OBSERVATIONS ON THE HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF PUPPETRY
TOYS, DOLLS, AND AUTOMATA
Mesopotamia in Iraq, Pharaonical Egypt, Minoa in Crete, and the Harappan in Pakistan (also called the Indus Valley civilization) were all advanced cultures that existed contemporaneously by 3000 - 2500 BC. Egypt in 2000 BC had a string-operated figure of wood that performed the action of kneading bread, plus many other toys pulled by strings. Also one of the earliest civilisations that had toys worked by strings was the Harappan in 2400 BC which possessed toy cattle with heads moveable by strings, and clay monkeys that slid down a cord. The Indian scholar M.L. Varadpande affirms that: "Puppets with detachable limbs which can be manipulated by strings are also found in abundance." Of these toys and puppets found at Harappan sites, Gwen White supplies important information on the manufacturing of them: "Others near the River Indus were carved in the city of Chanhudaro, which specialised in the making of toys. There may even have been professional toy-makers to make the monkey-like animals with moveable arms and the bulls with nodding heads which worked by a stiff fibre." Both ancient Egypt and India have the oldest string motivated figures ever found. (See pictures). There has been some speculation by scholars that the ancient Indian civilization was derived, at least partly, from that of the Egyptian, but this is only conjecture.
ANCIENT INDIAN AND EGYPTIAN STRING OPERATED FIGURINES
Dancing dwarfs in ivory. The figures move through the use of strings and a pulley.
Found at Lisht during excavations in 1934 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York, which has a fourth dwarf from the set.
Height - 7.8 cm. Egypt - Middle Kingdom - 12th Dynasty
String operated figure kneading dough, Egypt, 2000 BC. Articulated Indian figurine: pre-2nd or -3rd century BC.
Toys and dolls are often
thought to be the ancestors of the puppet. This is indicated when we examine
the etymology of the word "puppet" in several Indo-European
languages. Richard Pischel, the renowned German Orientalist, describes the
words for puppet in the ancient language of India: "The words for puppet
in Sanskrit are putrika,
duhtrika, puttali, puttalika, all of which mean _little daughter'." To
this, William Ridgeway remarks: "The use of such terms as _little
daughter' or _little girl' for puppets is not peculiar to the Hindus, since the
regular Greek term kore (which does not occur earlier than the fourth century before
Christ), as well as the latin pupa and pupula all mean _little girl'."
Gustave Schlegel in his review of Stuart Culin's 1895 book Korean Games with notes on the corresponding games of China and Japan , states poup_e "is derived from the Latin pupa, a girl (Comp[are]. pupus, a boy, pupulus, a little boy - all derived from the S[ans]k[ri]t. root push, to nourish.)" Poup_e being the word for doll in French, and perhaps one of the derivations for the English word for puppet, we can now see clearly why dolls and puppets are considered closely related to each other. In many other Indo-European languages, frequently an identical word is used to mean either "puppet", or "doll": in Italian bambola, in Polish lalka, in German Puppe, in Latin pupa, etc. This is also true of many Indian languages (see Chapter Two for examples of Indian names of shadow theatres where "doll" and "puppet" are inter-changeable).
In ancient Greece and Rome clay dolls (and a few of ivory) were found in children's tombs.
Roman Comic Character (puppet?) Ancient Greek Doll (?) of Clay/Terracotta
These dolls had articulated arms and legs, and what is significant is that certain of them also had an iron rod extending upward from the tops of their heads. This rod was used to manipulate the doll from above, exactly as is done today in Sicily in their puppet theatre called the opera dei pupi, wherein legends of Charlemagne and his paladins are presented.
Modern-day opera dei pupi
In addition, a few of these dolls had strings in place of the rods. Some authorities give these ancient figures as mere toys and not puppets. Indeed, these figures are always very small, so their use as puppets is suspect. These dolls date from around 500 BC, for the earliest of them.
The ancient Greek and Roman authors are often said to have mentioned puppets
and puppet plays, usually as a metaphor. However, the references for the most
part are extremely vague and occur without any descriptions of a puppet theatre
or a play. 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, therefore in 421 BC. 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 Syracusian (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 (see
below) the reference is most likely to some sort of automata, or primitive
puppetry. C. H. Stern discusses this ambiguity:
In asserting that the Greeks had puppets in the 4th century B.C., we take the word of Charles Magnin (whose history was written early in the 19th century) who took the word of Mariantonio Lupi (whose history was written early in the 18th century) who cited a passage in Xenophon's Symposium...In IV 55 the showman remarks that fools support him by seeing his neurospasta--literally string-pulling. But there is no mention of a puppet-show at the banquet...Passages in VII 2 and IX 2 describe the rest of his show, which consisted of a dance-pantomime by the boy and girl. Was string-pulling a figure of speech for show-management? Xenophon gives no direct evidence that puppets were involved, though this does not preclude the possibility of their having existed at the time.
In India, the word sutradhar(a) refers to the show-manager of theatrical performances (or a
puppet-player), and also means literally "string-puller" or
"string-holder", exactly as does the Greek word neurospasta, which cannot be merely a
There is not one single representation of a puppet show (or automata) in the entire corpus of Greek and Roman paintings, which describe almost every aspect of their daily life. Ancient Egypt too, is known for recording each detail of the everyday life of their society, yet no puppets (or children playing with their dolls for that matter), are recorded. The famous Egyptian "paddle dolls" have proven to be not dolls at all, but representations of concubines for the dead in the afterlife, as indicated by the inscriptions on the "dolls" themselves. The Harappan string-operated figures may also have had a ritual use. But in light of the fact that ancient Egyptian and Harappan archaeological finds show abundant evidence of children's games, the doll and the toy could not have been long in arriving.
Automata and puppets were probably originally invented in order to be used in ancient Greek and Egyptian burials and rituals where the figurines were expected to come to life to serve the dead in the afterlife, and move during the ceremonies. The ancient Egyptian civilization was peculiar in its intense desire that the figurines put into the tombs should come to life. Therefore, we have this impetus for the invention of various means to motivate the stationary figures in ceremonies and rituals. They had a great fear of even wall paintings coming to life, and so had the "dangerous" entities disabled in the paintings by leaving out the legs, or defacing them. And we know that automata also definitely existed in ancient Greece because Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria (who lived sometime between 200 BC and the 3rd century AD) published a treatise describing in great detail the workings and displays of these sorts of entertainments.
Herodotus, the father of history, writing in 445 BC, describes the origin of the Greek neurospasta, and this passage is the first occurrence of that word in ancient literature:
The rest of the festival of Dionysius is ordered by the Egyptians much as it is by the Greeks, except for the dances; but in place of the phallus they have invented the use of puppets [neurospasta] a cubit long moved by strings, which are carried about the villages by women, the male member [phallus] moving and near as big as the rest of the body.
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 sort 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 learned from the Egyptians.
Ancient India too possessed automata. This is attested by Varadpande, who says, referring to the Kamasutra of Vatsayana (early centuries AD):
Apart from the string-manipulated puppets, Vatsayana mentions puppets with some kind of inbuilt mechanism yantrani. With the help of yantras installed in the puppets, animation is given to them, says Yashodhara, the commentator of the Kamasutra. The existence of mechanised puppets in ancient India can be proved by many literary references.
He goes on to say that "In the sixth chapter of Kathasaritsagar, a compendium of Gundhya's (c. 400-300 BC) ancient collection of folk tales in the Paishachi language, mechanised puppets are mentioned."
In 326 BC, Alexander the Great invaded India and founded Greek settlements and camps in the northwestern parts. It is very likely that Alexander brought actors and entertainers with him on his campaigns. Soon after this time, in India, we hear of the beginning of classical Sanskrit theatre. Although it is probable that India possessed their own indigenous theatre traditions prior to the Greek invasion, their classical (literary) theatre did not begin until after the incursion of Alexander and the Greeks. We note that ancient Greek literature mentions puppetry at an earlier date than does the literature of India (that is to say, the Indian evidence cannot be dated with certainty). The mention of puppets in the Mahabharata is impossible to date with any accuracy, as, like The Bible in the West, it is a series of writings all composed at different dates and in different eras. But considering the date of the final version of this epic, the reference given (following) must certainly be very old. (The Mahabharata was first written down at approximately 500 BC, and the last added writings are dated at around AD 350, after centuries of being passed down through oral transmission.)
Victor H. Mair provides us with this reference. He says:
From a passage in the ancient epic Mahabharata, it is apparent that entertainers like saubhika [see below, my Chapter Two] and puppet-players generally had an abysmally low social position in early India:
"_(...) Appearance on the boards of a theatre and disguising oneself in various forms, exhibition of puppets, the sale of spirits and meat, and trading in iron and leather, should never be taken up for purposes of living by one who had never before been engaged in those professions every one of which is regarded as censurable in the world. It hath been heard by us that if one engaged in them can abandon them, one then acquires great merit.'"
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: "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".
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-pullings" were looked upon as low entertainment. This is the attitude of most people even today towards puppet shows.
One surprisingly little-quoted ancient Greek work that is usually translated by English scholars as a reference to puppets, and which seems to describe the mode of presentation of puppet shows at that time, is that by Plato in his Republic, Chapter VII ("The Allegory of the Cave", probably written in 366 BC). We give here a few different English translations for purposes of comparison:
...as exhibitors of puppets have a screen before the persons who exhibit them, over which they show the puppets.
...like the screen over which puppet players put up their puppets.
...like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
...like the screen at puppet shows between the operators and their audience, above which they show their puppets.
...like the screens which conjurors put up in front of their audience, and above which they show their wonders.
We must point out that most of the translators of this passage give the Greek
as "puppet players", but one author translates it as
"conjurors". In the 1989 Oxford Dictionary of Modern Greek this word is
given as "juggler" (i.e., jongleur), which compares well with the
alternate use of the word "conjurors" in the last translation quoted.
Jongleurs were travelling showmen who exhibited tricks and various sorts of
street entertainments, sometimes including puppet shows. We will return to this
passage of Plato in the next chapter, when shadow plays are discussed.
Before we leave this topic, we will supply a few more quotations from the ancient Greek and Roman authors:
...you are moved like a wooden puppet by wires that others pull (Horace; Satires).
In Latin this is: duceris ut nervis alienis mobile lignum. You will note that neither the Greek neurospasta nor the Latin pupa is used in this instance. To continue:
The Athenians yielded to Potheinus the marionette-player [neurospastes] the very stage on which Euripides and his contemporaries performed their inspired plays (Athenaeus; The Deipnosophists).
All these, as in marionette shows [neurospastoumena], are drawn with strings by the understanding, now resting, now moving, each with the attitudes and with the movements appropriate to it (Philo; On the Creation).
...no longer to be a puppet pulled by selfish impulse [neurospasthqhnai(?)].
...scurrying of startled mice, marionettes dancing to strings [neurospastoumena] (Emperor Marcus Antoninus; Meditations).
All this proves that puppets of a kind were definitely known by the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, 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.