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Karagiozis: The Puppet that Raised Generations of Greeks

Karagiozis shadow puppet
A shadow puppet theater in downtown Athens displaying a giant cutout of Karagiozis to the left of the door. Credit: Aeleftherios/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Karagiozis, the main character of Greek shadow puppet theater shows, has been a constant  presence in the lives of generations of children in Greece.

Stories featuring Karagoizis are generally funny and entertaining; however the character himself is a slightly tragic hero, living in poverty during the Ottoman Empire.

History of shadow puppet theater in Greece

Shadow puppet shows first became popularized in the Ottoman Empire during the 14th century, and likely came to mainland Greece in the early 19th century with immigrants from Asia Minor.

The much beloved Greek Karagiozis character stems from Turkish shadow puppet plays called Karagoz and Hacivat. In the original Turkish, “Karagoz” means “dark eye.” Today, these stories have remained relevant year-round in Greece, whereas in Turkey, Karagoz and Hacivat are mostly only performed and watched during the holy month of Ramadan.

By the late 19th century, the story of Karagiozis became Hellenised by Dimitrios Sardounis, who was nicknamed “Mimaros”, in Patras, Greece.

Traditionally, the puppets involved in these plays were created using brightly-dyed camel skin, although this has fallen out of favor over time. Instead, the puppets are now made using cardboard, in order to preserve the translucent but still vividly-colored figures.

Karagiozis and the extended cast of characters in these plays are all depicted in side profile, with movable arms which are pivoted by puppeteers by long pins which extend from the back of the puppets.

Shadows are cast onto the white cloth background by candles or lamps, in order for the audience to be able to see the figures and colors of the puppets without being able to see the puppeteer.

Stories involving Karagiozis

Karagiozis himself is poor and hunchbacked, with ragged clothing and bare feet. His family is shown to live in a small cottage, which is often contrasted with the Sultan’s palace to the right of the screen. Stories involving him take place in the Ottoman Empire, during which many Greeks would have likely related to his poverty.

However, most stories involving Karagiozis display him as a scrappy but cunning trickster, who is always attempting to get money through some new scheme.

One of the most important other characters is Hadjiavatis, who is a titular character in the Turkish version, named Hacivat. Hadjiavatis is Karagiozis’ friend and sidekick, but differs from him in that he is depicted as an honest and serious man.

Despite his proclivities, Hadjiavatis always seems to end up sucked into one of Karagiozis’ schemes in the plays. Often, there is the sense that Hadjiavatis represents Greeks who were complacent and compliant with the Ottoman establishment.

There are two broad categories of Karagiozis stories, the “Hero” style story and the “Comedic” story. Stories which fall into the former category depict Karagiozis helping an important hero under Ottoman rule.

Although stories can vary and individual puppeteers are known to devise their own new stories involving the same cast of characters, there is a basic formula which these stories follow.

  1. Karagiozis appears in the scene with his three sons dancing and singing. He welcomes the audience and has a comical dialogue with his children. He then announces the title of the episode and enters his cottage.
  2. The Vizier (a high-ranking Muslim political advisor) or a local Ottoman lord meets with Hadjiavatis and reports that he has a problem and needs someone to perform a deed.
  3. Hadjiavatis obeys and starts announcing the news (usually a singing sequence) until Karagiozis hears about it.
  4. Initially annoyed by Hadjiavatis’ shouting, he realizes this is an opportunity to gain money (either by helping the Vizier or not) and sometimes asks Hadjiavatis to aid him.
  5. Karagiozis either attempts to help the Vizier — or to fool him. Common characters, such as villagers and aristocrats, appear one at a time in the scene. Often, they are introduced using a song which is associated with them. Karagiozis has a funny dialogue with them, and either mocks them, fools them, or becomes annoyed and ousts them in a violent manner.
  6. Finally, Karagiozis is either rewarded by the Vizier — or his mischief is revealed and he is punished — usually by the Vizier’s bodyguard, Veligekas.
  7. At the end, Hadjiavatis appears on the screen and together with Karagiozis they announce the end of the show.

Karagiozis in today’s Greece

Throughout the 20th century, Karagiozis and his friends were one of the premier forms of entertainment in Greece. Despite a slight decline in popularity, they still remain relevant today, and school children will often take field trips to a shadow puppet theater to watch classic stories involving this cast of characters.

During the 1980s, Karagiozis and his friends made their television screen debut. The Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation ran a show involving the beloved characters which often included modernized and educational themes. Some of the most notable episodes involved the shadow puppet acting out the most well-known stories from Greek mythology to teach children vital moral lessons.

On a more daily basis, the word “Karagiozis” is also used as an insult by many Greeks. Calling someone a Karagiozis means that they are foolish to the point of comedy, akin to calling someone a “clown” in English.

Despite newer and more technologically-advanced forms of entertainment, Karagiozis and the cast of characters which supplement his stories enjoy continued relevance in Greek society and for Greek children to this day.

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