Puppets throughout history

Puppets have been used throughout history for recording, enriching, and transmitting culture. Puppet stories help communities to heal, know who they are, where they come from, and where they want to go as well as enjoying each other’s stories and laugh. They tell the story of how history “really” was.

Puppets first appeared as a connection with the Divine. Their origins can be traced at the same time that humans began to wonder about death.

Puppets have been prohibited many times. Religion, dictators and “heroes” didn’t like puppets. They had been expelled from the churches in the XVI century.

A puppet is any object that moves and represents something else. Some object animated with movement. With anima, with soul. So, it’s an object with soul. It’s an object made of matter which spirits can come through. It belongs to another kingdom –not animal, not mineral, not vegetable- but symbolic kingdom. It’s the visible part of imagination.

Puppets are objects, carriers of energy with a kind of subversive character, speaking the truth, the wild side of divinity and mystery. They always represent this part of human nature that no false power can destroy. This energy that gives birth to gods, to demons, to fetiches and magic.

Where puppets are there is a rich culture, one that contains both the modern and the primal. Like in New Mexico with all the tradition of the shalakos, kachinas in the native communities and the bultos, santos and virgins that Hispanic culture is so rich.

In Indonesia, one of the most popular forms is shadow puppetry. Even though Java’s converter to Islam, the repertoire still centers on the Hindu Mahabarata. The puppeteer is a very powerful man who can influence politically the audience. It’s convenient for politicians to have a good relationship with the puppeteer. The puppeteer is an artist, a musician, very smart, critical political commentator, and fun. People go to performances in order to hear political commentary.

Last year we went to West Africa, Senegal and Mali to do perform in the villages and to explore about puppetry in those countries and we see for ourselves just how still continues to be used to create and carry culture. Puppets are used in initiation and other social ceremonies and used to provide a safe container for commenting about local events. The strongest tradition is among the Bambara people living along the Niger river. Their sense as a group is based on their perceptions of a shared past, which is rich and authoritative cultural resource. With puppets they explore, construct and intensify their own group identity, and by extension, their relationships with other groups.

Every year after the harvest, the youth in small rural communities are allowed to comments on the events and personalities of past year in a satirical way using puppets. These youth are regularly denied a public voice outside theatre. They used parody to legitimize and praise or to subvert and challenge common behavior, and the comic nature of the material allows the community to laugh at itself. 

The idea of puppets as theatre for kids is a very recent invention – it started in the Victorian salons – where was born the concept to use puppets to entertain and educate rich children to have proper, correct, right, decent manners.

Puppets represent, symbolize and stretch humans and this is what makes them precious. With puppets conflict can be expressed in a healthy way that leads to fun. They are the mirrors that reflect us as humans in distorted ways that allow us to see ourselves from another perspective that alters our perception that leads to compassion.

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