Teaching Greek mythology with shadow puppets

Zeus falls in love with Danae who is locked in a bronze tower

Shadow puppetry, an ancient form of puppetry in which flat puppets are moved between a screen and a light source, is a creative, hands-on tool for teaching Greek mythology. Showing the audience only shadows of their puppets, children can let Kronos eat his offspring, open Zeus’ head for Athena’s birth, turn Daphne into a laurel tree, and slay Medusa’s head without bloodshed. With the help of an overhead projector they can also let Persephone grow colorful flowers, make Icarus fall in a very real sea, and even ride Pegasus themselves. You can put up a performance in a matter of hours, or spend weeks on something on a larger scale. Shadow puppetry is animation without a computer. It is flexible, great fun, and it will never break your budget. On this site some information and ideas.

Puppets, light and screen

What kind of light and screen to use depends on what you want to do in the classroom. Do you want small groups to work from desktop screens and present to their classmates only? Or do you want to work from a large screen as a group, using an overhead projector? You can find information about puppets, light and screens on my site about teaching with shadow puppetry, which includes guidelines, tips, and references to further resources.

Individual or team projects on desk top screens

Minotaur (9 years old)

If you like the children to work on their own or in small groups it is possible to use desktop screens and puppets (see my site about desktop shadow puppetry). Children could present their favorite gods or goddesses, heroes or mythic creature to their classmates, or do so in teams, for instance with a skit about couples from Greek mythology (Theseus and the Minotaur, Orpheus and Euridice, Apollo and Artemis etc.).

Alternatively, small groups of children may act out simple myths with few characters. The text can be provided in advance or written by the group itself after research. In this case, one of the children should act as the narrator.

Group or class projects with a larger screen

The use of a larger screen and an overhead projector enhances the possibilities for group or class projects, which may result in performances for parents or other classes.

Pandora’s Box, a five minute performance shown above, was put together by a class of twelve 4th and 5th graders at a local Unitarian Universalist congregation in the context of the curriculum “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” The performance took six teaching hours to prepare, during which the students made puppets and masks, and decided about the evils stored in the box, which they drew on transparencies. The text was written and narrated by teachers. The preparation hours included practice time.

Choosing your myth(s)

Artemis watching Orion (puppet and background on screen)
Artemis watching Orion after turning into a constellation (puppet and background on screen)

When choosing which myth(s) to perform with your class you have to be practical. Are there enough roles to distribute or split? Can the story be visualized well, and are you able to use any “special effects”? Where does the theme fit in the curriculum? Do you want it to be a class project only, or are you working with other teachers of the same grade? If your school has the luxury of an art or music teacher, are there any possibilities for cooperation? How much time do you want to spend on the project?

If you want to keep it small and work with either desktop screens or one big screen, you can choose to have groups act out parts of a larger myth, such as the twelve labors of Herakles (Hercules). Alternatively, you can work on a group of myths around a certain theme. The Greek mythology for students series by Schlesinger Media (a set of 10 dvds which you may be able to borrow through your library) gives an excellent introduction to themes in Greek mythology, with animations of some of the most famous myths.

Storyboarding and writing a script

Sisyphus (4th grader) pushing a boulder uphill (ball on projector)
Sisyphus (4th grader) pushing a boulder uphill (ball on projector)

If you are working on one project it is recommended to have the whole class involved in the storyboarding. This means you have to divide the story up into individual scenes, with not more than four characters in each (the maximum of children fitting behind the screen. Bystanders can be projected on transparencies). The scene shown to the left was part of a performance of two parallel 4th grade classes, who each performed a myth about Perseus and the head of Medusa. Instead of using one screen we alternated scenes on two, which much increased the pace of the performance.

When deciding which scenes to include in the story it is important that the children understand the oral tradition in which myths were shaped. Stories were embellished and changed when they were passed on, resulting in many different traditions. Just like Greek poets, artists, and playwrights at the time, the children can be free to decide which elements of a myth they want to include, emphasize, adapt, or leave out. After all, stories from Greek mythology have been used for different interpretations in literature and art up to this day!

The class that acted out the story of Andromeda chose to let Perseus rescue Andromeda and fly back home on the back of Pegasus, the winged horse that was born from Medusa’s dead body. In none of the written sources in antiquity, however, this actually happens, and the image of Perseus riding Pegasus has only been used in art, centuries later. The children were aware of this, but were in favor of using Pegasus nonetheless, because it worked out better in the story.

Scene from the Andromeda myth (4th grade), using direct projection and transparent film on a rolling rack (instructions for the rack in Worlds of Shadow)

Timing and division of labor

Whichever story is chosen for a performance, there are always characters of more or less importance, and a long-winding story that provides enough scenes and characters for everybody may easily lose its thread. There are various ways around this problem, and with a bit of improvising it should be possible to make everybody feel they are involved and contributing to the performance.

It is always possible to split up main characters in the story, as long as they are recognizable, for instance by always having the same attribute (you can let the children do image research on Theoi Greek Mythology. Be prepared for giggles because of male nudity on vases!). Sometimes puppets should be held by two people, particularly when they are large, and when humidity makes the paper floppier. Alternatively, puppets can be made in different formats, allowing more children to act out the same character (see direct projection and masks).

4th grade performance of the Perseus and Medusa myth: finding Gorgon sisters asleep
4th grade performance of the Perseus and Medusa myth: finding Gorgon sisters asleep

It may be wise to start your unit with an introduction during which all children make a puppet that can be taken home. After this they often know themselves if they would like to be a puppeteer, or prefer to play another part in the performance, for instance by drawing background sceneries on transparencies, be a narrator, or be part of the overhead projector group (popular!) or the sound and music crew.

The 4th grade classes who performed the two Perseus myths mentioned above were divided into four groups: puppeteers (making and holding puppets and props), visual artists (making and projecting background scenes on the overhead projector), writers and narrators (narrating scenes they had written individually or as a group), and musicians. The latter group worked with the music teacher and composed and performed the music that accompanied the scenes.

A note about size

Children often have difficulty sketching out the puppets in a large enough format with appropriately sized limbs that have enough space around the pivoting points. It helps to let them use examples or mannequins, which some children may like to trace and adapt.

Templates for Greek man and woman
Click on image to download PDF

It is easy to go wild about all the possible body parts that can be made to move. Children should realize, however, that they can only move one part at the time (unless there are two puppeteers holding one puppet). Which part of the body should be moveable depends on the role of the puppet. Perseus, for instance, has to use his arm to slay Medusa (his head must turn around too to avoid petrification) while Pandora has to bend over to open the box.

You are welcome to use the template of a Greek man and woman with overlapping body parts (right) to serve as a model. Enlarged to 150% on 14″x11″ (A3) size paper, puppets this size are big enough to be seen by a larger audience. Make sure the children understand that the body parts on the example are overlapping and should not be cut off. It will cripple their puppet!

View more Greek mythology cutouts

Going bigger: direct projection and masks

maskIf you want to have some variety in size (to have the effect of “zooming in” or to emphasize the difference between gods and mortals) there are two ways of doing so. One way is by using masks, as is done in both of the video examples above. The masks should be big enough to prevent the child’s head blocking the eye hole. A moving jaw can let the puppets talk.

Another way is to put puppets directly on the overhead projector. Moving a puppet from projector to screen (keeping it in the light beam) may cause the effect of transformation or descending to earth. With careful coordination it will even be possible to let puppets on screen and projector interact, for instance during moments when gods and mortals meet.

Performance ideas

The constellation of Pegasus in the sky, shown by black paper with punched holes on the overhead screen.

If you provide a basic screen (see instructions) the children will easily come up with ideas about decorations. The two lamp poles supporting the screen shown to the left were decorated as temple pillars, made out of a white paper. The screen was connected to a second screen by another long piece of paper, behind which the children were hiding when they were not working behind a screen.

In addition to the narrators you may consider adding a chorus (speaking or singing) that comments on the events in the story, just like in real Greek theater.

There are many possibilities for an exciting time! Have fun!

Problems or questions

If you have any comments or questions I would send me an email or use the comment box below.

Are you teaching Greek mythology? Let your students engage with learning in a new way using shadow puppetry. Save this pin and check out the article to learn how to use shadow puppetry to teach Greek mythology. Free downloads and cut-outs included!Shadow puppetry home page
More Greek mythology projects

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *