Monster Born in a Dream

Monster Born in a Dream

In medieval Jewish folklore, a robotlike servant shaped from mud to resemble a man was magically endowed with life. It was called a golem, which originally meant "matter without shape." According to the Talmud, Adam was created in seven stages, beginning with the collection of dust and continuing through a shapeless mass (golem). He was complete, ready to stand on his feet, when he received a soul.

The golem could be kind and virtuous but, because it was without a soul, was unable to do anything except follow the instructions of its master. This it did, in a most literal way, often inadvertently causing great destruction. The golem was activated by a charm called a shem, a paper inscribed with one of the names of God. When the shem was placed in the mouth or inserted in the head of the inert mass, it possessed the ability to move about and obey commands.

The most famous of these imaginary creatures was the Golem of Prague, said to have been created by the Rabbi Judah Lowe in the late 16th century. Lowe used the creature as his weekday servant, but on Friday afternoons he removed the shem that gave it life so that it could rest on the Sabbath. One weekend the rabbi neglected to take out the charm, and the golem ran amok; after Lowe caught it and removed the shem, the creature crumpled to dust. The main purpose of the rabbi's golem had been to protect Jews from anti—Semitic violence. With the help of his golem, the rabbi was very successful in bringing criminals to justice and exposing anti—Semitism. He once discovered just in time that the Passover matzoth had been poisoned.

Another golem, created by a Rabbi Jaffe in Russian Poland, was given the tasks of lighting fires and performing other duties not permissible to Jews on the Sabbath. On one occasion this creature far exceeded its orders and burned up practically everything in sight before it was destroyed.

The golems of Jewish mythology also served as an inspiration for a 19th—century writer's masterpiece of horror. So fascinated was the writer by the golem that one night she dreamed of this soulless monster wandering abroad. Her imagination took over as she recognized the tragedy of a life with no guidance, hope, or purpose.

Outside a gloomy Swiss chateau the night was wild, split by several storms that raked the landscape with forked bolts of lightning. Inside the chateau an 18—year—old girl sat among friends by the flickering fire. She listened with fascination as the men in the group discussed the evolution theories of one Erasmus Darwin (father of Charles Darwin), and she joined their conversation when it turned to their common interest in the supernatural.

The friends agreed that before retiring for the night they would each write a ghost story, but the girl, feeling the need for sleep, promised to write her story the next morning. During the night, she was awakened by a nightmare so vivid that she stayed awake. She was so shaken by the experience that she feared sleep lest the same nightmare return.

At the first light of dawn she began to write down her dream: "By the glimmer of the half—extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs." And so was recorded the birth and awakening of Frankenstein's monster.

The year was 1816, and the girl was Mary Wollstonecraft, who later became the wife of the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The chateau was the Swiss home of exiled poet Lord Byron. Two years later her nightmarish dream was published as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (since Prometheus had also attempted to create a human from mud).

The Gothic novel recounts the story of Frankenstein, a medical student who builds a human body of parts gathered from dissecting rooms, butcher shops, and cemeteries. He animates the creature, but because it lacks a soul the monster of Frankenstein, like the golem, is responsible only to its creator. Moreover, as often happened with golems, it breaks out of his control. Longing for sympathy and shunned by everyone, the creature ultimately turns to evil and brings dreadful retribution and eventual destruction on Frankenstein for creating him.

Hollywood has taken many liberties with the only noteworthy book written by Mary Shelley, and many films—some good, more bad, others both funny and frightful—have re—created the subject matter. The creature, called the Monster by Shelley and identified as "It" by its maker, is often confused with its creator and is popularly called Frankenstein. The story ends with the Monster addressing an explorer after it has killed Frankenstein and all of his loved ones. It explains that Frankenstein, who created a man without love or friend or soul, was actually the real monster.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning