From its origins the puppet has been employed in many rites and rituals. Even the monotheist religions which fought against “idolatry” re-engaged with them or conserved puppet practices that existed in ancient cultures. Among the Native American peoples, a variety of ritual figures, some articulated, have been discovered, but it was above all in the great rites of Asia and Africa that puppets are most present and rich with meaning.

The Cult of the Ancestors and the Creation Myths

It is probable that the oldest rituals employing puppets related to the cult of the ancestors and of the dead. According to many researchers (in particular those investigating Asian puppetry, Willem H. Rassers, Rinnie Tang and Jacques Pimpaneau), these rituals gradually evolved into a theatre of puppets, as illustrated for example by the Indonesian wayang purwa.

In the south of Nigeria, among the Ibibio tribe, there is a myth which dismisses a puppet to the underworld of the ancestors and the dead. A certain man, Akpan Etuk Uyo, is able to enter the underworld and return with the puppet, a story similar to that of the Greek Prometheus who stole fire from the gods for mankind. Another Nigerian myth tells of scenes played by two puppets from Obio Iban Iban, a village of female magicians, which have turned the puppets into men. In the same vein, the mythic belief that in certain African cultures women as well as men may be permitted to fabricate puppets, seems evidence of an ancient battle of the sexes; another creation myth tells how women, under the direction of the Lady-Moon and the powerful sorceress Kra, began to terrorize the men by using their feminine powers to turn themselves into “spirits” represented by masks the women had made. But one day, the husband of Kra, the Man-Sun called Kran, discovered their secret and divulged it to all the other men who, in fury, massacred all the women, sparing only the female children. After that the men in their turn practised secret ceremonies with masks and rituals with the intention of terrorizing their persecutors.

In Africa, the creation of animated figures always arose from the cult of the ancestors, who were regarded as guardians. Progressively these figures were transformed into “good spirits”. Thus the Béti of Cameroon used puppets during the melan, an initiation ceremony intended to ensure the blessing of the dead and the prosperity of the participants (see Cameroon). In order to get in touch with the ancestors, the dignitaries leading the melan practised hands-on manipulation of the relics, the animation of wooden figures (effigies and puppets) and the taking of hallucinogenic drugs. In Côte d’Ivoire, among the Senufo, the organization of the initiation rite known as poro called for mighty wooden statues (between 95 and 150 centimetres high), regarded as sacred, and known as déblé. Preserved in a secret enclosure, these effigies represent the first human couple, mythic characters, and the deaths of both sexes. During the funeral rites of an important person (but also during an initiation), the déblé leave their hiding place and slowly follow the route of the last earthly journey of the dead. This journey towards the hereafter is accompanied by drums, rattles, wooden trumpets and songs. Rhythmically stamping the ground, the heavy base of the statues packs down and flattens the earth for this last journey, helping the dead to leave the world of the living (see Côte d’Ivoire).

The cult of the ancestors was equally pregnant with meaning in Melanesia. The nevimbur ritual on the island of Malekula, in Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides Islands), according to a description given at the beginning of the 20th century, was fully dramatized. The nevimbur was divided into two parts and performed twice separately over the course of several weeks. Mannekins of human size (rambaramp) represented the main characters (Mansip, a mythic hero, his wives and his adversaries) surrounded by other more or less elaborately clothed puppets made of bamboo and leaves. In the first part of the ritual four puppets were destroyed to make way for the birth of other spirits, while in the second part, it was the turn of Mansip and all the other effigies to be burned. This type of tall, realistic mannekin was also utilized for funeral rites, as “doubles” of the deceased.

Funeral Rites and the Cult of the Dead

In certain regions, Africans use puppets in funeral ceremonies in an unexpected form. Among the Bembe of the Republic of the Congo, there exist wooden horns, called nsiba, of human appearance. These musical “puppets” represent a nuclear family: the father (mampongui-nguembo or ngweri), the mother (nsoni-bungu ou tsoni), the daughter (lembe-nsoni or kingungulu) and the son (mpandi-nsoni). Similarly among the Bwende of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), on the occasion of the death of a tribal chief, a specialist craftsman was called upon to make a niombo (corpse), a gigantic mortuary figure made of fabric, containing the body of the deceased. This specialized ritual allows the dead to leave his village community (who are present at the burial) in peace. Carried upright and animated by the bearers, the niombo dances, makes jokes, and, surrounded by his wives, is promenaded through the village, visiting his favourite haunts for the last time before reaching the cemetery. Once at the grave (already dug), several gunshots are fired, when the bearers lower the corpse. As it reaches the bottom all the people in the cortège give a great cry and jump in the air. The ceremony is then given over to songs and games.

There are many other funerary rites in which the puppet is the double of the deceased. Among the Toraja in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, a puppet representing Death accompanies the deceased during the interment ceremony. At first the Toraja arrange it as if seated, then lying down, during a long period of ritual before the corpse is carried to its grave. Different kinds of effigies are used, according to the rank and the region of the deceased. If he or she is a person of the nobility a puppet, known as a tau-tau, is crafted to be used in the ceremonial rites which can often continue for several months after the death. In this respect we may also mention an ancient Chinese custom where humanoid puppets were made to be transported at the head of the funeral procession of a mandarin of high standing. The figures were lightweight, made of bamboo strips covered mostly in red paper. These puppets were burned at the side of the tomb (see China).

Among the Luiseño, or Payómkawichum (“People of the West”), a Native American people who inhabit southern California, even as late as the 1930s or 1940s, puppets representing Death were used in commemorative ceremonies one year after the person’s death. The puppets (in fact the ceremonies were usually commemorating several deaths) were secretly made, consisting of reeds, with the head covered in shiny material and hair glued on, the face painted to resemble that of the deceased. The puppets were then clothed in festival costumes and carried in procession to a sacred place where they were burned. During the cremation of the figures, a sacred dance took place alongside the fire and through this ritual the person represented by the puppet was said to die a second time. The Luiseño people in fact burned their dead just after their death and the commemorative ceremony was a replica of that occasion, with the intention of giving the person a definitive departure into the world of the ancestors, who would thus have had the time to “prepare” a suitable welcome. The puppet here plays an essential role in the remembrance of the dead, necessary for the fruitful outcome of the ritual.

Similar customs exist in other parts of the world, for example among the Bassar, in the north of Togo, at the commemoration or second funeral one or two years after the death of a woman, when the “body” is carried by her husband’s family to the home of her father for a special ceremony. A figurine made of braided raffia, called a unil (human person) and representing the dead woman, is fabricated for the occasion.

Another example of a puppet representing the dead in a commemorative ceremony comes from the Newars, a Hindu/Buddhist people of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, creators of its ancient civilization. They believe that the soul may not enter the world of the dead except on the day of Gai Jatra or Cow Festival, which falls only once a year on the first day of the month of Bhadra. The cows help the souls of the dead to cross the Baitarani River (River Vaitarani), a journey which allows judgement of the vices and virtues of the deceased, opening the way to the hereafter. To represent these dead adults, their families prepare the ritual funeral puppet called tahamaca. The effigy is made with four bamboo poles about 6 metres in height, which are assembled on a staff. Then comes the straw, a photo of the deceased affixed to the face and two paper fans placed atop the head. Straw “horns” represent a cow (supposed to lead the soul to freedom) and an umbrella tops the giant figure. The figure may also be called tahasa (cow). After a second farewell ceremony the puppet is held aloft in procession, for all the community to see, surrounded by cows who will aid its passing into the world of the dead. The horns, carrier, bamboo, and cloth are saved and the face portrait of the dead is sometimes taken home and displayed there after the event. The fans and straw body are thrown into the river.

The dead may also be recalled by anthropomorphic, animated masks which fulfil the same function as the puppet. Among some Melanesians, the Asmat of western Papua (Indonesia), the masks are believed to hold the souls of the dead during the je ti cycle of initiation and mortuary ceremonies celebrated at variable intervals in order to renew the cosmic order. During the second part of the mortuary ceremonies the soul is set free from its temporal existence. The main parts of the body (head, shoulders and torso) are made in the homes of the men. Each mask, called doroe, receives the name of the person it represents. To the figure is added sleeves and basques (bodice or jacket) made from strips of the leaves of the sago palm. The whole figure weighs about 30 kilos. In each mask the head priest identifies the dead person, and their relatives give it welcome. During the days that follow, the doroe stays in the village for a certain time, walking around, accepting offerings and resting in huts specially built for these festivities. But after some weeks of this somewhat prodigal existence, the villagers grow weary of the constant demands of this puppet-spirit and the end of the fête is marked by the ritual putting to death of the doroe.

Puppets can play an important part in the moment of the death of twins. Among the African peoples living on the shores of the bay of Benin, twins are especially revered. If one of the two dies, he or she is replaced by a statuette of wood. This is entrusted to the remaining twin and the “puppet”, like a child, is bathed, dressed, carried about and nourished. If the surviving twin leaves the family home, he takes his “dead twin” with him. If both die, both are reproduced as wooden sculptures and offered to the mother who cares for them as she would children of flesh and blood, finally turning them into cult objects.

It is important to mention the use of reliquaries. In Gabon, among the Fang people, during initiation rites and the cult of the dead, the headpieces of sculpted reliquaries (symbolic portraits of the ancestors, known by the name of bieri), surmounting baskets containing ancestral skulls and bones, are animated like puppets above a curtain of fibre or grasses. These sculptures make little leaps and other simple movements to the sound of an orchestra conducted by a xylophonist.

Sometimes rituals take a more naturalist, not to say macabre form. Olenka Darkowska-Nidzgorska, researcher of African puppetry (Le Chant de l’Oiseau. Puppet Theatre with African Roots), reports the case of certain communities which animate the bodies of their dead, using a specific hidden manipulation which remains a secret, giving the illusion that it is the dead body itself pointing the way to its tomb. Among the Mofu-Gudur of Cameroon, certain operations are carried out on the bones of the dead, to make their manipulation easier, giving the impression of continuing life. Researches in the Republic of Benin (formerly Dahorney) and Nigeria have uncovered other aspects of the cult of the dead. During the ceremonies of the gelede association (see Benin) the participants display all kinds of puppets: hand-held, attached to masks, installed in portable booths. The repertoire of these puppets is usually limited to an amorous dance leading to copulation. The connection between the funeral rites and the sexual act derives from belief in the unity of life and death, found in many cultures and societies, where initiation into adulthood (and thus sex) includes the experience of death. In effect one must die to be born anew, the state of death being in this context expressed by movements miming those of the puppets. It may be supposed that this rite of passage, from death to life, was gradually divided into two separate rites, and that after the rite of birth, the rite of fertility in its widest sense became increasingly important.

Fertility Rites

If the rite of passage has a marked symbolic character, the fertility rite has a precise objective whose effects should ensure the future existence of the tribe. However, societies that some call “primitive” did not make such distinctions. The origins of their rituals were often forgotten, even if its objective, both sacred and pragmatic, remained the same.

Sexual themes often appear in many rituals and for many reasons. The fertility rites obey an analogic magic: their aim is to win from nature and from supernatural forces the best possible harvest. Certain tribes were convinced that copulation had an effect on the germination of seed. Thus the Pipil people of Central America chose a couple whose mission was to accomplish the sexual act at the moment when the first seeds were thrown on the field. In Africa, puppets perform the sexual act in its simplest form, by means of two pantins (jumping jacks) moved by strings attached to their outspread feet (see Toe/Foot Puppet). Usually made of wood and raffia, endowed with impressive genital organs wrapped in tufts of hair, these little puppets interlock, dancing until the final “climax”. This was a popular show in many countries, notably Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Uganda, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and South Africa; there are also some examples in Chad. In addition, mention must be made of the Hausa puppeteers of Niger who place in front of their booth (in the form of a little tent) puppets with large erect phalluses, probably as guardians of their show. Similarly, in the shadow theatre, the tolu bommalata of Andhra Pradesh in India the great phalluses of the clown figures are supposed to turn away the evil eye.

The Anang of Nigeria practise a fertility rite in which importance is given to the animation of a wooden statue, fully articulated. It represents a variant of Mother Nature, clothed in European dress, the face like a mask. The hollow torso is divided in two, probably to allow for the manipulation of its contents, as the cavity is big enough to hold a baby. This curious sculpture-puppet carries the name of Marmee Water or Mère-eka-dans-l’eau and represents a female spirit of fertility. The Anang believe that this spirit inhabits the hills, the sacred places and the rivers. As her name suggests, she lives in water and is immediately recognizable by the python, her familiar, which encircles her neck, her arms and her waist.

The image of the snake is found in other rituals using puppets, for example among the Kuyu (or Koyo) of the Republic of the Congo, at the initiation to the cult of Djo, the god-serpent. For the Hopi Indians of Arizona (United States) the creature represents the vitality of nature in the ritual Palölöqangw held in the presence of the kachinas (see Native American Puppetry). In the centre of the ritual space a great screen (a sort of tent) is placed behind which hidden manipulators animate with strings puppet-serpents to whom offerings are made. The medicine man and other holy men take part in the ritual, also carrying figurines and puppets.

Rites of Healing, Exorcism and Divination

The use of puppets as instruments of healing is widespread in a number of countries, notably Mexico and other parts of North America. In Africa, among the Mitsogo of Gabon, for example, certain healers make their diagnosis through the intermediary of a statuette which they “listen to” or “contemplate”.

On the African continent, puppets are used in the same way as divination objects. Among the Pende of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this kind of puppet is called galukoshi. Placed on the lap of the diviner, it is put in motion to uncover a guilty party. In Côte d’Ivoire, the female diviners of the Sandogo community place their figures on the ground, dance around them and then announce their verdict. In this country many statuettes belonging to the diviners move and speak many languages. In Burkina Faso, the diviner outlines on the sand a special place for the dance of two puppets on a circular socket or stand, attached to each other by a cord operated by the diviner with his big toes. During the séance he invokes ancestors, sacred sites and objects. To bring a response to the problem in question, the movement of the puppets is interpreted by a specialist who is paid for his expertise. In Côte d’Ivoire, among the Senufo, there is a genre of puppet, an effigy between 40 and 90 centimetres in height made of wood, cloth, with feathers on the head and covered with a thick crust of clay mixed with sacrificial blood, whose long articulated arms are thought to serve for the casting of dice. This figure is called kafigueledio, also called “the one who says the truth” (see Côte d’Ivoire).

Used for magic rituals, puppets are regarded by the Africans as powerful objects, fetishes endowed with independent life and supernatural powers. They are a taboo for those unauthorized to deal with them, above all women, children and the uninitiated: to catch sight of a ritual effigy without authorization may bring sterility, sickness or even death. Confined to secret societies and their dignitaries, or to medicine men jealously guarding their potions, the African puppet belongs to the deepest mysteries.

The situation is different in China. The Chinese believed that the puppet, with its eyes wide open, was vulnerable to the evil influence of demons. This is why the puppeteer was obliged to be the protector of his puppets, keeping them sheltered in a special box covered with amulets, their eyes veiled by a cloth on which magic incantations were inscribed. The Taoist priests were expert in the making of such amulets, for which they collaborated with puppeteers. In Asia and particularly in Japan during the 1st Heian dynasty (794-1185), the puppets and dolls were utilized during the high days of Shinto festivals, such as the festival of “Grand Purification”. They were widely used as instruments of magic, for example the figurines called katashiro, and in the “Feast of the Boys and Girls”. They could also be found, with erotic signification, in the Shinto temples.

Ritual Functions Today

Even if they are nowadays employed in popular, more or less elaborate theatre shows, puppets still have ritual functions. The shadow theatre is frequently played in India during festivals celebrating a particular divinity, perhaps to bring rain or to halt an epidemic. In Indonesia, there is the example of the customs surrounding the figure of Devi Sri, goddess of rice, while the wayang is at hand for an individual at every important moment of his life, from conception to birth, from his nomination to a prestigious official post (also the case in China when a short play will be performed), to the moment of marriage and during his funeral. All these also serve to exorcise evil spirits, to prevent illness, and so on. The Indonesians employ the wayang to turn away evil spirits from an individual, and the Chinese call on the puppet theatre to purify their buildings, private homes, public offices, cinemas, etc. to expel demons. In fact, the Chinese believe that these demons are part of objective reality, beyond human individuals. Otherwise, independent of these ritual and sacred functions, many modern performances in India, Indonesia and other countries in South-East Asia may be said to exist within the framework of Hinduism in the presentation of scenes from the celebrated epic poems of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

In India, the productions nearest to a ritual are those given during the festivities in honour of the goddess Bhagavati (Bhadrakali). They normally take place beside a temple. In the Indian state of Kerala there are permanent stages called koothu madam where the tolpava koothu shadow theatre is performed for the goddess Bhadrakali. These three-sided enclosed structures are built in temple courtyards facing the goddess’s temples. According to legend, Bhadrakali was battling the demon Darika at the same time as Rama was battling the demon king Ravana. Since Bhadrakali missed witnessing the defeat of Ravana, the shadow play of the Ramayana and the final battle between Rama and Ravana are performed for her, before her image in her temples. Tolpava koothu is performed by a special community of bard-puppeteers called Pulavar, who have mastered the ancient scripts (the Vedas and the Puranas), but are also capable of playing their own abridged version of the Ramayana, known as the Kamba Ramayana (poet Kambar’s Tamil version of the Ramayana), the telling of which in the past used to last between 7 and 41 days. The pulavar are assisted by a priest who addresses prayers to the goddess before the shadow performance.

In Indonesia, as in other countries marked by the “culture of the rice”, rituals related to this mythic plant are widely practised. Shadow shows (in general the wayang purwa) accompany the rice rituals on the occasion of the purification of a village on the eve of the rice harvest, to invoke rain before the harvest, or above all, to celebrate its accomplishment. On those occasions the performance of Sri machapunggung is shown, which recounts the adventures of Devi Sri, the rice goddess. The dalang – priest, narrator, singer, puppeteer and leader of the orchestra – is responsible for the preparation of the show. He invites the participants to make their offerings to the ancestors to whom he prays, hoping for their approval, after which he spreads incense over the performance area. The dalang thus underlines the religious nature of the occasion. The performance with the most manifest religious significance is the wayang ruwatan which is given in order to warn of the effects of various disasters which may be visited on a descendant judged inadequate or deceptive, or if an individual is possessed by an evil spirit. The function of the exorcism of the ruwatan has been closely studied by European and American researchers. On such an occasion the dalang performs a piece entitled Murwakala, the Birth of Kala. The performance becomes the focus of a magic force of a kind which only an experienced dalang (whose father is no longer alive) can invoke. The presentation is understood only by the initiates, the gods appearing in the disguise of traditional heroes while certain other elements of the show are drawn from everyday life.

In China, by way of ancient superstitions, there exists a general belief that a malicious builder is able to insert in any new building a formula of black magic to affect the lives of those who make it their home, and to summon up one or several demons. From this comes the need to purify any new building. From time immemorial puppeteers have been engaged to give shows with this purifying energy. In an empty house it would have been a piece called Zhao Xuantan Tames the Tiger which was habitually played to chase away the invisible demon, voluntarily quitting the place forever, so great was his fear of the show. The presentation had to be even more frightening for the purification of a temple or a theatre, when the play The King of Ghosts Banishes the Evil Influence was chosen.

The art of the puppet in the region of Guangdong influenced ritual practices which can still be found in Taiwan. One of these is to bring blessings and benevolence to a family or a community from the Jade Emperor or other divinities. In the 19th century, puppets were employed in funeral rites and exorcisms, but today they are present mostly for marriage ceremonies when the chief puppet is called “Chief Marshal Tiandu” who is considered the most powerful intermediary between the people and the gods. The figure is of a chou, a clown in Chinese opera. According to an ancient belief, this puppet, being a comic character, holds all the cards necessary to make a success of his work. Marshal Tiandu says his prayers while another puppet performs short sketches among which there is a famous Reunion symbolically depicting conjugal bliss. All these shows ensure contact with the gods and aim for specific outcomes. Another kind of show tells stories which are not necessarily in tune with the life of the gods. All the same they form part of an intermediate stage between a rite, which is to recall the life and deeds of a divinity, and the theatre. In certain cases, devotion may be completed or replaced by supplications made to expel a danger that threatens all the community, or to invoke aid for a single one of its members, suffering from illness or possessed by evil spirits.

The history of Ritual is very like that of Myth. It is generally admitted that human society has created new, contemporary myths. One can say the same of rites. Ritual as a method of evoking and realizing myth is constantly renewing itself and taking new forms adapted to new conditions of life. It has also been revived in the theatre where, under the influence of Antonin Artaud, among others, an attempt has been made to retrieve its sources and resuscitate certain spiritual values as in the avant-garde movements typified by Jean-Louis Barrault, Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, the Living Theatre and others. In the puppet theatre few companies take up the tradition, excepting Peter Schumann and Bread and Puppet Theater which utilizes ritual forms in its shows, some of which are organized as communions or cortèges. One, entitled the Domestic Resurrection Circus, recalling the mythical combat between Good and Evil, is reinterpreted and transformed for a modern world.


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