THEY are Jewish giants with glowing eyes and supernatural powers who were fashioned from clay and brought to life to protect Prague's 16th-century ghetto from persecution.
According to Czech legend, Golems were always called forth in times of crisis.
A crisis may not be apparent but the Golem, like the one pictured below, is nevertheless once again experiencing a revival and has spawned a one-monster industry.
There are now Golem hotels, Golem door-making companies, Golem clay figurines (made in China); a recent musical starring a dancing Golem; and a Czech strongman called the Golem who bends iron bars with his teeth. The Golem has also infiltrated Czech cuisine: the menu at the non-kosher restaurant called the Golem features a "rabbi's pocket of beef tenderloin" and a $7 "crisis special" of roast pork and potatoes that would surely have rattled the venerable Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, credited with creating the Golem.
Even US first lady Michelle Obama paid her respects when she visited Loew's grave last month and placed a prayer on a piece of paper and put it near his tombstone.
His creation is well known to the millions of readers of author Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, in which Golems, derived from Jewish tradition, play a starring role.
Eva Bergerova, a theatre director who is staging a play about the Golem, said it was no coincidence that this central European story is ubiquitous at a time of swine flu and economic distress.
"The Golem starts wandering the streets during times of crisis, when people are worried," Bergerova said.
Rabbi Manis Barash, who oversees a Prague institute devoted to Loew's work, said that "because of the financial crisis, people were increasingly turning to spirituality for meaning".
Others, like Jakub Roth, a derivatives trader and a leader of the Jewish community, noted that the Golem had contemporary relevance because he protected sacred values from imminent dangers. "In the past this was anti-Semitism," Roth said. "Today it is global recession, Islamic fundamentalism and Russian aggression."
The proliferation of the Golem also anticipates the 400th anniversary in September of Loew's death in 1609, at nearly 100.
According to one version of Prague's Golem legend, the city's Jews, under the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, were being attacked, falsely accused of using the blood of Christians to perform their rituals.
To protect the community, Loew built the Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River.
He used his knowledge of kabbalah to make it come alive, inscribing the Hebrew word emet, or "truth", on the creature's forehead. The Golem, whom he called Josef and who was known as Yossele, patrolled the ghetto. It is said he could make himself invisible and summon spirits from the dead.
Eventually, the Golem is said to have gone on a murderous rampage – out of unrequited love, some explain. Fearing that he could fall into the wrong hands, Loew smeared clay on the Golem's forehead, turning emet into met, the Hebrew word for death, and putting him to rest in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue.
Though a quintessentially Jewish tale, the saga of the Golem, popularised here in a 1950s film, has long been regarded as a Czech legend.
Benjamin Kuras, a Czech playwright and the author of the book As Golems Go, said the fighting figure of the Golem had appeal in a nation traumatised by centuries of occupation and invasion.
"After living through the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazism and decades of communism, the Czechs are drawn to a character with supernatural powers that will help liberate them from oppression," Kuras said. "Many here don't even realise he is a Jewish monster."