‘Glyphs Gone Wild

Judging from the things for sale in almost all New Mexico gift shops and tourist traps, this entire state of ours is tan and turquoise, prefers its red chili coated in weatherproofing shellac, and is absolutely crawling with bandanna-wearing coyotes and flute-playing Rastafarians. 

These hunchbacked, messy-haired, flute-playing stick figures are representations of Kokopelli — an Ancestral Puebloan deity that’s perhaps the most ubiquitous image in modern day New Mexico.  Kokopelli appears in New Mexico on everything from golf balls to pantyhose, and is familiar to almost all New Mexicans — yet if most people were asked who Kokopelli is, they would answer vaguely, perhaps with something about his being a fertility symbol. 

“Kokopelli’s like the flute player that was pretty much pretty free — kind of a free spirit,” said one anonymous employee of Jackalope, a New Mexico gift shop. 

But in Cuckoo for KokopelliDave Walker wrote, “The first and probably most important thing you need to know about Kokopelli is: He is not someone you want your elementary–school-age kids to investigate.” 

Thanks in part to early Spanish missionaries, the Kokopelli seen today on earrings and chip platters across New Mexico is a Kokopelli who isn’t quite the man he used to be. Now vanished tribes of Ancestral Puebloan Indians carved and painted the original Kokopelli on boulders and rock walls across the Southwest, from as early as A.D. 500 to as late as 1600 — including a large concentration of such images between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. In addition to Kokopelli’s now standard flute and hunchback, however, the Puebloans usually also depicted him with an erect and disproportionately huge penis. 

“Of the multitude of miscellaneous drawings, paintings and scratchings on the rocks and in the caves of the pre-Colombian people of the Southwest, only one anthropomorphic subject can claim both an identity and a proper name as well as gender,” wrote John Young in Kokopelli: Casanova of the Cliff Dwellers. “Without question, that figure is decidedly male.” 

Needless to say, the traditional stories drawn from such figures are rarely G-rated. One Hopi legend tells that Kokopelli was once an impotent man whose faithless wife drove him to jump off a cliff, though the fall only broke Kokopelli’s back into a prominent hump and landed him next to a wise badger who gave him an herbal “stiffening medicine.” 

Another story tells how Kokopelli buried himself in the ground beneath an outdoor bathroom area and impregnated a girl through a reed while she relieved herself. Yet another tells of his being perhaps the region’s first sex therapist, walking inexperienced couples through the act on a mat in his cave. And a fourth story, from the Winnebago tribe of Wisconsin, states that Kokopelli would sometimes detach his penis and float it down a river to have sex with any girls who might be bathing in the water. 

Even the logical historical explanations of who Kokopelli may have been are somewhat sexual. Some Hopis believe his image may have been based on a type of insect known as a robber fly — a humpbacked fly known for its determined copulation. 

Anthropologist Joyce Alpert has suggested that Kokopelli’s hump, curved back, and erect penis, indicate a man with all the symptoms of tuberculosis of the spine — a disease that sometimes results in painful, permanent erections. 

And a third and very possible explanation, is that Kokopelli was an early trader who wandered up from Mexico with a hump-like sack on his back, a flute to lure girls after him, and an obvious interest in anyone willing. As such a traveler would have impregnated countless young native girls, and been blamed for many other pregnancies, there should be little wonder that Kokopelli now has a reputation for fertility. 

“The baffling nature of the content of rock drawings continues to spark the imagination of the uninitiated, providing a kind of Rorschach test in which the observer projects onto the drawings meanings that coincide with cultural biases and personal and popular fantasies,” wrote Polly Schaafsma in Indian Rock Art of the Southwest 

So, if that’s true, then what do the trite, popular misconceptions and the randy, sexual back stories surrounding Kokopelli have to say about New Mexico? 

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