Kokopelli, A Fun-Loving Guy
A medium sized Coyote and Kokopelli by artist Alan Pfeiffer are silhouetted at sunset on Capistrano beach. Source: (Photo by Bob Grieser/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
One of the most recognizable figures in Native American art of the Southwest is Kokopelli, the hump-backed flute player. Today, images of Kokopelli grace nearly every gift shop trinket, from t-shirts to keychains, to can koozies, to necklaces, to cellphone cases, and more. Kokopelli is so popular because he seems like a fun guy, dancing and playing his flute. But how much do you know about this Native American deity? Let’s explore Kokopelli’s backstory.
The Hopi and Anasazi Indians
Kokopelli is a mythical deity of the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest. Historians believe that the familiar image that we see of Kokopelli, with his rounded back, feathers in his hair, and his iconic flute, was actually borrowed by the Hopi from ancient Anasazi petroglyphs. The Anasazi were an ancient group of Native American who lived thousands of years ago in the Four Corners region. They were known for building elaborate Pueblos high in the cliffs and etching unique images into the cliff faces and canyons of the area.
The God of Mischief and Fun
Kokopelli, which means roughly ‘wooden back’ in the Hopi language, was a fun-loving deity. He presided over music and dancing. Images of him always show him playing his flute and the hump-back stance could be attributed to dancing. He was a symbol of happiness and joy and villagers rejoiced when they saw him coming to visit their village. According to the legends, Kokopelli would play his flute all night long and the people would dance and sing.
A Harbinger of Springtime Fertility
The Native American legends say that Kokopelli would travel from village to village, bringing spring with him. His flute music would melt the snow and turn the breezes warmer. The music he made, it was said, was like seeds spreading in the wind. By the time Kokopelli left the village, spring flowers were in bloom and crops were growing. This springtime fertility wasn’t limited to plant life. Kokopelli was said to oversee human fertility, too. When Kokopelli left the villages he visited, every young woman in the village would be pregnant.
A Hunchback or a Peddler?
While some people attribute Kokopelli’s rounded back as a festive dance move, others claim he was a happy-go-lucky hunchback. But there is one other theory. Some ideas put forth claim that the images we see of Kokopelli really show a peddler with a sack full of seeds slung over his shoulder. Historians have considered that Kokopelli legends may have originated from stories of ancient Aztec traveling merchants or peddlers, called Pochteca, who carried goods in large sacks on their backs. The silhouette of these hunched peddlers does, indeed, look like the familiar Kokopelli stance.
Pranks and Mischief
Kokopelli was often associated with friendly pranks and mischief. He was never destructive or mean-spirited in his pranks. They were all benign, such as emptying someone’s drink when they weren’t looking or landing a songbird on the head of a person. Occasionally, Kokopelli used his mischief to benefit himself. He would trick beautiful maidens into joining him in bed.
Was Kokopelli an Insect?
The Anazasi, or Ancient Ones, often carved images of human-insect hybrid beings. The creationist legends of the Hopi people talk about a race of insect men called the Mahus who helped to guide them from their previous home into their current homes, called the Fourth World. The myths of these insect people claim that they could heal themselves by playing music on their flutes. We see this idea carried over to Kokopelli who is said to have healing powers. Images of Kokopelli appear to show feathers protruding from the top of his head, but it could be antenna.
If Kokopelli was a Person, was He Ill?
More detailed images of Kokopelli from ancient times show him with turned in feet, knobby knees, and a protruding belly, along with the hunched back. Some present-day medical professionals believe that the drawings of Kokopelli actually show a person with deformities that are consistent with someone suffering from Pot’s Disease, a type of tuberculosis.
Kokopelli as a Symbol of a Good Time
Kokopelli’s reputation as a fun-loving guy, along with his whimsical dance pose, has made him a popular symbol for Native American touristy items. It is not hard to find images of Kokopelli in pop culture, particularly in the Southwest, where Kokopelli’s silhouette appears on tote bags, boxer shorts, shot glasses, notebooks, baseball caps, and more.
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