Category: Material Culture

[Cover ofKokopelli: The Making of an Icon]

Kokopelli: The Making of an Icon

By Ekkehart Malotki. 2000. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xvi + 161 pages.


Reviewed by William Hansen, Indiana University

[Review length: 509 words • Review posted in 2000]


Kokopelli is the name popularly given to the stick-figured flute player whose image can be seen in profile nowadays on countless T-shirts, advertisements, jewelry, ceramics, and the like in Southwestern states. The familiar icon of Kokopelli derives from Hohokam red-on-buff pottery fragments from Arizona that date to around A.D. 1000, but hundreds of petroglyphs and ceramic paintings of the flute player are also found throughout Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and elsewhere with much variation in form and treatment.

Who is this flute player? How did he acquire his name? And what is his relationship with the similarly named Hopi kachina Kookopölö? Ekkehart Malotki sets out to answer these questions. Neither folklorist nor anthropologist but “a professor of languages at Northern Arizona University,” he brings to the investigation a close acquaintance with the Hopi language and the critical judgment of the wary scholar.

Pictographic flute players appear by at least A.D. 800 and in significant numbers by A.D. 1000; they disappear by A.D. 1600. The classic figures on rocks and pottery often feature a humped back and sometimes an erect phallus. The distribution of the images correlates with the prehistoric pueblo-dwelling farming cultures.

For Hopis, Kookopölö is a kachina god whose powers have to do with human and vegetal fertility. He is regularly portrayed as having a hump and in less modest times also as having a phallus, but the stories about Kookopölö do not associate him with the flute, and he is not traditionally represented in art or in ceremony as being a flute player. (However, young Hopi artists, responding to tourist expectations, now sometimes add a flute to Kookopölö kachina miniatures.)

The association of the Hopi deity and the petroglyphic flute player seems to date to the 1930s, a consequence, it appears, of their shared trait of a hunched back. The icon presently became known as Kokopelli, an Anglicized form of Kookopölö. Once the identification was made, it was soon elaborated by scholars both professional and amateur, so that, depending upon the constituency, the icon came to be understood variously as a hunter, dwarf, trickster, seducer, and the like. But there is in fact no reason to identify the flute player with the kachina god. The Hopis themselves associate their fertility god Kookopölö with the robber fly, a humped-back insect and a persistent copulator, and the petroglyphic flute player with the cicada (maahu), whose proboscis resembles a flute, whose buzzing the Hopis describe as fluting, and who can appear to have a hump. There is a cicada kachina, whose attributes include ownership of the warming process, for cicadas are credited with bringing warm weather, which the Hopi value as desirable for the growth of their crops.

Drawing upon informant interviews, Hopi tales (the book includes six in translation), and the Hopi lexicon, author Ekkehart Malotki carefully distinguishes the flute-playing icon from the fluteless god Kookopölö, discusses the robber fly as the manifest model for the kachina god, and considers the cicada as a possible model for the prehistoric icon, the old meanings of which are otherwise unknown.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.