In Jewish myth and folklore, a golem is a human-like figure that is brought to life by powerful magic. They are powerful but simple-minded, and must obey their masters in all things. According to Jewish law, a golem’s life is valued at less than a human’s, for only God, not Man, can give a creature a soul. Golems are usually made from clay, though they can also be made of wood or even ash.
The magic that brings life to a golem comes from Kabbalah, a mystical, esoteric branch of Jewish teaching. It’s said that the prophet Jeremiah used the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), a powerful Kabbalistic text, to create a golem for himself.
The most famous golem tale is that of the 16th-century Golem of Prague. In the tale, Rabbi Judah Loew creates a golem to protect the Jews of Prague against the pogroms, or violent anti-Semitic attacks, common at the time. At first the golem obeys his master, but eventually he turns murderous, rampaging against the community he was meant to protect. Rabbi Loew, fearful for his people, is forced to destroy the creature he’d created. In some versions of this tale, the golem becomes violent because he is unlucky in love. In others, the golem stays obedient to his master, and lies down peacefully when Rabbi Loew ends his life. It’s said that the body of the Golem of Prague is still interred in the attic of the Old New Synagogue in Prague.
Golems in legend are almost always male. However, in one tale, an 11th-century poet and rabbi named Solomon ibn Gabirol creates a female golem out of wood, to be his servant. When the authorities question him about his new serving girl, he explains that she is merely a golem. He then removes the life from her, and she collapses once again into a pile of wood.
Because golems are usually mute and lacking in intelligence, the word golem is also Yiddish slang for someone who’s foolish, clumsy, or slow on the uptake.
In Middle Eastern and Muslim mythology, a jinni (also djinni or genie) is a spirit made of smokeless flame. A jinni (or, to use the plural, jinn) is usually invisible to humans, but can be seen when it wants to be.
There are many types of jinn, both minor and powerful, in the folk-tales and legends of the Middle East. An ifrit, for instance, is a tricksterish kind of jinn that often lives underground. A ghul is an ugly, slow-witted jinn that preys on human flesh; the English word “ghoul” comes from this type of jinn. Many jinn can shape-shift into animals, and disguise themselves as human.
The Western world is probably most familiar with jinn from the book The Thousand Nights and One Night, also known as the Arabian Nights, and its story “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp.” In this story, a boy named Aladdin is tricked by a sorcerer into fetching a magical lamp from a dangerous cave. When Aladdin rubs the lamp, a powerful jinni emerges, who must do Aladdin’s bidding. With the help of the jinni, Aladdin marries a beautiful princess, defeats the sorcerer, and becomes wealthy and powerful.
Jinn are mentioned often in the Q’uran. In Muslim belief, God created the jinn from fire, as humans were created from earth and angels from light. The 78th sura, or verse, of the Q’uran is called Surat al-Jinn. It describes how a group of jinn, upon hearing the Prophet Muhammad speak, renounce their previous beliefs and adopt Muhammad’s monotheism.