Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Kokopelli, Actually Not a Finnish God

A couple of months ago, we finally got rid of our old TV – a massive cathode ray tube model that literally required two people to carry – and replaced it with a flat-screen smart TV. Modernity!

With this new technology now bringing Internet connectivity to a screen bigger and easier to watch than a mere laptop, I’ve been semi-binge watching Netflix now and then, especially the animated series “BoJack Horseman”. I guess I have a weakness for down-home stories about the trials and tribulations of the folks who labor in Hollywood (see “Californication”, “Entourage”).

Anyway, watching the opening scene of the episode “Escape from L.A.”, I spotted something in the background that caught my attention. In this scene, BoJack, once again suffering an existential personal crisis after simultaneously sabotaging both this movie career and his relationship, shows up in New Mexico searching for the one person (well, actually, a deer, a female deer) from his past whom he thinks will make him happy.

The thing that caught my eye in the scene was a storefront in the small town near Santa Fe that BoJack finds himself in – or is trying to “find himself” in. Above the storefront were written the words “Kokopelli Deli”.

I had to pause the playback to check that wording. And, yes, this is really small-bore TV watching, but that’s how I roll.

You see, the word “Kokopelli” looked to me a lot like a Finnish word, not what you’d expect to see in the desert Southwestern US. What I thought I was seeing was something like the familiar words koko peli (“full game” in English). Of course, the word I actually saw on our new flat screen was slightly different. There is an extra “l” in Kokopelli.

Naturally, I had to Google it. It turns out that “Kokopelli” is a fertility god worshiped by the Pueblo peoples, such as the Hopi and Zuni, whose ancestors have inhabited the Four Corners region of the present-day US for thousands of years. As a dancing, humpbacked flute player who chases away winter and renews life, Kokopelli sounds like one funky deity. Kind of like Ian Anderson  without the hump, that is. 

A petroglyph in New Mexico depicting Kokopelli. 
Photo: Einar Einarsson Kvaran

This example of an accidental, though completely superficial, similarity in words spoken in Finland and in patches of the American Southwest is of course surprising. Or, for Finns maybe not that surprising – if they’ve ever visited Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde is the site of ancient cliff dwellings on a high, arid mesa in southern Colorado. It is an enigmatic place. Clusters of 600 or so rooms, abandoned by the ancestral Puebloans some 700 years ago, are ingenuously tucked away beneath overhanging cliffs and other sheltered places on the mesa. Perfect, desolate sanctuaries. The primitive architecture of tightly packed rooms honeycombed on top of one another is, to say the least, impressive.

One type of these rooms stands out by being underground. This is the “kiva”, a subterranean chamber used for spiritual ceremonies and no doubt an important center in the lives of the long-departed cliff dwellers.

About a dozen years ago, my family and I climbed down a ladder through a small hole in the ground to enter one such kiva at Cliff Palace, one of the biggest dwellings at Mesa Verde. My kids probably thought this cool and dim ancient cellar in the American desert was indeed kiva. As in “nice”. That’s because the Finnish word for “nice” is kiva. Nice.

If you were so inclined, you could even say Kiva on kiva, as in “The kiva is nice”. Again, nice.

The way most Finnish words are made up of short syllables, the language to me sometimes feels aboriginal in nature, like there’s a close kinship between Finns and other small tribal peoples of the world.

In the movie “Dances with Wolves” there is a scene where Kevin Costner is trying to convey to his Indian neighbors, by hand signals, that he had spotted buffalo nearby. When they finally understood Costner’s somewhat comical pantomime, they immediately supplied their own Lakota word for buffalo, “tatanka”, which Costner then started repeating excitedly. Watching  that scene, I remember thinking that “tatanka” sounded awfully Finnish.

Actually, the closest Finnish word I can come up with is tankata, which means “to refuel”. It also happens to be an anagram of “tatanka”, so hearing a similarity between the two is not so implausible. Another close one is tanakka, which means “stout” (the physical description, not the beer).

Of course, there is no actual connection between Finnish and the languages of the Lakota and Pueblo Peoples, and it would be weird if there were. The Finnish language did originate somewhere far to the east of present-day Finland, but not that far to the east. 

Not long after I moved to Finland in the 1980s, I came upon an odd book in the old communist bookstore that used to be located somewhere on Simonkatu. The entire book was one complicated argument that the Finnish people are supposedly the descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Now, that is a farfetched notion, to say the least.

I can’t say whether, in the mists of ancient legend, there has even been a “lost tribe” of the Lakota or the Zuni or the Hopi. But if there is one, I feel quite certain that the Finns are not it.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park.
Credit: NPS Photo


  1. This is not actually a Finnish connection (in the truest sense), but some years back I was pitching a concept to several comics companies. The story took place in Karelia and some of the major players were Saami (aka: Lapps). In my research I was struck by how similar parts of the culture of some of the Saami peoples were to some of the tribal cultures of North American native Indian nations. Not just lifestyle (which is to be expected), but art, music, and religion. In addition, I was impressed by the similarities in fates of the native Saami people and North America's "Indians"--the brutality and violence they suffered at the hands of the wider European civilization.

    The series never sold, but I had a lot of fun working on it and learned much. There are all sorts of coincidental likenesses between cultures worldwide. All part of being human, and all part of Mankind's tendency toward violence and victimization of those less able to defend themselves.

  2. You might like the song titled kokopelli by a great aussie group called mild high club