Utah Field Guide: Kokopelli

When I was 14 years old, I went to Moab for the first time. And there he was. Back bent with his rooster’s rake, a “flute” in his hands. The fertility symbol. The sign I was in Southern Utah.

A sand-blasted wastrel, selling items to trap tourists, first told me the story and made it stick. Kokopelli was a trader, he said, plying his wares from Central America to the southern border of Canada. Now, that’s just one theory for why this image is emblazoned on rock walls from here to there. Not even the prevailing one, I’m told.

But I like this first story I heard of Kokopelli. It tracks in my mind, takes him from the realm of primal gods and makes him a mere man with a large footprint. He brought wonders to your village on his humped back. Shells from shores to where there were none, hides from animals that didn’t stride the native range, trinkets and baubles in a world where trade moved as slow as one intrepid man. A man who could move from north to south across the land with a free pass among oft-warring tribes and the temerity to get through the hard, harsh spaces that separated them.

And the fertility thing? Well, he could also play the flute. Dazzle you all with his song; a Gandalf visiting the Shire bearing musical fireworks that blow dragons and faraway places into the imaginations of the hobbits of that time.

The time of Kokopelli.

’Cept Seňor Kokopelli wasn’t the benevolent grandfatherly Gandalf the Grey. He would bed down with your women, pass his, yes, seed on to your tribe. Hence the fertility symbol deal. Perhaps the wanderlust that afflicts us all finds its root in his passing and lascivious ways.

Flash forward to your own most recent drive down Moab’s Main Street. Where in my own vision this newfangled creature, player of flute, seducer, rake, bringer of magic is reduced to an un-corporate logo for any Southwestern town that will have him. 

Coca-Cola’s got nothing on Kokopelli. He’s the original. A brand laid down with a legend’s strength that now ends up an asterisk and affectation for cheesy Southwestern design. His power lost, diminished by overuse and repetition on coffee mugs and bad tattoos on Gen-Xer ankles. But he’s still a reminder of a lost time for us all—a time when we were innocent enough to discover another world in a pile of shells and the song of a flute. A time when we would take the time to write on our rock walls the story of the time a wizard came to town.

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Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pughhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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