Sunday, June 5, 2011

Who Invented the First Puppets and the Art of Puppetry?

An interesting question -- and perhaps more important, why

The Egyptian Origin of Puppetry and Marionettes
Hoda Nassef Sun, 29/05/2011 - 01:13

Where did this art really begin, and when? Who could say for certain? Up until the present date, and with intensive research, there still is a lot of speculation and controversy. I came up with several documents, after my conversation with the experts at the Drama House, Puppet Theatre, in Cairo, where I met with the main staff; Mr. Mohamed Kishk, a puppet script writer, producer and director as well as the Theatre Director (General Manager); Mr. Emad Gohar, the assistant theatre manager, Mrs. Afaf Sayed El-Khadrawy, the Puppet Theatre’s Information Coordination Manager. I met also Mrs. Nagla Ra’fat, a puppet designer, producer and director – (this attractive 64-year lady has been pensioned off four years ago, but still works as a volunteer at the theatre, out of love and dedication and without any salary). I was also introduced to Mrs. Mohga Mahmoud, who is puppet designer, producer and director.

During the first meeting at the theatre, there was a debate in my presence when we talked about the origin of puppetry. Someone argued that they were originally from Egypt (which I tend to agree to), while someone else said they were originally from Turkey, and a third person present said that they were originally from Greece. However, we all glared at and ignored the fourth person, who declared that they were originally from Romania! Finally, they came collectively to the conclusion that marionettes materialised in Egypt, as far back as the Pharaoh’s Time, while Greece was the founder of “masks”.


In Ancient Egypt, puppets enacted religious rituals. Some were even thrown in the Nile River as an offering, while others were used during the religious celebrations of Isis and Osiris. According to Herodotus, sterile women who wanted to have children participated in parades where legends of progeny and reproduction were played out. Excavations in Old Cairo in 1904 unearthed a complete set of wooden puppets with ivory heads. The “aragoz” (clown) played a major role in reviving literary heritage with stories such as Kalila and Demna, where the stars of the show were mobile animals made of leather. Then came the use of khayal el-dil (silhouettes), which developed into the modern-day puppet show.

As Herodotus describes an Egyptian festival using string-operated figures in a procession, and as he calls these figures neurospasta, then we may say that the word neurospasta refers to these sorts of displays, and not puppet plays, in the sense of theatrical performances. We may also derive from Herodotus that Egypt taught the use of neurospasta to the Greeks, and that the Egyptians invented their use.

Indeed, Herodotus says that much of what Greece has was learnt from the Egyptians. Apart from the string-manipulated puppets, Ancient India too possessed automata. This is attested by Varadpande, referring to the Kamasutra of Vatsayana. Vatsayana mentions puppets with some kind of inbuilt mechanism yantrani. With the help of yantras installed in the puppets, animation is given to them. The existence of mechanised puppets in ancient India can be proved by many literary references.

It is notable that in just this same time frame, in 1211, we have the earliest reference to puppets in Spain from a poem by Girant de Calanso. "The juglar [juggler] (jongleur), says de Calanso, should know how to present puppets (bavastels) and do conjuring tricks (e fey los castells assalhir)". [Mair]

In the Alfonso Manuscript is a miniature where "three Indian seers bring a chess game and a dice game to the Persian king who is portrayed here as a Christian ruler." And around this time, in Persia, we hear of shadow theatre, for the famous Persian poet Omar Khayyam (c. 1050-1123) in his Rubiayat refers to shadow puppet shows.

On the other hand, Metin mentions that "Mediaeval Egyptian shadow puppets [were] discovered in Menzala by Professor Kahle in the early twentieth century…."And, before they came to know shadow theatre, in the 16th century, the Turks enjoyed a long-standing established puppet tradition."

In A Chronological Outline of World Theatre, it indicates that in 1100 "Shadow puppets [were] popular in Egypt", and, "Attar (d.1221), Persian poet, writes of puppet theatre in The Book of the Camel."


Victor H. Mair, in his work Painting and Performance, gives evidence and the probable direction of the diffusion of picture narration out of India to China, Indonesia, Persia, the Middle East, Turkey, and then Europe. The earliest evidence of picture narration in Europe was in Italy in the 10th century AD (these were called "exulted rolls"). So it is safe to say that along with picture narration likely went the Eastern forms of puppetry.


William Dolby, in his article The Origins of Chinese Puppetry, discusses automata and puppetry in China. Perhaps it is a fairly widespread failing to regard the working of simple artificial mechanisms as more wonderful than the commonplace complexities of human movements. This may be why there are, for some periods, more detailed records of automata or ‘fantoccini’ than for hand puppets or marionettes, where human involvement is much more direct and elaborate.

During the years 220-617, it seems clear that water-operated automata of considerable sophistication were known. As Elizabeth I enjoyed her masque on water, so Chinese emperors of various periods were entertained by shows on water, and these sometimes included such automata. There may be a world of difference between automata and manipulative puppetry, but there is evidence for the existence of the latter in China as early as the sixth century A.D. The official history Chiu T'ang-shu, compiled in 945 by Liu Hsu (887-946) and others, says (quote): "K'u-lei-tzu: making wooden models of people and performing plays with them, an excellent medium for song and dance. The latter Ruler of Ch'i, Kao Wei [r. 565-77] was especially fond of them."


One of the earliest Greek references to what is often thought to have been puppets is by Xenophon in his Symposium of 381 BC, supposedly describing a banquet of 40 years before, and the Greek word here usually translated as "puppets" is neurospasta, which literally means "string-pulling", from nervus, meaning either sinew, tendon, muscle, string, or wire, and span, to pull. In the context of this banquet a Syracuse(who is unnamed) employs a young boy and girl who entertain the guests. Since the boy and girl performed dancing and acrobatics, "string (tendon, sinew, or muscle)-pulling" could mean acrobatics in this instance, or even a show of automata - or perhaps, puppets. But considering the Herodotus evidence the reference is most likely to some sort of automata, or primitive puppetry. C. H. Stern discusses this ambiguity: classical antiquity and its exemplary wealth of music and poetry.

European civilization in the Middle Ages was greatly enriched by cultural exchange with the Arabian Emirates in Spain and the passing on of knowledge via Sicily (Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen). George Speaight, in his book The History of the English Puppet Theatre, mentions that: "In the sixth century the Bishop of Alexandria [of the Byzantine Empire] referred to little wooden figures that were shown at weddings, and were moved by some kind of remote control in the actions of dancing."

It is known that medieval churches used automata moved by clockwork mechanisms, to attract the Congregation. Allardyce Nicoll in Masks Mimes and Miracles gives us an early history of puppets in Europe: These, called by various names of which bastaxi, joueurs des basteaux, and juers dels bavastelz, were the commonest, who carried round their small wooden marionettes and gave shows with them.

The art of the puppets had never been lost since the time when Xenophon introduced it at a Greek banquet. Among the entertainments condemned by the Fathers of the Church the neurospasta often figured; Tertullian condemned them under another name, sigillarium. In the Eastern Empire they are found flourishing during the sixth, eighth and twelfth centuries, while in the West there is ample record of their popularity. In the thirteenth century the Provençal roman called Flamenca mentions "the play of puppets" lo juec dels banastelz [should be bavastelz?] and in 1317, the Council of Tarragona condemns the bastaxi; while in the fourteenth century and later, references to them are common.


Before this time, around AD 711, the Moslems had conquered almost all of Spain and soon occupied territories in Portugal and France, plus the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia. They ruled these territories for over 500 years. There are no documents showing when and where Oriental puppets came to Europe, but the example of the history of the game of chess may serve as perhaps the method and path of transference. There exists a Persian manuscript from the 14th century, which describes how an ambassador from India brought chess to the Persian court. "From India, chess made its way to Persia and was thence taken to Europe by the Arab conquerors of medieval Spain" [Grunfeld].

The next European illustrations in history showing puppets come down to us in the Flemish manuscript dated 1344 entitled Li Romans d'Alixandre, in the Bodleian Library. This possesses border decorations, two of which show glove puppets presented from puppet booths practically identical to those used centuries later by English Punch and Judy showmen.

All this proves that puppets of a kind were definitely known by the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations, but were probably only of the dancing and mechanized variety (primitive puppets or automata), as no plays or any descriptions of the puppets are mentioned in the ancient writings to give us any basis for believing that there were puppet plays in the modern sense. Often, there is only the one word neurospasta spoken in passing. In India too, all the supposed references to puppets (e.g., in the Mahabharata) are extremely vague and lacking in detail. When descriptions are given, we see that probably automata displays or very primitive puppet shows are meant.

An ancient Roman reference, written in Latin but using the Greek word neurospasta, is by Gellius in AD 150 who says men are "but a species of ludicrous and ridiculous puppets." So there is a sense that these "string-pulling" marionette acts were looked upon as low entertainment. This is the attitude of most people even today towards puppet shows.

By Hoda Nassef

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