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Puppets: A Story of Magical Actors

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Come and see Professor Horn’s Punch & Judy Show on May 2! There will be two shows, a children’s show from 10:30-11:00 am (co-sponsored with the Young Readers’s Center) and a talk and show for adults from noon to 1:00. 

Two Chinese lions, costumes operated by two dancers each, confront each other in the street as a group of people look on.
Chinese Lions confront each other during a Washington D.C. Chinese New Year Celebration in Chinatown. The traditional Chinese lion costume is an example of a “full body puppet” operated by two people. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith (between 1990 and 2006). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Have you ever played with dolls or action figures, making them move and talk? How about wearing a masked costume that covered you so that you became something or someone much different from yourself? Most of us have. In these things there is the origin of puppets. In fact, puppets, dolls, and masks are so closely related that it is difficult to come up with a definition of a puppet that does not include masks and dolls.

The motion of puppets ranges from simple to extremely complex. Some of the simplest puppets have no moving limbs; for example, dolls carved as one piece may be held by their legs with a garment covering the hand and made to walk. Some African puppets have holes in their feet or base that attach to a set of rods or cords to make them seem to walk. Another type of simple puppet has the feet attached to a handle, or simply carved with a handle and figure in one piece, so that the figure can be held with the feet showing. More complex puppets include hand puppets, which cover the hand of the puppeteer; rod puppets, controlled from below with rods; and many-jointed marionettes, controlled by a network of strings. There are even “whole body puppets,” which are masks or false heads attached to a garment or sheath that covers the whole body of one or more people, like the Dancing Lion of Chinese New Year celebrations, which takes more than one person to operate.

Elaborately cut leather puppets on a stage in front of a white screen. The puppeteer sits with his back to the camera. A group of musicians with various instruments sits in the foreground.,
A shadow puppet theater in Java showing the musicians and puppets as they appear in daylight. Detail of a photo from the Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, taken between 1900 and 1923. The full image is at the link.

Now imagine that you are living in prehistoric times. Perhaps you have a deity you worship that has a statue in a temple. Suppose that deity could walk and talk. Wouldn’t that be astonishing? Just as is true in some cultures today, people sometimes thought statues or idols contained some essence of the gods or goddesses they represented, and could come alive or move; the people therefore prayed to them and gave them offerings. It seems likely that in some cultures at least, such statues were made to move through puppetry. The earliest record we have of belief in an animated statue is a papyrus scroll written in Egypt in the 19th century BCE.  This is sometimes identified as the oldest evidence of puppets.

Much older examples of figures that could be moved have been found. A small sculpture of a man’s head, torso, and one arm was found in an Ice Age burial in the Czech Republic. The arm of the figure was clearly pegged so that it could move at the shoulder. (A statue pegged this way is called an articulated figure, and is the ancestor of today’s “action figure.”) The Czech example is the oldest known articulated human figure, and is estimated to be 26,000 years old. (Learn more about this discovery here.) Other ancient examples of figures with joints that could move have been found in Egyptian tombs and in Pre-Columbian burials in Mexico.

The problem with human and animal figures found in prehistoric times, including the Ice Age example, is that we cannot know for sure if they were used as puppets just by looking at them. Still, the ancient examples of figures found in prehistoric sites show that the mechanical skills needed to make puppets are much older than the oldest surviving items known to have been used as puppets, and puppets are probably much older than we can currently show through the written record as well.

Marionettes dressed as knights battle each other with swords and shields on a small stage.
Detail of “Marionette Theater, New York.” No date. George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. [ // ] A 1911 review gives the theater owner and script writer’s name as Antonio Parisi and identifies this tradition as Sicilian. The figures pictured resemble famous Sicilian marionettes popular from the middle ages to the present. See the review here: Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 15 Jan. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.
There are a few theories about where puppets arose, but I am persuaded by those who think the tradition came out of Africa. Not only does the earliest description of a puppet come from Egypt, but an amazing proliferation of puppet types have been found in Africa both in the past and the present. African puppets may be simple or complex, small or huge. A video of a puppet festival among the Dogon people of Mali not only shows the puppets and the festival, but the great importance of the puppet festival to the community that creates it. See the video here:  Toga Nu and Cheko: Change and Continuity in the Art of Mali, produced by the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1989 (29 min.)

Like the figure of the Egyptian deity that could walk and talk, puppets have a long history of being both magical and sacred. On a wonderful carved relief in Bilbao, Guatemala, called “Monument 21” there is a carving of a man dancing holding what seems to be a musical instrument in one hand and a hand puppet of a woman (perhaps a goddess) in the other. He might be a healer or seer, and, as rays seem to come out of his eyes and his tongue is sticking out, his performance is clearly meant to impress. [See “Sounds in Stone: Song, Music, and Dance on Monument 21,  Bilbao, Cotzumalguapa, Guatemala” by Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos,” in PariJournal, vol. 16, no 1, 2015, for a discussion of this carving. PDF, 12 pp.] Hand puppets were also used in healing rituals among some other American Indian peoples.

A man playing a flute has a dog walking on its hind legs on a leash behind him while small puppets in front of him seem to walk as he manipulates them with a string tied to his knee and a board to hold them steady.
Musician with marionettes. Print made from a drawing by the French artist Carle Vernet, c. 1822. This clever one-string method of moving the characters shows that string puppets can be simple or complex. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Puppetry is often seen as both sacred and magical even today. In Southeast Asia, puppets made of expertly cut and decorated paper are used to cast shadows in puppet plays, accompanied by music. These are shadow puppets, that tell stories of gods and heroes, most commonly tales from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. When these puppets are created they are prayed over as part of the process, and a completed puppet is said to be “born” rather than made. Anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson documented the making of shadow puppets on a field project in Bali between 1936–1939. Some video footage of the making of shadow puppets that is part of their documentation is available here.

Early versions of marionettes may have been operated by rods, as some large marionettes still are today. But the ability to make articulated figures also gave rise to puppets operated by strings. The earliest type of string operated puppets are probably pull-string puppets, still found in many parts of the world. These are held by the puppeteer and strings are pulled to move the limbs. This example of a Tsimshian puppet from the Pacific Northwest coast at the Burke Museum in Seattle has hands moved by a pull string, its head is also a rattle. More elaborate string-operated marionettes may have sprung from these: puppets that are moved by strings at a distance so that they appear to move on their own. Marionettes may have first been known in Africa, as figures made by pressing clay into molds to form parts of limbs have been found in Egyptian tombs, and these could have been used as puppets.  Figures made much the same way, but with fewer joints than the Egyptian examples, have also been found in Mayan tombs in North America, but again, we do not know for certain how they were used. Marionettes of India and other parts of Eurasia are often carved of wood, which may be the oldest method of creating them. The marionettes of Europe are first mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 BC).  Interestingly, the French called these puppets ”marionettes” after the Virgin Mary, because they were used for performing Nativity and other religious plays beginning in the middle ages–an indication that association between puppets the sacred existed in European culture, too, until fairly recent times.

Children sit on the grass watching a Punch and Judy puppet presented on a small portable stage.
At the annual Victoria Fair, children enjoy a Punch and Judy puppet show at Victoria Mansion, in downtown Portland, Maine. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2017. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //

Nowadays, puppets are used not only as sacred, ceremonial tools but in secular performances and as playthings. (There is the possibility that they were used in both these ways in prehistory, but there is no way to know.) Puppet theaters include a stage for the puppets and an enclosure to hide the puppeteers, allowing the puppets to perform a complex, scripted drama. This tradition may have arisen first in India, where many kinds of puppets and puppetry theaters are found. By the middle ages, traveling puppet shows were common all over Europe.

One particular set of characters was extremely popular and survives today, known in English as Punch and Judy. Punch is derived from a character in the Italian theater known as commedia dell’arte, which arose in the 16th century. Pulcinella was a fool who carried a club and was always getting into trouble. Although he was a bit of a buffoon, he also said things that ordinary folks did not dare to say, and this made him a beloved character.

Pulcinella became the model for Punch, who, with his wife Judy, entertained old and young alike. You can see what a 19th century English Punch puppet looked like at the Smithsonian Design Museum, at this link. Early Punch and Judy shows often had a moral lesson, but today they may seem violent since they portray many fights, including between husband and wife. Their misbehavior was part of what made them funny. Threats of execution were also a feature of many scripts, with Punch sometimes barely escaping. Such shows might not seem appropriate for children today, but the traveling puppet theaters of Europe gave rise to many of today’s educational and entertaining uses of puppets. Updated scripts for Punch and Judy are keeping these favorite characters alive for modern audiences.

Print shows a woman seated on the floor holding a puppet portraying a woman whose hair and dress are similar to her own.
Sugimotoya no kakae oume. Woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada, 1857. This print shows a shopkeeper holding a puppet that resembles her. The most elaborate Japanese hand puppets of this period were often made as portraits of actual people. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Some of the most astonishing hand puppets can be found in Japan. These are Bunraku puppets made to perform traditional plays from the Edo period (1603 to 1868) when Kabuki theater was the most popular form of entertainment. The puppets’ wooden heads were often carved to resemble actual people, including actors who were famous for their roles.  The puppets can be large and often require at least two puppeteers to manipulate them as one person moves the head and others move their limbs using rods.

Puppets made the leap from the stage to the television and are still popular today. Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the character he created, Charley McCarthy, starred on the stage, in film, and on television. Burr Tillstrom and his hand puppets, Kukla and Ollie, with actor Fran Allison, were early pioneers of the small screen. More adult programs, such as the sci-fi show Thunderbirds, the satirical British sketch comedy Spitting Image, and the American sitcom Alf have all used puppets as primary characters. Puppet TV shows are also very popular in Asia, including the Taiwanese fantasy series Pili, which is produced by a family that has included master puppeteers for over a century.

The most famous modern American puppeteer was Jim Henson (1936–1990), who studied the puppet traditions of many parts of the world and combined techniques to create his “Muppets,” which became famous on TV and then in feature films. Some of the Muppets, like Kermit the Frog, operate like the Bunraku puppets of Japan, as they are both hand puppets and rod puppets. Henson’s more complex creations may combine several techniques, such as the use of strings like marionettes, pull cords operated by a person inside the puppet, or rods to make all the parts work. [This image shows an early Kermit the Frog puppet made by Jim Henson between 1953 and 1959, and gifted to the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, by his family.]

The Maori people of New Zealand have recently decided to revitalize their puppetry tradition. They began by reviving the art of making karetao, puppets with pull-strings to make the arms move. Karetao are carved in one piece including the head, torso, feet, and a handle carved below the feet. Then the arms are made and attached separately. An image of a traditional karetao, made in the early 19th century, is available via the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. These are given beautiful carved decorations based on traditional tattoos. These puppets are being made to perform once again, and shows for today’s audiences are being devised. In Indonesia, the ancient shadow puppets are still performing mythic tales today, but in addition to traditional performances, modern scripts are being created to address today’s concerns, such as teaching religious pluralism and tolerance. The 2017 video Experimental Shadow Theater in Contemporary Bali, Indonesia, presented by Gusti Sudarta and Andy McGraw, explains and demonstrates this updated tradition. It was sponsored by the Asian Division of the Library of Congress and the Indonesian Embassy’s Education and Culture Section.

The ancient art of puppetry, which has been adapted to every age, continues to entertain and educate today. Even when more elaborate methods are invented for creating amazing puppets, very simple puppets and traditions associated with them continue to survive. Hand puppets, for example, can be operated by anyone and are found in many parts of the world. Puppets have never gone out of style–and, with any luck, they never will.

Comments (5)

  1. Dear Stephanie Hall,
    This is a very successful short history of world puppetry! It is hard to include all aspects of the form. Your article does not include mention of early 20th-century experimental work by various avant-garde movements in Europe, from the Symbolists to Dadaists and Bauhaus. But the biggest problem here is your rather startling omission of any mention of puppetry’s central importance as a means of social and political commentary. Such functions are clearly part of most of the global traditions you mention (including Indonesian wayang and Punch and Judy, just to mention two). In particular, it is highly unfortunate that you chose to ignore the work of Peter Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theater, which since the early 1960s has united traditional puppet forms with avant-garde aesthetics and political context to create an enormously influential global form of puppetry which infuses the nature of all puppetry for adults and all of the various form of giant puppetry in street performances and political demonstrations. An essential element of puppetry around the world for many centuries has been its ability to articulate ideas about how communities and societies are organized and governed–i.e., social and political contexts–and this is still strong to this day. Thanks for your article and your attention!

    • Thanks for your comment. It may give others some ideas about history of puppet theater to look for. There is a great deal more to say about puppets, certainly. I may return to the subject another time. For this article I was trying to stick to origins of traditional puppets and various forms, so I only mentioned a few examples of modern puppetry. The various types of theatrical uses and social use are subjects I could only touch on to keep this piece a short introduction. It is a vast subject and deserves a good deal further exploration.

  2. As an African-American female professional puppeteer, I’m loving this article and the comments. Thank you.

  3. As both a folklorist and a life-long fan of puppetry in all its many forms, I was fascinated and charmed by this blog. I so appreciate Stephanie’s research and her voice. I am forwarding to others who may not receive these on a weekly basis.

    • Thank you! I an glad you enjoyed it.

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