History of String Puppets

Written by pamela ann ludwig
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History of String Puppets
Many marionettes are made of wood. (Marionetas image by Ivan Vilas from Fotolia.com)

String puppets are beloved and adored by children and adults alike. Many cultures have used string puppets, also called marionettes, for entertainment, artistic and even religious and political purposes. In different areas of the world, string puppets vary greatly in their function, design and artistic execution.

Ancient World

There is evidence that marionettes were used as toys or entertainment for children in classical Greece. Dolls have been found alongside children in grave sites dating from this period. Archaeologists who unearthed these dolls found holes for string manipulation, leading them to believe that these dolls were in fact marionettes. Writings from Plato and Aristotle also mention puppet performances, confirming this theory.

Marionettes as Divine

String puppets have been associated with the divine. The term "marionette" means "little Mary," after the Virgin Mary of the Christian tradition. Some scholars believe this alludes to the fact that many Christian plays were performed with Mary as a puppet character. Others postulate that the term refers to the "divine" effect that is achieved by being manipulated from above by strings. This manipulation makes the puppets ethereal, as if floating.

Chinese Marionettes

The Chinese as well as the Europeans recognised the link between string puppets and the divine. Though many forms of puppetry exist in China, marionettes have traditionally had a specific function. String puppet performances were said to drive away evil spirits and were used to offer thanks and praise to the gods.

Czech Puppets

In the Czech Republic, puppets are famous for their detailed construction and variety of characters. Czech puppet theatre is a formal affair, with entire theatres dedicated to the performances of marionette shows. Operas are a popular theme. Puppeteers work the marionettes as opera singers perform backstage, hidden from the audience.

Opera dei Pupi

In the Italian island of Sicily, the "Opera dei Pupi" (puppet opera) has become a cherished cultural tradition. The Opera dei Pupi is distinct from other puppet performances in Europe and is exclusive to Sicily. When travelling through Sicily, you will know that a string puppet performance is about to begin when you recognise the distinctive horse-drawn cart. The puppet theatre travels in this cart and performs shows around the island. The carts have become regarded as works of art in their own right, painted in bright, colourful designs. Sicilian puppets are known for their exquisite detail and lifelike historical costumes. Opera dei Pupi shows act out stories from history. The Crusades and the numerous conquests of Sicily by neighbouring empires are common themes.

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