Kokopelli Rising in the Spring Sky

Bob Anderson Last updated on Jul 12, 2024 by

A Thousand Years of Indian Art; Where we See the Big Dipper and Bootes, the Ancients saw Kokopelli Rising in the Spring Sky

My fascination with the astronomical pictographs at Paint Rock, Texas, led me to look to other prehistoric sites for other pictographs and I was able to identify several sites whose pictographs/petroglyphs tell an astronomical story, at least in my opinion. I believe that once you finally recognize certain patterns, they are more easily recognizable in different contexts and what has eluded you before suddenly becomes clear. After seeing Dr. Bill Yeates' discoveries at Paint Rock and adding a few of my own, I have begun to look for obvious patterns in the sky and then trying to see the patterns through the eyes of someone who had never heard of Greek astronomy - looking beyond the familiar.

Knowing the old legends about Kokopelli, I was not really surprised one evening in 2004 on my birthday of March 25 when I was enjoying a clear sky and watching the Big Dipper in the Easterly sky. Suddenly a glimmer of recognition came and I realized I was looking at Kokopelli in the sky because in a single instant I was able to see a pattern in the stars around Ursa Major, Ursa Minor and Bootes forming a shape that looked like Kokopelli. Immediately, it dawned on me that he was a star formation, constellation or asterism, whatever one wants to call the shapes people see in the stars. Instantly, it all made sense as all the stories were about springtime and there was Kokopelli rising magnificently in the Northeastern sky, signalling that the time of planting was near.

I surmised that those stories were tied in with the astronomy of the ancients much in the same way as the Greek stories about the constellations they recognized were tied into their mythology. I believe it was the ancient ones' ways of passing on wisdom to the people. We might seek out a few more of the ancient legends and look to see whether they describe the shapes and patterns that can be seen in star groupings that are different than their Greek counterparts saw.

Kokopelli rising in the sky brought the fertility of spring with him with all its sights and smells. It was so obvious I wondered why I had not grasped it before. I do not think I have ever before had such a sudden realization and I wasn't even thinking about Kokopelli at the moment. It was as if I could suddenly see all the stars connected and I could clearly see Kokopelli in the shape they formed. I had always thought of Kokopelli as just another old Indian legend, but here he was, plainly in the sky looking down and playing his flute. I was stunned. I had no idea the legend was based on astronomy and knowing when tio plant.

I have always enjoyed seeing caricatures of the character, Kokopelli, and reading some of Linda Lay-Schuler's books gave me a better background on the stories surrounding this character. Kokopelli was widely considered a God of Fertility who made the corn, beans and squash, the three sisters of prehistoric American gardening, grow. He also assured the fertility of the animals, whom the Indians generally respected as Mother Earth's other children, as well. Kokopelli made all the village women pregnant and assured the survival of the all.

One way to find Kokopelli in the sky. (In the Big Dipper and Bootes)

There are many images of Kokopelli and they take many forms and some face one direction and some face the other way. There are as many ways to draw Kokopelli as there are people who see him. The stars appear to rotate and face one way early in the evening and rotate around about 180 degrees or so before dawn. I will try to reproduce several of my drawings showing several different ways of portraying Kokopelli using slightly different arrangements of mostly the same stars.

Like other prehistoric asterisms I have seen among the ancient artworks, they are usually largeand take up all or parts of several of the old Greek constellations to make their figure. The constellations that make up the Kokopelli shape in the sky, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor and Bootes, mostly, are circumpolar constellations that can be seen most nights of the year but rise in different places and positions in different parts of the year so that the only time it can be seen rising upright in the NE is at Springtime. Therefore when Kokopelli was rising upright in the evening sky , it must be springtime because he can't be seen like that in the NE at that time of night any time of year but then. Neat, huh?

Another way to portray Kokopelli in the sky - Note the differences in his tunic. (In the Big Dipper and Bootes)

There were also stories that he was a trader from the Toltecs in Mexico (The hump on his back was supposed to be his trade goods in a backpack.) and that he was a traveler and a flute player whose music made everything fertile and receptive. Since constellations are travelers, too, it all falls in together. But nobody ever looked for or found him in the stars before - at least not since people have been writing books about him and other SW rock art figures, or if so, for some reasons they didn't mention it in their books. I have looked over many books about the prehistoric art of the SW and have not seen a single mention of Kokopelli being the Indian interpretation of the Big Dipper, so I have to assume this finding is new and previously unnoticed, except by the original artists. If you have found a previous mention of this, I would appreciate your letting me know the name of the publication and other information about it so I can get a copy.

A third way to portray Kokopelli in the sky - some images are drawn with a phallic symbol and while there other ways to portray it, this is one way.

My guess is that the medicine chiefs of the different tribes had slightly different ideas about which particular stars were involved and each taught their own ideas and etched them into the rocks or painted them as they individually saw the pattern in the sky. The main thing was to know which general formation and when and where in the sky to look. That would explain the varied designs and artistic interpretations of Kokopelli.

This is just a initial announcement of this latest archaeoastronomical finding and the article will be expanded as I get time to write more about this and other archaeoastronomical artworks from the Anasazi and their successors I am presently working on. Much more will be written about Kokopelli and a few other pictographs and petroglyphs will be featured and discussed in these pages soon.

Kokopelli is arguably the most recognized symbol from SW native cultures. Even still for over 150 years now, millions of us have seen the images without realizing it was really an Indian constellation used to guide the people as to when to plant. Every gardener knows that when an unexpected late freeze hits it kills almost everything in the garden and you have to get some new seed and replant. These Indians only had one chance to plant and they had to get it right every year because there was no place else they could go to for more seed. Kokopelli was their friend.

Probably not surprisingly, the older pictographs and petroglyphs are of basically primative with poor image quality whereas images on pottery are much more sophisticated, particularly the more recent works. Some of the modern artistically creative images of Kokopelli are clever, with many different themes, all evoking admiration for the image and respect for the artist. Just about anything you can think of can be bought with a Kokopelli design or motif. The influences of modern art on Kokopelli are resulting in some fascinating works of art and jewelry and there's a lively trade going on all over the country in Kokopelli memorabilia. People everywhere have come to love this interesting little character. But until now, how many people thought of Kokopelli as an Indian Constellation heralding spring and the rebirth that comes with it?