"If I ever see one more damn Kokopelli," I thought, "I'm gonna puke." And then as I plopped myself onto the grass to scribble this paper, not more than six feet from me lie a young woman, in bathing suit, reading. There on the outside of her upper left thigh she bore an adept rendering of said Kokopelli, permanently inked by a tattoo artist's needle. I felt both deflated and defeated, but certainly did not feel like vomiting.
Let me explain.
For three days running now, including said tattooed lady, I've seen the image of the ancient southwestern deity, Kokopelli (K-man from now on) in a variety of places. Maybe some background on the little fella would be good. I became familiar with him back in '85 when I was helping a research team document thousand-year-old petroglyphs - carvings in stone - done by the indigenous Anasazi and Fremont people, predecessors of today's Pueblo tribes of Arizona and New Mexico. Amid all the curvilinear patterns geometric shapes, assorted clan symbols and earthly and unearthly images, every so often a distinct figure would be found: Kokopelli, the hunch-backed flute player.
There are essentially two version of the K-man to be found in rock art, though only one of which shows up in contemporary manifestations. The first is fairly basic: silhouetted in hunch-back, knees bent, a curving line or two sprouting from the head as he jams on a flute.
The Kachina cult, where sacred spirits are represented by doll-like figures to instruct their children (no unlike the Catholic pantheon of saints), is strongest among the Zuni and Hopi tribes, ancestral descendants of the Anasazi. The second iteration of Kokopilau - literally wood (koko) and hump (pilau) - is often shown sporting "wood" of his own, ready to hump, as his tallywacker has come to symbolize the fertile seeds of human reproduction, as well as fertilization of crops. The Pueblo expression "we are corn" made a valid point in emphasizing their people's subsistence on , and prayer to, corn.
Would they have ever imagined the corny iterations of K-man as seen in Robert Redford's Sundance catalog? While much credit must to Redford for his encouragement and support in film (though there is no reasonable explanation for including Burt Bachrach's Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), I've go to take him to task for encouraging artists to take liberties with a cultural icon. When "the famous Anasazi folk character" has been turned into "an ingenious bath accessory of hand-wrought iron with a rich acid washed patina," where "he happily holds the family's toothbrushes, as water glass (not included), and a pewter soap dish," something's gotta give.
"Happily" holding? The guy's supposed to be happily kicking out the jams, leading maidens to the land of perpetual "hand-wrought iron," not watching over a bar of scummy soap, bristle-bashed toothbrushes, and a filmy glass (not included). What if Saint Peter guarded pearly whites? If "the trickster of the Southwest adds gaiety to the spices of life, deeply etched on classically shaped glass salt and pepper shakers with shiny screw tops," why not soapstone Shivas dispensing the same? They'd be so cute. How 'bout Jesus selling 2" x 4"s, as he was once a carpenter, or Mohammed selling real estate ("Moha Goes to the Mountain!")? How about a Jesus/Mohammed suburban development?
Here in the "Live Music Capital of the World," that same said world gets a little smaller and dumber when on Congress Avenue one can find imitation "petroglyphs" of the K-man wailing, not on a flute, but a saxophone. And just in case the viewer is still in doubt of what's going on (never mind "why"), little quarter notes spew forth from said saw. Grace notes, they ain't.
Of course I got equally peeved a couple years back when I saw hat a purveyor of typefaces and clip art was offering a "primitive" package of some sort, co-opting the wonderful Mimbres and Zuni (circa 1100AD) symbols of lizards, bears, antelopes, and fish for general consumption. They even showed how your menu design for a New England Chowder House could use the groovy little fish. Like the Pilgrims had a clue about Native American art and theology, let alone art native to the Southwest. Well, a rat-bastard by the name of A. Hitler and his art director, did a wonderful job of ruining a symbol that not only meant migratory direction to our Pueblo people, but peace and love to the Chinese, and who-knows-what to the Hindus, Greeks, and other cultures who have used variations of the swastika for millennia. So it goes.
According to Hopi lore, as their people made their migrations, they were accompanied by two insect people resembling locusts. When challenged to a test by an eagle for their right to settle, the two were pierce by arrows. Both pulled out their flutes and played, the melody soothing both body and spirit. They passed the test, and today the Blue Flute and Gray Flute clans still refer to the antennaed locust as Kokopilau. Since then the Pueblo tribes have used eagle feathers for prayer and sing to sick children to heal them.
Much like Christianity and Jesus, Judaism and Moses, Buddhism and Gotama, the K-man may have been a real person. The shaman of many cultures have been those blessed or cursed with physical abnormalities. These abnormalities were often detrimental to handling the chores of daily life and were often seen as the result of having been touched by God. Several petroglyphs of K-man show him to have a rather large, erect penis. This may not have been a sign of wishful thinking, but instead a depiction of one suffering from priapism, a permanent engorgement of the "staff of life." A direct side effect of this dysfunction is a hunched back. K-man glyphs are frequently shown with a backpack-like hump. Coincidence? I think not.
This flute player may well have packed the tribes' seeds. To the uninitiated, he may have seemed to abundant in seed himself. Though not quite a "Long Dong Silver," he may instead have been the Johnny Appleseed of his day. How's that for mixing myths and legends?
With a backpack of seeds from flowers and corn, and the music of the flute, migrating clans have passed this K-man symbol from Canada to the tip of South America. Though the song of Kókopilau is remembered, the words are so ancient that meaning has been lost, yet the Hopi sing it still:
Ki-tana-po, ki-tana-po, ki-tana-po, ki-tana-PO!
Ai-na, ki-na-weh, ki-na-weh
Chi-li li chi, chi-li li chi
If meaning has been lost to the Hopi, what meaning can be found by others?
If I were to find a contemporary counterpart of the K-man, I wouldn't have to look far from downtown Austin. His music has crossed barriers and clans of all kinds worship him, as his very music has been beneficial to farm and farmer alike across the country. Considered outside the norm by many, he is a bit of an outlaw-prankster, and my hunch is he's known a woman or two. My candidate? Willie Nelson.
If we want gaiety and joy icons, why not Jerry Lewis? The French seem to have figured that out. Music? Wouldn't the acid-washed patina of a Keith Richards figure on the front lawn truly tell your peers how you felt about living life to its extremities? Fertility icon? How about basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, who allegedly bedded 10,0000 (count 'em) women. And with Wilt being of African-American persuasion, those figurines could build upon other myths as well.
Mythology - the stories passed on from generation to generation - gets "improved" over the years. "Know yourself and you will know the god's universe" wrote Socrates. We imbue our "rock" stars with our wishful thinking, wishing others to know us by our affiliations. Much like the tattooed lady, who now sports a cultural icon based on its description in Airwaves, a public radio station catalog, we seem to grasp images and symbols that we wish to embrace, to proclaim our part of one tribe or another (witness the worship of Nike as seen in the teen who sports all apparel by said manufacturer, or the plethora of "tribal" tattoos.)
As I told a friend's sister of my planned diatribe, she eventually confessed to possessing some version of the K-man. I don't hold that against her. She seems very nice. And maybe identifying with a 2000-year-old symbol of substance and growth, ain't such a bad thing. But back to that damn toothbrush holder . . .
January 1996 | Barton Springs | Austin, Texas