Kokopelli, distinguished by his hunch-back, dancing pose, and flute, is the only anthropomorphic petroglyph to have a name, an identity, and an established gender. His name may have been derived from the Zuni name for god (“Koko”) and the Indian name for the Dessert Robber Fly (“pelli”). His association with the Desert Robber Fly may stem from the fact that this insect too, has a hump on his back and a prominent proboscis.
Kokopelli is known by other names, as well. To the Hopi, he is known as “Kokopilau” – meaning “wood hump”. To others, he is known as Kokopele, Kokopetiyot, and Olowlowishkya. He also bears a nickname – “Casanova of the Cliff Dwellers”, a tribute to his image and legend. Kokopelli’’s lesser known female counterpart is known as “Kokopelli Mana”.
Kokopelli’s image varies as much as the legends about him, but he is generally depicted as a hunch-back flute player in a dancing pose with a festive crest on his head, and sometimes exhibiting male genitalia of exaggerated size. Images painted on ceramics ten centuries ago by the Hohokam (Arizona Pueblo) have become the prototype for modern representations.
Kokopelli’s hump is sometimes represented as an arc which covers his entire back. Other times, it covers only the lower half of his back. His arms are usually represented as a “V” shape with his elbows pointing down toward the Earth. His forward leg is usually represented as a continuation of the curved line which outlines his hump. Likewise, his rear leg is usually represented as a continuation of the front line of his body. The flute, which is actually a nose flute, is usually represented as a straight line, or pair of straight lines. Sometimes, however, it is curved. Often, it has a bulbous end – like the end of a clarinet. An even number of crest elements are usually found on Kokopelli’s head. In Pueblo culture, the festive crest represents the paired antennae of the katydid (grasshopper), with which he is sometimes associated. When being represented in the “Spirit World”, he appears with feathers on his head. In other depictions, the crest on his head represents rays of light.
When present, Kokopelli’s phallus is unusually long and erect, symbolizing the fertile seeds of human reproduction. It usually projects upward from the lower body and is sometimes only represented as a single line or arrow. His phallus is clearly depicted in a thousand year old bowl displayed at Mesa Verde National Park. It is thought that Kokopelli’s image was “cleaned up” over the years (his phallus depicted less often) due, in part, to the influence of Catholic priests who worked hard to Christianize the natives of the American Southwest. In the modern genre, Kokopelli often wears a kilt and a sash.
Contemporary artists who have playfully portrayed Kokopelli as a skier, scuba diver, golfer, and rock star can be found, for sure. But there is no documentation to support the historical accuracy of any of these representations, except perhaps, his portrayal as a rock star. He certainly appears on many rocks in the Southwest!
The legend of Kokopelli is wonderfully rich and entertaining. Though, his origin as a deity and the evolution of his role in Southwestern Indian culture is difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct. Evidenced by a huge number of ancient artifacts, it is clear that Kokopelli was important to many Native American tribes. He is especially prominent in the ancient Anasazi culture of the “Four Corners” area (Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah). Some have compared his importance to the Southwestern Indians to that of Abraham to the Jews and that of Paul to the Christians.
Still revered by current descendants of Native Americans (including the Hopi, Taos, and Acoma Pueblo peoples), he is truly one of the most intriguing and widespread images to have survived from ancient Indian mythology. His whimsical nature, charitable deeds, and vital spirit are the primary reasons why he achieved such a prominent position in Native American mysticism. He possessed a playful, carefree nature that seemed to bring out the “good” in everyone. Kokopelli is so irresistibly charismatic that he has been reinvented time and time again for thousands of years by storytellers, artists, and craftsmen. Many people, like the hosts of KokOasis.com, believe his magical properties still delight and abound.
Known to some as a magician, to others he was a storyteller, teacher, healer, trickster, trader, or god of the harvest. Some even credit Kokopelli with being the “original” journalist. Almost universally however, he was regarded as a harbinger of fertility, assuring success in hunting, growing crops, and human conception. The Anasazi, who were first to claim Kokopelli, were primarily farmers who grew corn, beans, and squash on the Colorado Plateau. They regarded Kokopelli as a fertility symbol and he was always welcomed during corn planting season. A visit from Kokopelli insured that a good harvest was in store. According to Navajo legend, Kokopelli was the God of Harvest and Plenty – a benign minor god who brought abundant rain and food to people. The Zuni also regarded him as a Rain Priest, able to make it rain at will.
Others regarded him as a Spiritual Priest with actual healing powers. When Hopi women could not bear children, they would seek him out because he was able to restore their childbearing powers. According to Hopi legend, Kokopelli spent most of his time sewing seed and seducing the daughters of the village while his wife, Kokopelli Mana, ran after the men! The Winnebago believed Kokopelli was capable of detaching his penis (ouch) and sending it down the river to “have his way” with the innocent young maidens who were bathing in the stream.
The lore of southern Utah paints Kokopelli as a little man who used to travel throughout the villages carrying a bag of corn seed on his back, teaching the people how to plant as he traveled. He was also said to have traded beads and shells for pieces of turquoise. Some speculate that this image of Kokopelli may have been derived from traveling traders of the time who announced their arrival by playing a flute as they approached – a tradition that is still practiced in Central America.
Many different legends exist about what Kokopelli actually carried in his sack. In Pueblo myths, he carried seeds, babies, and blankets to offer the maidens he seduced. According to the Navajo, his hump was made of clouds filled with seeds and rainbows. In the Hopi village of Oraibi, they believe he carried deer skin shirts and moccasins which he used to barter for brides or babies which he left with the young women. Others believe that Kokopelli’s sack contained the seeds of all the plants and flowers of the world, which he scattered every Spring.
According to San Ildefonso legend, Kokopelli was a wandering minstrel who carried songs on his back, trading new songs for old ones. According to this legend, Kokopelli brought good luck and prosperity to anyone who listened to his songs. Kokopelli embodied everything pure and spiritual about music. He and his magical flute traveled from village to village bestowing gifts and spreading cheer to all whom he visited. His flute was said to symbolize happiness and joy. When he played his flute, the sun came out, the snow melted, grass began to grow, birds began to sing, and all the animals gathered around to hear his songs. His flute music soothed the Earth and made it ready to receive his seed. The magic of his flute was also thought to stimulate creativity and help good dreams come true.