Puppets have existed for at least 4000 years. Ancient people used them for rituals and other religious purposes, and many evolved into idols. Later, puppets became a way to communicate ideas. Puppet shows also explored daring topics, such as political satire. Let’s take a look at some of the history surrounding this ancient art form.
Where Did Puppets Originate?
Puppets are part of every society’s history; they were the actors in the theater before humans. The first forms of puppets were manipulated with wire and made of wood, clay and ivory. There’s evidence of puppets in Egypt and ancient Greece. In fact, puppets were such an essential part of Egyptian life that archaeologists found them buried in tombs right alongside the dead. In ancient India, actors weren’t allowed to play the role of their gods, so they used puppets instead.
The oldest written evidence of puppetry is from Herodotus and Xenophon in the 5th century BC. Since the nature of puppetry is one of human tendency, it’s hard to pinpoint its exact origins. It’s more likely that many cultures included a form of puppetry independent of one another and at the same time.
Puppet Show Varieties
In many places around the world, puppets were once a primary source of entertainment. In some countries, they still are, whether in original form or modified for a modern audience. Throughout Europe, Christians used puppet shows to tell bible stories and teach morality lessons. Over time, they became too crude and were no longer allowed in churches. The puppeteers then took their shows to the streets. With a little modification, they began traveling and performing all over. This was the beginning of theatre shows.
Sicilian marionettes soon became popular in Europe, and they still are. Marionettes are larger puppets animated with strings, and often have a big rod going up in their heads. Marionette theaters host operas and old theatre shows like Hamlet and Shakespeare. The English even put real animals in their plays. Dogs would sit on the edge of the stage while the puppets performed.
After the Austrians invaded the Czech Republic, Czechs were only allowed to speak the German language. Their native Czech language wasn’t allowed, except in puppet shows. They used marionette puppets to teach and keep the Czech language and traditions alive. Marionette theatre in the Czech Republic traces back to the early Middle Ages. It was the art of puppetry that kept their language from becoming extinct.
Puppetry in Modern Times
Puppet shows continued to evolve, veering away from shows containing real human actors. Sadly, by the 1800s puppeteers were equal to gypsies and bandits. But these creative people adapted and persevered despite competition from music halls and grand theatre productions.
In American, during the depression, puppeteers wrote their own scripts and handcrafted their marionettes to entertain carnival goers. Fast forward to the 20th century, and you find puppets on television shows like Howdy Doody and Sesame Street. Today, a form of digital puppet exists in 3D animation.
Puppets have always been a part of our lives, used for entertainment, religion, politics, and even saving a native language for posterity. They have taken on many forms such as marionettes, shadow puppets, and hand puppets. Did you realize that they were such a big part of the human experience?