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Kokopelli: (or Kokopilau):
The Flute Player
Kokopelli is a figure commonly found
in petroglyphs and pottery throughout the southwest. Since the
first petroglyphs were carved around 3,000 years ago, he predates
even Oraibi, the oldest continuous settlement in North America.
He is regarded as the universal symbol of fertility for all
life, be it crops, hopes, dreams, or love. Some legends suggest
that Kokopelli was an ancient Toltec trader who traveled routes
between Mexico, the west coast, the southwest, and possibly
even as far as the eastern areas of the U.S. Documented finds
lend truth to these legends as dentalium shells, which are only
found in certain coastal areas, and macaw feathers from Mexico
have been unearthed here in northern new Mexico and Arizona.
Kokopelli was said to play a flute
as he traveled to pronounce his arrival to the villagers and
it was considered the greatest of honors to be the women he
chose to be his "dreamtime companion" for his duration
of time in the village as many of these women apparently bore
children from these unions.
About Kokopelli Hopi legend tells
us that upon their entrance onto this, the fourth world, the
Hopi people were met by an Eagle who shot an arrow into the
two "mahus," insects which carried the power of heat.
They immediately began playing such uplifting melodies on their
flutes that they healed their own pierced bodies. The Hopi then
began their separate migrations and each "mahu" would
scatter seeds of fruits and vegetables onto the barren land.
Over them, each played his flute to bring warmth and make the
His name -- KOKO for wood and Pilau
for hump (which was the bag of seeds he always carried)-- was
given to him on this long journey. It is said that he draws
that heat from the center of the Earth. He has come down to
us as the loving spirit of fertility -- of the Earth and humanity.
His invisible presence is felt whenever life come forth from
seed -- plants or animals.
A search of the web reveals the
extent of the commercialization of the Kokopelli image -- you
name it ... jewelry, sculpture, t-shirts, artwork ... and you'll
find him . Thus, I suppose he qualifies as one of the universal
symbols that Carl Jung talked about.
ON THE TRAIL OF KOKOPELLI
Text and Photos Jay W. Sharp The Southwest Indians Humpbacked
Flute Player, commonly known by the Hopi word "Kokopelli,"
usually appears on stone or ceramics or plaster as part of a
galaxy of ancient characters and symbols. On a steep canyon
wall above the Little Colorado river north of Springerville,
Arizona, however, a Kokopelli pecked into a basaltic boulder
appears in absolute isolation. Against the black rock surface
formed by primal forces, this strange and lonely figure, with
its apparent mal-formed back and long flute, seems to drift
through the infinite vastness of space, transcending time and
place, sending his plaintive music across the universe. There
is a sense of omnipresence, of the eternal. The early artist
probably a shaman, or medicine man, seeking an entranceway
to the spirit world may have understood a profound truth,
and he may have intentionally
used the surface to express the universality of that truth.
Of course, he may have simply used
the boulders surface as a convenient place to peck a Kokopelli
figure. There is no way to know with certainty what the artist
had in mind, but his work can set your imagination churning.
Kokopelli has stirred imaginations for a long time. Of the lexicon
of characters featured in the age-old religions, rituals, folk
tales, ceramics, rock art and murals of Southwestern Indians,
there are few more enduring than Kokopelli. He is so irresistibly
charismatic that he had been reinvented time and again for well
over 1000 years by southwestern artists, craftsmen and storytellers.
The process continues to this day. In the modern genre, he usually
wears a kilt and sash and a feathered headdress. Back arced
forward like a rainbow, he plays his ancient instrument. He
dances solemnly. He graces paintings, sculptures, ceramics,
jewelry, textiles and books in galleries and festivals in New
Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and western Texas. He is an
icon of the region.
In earlier times, Kokopelli was far
more than an icon. There is, in fact, considerable evidence
that he was an important deity to Southwestern Indians. His
images are among the most widely distributed of any in the prehistoric
and historic Indian sites of the Southwest. Kokopelli may have
been as important to the Southwestern Indians as Abraham is
to Jews or Paul, to Christians. Ubiquitous as the figure is,
the origins of Kokopelli as a deity and the evolution of his
role in Southwestern Indian life are difficult if not impossible
to reconstruct. It is like trying to assemble an immense and
mysterious jigsaw puzzle made up of a jumble of a few distinguishable
pieces, many indistinguishable pieces, innumerable missing pieces,
and numerous possibly unrelated pieces.
In classic form, a silhouetted and
sometimes phallic Kokopelli appears to either suffer a humped
back or to carry a bulging pack. He plays his flute like a New
Orleans jazz musician plays a clarinet. He may be depicted as
walking to some now unknown destination, lying on his back,
sitting with crossed legs, dancing to a prehistoric beat, making
love to a woman, even perching on the head of another figure
He appears in many forms. In Galisteo Basin rock art in New
Mexico, for instance, he takes on the guise of a humpbacked
At Sand Island, Utah, he appears
as a flute-playing mountain sheep. In rock art on West Mesa,
near Albuquerque, Kokopelli wears a headdress, necklaces and
a kilt. On rock art south of Holbrook, Arizona, he wears a kilt
and sash. On a prehistoric bowl from the Zuni reservation, he
appears as an insect, possibly the locust which led the Pueblo
peoples mythological emergence from the underworld onto
the surface of the earth. On rock art in the Arizonas
Petrified Forest and Canyon de Chelly and near Moab, Utah, Kokopelli
turns up with a bird for a head. He is also represented in many
Unmistakable Kokopelli images in
rock art, for example, range
from stick figures in Chaco Canyon to spare, abstract stylizations
in Colorados San Canyon to simple outlines near Arizonas
Hardscrabble Wash to solid figures near Velarde, New Mexico.
Elegant Kokopelli images painted on ceramics ten centuries ago
by the Hohokam, a southern Arizona Pueblo culture, have become
the prototype for modern portrayals. As indicated by his images,
Kokopelli seems to have played a featured role in numerous defining
moments of Southwestern Native American life. He leads processions
of people, perhaps on migrations. He participates with costumed
shaman figures in tribal rituals. He plays his flute for dances
in tribal ceremonies. He joins with other figures to illustrate
tribal myths. In hunting-magic scenes, he seeks to ensure success
for men carrying bows and, sometimes, lances. He impregnates
women. He participates in birthing scenes. Among ancient rain
and water symbols, he plays his flute to plead for moisture
sufficient for his tribes corn, beans and squash to grow.
On occasions, multiple Humpbacked
Flute Players appear in a single scene, perhaps seeking to redouble
chances for fertility and prosperity. Kokopellis guises,
styles and roles have mystified scholars for decades. They have
prompted divergent lines of research, given rise to diverse
theories, and led to some downright silly speculation. Yet another
layer of mystery about Kokopellis origin and evolution
lies in possible forerunners and derivatives. One possible forerunner
could have been simply flute players, lacking hump or phallus,
such as those which appear in Canyon de Chelly rock art dating
approximately 600 AD. Another possible related figures includes
a humpbacked, phallic figure which is shown carrying a staff
rather than playing a flute. One such example was painted on
a bowl fashioned by the Mimbres Indians of Southwestern New
Mexico some 900 to 1000 years ago. Yet another possible forerunner
includes humpbacked, phallic figures which carry bows rather
than play flutes. Such figures are painted on the wall of Fire
Temple in Mesa Verde National Park in Southwestern Colorado.
One of the more elaborate figures
which could be a Kokopelli-type derivative was pecked by an
18th century Navajo shaman into a canyon wall at a sacred site
in Northwestern New Mexicos Largo drainage system. Surrounded
by other symbols chiseled into the rock, this regal figure stands
on muscled legs, wears a headdress and decorated kilt, and is
depicted holding a staff rather than playing a flute. He bears,
not a hump, but rather a rainbow-outlined pack adorned with
feathers and filled with seeds. This site, like other rock art
sites in the Largo Canyon complex, is still revered by traditional
Navajos. Vandals have defaced it in some areas, an act akin
to desecrating a church, a synagogue or a mosque. The relationships,
if any, between Kokopelli and those figures which feature only
a hump or just a flute is not clear and may never be clear.
The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which
are available to us have produced endless and sometimes emotional
conjecture about Kokopellis origin and meaning. One possibility
is that Kokopelli could have been an actual misshapen person
who was widely venerated for his power and wisdom. He could
have been a young man, burdened with a pack, traveling among
pueblos, seeking a wife; he played his flute to announce his
mission. He could be a great leader, like Moses, who guided
his people in a migration to a new homeland. He could have been
a pochteca, a early bearer of gifts from central Mexico. One
of the more exotic theories was mentioned by southwestern Colorado
authority Michael Claypool during a discussion several years
ago at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He thinks that
origins of the figure could eventually be traced all the way
to Peru, where native traders carrying packs have long used
flutes to announce their arrival at native villages.
An archaeologist friend who has worked
in Latin America tells me that Kokopelli-like figures are common
icons in prehistoric sites of Southern Mexico and Central America.
While we may never know the origin or the full meaning of Kokopelli,
it is clear that he held high importance as a deity in the arid
American Southwest. His roles in scenes representing human reproduction,
crop growth and water suggest that the Southwestern Indians
associated him universally with fertility and prosperity. His
roles in hunting scenes, processions, rituals and ceremonies
suggest that the Indians connected him universally to their
physical and spiritual well-being. It is clear, too that the
magic of Kokopelli is enduring.
A few summers ago, my wife and I
came upon a dancing Kokopelli figure pecked high on the sandstone
canyon wall above the Chaco Canyon ruin known as Kin Kletso.
A thunderstorm rumbled threateningly overhead. You could almost
hear a plaintive and simple melody in the wind as Kokopelli
played his flute resolutely to plead for rain from the sky above
and to encourage the growth of crops of a long-vanished people
in the canyon bottom below.
There are many places to see Kokopelli
figures in rock art. Examples include West Mesa, across the
Rio Grande from Albuquerque; Canyon del Chelly, in northeastern
Arizona; Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico; and above
the Little Colorado River, near the Raven Site Ruin north of
Kokopelli figures appear occasionally
on Indian pottery in Southwestern Indian museums.
Dennis Slifer and James Duffield present the best overview of
the Humpbacked Flute Player and locations in their book Kokopelli.
Polly Schaafsma provides
a good review of Southwestern rock art, with various reference
to Kokopelli, in her book Indian Rock Art of the Southwest.
Stephen W. Hill, author, and Robert B. Montoya, illustrator,
give a brief overview combined with excellent Kokopelli-inspired
illustrations in the book Kokopelli Ceremonies.
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