its mediaeval form embraced the balancing of descent and ascent, we may at least attempt to translate its transformative potential into terms which transpersonal psychology can begin to digest. As the great scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, famously wrote at the end of his essay on the golem, the historian s task ends where the psychologist s begins (Scholem, op. cit., p. 204). I turn to this task in Part Two of my article.


Bloch, C. (1925). The Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague. Trans. H. Schneidermann. Vienna: Vernay.

Cohen, J. (1966). Human Robots in Myth and Science. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Cohen, J.(1980). The Lineaments of Mind in Historical Perspective. W.H. Freeman.

Cohn, N. (1969). Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World-Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Penguin..

Daniels, M. (1992). Self-discovery the Jungian Way: The Watchword Technique. London: Routledge.

Domhoff, G. W. (1973). But why did they sit on the king s right in the first place? In R. E. Ornstein (ed.), The Nature of Human Consciousness. San Francisco: Freeman.

Idel, M. (1990) Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Knapp, B. L. (1979). The Prometheus Syndrome. Troy, New York: Whitston Publishing Company.

Lancaster, B. L. (1993). The Elements of Judaism. Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element.

Masters, G. M. (1992). Renaissance Kabbalah. In A. Faivre & J. Needleman (eds.) Modern Esoteric Spirituality. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Oates, J. C. (1984) Frankenstein s fallen angel. In M. Shelley [First publ. 1818], Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. University of California Press.

Scholem, G. (1969) On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism. New York: Schocken.

Sherwin, B. L. (1995). The golem, Zevi Ashkenazi, and reproductive biotechnology. Judaism, 44, 314-322.

Walker, B. (1977). Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Whyte, L. L. (1962) The Unconscious before Freud. London: Tavistock Publications. [First publ. 1960.]

Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston & London: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (1996). A Brief History of Everything. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan

Yates, F. A. (1983). The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Home Page Back to Dr. Lancaster Comments Form