Kokopelli is the Kilroy of the Southwest. Most of us remember the little bald-head and eyes peering over the edge of just about anything. His droop snoot hangs down between two sets of fingers gripping the line. Scribbled with or without the cartoon are the words "Kilroy Was Here."
James J. Kilroy was a shipyard inspector in Massachusetts during World War II. Each night he counted the rivets put in the new ship that day, placing a chalk mark on each one to indicate it had been counted. The riveters were paid by the numbers. After Kilroy went off his shift the workers sometimes erased the chalk numbers so the rivets would be recounted and their pay increased. The foreman soon caught on to this and he had Kilroy chalk or paint in big letters where he had been, "Kilroy was here."
In those days ships were being completed so rapidly there was not always time to paint them before they were launched. Kilroy's trademark went to sea, and was observed by servicemen around the world. The mysterious message was just the right injection of humor to catch hold of the imagination.
Someone added the sketch of the fellow with the long nose looking over the fence, and by the end of the war, Kilroy was everywhere from Berlin to Tokyo.
The joke was a complete mystery, yet it provided a common bond for service personnel. It was the American way of claiming to be there first. For example, underwater demolition teams sneaking ashore on Japanese-held islands made sure Kilroy was waiting to greet GIs when they invaded. It is said that Hitler became paranoid over the mysterious spy name Kilroy who seemed able to penetrate all his defenses. At the Postdam Conference between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin a special toilet was erected, and Stalin emerged asking his aides who the heck was Kilroy.
The Kilroy phenomenon is timeless.
As early as 200 A.D. Kokopelli the humpback flute player had begun to appear on the graffiti covered rocks of America's Southwest. Anthropologists have determined the figure was sacred with different meanings for different tribes, but several features remain consistent. He is always playing a flute and he has a hump on his back. Flute music was important to both prehistoric and historic Indians. It symbolized harmony and balance in God's creation, and its melody was a prayer.
Kokopelli is often depicted dancing, for dancing too is a form of prayer for American Indians. The musical prayer could be directed, among other things, at wooing a lover, summoning rain or preparing for a successful hunt. Rain dance patterns might be in the outline of the prostrate Kokopelli as he plays his flute to call the clouds.
The hump on his back has a great variety of interpretations. Some medical specialists have interpreted the hump, and Kokopelli's frequent clubfoot, to be the result of a form of tuberculosis. Handicapped people were often considered representatives of divine spirits in their midst, and some flute-playing tubercular in the dim past could have been the origin of the legend.
The "hump" has also been interpreted as a Santa-pack on his back variously filled with gifts for the girls he wooed, items of trade from far away, or precious seeds to plant for fruit, squash and corn.
The Apaches had a legend that the hump was actually his crippled brother riding his back. The stronger brother plays the flute to attract the animals while the rider wields a bow and arrow to make the kill. The bow and arrow in association with Kokopelli can be seen in some depictions.
The most common interpretation of Kokopelli, which makes him a little more dangerous, is fertility. This theme was always of great importance to people who lived off the land. Not only must the earth remain fertile, but also the gift of children was vital to sustain the tribe. So Kokopelli would visit from village to village, making love to the women and ensuring that they would bear children. The prominent male sexual organ is often seen in Kokopelli rock art, though the early day missionaries persuaded native people to eliminate that from the drawings.
The flute player may be the original "traveling salesman" with his backpack full of goods, going from town to town seducing women. The backpack was also thought to be filled with the babies he leaves the young women.
Topographical studies from space show trade roads from Mexico through Arizona and the Four Corners region, so the Kokopelli legend and image traveled far and wide. He has been found on pueblo ruins and ceremonial rooms throughout that area, as well as in California and the Great Plains. His name is different in different languages, "Kokopelli" being the Hopi rendition, but his importance to all is obvious. Each culture made him their own.
Kilroy is seldom seen anymore, but Kokopelli still appears everywhere. His many depictions are found silhouetted on lawns and security doors, blazoned on T-shirts, seen on pottery, bola ties, jewelry of all sorts, in home decorations, advertisements and museums.
Apparently the mystery of the little humpback flute player still captures the imagination of the people as we ponder his many meanings.