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  • A Living Man, A Clay ManViolence, the Zombie, and the Messianic in H. Leivick’s The Golem
  • Simchi Cohen (bio)

Most commonly associated with Rabbi Judah Leyb ben Bezalel, or the Maharal,1 the sixteenth-century chief rabbi of Prague, the golem was a giant being formed from clay in order to simultaneously function as a domestic servant and to defend Prague’s Jewish ghetto. The root of the word “golem” first appears in Psalms 139:15, an homage to the omnipresence of god. The Hebrew word galmi, or “my unshaped form,” suggests an unformed crudeness that is later appropriated in the golem’s mythology. The myth diverges as to the precise origin of the golem: some stories involve the carving of the Hebrew word emet (truth) on the golem’s forehead, the first letter of which (aleph) is then erased to form the word met (death) for its destruction; some claim that the tetragrammaton must be combined with each letter of the alphabet and pronounced with every possible vowel sound in order to produce the appropriate permutations of the name of god, signaling creation; and others depict a command written on a piece of parchment and placed inside the golem’s mouth. Etymologically, the word is equally difficult to pin down; both Modern Hebrew and Yiddish slang use the word golem to imply a kind of foolishness, but alternatively, the word may have been corrupted from the Hebrew goaleynu (our redeemer). Although the golem is typically classified as a cyborg, android, or automaton,2 it evades the precision of definitive characterization; the golem is depicted as both domestic servant and resistance fighter,3 simultaneously protector and threat, emblematic of both the act of creation and the act of destruction,4 and it is the golem’s evasiveness, its refusal to be fully contained, that locates it squarely in the context of the zombie. [End Page 1]

The figure of the zombie originated in Haitian folklore as an integral element of the island’s religious beliefs: a hybrid of African animism and Roman Catholicism known as “voodoo.” According to Haitian legend, a sorcerer would bring about a victim’s death through a magic potion, capture the victim’s soul, and then reanimate the corpse as a soulless slave. In 1887, amateur anthropologist Lafcadio Hearn traveled to the island of Martinique to study its local customs and folklore, and encountered the legend of the corps cadavers, or “walking dead.” Hearn’s resulting article for Harper’s Magazine, entitled “The Country of the Comers-Back,” introduced the zombie to the English-speaking world. However, the zombie was not widely popularized in the United States until William Buehler Seabrook, an explorer and journalist from Westminster, Maryland, arrived in Haiti to research superstitions in voodoo culture. Seabrook’s travelogue, The Magic Island (1929), details his explorations in Haiti, including his encounter with a Haitian farmer, Polynice, who allegedly secured Seabrook’s first encounter with zombie slaves. The Magic Island’s popularity both inspired the first American zombie film, White Zombie (1932), which exposed voodoo zombies to American cinemagoers, and spawned an important moment in zombie history: the shift from cultural and folkloric belief to pop-cultural representation. As it lumbers across national, cultural, artistic, and intellectual borders, the zombie’s slippery position between the high-brow and the popular and its historical fluidity across the boundary from cultural figure to filmic illustration have since catapulted it to the heights of popularity in both the critical domain and the popular cultural domain.

The Oxford English Dictionary first recorded the term “zombie” in 1819, tracing its etymology to the Creole word zonbi, a person who is believed to have died and been reanimated divested of free will. The zombie thus appears to have clearly defined parameters: associated both with a lack of free will and with reanimation. However, the clearer the parameters appear, the less they account for the variety implicit in narratives about, discourses on, and illustrations of the zombie: dozens of lists and blogs and discussions, books, chronicles, and resources include analyses of such films as The Crazies (1973) and 28 Days Later (2002), neither of which includes actual reanimation; and myriad films...


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