Ghost Stories and Tall Tales of the American South

Golem of the Gullah: A Jewish-Gullah Folktale

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Jewish rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina stumbles across a secretive Gullah community – and enlists a magic golem creature to protect it. Written by Sam McDonald.

What city comes to mind when you think bout Jewish folks in America?  New York?  Los Angles?  Well, before the Civil War, it was Charleston, South Carolina that was the heart of Jewish America.  That might sound very strange indeed, but I can assure you, it is a verified fact.  Many wise and learned rabbis made their home in the city, but for our story we’re going to focus on one very special rabbi in particular.  His name was Rabbi Moses, and he could recite the Torah forwards, backwards, and upside-down.  Of course, that was far from his greatest talent.  You see, Rabbi Moses was well-versed in the magics and mystical arts of his people.  Not since the days of King Solomon himself had any man been so versed in sorcery. 

Oh, don’t you worry, we’ll get to talking more about Rabbi Moses’ magic soon enough.  For now, however, we have to talk about a little trip he took.  There was going to be a big meeting of rabbis down in Savannah.  Rabbi Moses hired a horse and carriage, loaded up his belongings, and set off to the meeting.  This was in the days before cars were invented, so travel took a lot longer than it does these days.  Plenty of travelers had some very sore rear-ends because of all the sitting they had to do.  Of course, that wasn’t even the worst part about traveling.

Back in those days, bands of ruthless highwaymen roamed America’s lonely roadways.  These crooks and thieves would lay in-wait to ambush unsuspecting travelers and rob them at gunpoint and knifepoint.  Well, as misfortune would have it, that’s exactly what happened to Rabbi Moses. Now, you might be wondering why Rabbi Moses didn’t just cast a spell on the highwayman. Unfortunately, his magic did not work like that.  Besides, guns have the uncanny ability to turn the brains of even the greatest magicians into melted ice cream.  And I don’t mean just when a bullet is fired. 

“Look here, highwayman, I don’t want no trouble.  I’ll give you all the money that I’ve got if you just let me on my way,” said Rabbi Moses.

The highway man flashed a wicked grin. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mr. Rabbi.  If I did, you might report me to the authorities, and I can’t be having any of that!  But, if you insist, I’ll gladly take your money!”

The highwayman pulled Rabbi Moses out of the carriage and stabbed him with a sharp knife.  He threw Rabbi Moses into a ditch on the side of the road, leaving him for dead, and took off with the carriage and horses.

 Things were looking pretty grim for poor Rabbi Moses.  The night was cold and it was starting to rain.  He was only hanging onto life by a thin strand.  That might very well have been the end of his story, if not for a chance encounter that happened early the next morning.  

Rabbi Moses had been attacked not too far from the home of the Gullah people.  The Gullah were descended from slaves who managed to escape slavery after their masters died of disease.  They mostly lived on the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.  Unlike many slaves, they retained much of the culture of their African ancestors.  They are a fascinating people with a rich culture, but why am I telling you all of this?  Well, as luck would have it, three Gullah children name Shango, Kango and Oya just happened to be walking down the road.  They were looking to catch some frogs, but as you can well imagine, they got more than they bargained for when they looked in that ditch.

“There’s a man down there!  It’s a white man!” exclaimed Oya.

“Ooh, look at his fancy clothes!  I bet he got lots of gold in his pockets!” said Kango.

“Hang on now, that man looks like he’s still got some life in him.  We best be gettin him some help,” said Shango.

View of Sterling Creek Marsh looking southwest, with the marsh in the background and the berm in the foreground - Richmond Hill Plantation, Sterling Creek Marsh, East of Richmond Hill on Ford Neck Road, Richmond Hill, Bryan County, Georgia
Coastal Georgia Marsh. Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress.

The children ran back to their village and told everyone about what they’d found.  Well, as you can well imagine, the Gullah had learned to be mighty suspicious of white folks of the years.  You can hardly blame them, especially considering what their ancestors went through.  Still, they couldn’t just ignore a man who was sitting on death’s door.  Mr. Mansa, who served as the village’s leader, decided that a party of men would be sent to bring Rabbi Moses back to the village.

It took some time, but eventually, the village’s healers and medicine women were able to bring Rabbi Moses back to health.  As he continued to heal, Rabbi Moses began to grow fond of the little village.  The villagers cooked wonderful foods, and they told him stories of the ancestors.  They spoke of Anansi the spider and the great gods Shango and Oya, for whom the children had been named.  He, in turn, told them stories from the Torah and the tales of his people.  For is there truly any better gift than the gift of a good story?

Still, Rabbi Moses wished there was something more he could give to his new friends.  Something that could help them with their housework and farming, perhaps?  Soon enough, Rabbi Moses knew exactly what he’d give to the Gullah.  He instructed Shango, Kango and Oya to help him gather clay from the riverbank.  It took several trips, but eventually they gathered enough clay for the rabbi’s satisfaction.  Rabbi Moses shaped the clay into the form of a man and inscribed the word EMET, which means life in Hebrew, onto the clay man’s forehead.  Then, he leaned in and breathed the breath of life onto the clay man’s face and whispered in its ear.  The rabbi inspected his work, nodded with approval, and sent the children to gathered the village for his big announcement.

“My friends, you have welcomed me with open arms and open hearts.  I wanted to repay your kindness, so I made you this.  It is a golem; he will serve you well and lessen your burdens.  Just speak your command and he will fulfill it.  Rise up, golem!”

At the rabbis command, the golem slowly inched upwards until it was standing fully erect.  As I’m sure you can imagine, this scared the living daylights out of just about everyone in the village.  Rabbi Moses assured them that there was no cause for alarm.  The golem was perfectly harmless, but they all must remember that it was incredibly literal-minded.  The villagers still weren’t entirely sure what they thought of the golem, but they trusted that Rabbi Moses wouldn’t steer them wrong.  Besides, being able to call on the clay man for assistance could prove mighty useful during the workday.  In fact, over the next few days the golem more than earned its place in the village.  It could patch roofs, carry heavy objects, gathered vegetables, catch fish and much more.

Of course, the villagers didn’t always remember what Rabbi Moses said about the golem being literal-minded.  One day, Shango and Kango were bringing back some heavy buckets of water from the river.  They asked the golem to hold the buckets for a minute so that they could rest.  Exactly sixty seconds later, the golem let go of the buckets, and water sloshed all over the ground.  The two boys weren’t eager to lug two more buckets of water all the way to the village, so they asked the golem to get some for them.  Several hours passed, but the golem still hadn’t come back.  The boys decided to go make sure that something hadn’t happened to the golem.  When they got to the river, they found the golem standing in the river, two buckets of water firmly gasped in its hands.  They had told the golem to get water, but not to bring it back to the village.

Another time, Oya felt hungry and asked the golem to make her a delicious stew.  The golem set a pot of water boiling and chopped up some vegetables. The golem added the vegetables and seasonings to the pot, and let them simmer.  Then it grabbed Oya and tried to shove her into the pot!  Thinking quickly, Oya told the golem that she wasn’t hungry anymore and that it should let her go.  The golem released the girl from its grip immediately.  Oya was more than a bit shaken, but the stew did smell delicious, and there was no sense letting food go to waste.  She had to admit, though the golem wasn’t very bright, it was a surprisingly good cook.  

Even Rabbi Moses occasionally had a mishap with the golem.  One evening, he was playing checkers with Mr. Mansa, and the Gullah was beating him something fierce.  In fact, he’d just about won the game they were in the middle of.  Rabbi Moses said he’d give his right arm to be as good at checkers as Mr. Mansa.  The golem was standing nearby when he said this, and it went to get a knife to cut off the rabbi’s arm.  Fortunately, before the golem could do this, the rabbi erased one of the letters on the golem’s forehead so that it now read MET.  This meant death in the Hebrew language.  The golem, now deprived of the spark of life froze dead in its tracks.  Rabbi Moses took the knife from it, rewrote the letter, and restored the golem back to life.  The golem had been effectively reset, so it did not remember what it had been doing.  It just goes to show the even the wisest among us can still make mistakes.

Thankfully, golem-related mishaps tended to be few and far-between.  The villagers learned to watch their words around the golem, and life was good.  Back in Charleston, however, people were beginning to wonder what happened to Rabbi Moses.  There was another rabbi, a good friend of Rabbi Moses, named Rabbi Arron.  Rabbi Arron took it upon himself to assemble a search party to find Rabbi Moses.  They searched and they searched, but they did not find Rabbi Moses.  Then one day, purely by chance, Rabbi Arron overheard some people talking about a village located not too far off-shore.  It was rumored that the village had the magical clay man who helped out with their work and chores.  Rabbi Arron immediately realized that the clay man must be a golem, and it could have only been created by someone like Rabbi Moses.

The search party loaded into a huge ship and sailed around until they found an island with the tell-tale smoke of cooking fires.  It was the worst fears of the Gullah given form.  Everyone feared it wouldn’t be long before they were put in chains just as their ancestors had been.  Rabbi Moses prayed that he’d be able to save his friend from the slavedriver’s lash.

“Rabbi Moses!  I’ve found you!  You’re alive!” said Rabbi Arron. 

“Now see here, Rabbi Arron, I don’t want no trouble.  I’ll come back to Charleston, if that’s what you want, but you leave the Gullah be.  They’re good people, and they’ve done you wrong.”

Rabbi Arron laughed. “You want me to let such fine negroes go?  Oh, you’re a jokester if ever there was one!  Yes sir, they’ll fetch a fine price at the slave auction, and we will be very rich men indeed.”

Rabbi Moses could not believe what he had just heard.  Had Rabbi Arron forgotten of how the Jews had once been slaves in the land of Egypt?  If Rabbi Arron wasn’t going to listen to words, then maybe it was time for action.  The golem was standing almost directly behind Rabbi Arron, who had not seemed to have noticed it.

“Now, golem!  Stop this mad man!”

The golem brought its fist down hard on Rabbi Arron’s head.  He barely had time to react when the golem slammed its other fist down.  Rabbi Arron’s head split open like a watermelon.  The golem then charged towards the other members of the search party, grabbing two in each hand, and shook them like rag dolls before throwing them to the ground.  After the golem roughed-up a few more members of the search party Rabbi Moses held out his hand. 

“Stop golem, that’s enough.  Now all of you listen, and you listen good.  Leave this island and never come back!  The Gullah people are my friends, and they are under my protection.  If I catch any of you coming back and trying to hurt my friends, I’ll make a golem even bigger and stronger than this one.  In fact, I’ll make twelve of them!  You’ve seen what one can do, and believe you me, you do not want to deal with ten golems.  Now away with the lot of you!”

Well, the remaining members of the search party didn’t have to be told twice.  They loaded onto the ship and sailed away as fast as the wind would carry them.  The whole village cheered for joy, and everyone pitched in to throw a big celebration in Rabbi Moses’ honor.  There was singing, dancing, and lots of good food to eat all around.  Rabbi Moses felt blessed, but he also felt a bit sad.  He knew it was only a matter of time before someone else sent out another search party; and he was fairly certain they wouldn’t take it well when they found out what happened to Rabbi Arron.

With a heavy heart, Rabbi Moses made preparations to return to Charleston.  A few days later, Mr. Mansa arranged for Rabbi Moses to he taken back to the mainland on a boat.  The entire village gathered on the dockside to bid him farewell.  Before he left, however, Rabbi Moses ordered the golem to do everything possible to keep the village from coming to harm.  He also made sure that the villagers knew how to control the golem in his absence.  

What happened next you ask?  Well, you see, there’s a bit of debate about that.  Some say that the golem caused the villagers one-too-many mishaps, and they rubbed the writing off its forehead.  Some say that the golem eventually became a pile of clay, and that was that.  Other say that it’s still in the shape that Rabbi Moses crafted it; waiting for when the village needs it most.

Then – and personally, this is the one I choose to believe – there is a tiny unsuspecting island nestled among all the other sea islands.  If you go there, you’ll meet a lot of very friendly Gullah people who will be happy to show you around and teach you about their culture.  If you’re really lucky, and you say long enough, then you just might spot a man helping out around town.  He seems like all the other men in town, but there’s just something a bit off about him.  He’s not much of a talker, and if you didn’t know better, you might even say that his skin looks as though it was sculpted out of clay.

THE END

This story is based on the old Golem legend from Jewish folklore – to learn more read The Golem: Talmudic Legend of a Clay Beast Created to Protect the Jews.

To learn more about Gullah culture read Coastal Georgia Slavery and Gullah Culture.


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One Response to “Golem of the Gullah: A Jewish-Gullah Folktale”


Bill Sharp:

Awesome story.

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