Sunday, April 29, 2012


Insect-like humpbacked flute player. Mesa 
Prieta, NM. Photo Peter Faris, Sept. 2011.

The Humped-Back Flute Player of the pueblo people is generally considered to be a therianthropic figure with characteristics of a human and an insect. Sometimes the insect qualities displayed are those of the cicada, but often kokopelli is considered to be the manifestation of the Robber or Assassin Fly.

Kokopelli, Mesa Prieta, NM. 
Photo Peter Faris, Sept. 2011.

The robber or assassin fly, family Asilidae, is a blood-sucking insect with a humped back and long protuberant mouthparts. It is a predator that preys on other insects and animals. In his first edition of Hopi Kachina Dolls with a Key to Their Identification, Colton identified Kokopelli as a personification of the robber or assassin fly.

Assassin fly kachina.

Kokopelli is actually an anthropomorphic insect. Many of the earliest depictions of Kokopelli make him very insect-like in appearance. His case mask is dark on each side, separated by a line that runs up the front and over the top of the mask. These divided dark sides of the mask may represent the large compound eyes on each side of the insect’s head.

The name "Kokopelli" may be a combination of "Koko", another Hopi and Zuni deity, and "pelli", the Hopi and Zuni word for the desert robber fly, an insect with a prominent proboscis and a rounded back, which is also noted for its zealous sexual proclivities. The short, strong proboscis is used to stab and inject victims with saliva containing neurotoxic and proteolytic enzymes which paralyze and digest the insides; the fly then sucks the liquefied meal through the proboscis.

                                       Robber or Assassin fly.  

I have actually experienced the bite of an assassin fly. While on a rock art field trip in northern New Mexico many years ago I felt a large insect land on my back but since I was wearing my shirt I felt no apprehension. I should have for all of a sudden I felt something like a drill bit penetrate about ¼” into my back, and this drill bit was red-hot. I was instantly dancing around and yelling for my colleagues to brush it off. This Kokopelli was not the happy, cute, comfortable iconic figure that modern faddists and interior decorators collect. This Kokopelli was a painful and fearsome confrontation, and it has made me more sensitive to the mixture of respect or devotion, and apprehension, with which an Ancestral Puebloan farmer might contemplate this kachina. My original meeting with Kokopelli was not a happy one and I would rather not repeat it.


Colton, Harold S.
1949       Hopi Kachina Dolls With A Key To Their Identification, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

1 comment:

  1. My understanding is that the Hopi word for the fly is kookopölö. The word pölö means hump, while koko is the usual Zuni word equivalent to kachina.