The Flute Player

By: Cameron Vines

Each state has its own symbol that is synonymous with the state; maybe it’s the image from their flag or the state flower. In Arizona, that symbol is neither on the state flag or the state flower or tree. That symbol would be the Kokopelli flute player. If you google Kokopelli in Arizona you will come across names of stores, realty companies, and streets all bearing the name Kokopelli. Walk into any gift shop in the state and you will find images on t-shirts, stickers, coffee mugs, art, and much more. While it is the unofficial symbol of Arizona and the Southwest, Kokopelli are not just random symbols put upon merchandise. The Kokopelli has a backstory.

As was mentioned in our blog post about the Katsina, Kokopelli is a Katsina spirit in the Hopi religion. The Hopi have a pantheon of deities that all represent various aspects of life. Kokopelli is often portrayed as a pictograph of a humpbacked flute player, dancing to his music with feathers on his head. Katsina dolls are carved in this image as well. Kokopelli can be roughly translated to ‘wooden back’ in the Hopi language. The image of a flute playing dancer dates back further than the Hopi; all the way back to the Anasazi, who carved the image in rocks and cliffs along the desert. Kokopelli represents many things, one of the biggest being fertility. There are stories that the Kokepelli spirit carried unborn children to women, which would represent literal fertility. Kokopelli also represents the fertility from Winter to Spring. Spring being the time when plants start to grow and bloom after the cold winter. Crops also grow in the Spring-those crops were very important to the Hopi. That makes this spirit or deity very powerful considering he can control the livelihood of a tribe either by bringing them food or helping them to procreate. Some depictions of Kokopelli portray him with a consort referred to as Kokopelimi.

Kokopelli is said to also represent the creative and musical side of things. After all, he is portrayed playing a flute and music always makes for a better time. That famous flute is also supposed to call in the clouds that bring the rain, which water crops to grow food. Kokopelli is said to be a tricky guy, but this goes hand in hand with the creativity which tends to bring out the trickster in all of us. The pictograph version of Kokopelli has led to the creation of many pieces of art on canvas to wrought iron all in his image, so maybe he does influence creativity.

So there you have it – a little backstory on a symbol you have probably seen hundreds of times if you live in the Southwest. Kokopelli is a classic figure in the American Southwest and obviously represents more than just the t-shirt he may be on. Kokopelli is also a mysterious and powerful figure that keeps intriguing people; maybe that’s why his likeness is put on so many different items.  Next time you see the humpbacked flute player, just remember he represents many different things and was and is a great source of power to the Hopi people.