Jewish Folklore: Helping you keep your demons, ghosts and monsters straight

October 31, 2013

In the spirit of the season, I've compiled a glossary of the most well-known ghosts, demons and monsters in Jewish mythology. So next time you catch yourself wondering whether you're possessed by a Dybbuk or an Ibbur, or you find yourself wanting to create a Golem to watch your house while you're out of town, you can refer to this handy-dandy manual.

Dybbuk: The malicious ghost of a deceased person that possesses a host body in order to do harm, both to the host, and in general. It only leaves the host once it's accomplished its goal. Although this isn't  a demon, per se, it acts in a similar manner–think along the lines of the possesion in “The Exorcist.”

Example of a Dybbuk being carried by an unfortunate host

Ibbur: A benevolent spirit that incubates inside a host in an attempt to help the host body along. It's usually the ghost of someone who was very righteous or holy during their lifetime.  These spirits choose people they deem worthy of their help, and 'possess' (in the positive, not demonic way) the host person and help them achieve their goals. They act more as a 'spirit guide,' albeit one that the host isn't aware of, more than anything else. The Ibbur just helps the person make the best choices to achieve their goals.

Just a little gentle Ibbur-guiding

Lilith: A demon queen whose descendants, Lillin, are serpant-like/humanoid demons (with wings) who kill children in their cribs or steal them from their families. The name “lil” is Sumerian in origin and means 'screech-owl'–reflecting the ancient association bewteen owls and the demonic world.

Lilith, hanging out in the Garden of Eden between Adam and Eve, wrapped around that evil tree-o-knowledge

Mazzikim/Shedim: These are your run of the mill demons (rather than ghosts). They are often associated with spoiling things (especially food) at inconvenient times. The word 'shedim' means 'foreign gods' and comes from the Akkadian word for demon. They tend to live in deserts, dirty places and ruins or dilapidated/abandoned buildings. Because they also enjoy hanging out in bathrooms, they pose a special danger to uncovered food and water. I bet you never knew that Saran Wrap was protecting you from airborne bacteria AND demons.

Just a pesky demon hanging out 

Golem: The Golem is a creature created by a rabbi to serve the Jewish community when the community needed to be protected. The creature is made of soil or clay and brought to life by the use of alchemical-like formulas described in holy texts. The creature is not possessed by a spirit or ghost, but driven by the ritual to follow the rabbi’s commands and serve the community until he is not needed. The Golem is then called-off and put away. The stories of 'Golems-run-amok' are tales of Golems that did not stop once they were told to, but rather continued on wreaking havoc wherever they went. The most famous story about a Golem is that of Doesn't he look friendly?

Instructions for making a Golem courtesy of the 'Book of Formation' as described by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan:

An initiate should not do it alone, but should always be accompanied by one or two colleagues. The Golem must be made of virgin soil, taken from a place where no man has ever dug. The soil must be kneaded with pure spring water, taken directly from the ground. If this water is placed in any kind of vessel, it can no longer be used. The people making the Golem must purify themselves totally before engaging in this activity, both physically and spiritually. While making the Golem, they must wear clean white vestments… One must not make any mistake or error in the pronunciation… no interruption whatsoever may occur.

So by chanting the appropriate letter arrangements together with the letters of the Tetragrammaton (YHWH or JHVH–Yaweh or Jehovah), the 'creator' could form a very accurate mental picture of a human being. Once the conceptual Golem was completed, the spiritual potential would be transferred to the clay form and animate it. 

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