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Shadow Puppetry and Religion

The early beginnings of shadow puppetry tend to give indications that it is used mainly as an entertainment feature, especially in early China, where the ancient form of this art served as a means to give pleasure to the Chinese emperors then.

However, in many Asian countries, shadow puppetry began as a creation of 16th century Islamic teachers, accompanied with legends that tell how Islamic saints, called wali in Indonesia, used the art of shadow puppetry, called wayang, to teach their religion. Additionally, local tradition mentions that the performance of a typical shadow puppetry, referred to as wayang kulit, was preceded by a scroll property called the wayang beber.

Modern-day shadow puppetry still carry, more or less, the same theme. However, many such performances today are interspersed with a touch of comedy and humor, mainly to attract the younger generation of shadow puppetry viewers. Shadow puppetry in its later versions, commonly known as marionettes, also became involved in another great religion, Christianity. More particularly, in the Middle Ages, the Christian Church made use of puppets in order to spread the word as well as other church doctrines. Serving as puppeteers then were the monks and the priests.

It is worth noting here, by the way, that the term marionette, actually means "little Mary". Marionettes were the most common form of puppetry then and the term may have come from the figure of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, as presented in the Nativity story. Another possible root word of the term is "marotte" which means "fool's scepter." Incidentally, the Nativity, the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, was a favorite puppet play among 16th century puppeteers who, as mentioned before, were portrayed by monks and priests.

At the turn of the century, puppeteers began to entertain themes for their presentation that were not religious in tone. The Church, by that time, has made solid grounds and thus decided that puppets were no longer effective tools to further spread its teachings. It is also during this time that the humorous nature of the business of puppetry started to surface. This eventually took the place of the religious side of puppetry and has remained so at present in many parts of the world.

It cannot be denied, however, that puppetry and its early form, shadow puppetry, was, to a great extent, religious in nature. This side of shadow puppetry is still quite evident today, especially in many Asian religions, where shadow puppet performances still depict tales of the Mahabharata which focuses on the never-ending struggle between good and evil, specifically of the struggle between the five noble Pandawa brothers and their hundred Kurawa cousins. Other performances, meanwhile, tell stories of indigenous heroes like the great Javanese Prince Panji or tales of Amir Hamzah, an uncle of Mohammed, the founder of the Islamic religion.

Religious or not, it cannot be denied that shadow puppetry has served some purpose in its audience. For one, it is a form of entertainment and also, a medium where the audience can surely get some lessons.


Please enjoy these free hand shadow puppets and learn interesting facts on shadow puppets.

Learn to make hand shadow puppets and the history of making shadow puppets and hand puppets.

Shadow puppets have a long history and lots of interesting shadow puppet and hand puppet facts exist.

These free hand puppet examples are for you to try your hand at creating shadow puppets and hand puppets, and hopefully put on your very own shadow puppet show!

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Images and portions of the text by Henry Bursill and were originally published by Griffith and Farran in 1859.