The kokopelli symbol of the American Southwest is ubiquitous in the region, appearing on everything from road signs to dinner napkins and from salt shakers to earrings. It is has become so prevalent that it is nearly synonymous with the southwest and the indigenous Native American peoples who have called these rugged and beautiful areas their home.
Dating from a period that ranged from 900 to 1400 CE (i.e., the Common Era, previously known as AD), the rock art and pottery of the Greater Southwest is replete with Kokopelli images created by the ancestors of modern Pueblo peoples. Although Kokopelli portrayals will naturally vary in each use, he is always the humpbacked flute player. Seen in profile, with his rounded back, his arms extend outward, grasping a flute as he plays it. Often his giant phallus could also be seen and he was generally portrayed upright, sometimes walking, dancing, and even hunting. Occasionally, he has also been seen seated and reclining, though not often.
Although in modern times he has taken on a symbolism for all things southwestern, he was originally a symbol of fertility and growth. He was a hunter and a rainmaker, helping humans to be fertile, as well as animals of the hunt, and causing crops to grow and multiply. Among the Hopi, the Kokopelli kachinas (ancestral spirits that are represented by ceremonial dancers and also small dolls) likewise embody fertility and fecundity.
In a story that was told at the Hopi pueblo of Oraibi on Third Mesa, there was once a good-looking girl who lived there when it was first settled. Unfortunately, she was not only pretty but vain, to the point of rejecting all of the advances of the young men who wanted to meet her. So, the kachina Kokopelli, who lived nearby with his grandmother, decided he would win her. His grandmother laughed at him because he had a humped back and wasn’t as good-looking as the boys she had rejected. Undeterred, he hid himself amongst some reeds, in a spot where he knew she visited, and was secretly able to make her pregnant. When her son was born, the identity of the father was still a mystery, despite the demands for his identity from angry relatives and suitors. So, one young suitor devised a plan to determine who the father might be.
He proposed a race, wherein the young men would gather wild flowers and, at the end of the race, present them to the infant to see which one he would select, thus identifying his father. When Kokopelli heard of it, he decided to participate, although his grandmother was again discouraging. As the young men finished, one by one, they presented their flowers, to no avail. Although Kokopelli finished a tired last, when he reached out his bouquet, the baby grasped it immediately. Although he eventually left Oraibi and returned to his grandmother, he fathered enough children there to stage his own dance. The Hopi Kokopeltiyo dance was performed by both male and female (Kokopelli Mana) Kokopellis and, sometimes, if the kachina dancer saw a young woman with a baby amongst the spectators, he would rush up to her and extend a cluster of wild flowers to the child.
Perhaps among the oldest of the Puebloan deities, it is difficult to know how the humpbacked flute player would come to represent fertility. However, one line of thought involves insects. Because the Hopi also use the word kokopelli to refer to a certain type of fly and because the mask, facial and body coloring of the kachina dancer resembles a black insect with a snout, there is some evidence to suggest that the Kokopelli symbol may derive from an insect. Likewise, his ‘headdress’ is sometimes interpreted as antennae. While there is some small evidence to suggest that there are indeed humpbacked insects in the Pueblo area, insects that are known for their mating behavior, it is a better known tradition among Pueblo groups in general to associate insects with helpful medicine.
As with all symbolism of indigenous peoples throughout the world, it is important to note that much of the deep and central meaning comes from the specific cultures and peoples who have created it. Today, some native groups actively resist the overt commercial marketing of their cultural history and beliefs. The slow journey from a sacred symbol of fertility to a piece of jewelry dangling from keychains is sometimes seen as a romanticization that is willfully ignorant of the brutality that has often characterized the clash between native and western cultures.
As you begin your research and eventually select your tattoo symbol, be aware of the widely varying interpretations and meanings that our tattoos can have. The Kokopelli symbol is a good example of the type of tattoo that draws from both ancient and modern influences, one that can seem blandly familiar and yet still have cryptic aspects, and a type of tattoo that has crossed increasingly permeable cultural boundaries only to retain a powerful indigenous symbolism at its core.