Sunday, March 18, 2012


Cowboy “venus” petroglyph in Sego Canyon
Photo from Charles Swenson, Austin, TX.

This is another example of cowboy rock art that was sent to me by Charles Swenson of Austin, Texas. This is located in Sego Canyon, Utah, which is north of the small town of Thompson in the bookcliffs of Grand County. The rock art site in Sego Canyon itself has panels that span the centuries from Barrier Canyon painted figures, through Fremont petroglyphs and Ute painted panels, to historic including the cowboy figure shown here. That means that this particular site was in use for well over two millennia and what art museum can begin to say as much?
Additionally, this site has benefitted from a large restoration project which has brought out considerably more Barrier Canyon rock art than was visible when I first visited it thirty years ago.


Saturday, March 10, 2012


Near Newspaper Rock, Petrified Forest National Park,
Arizona. Photo: Peter Faris, June 1993.

We have all seen examples of rock art that we interpret as meant just for fun, images that we find entertaining with no apparent clues to any deeper meaning. Of course, it is always possible that imagery like this contains a very deep meaning, but we just cannot see it. There is, however, one form of image that I think we can probably agree was created as a joke, or form of humor. This is what I would define as a visual pun. By the term visual pun I mean an image that could have more than one identity or definition, and I also think that it would be meant to be entertaining.
I would like to present a visual pun here that is found in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. This image consists of a hump-backed figure with a long zigzag proboscis or nose, bent over, holding his back as if it aches, and walking with a cane or staff which also consists of his nose. Now this figure might also have a very serious meaning behind him. Indeed, given the rounded nature of his back, the long projection from the front of his face, and the projections from his head resembling Kokopelli’s antenna he might be meant to remind us of Kokopelli. If so this adds a double layer of sophistication to the pun. An old man, who is at the same time Kokopelli, walking with a cane, which might at the same time be his nose or his flute. Or it might be a lightning bolt implying great power, which coupled with the apparent feebleness of the figure gives us another possible layer of meaning altogether.
Did whoever created this figure have all of the above in mind – probably not. Yet it was created as it is for a reason. And my best guess at that reason includes humor. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Humpbacked flute player, Albuquerque,
NM. Photo: Peter Faris, 1988.

One of the most easily recognized kachinas because of the hump on his back. His black mask has white-rimmed eyes and a white stripe subdividing the face vertically over the top. A conical beak points up which is made of corn husks in real life. He also has feathers or antenna-like protrusions on his head. His name, the Humpback Flute Player, comes from a flute that he carries which may have its end carved in the shape of a flower. He also carries a shepherd’s staff with which to catch girls that he attracts with his flute music or a bag of candy that he carries.

Humpbacked flute player, Mesa Prieta, Rio Arriba county,
NM, Photo Peter Faris, 1997.

Bolder versions of Kokopelli portray him with a large phallus. He is then the personification of nymphomania.  Among the Hopi, Kokopelli carries unborn children on his back and distributes them to women (for this reason, young girls often fear him). He often takes part in rituals relating to marriage, and Kokopelli himself is sometimes depicted with a consort, a woman called Kokopellimana by the Hopi.

Some people believe that Kokopelli’s humped back is a pack full of seeds of beneficial and useful plants with which he populates the world. In this incarnation he also presides over the multiplication of game animals. With dominion over agriculture Kokopelli brings the season of Spring by playing his flute to chase away the Winter. The Zuni also associate Kokopelli with the rains.

Assassin fly kachina (Kokopelli).

He is sometimes also called the Robber Fly or Assassin Fly kachina because that insect is humpbacked and has long flute-like mouthparts. Kokopelli frequently appears with a Flute Kachina and sometimes carries no flute until he borrows the flute from the Flute Kachina. When that occurs the Assassin Fly Kachina becomes Kokopelli, the hump-backed flute player.

Assassin Fly Kachina (Kokopelli).

The Assassin Fly or Assassin Bug is an insect with a hump on its back. It is a blood-sucking creature with elongated mouthparts which can easily be seen as the flute. I have had the enlightening experience of being bitten on the back by an assassin bug and it was an experience I would not wish to repeat. The feeling was akin to having a red hot needle shoved into my back. Imagining living the life of a puebloan farmer, spending most of my time in the open, I would be quite aware of the assassin bug, and it could well become a focus of superstition.
Our culture has enthusiastically adopted Kokopelli with the predictable results. We have multiplied sillier and sillier kokopellis, riding bicycles, skiing, playing trombones, etc. I own a few myself given to me as gifts by friends. This may be an inevitable part of our society’s attempt to accommodate, understand, and appreciate another culture, but we should not allow this aspect of the modern kokopelli to make us forget the powerful attributes of fertility and blood which he presented to the people who first conceived of him, and that he represents a sacred image to many of our fellow citizens.