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I wonder if Jack Davis, the University of Illinois graduate who created the Chief Illiniwek logo in 1980, feels like he created a golem? If you already know what a golem is, you can probably skip the next couple of paragraphs. But for those readers unfamiliar with the term, allow me to explain.

First, a golem is not to be confused with Gollum, the character from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (though there are certainly some parallels between the two).

The Hebrew word golem appears only once in the Bible, in Psalm 139:16, where it is translated (according to the NRSV) as unformed substance: “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”

Although the term is found only in that one passage, it is tied to the second Genesis creation myth. In Genesis 2:7 we find a play on Hebrew words telling how God formed adam (human being) out of adamah (dirt). The Jewish Talmud specifies that the human being was initially formed as a golem out of the clay.

It is in ancient Jewish folklore and the mystical traditions of Kabbalah where we find a more fully developed golem. Here the golem is no longer just a shapeless mass of mud, but something that is given life — not by God, as in the creation myth, but by human beings themselves. In some stories the golem’s life comes from the Hebrew word emet (truth), which is written on its head; the golem turns back into clay when the first letter is erased, producing the Hebrew word met (dead). But sometimes the golem is not so easily dispatched. Many tales explain how the human creator loses control over the golem, which grows larger and larger and subsequently crushes its master.

It is an ancient story of hubris that has been retold many times:

In Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1797) and the symphonic setting of this poem by Paul Dukas (1897), the golem is a broomstick which is brought to life by the apprentice in order to do his chores. The apprentice loses control of the broomstick and it subsequently causes a flood. The broomstick is tamed and the flood contained only when the sorcerer returns.

In Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein (1818), Viktor Frankenstein brings to life a golem created from the body parts of corpses. The creature kills several people and Viktor himself dies while trying to pursue and kill the monster.

In the movie The Matrix (1999), the human-created machines (computers with artificial intelligence) are no longer under human control, but instead have imprisoned all of humanity in the Matrix — a virtual-reality illusion created to deceive the human mind while the human body is used as a battery to run the machines.

Not only does the golem surface in literature and cinema, but unsurprisingly, in the news as well. If you remember the 1980s, there were plenty of stories about how the CIA trained Osama bin Laden in order to fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Sure enough, years later, bin Laden turns on the United States and into an out-of-control terrorist that continues to provoke and elude our nation.

There are golems everywhere — perhaps because they have become an archetype that resonates in the human subconscious. And perhaps that’s why, when I heard about Jack Davis and the Chief logo, the idea of the golem popped into my head. After all, Davis relinquished control of his creation and now he’s struggling to get it back (by filing a lawsuit against the University in federal court).

But why does Davis want his golem back? What will he do with it? Will he destroy it once and for all? Or will he continue to use it for his own purposes?

Of course, the logo is only a small part of a much larger golem: Chief Illiniwek. In many ways, Jack Davis’ logo helped to create the Chief. Sure, he didn’t create the character, it’s costume or dance — but he did provide the Chief with an iconic image that has worked its way into the collective consciousness and onto the T-shirts of many Illini fans.

I have to admit, from a purely aesthetic point of view, the Chief logo is quite appealing. It is clean, symmetrical, and almost classical in its form. And it has a mandala-like quality that alludes to something spiritual — even sacred. It almost makes me forget that I’m looking at a racist stereotype. Subconsciously, we are led to believe that, since the design of the logo is attractive, the thing it represents must also be attractive. It’s one of the oldest advertising tricks in the world.

And it’s one of the tricks of a golem. The golem appears on the outside to be human, but it has no soul.

Another trick of the golem, as we all know from pretty much every horror movie we’ve ever seen, is that just when you think it’s dead, it isn’t. I hope Chief Illiniwek is gone for good, but my instincts tell me otherwise. Plus, the Chief is just one golem of many. Others will arise. The golems receive their life not from magic, but from human arrogance and selfishness that manifests itself in racism, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, xenophobia and all other forms of hatred and oppression. When we can acknowledge this emet (truth), then the golems just might be met (dead) for good.

Chief Image courtesy of Kiyoshi Martinez