- Where did the name “California” come from?
- Who gave California its name?
- What does “California” mean?
- WHERE DID THE NAME COME FROM?
Edward Everett Hale
Variants go way by back. In the Chanson de Roland (early 11th Century) Charlemagne’s nephew, Roland, fought and died in the battle of Roncevaux. Now that his heroic nephew is gone, Charlemagne fears other foes Will attack more freely, among them, “the Saxons, Hungarians ... those of Palema and of Aflrike and those of Califerne” — the latter probably meaning those of the “calif’— or “caliph’s” — domain.
Dora Beale Polk cites other references. In Siete Partidas (1265) women lawyers become banned because one of them, Calfurnia, won’t play by the judges’ rules. This story, says A.E. Sokol, came from an earlier German work, Der Sachsenspiegel, in which a woman named Calefurnia “misbehaved before the court.” And she might be derived, others say, from a Roman woman, Caja Afrania, in the writings of Valerius Maximus. “California,” says Polk, “is thereby connected to the Moslem world, to the Middle East and Africa, as well as to Rome, Greece, and medieval Europe generally.”
Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) was a Boston minister, philanthropist, and writer of popular fictions, his most famous, The Man Without a Country. In 1862, Hale read Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandian (“Esplandian’s Adventures”) and was the first to make a connection. There was an island called California, “in this forgotten romance,” which he saw as the origin of the state’s name. Esplandian was published around 1510, “while our California, even the peninsula of that name, was not discovered by the Spanish till 1526 and was not named California till 1535.”
Esplandian was the kind of chivalric romance that drove Don Quixote mad. In fact, when they go through Quixote’s library for inflammatory fiction, the curate and the barber heave Esplandian into a fire. The book, says Hale, is “the most fictitious of fiction.” Published a half-century after the invention of the printing press and printed on large folios, it was also a bestseller, and its images lingered on the mind.
The strongest, most beautiful woman in the world, Calafia, lived on a remote island “very close to the site of the Terrestrial Paradise”—i.e., Eden, which, Columbus and every explorer that followed him believed, stood on the “right hand” of the Indies. Calafia was a black queen and ruled the “strongest island in all the world,” called California, also on the Indies’ “right hand.” It had “steep cliffs and rocky shores,” beasts never seen elsewhere, gold (the island’s only metal), and no men, for the women “lived in the fashion of Amazons.”
The women slept in caves “wrought out of the rock with much labor,” wore thick hides, and raided foreign ports for “booty” and men, with whom they would procreate and then feed to griffins — giant, condorlike birds. “Every man who landed on the island was immediately devoured by these griffins; and although they had had enough, none the less would they seize them, and carry them high up in the air in their flight; and when they were tired of carrying them, would let them fall.”
Calafia learns that “the greater part of the world” is about to attack Christians. Though she’d never heard of Christians or seen much of the world, she exhorts her followers, “showing them the great profits and honors which they would gain in this enterprise—above all the great fame which would be theirs in all the world; while, if they stayed on their island, doing nothing but what their grandmothers did, they were really buried alive—dead while they lived, passing their days without fame and without glory, as did the very brutes.” Columbus discovered the New World in 1492. Esplandian was published in 1510. Imagine how the queen’s speech — pure propaganda for the impulse of conquest — resonated for the Corteses, deSotos, Pizarros, Bernal Diazes, and Cabeza de Vacases about to embark on similar expeditions.
The Turks, with Calafia s warriors, lay siege to Christian Constantinople. Calafia unleashes her griffins, which haven’t seen battle before and which kill indiscriminately. Calafia’s women also discover that their armor, made from solid gold, is too weak, and “they receive many wounds.” Calafia proves so valiant, however, “that it cannot be believed that any woman has ever shown such prowess.”
Calafia, “the most distinguished woman in the world,” meets the Christian King Amadis’s son, Esplandian, who is “such as neither the past nor the present, nor, I believe any who are to come, have ever seen one so handsome and so elegant.”
“Rays” leap from his “resplendent eyes” and dazzle Calafia as if she “had passed between mallets of iron.” If she lingered much longer, “the fame she acquired as a manly cavalier... would be greatly hazarded.”
Esplandian is unsmitten, though. He’s in love with the emperor’s daughter, Leonorina. Plus, Calafia looks “strange” to him: not because of her color (“that prejudice was not yet known”) but because she’s wearing armor. “For he considered it as very dishonorable that she should attempt anything so different from what the word of God commanded her, that the woman should be in subjection to the man.” Calafia was also, in his eyes, an “infidel” he vowed to destroy.
Leaders on both sides fight a double combat: Esplandian defeats the sultan easily. But Amadis refuses to return Calafia’s fierce blows “not from tenderness but from contempt” that he has to fight a woman. Then, using only “the broken truncheon of his lance,” Amadis subdues and imprisons Calafia.
Esplandian strikes a graver blow. He marries Leonorina in Calafia’s presence. “Having no more hope of him whom she so much loved,” Calafia breaks down. She throws her strength “into oblivion,” marries Talanque (a lesser knight, “who was very handsome withal...”), and converts to Christianity.
She vows to Talanque: “Thou shalt be my lord and the lord of [California], which is a very great kingdom; and, for thy sake, this island shall change the custom which for a very long time it has preserved, so that the natural generations of men and women shall succeed henceforth, in place of the order in which the men have been separated so long.”
At this point, Calafia disappears from Las Sergas de Esplandian. The author never tells us if she, and her now Christian army, made it back to the island of California.
The Queen of California: The Origin of the Name of California with a Translation from The Sergas of Esplandian by Edward Everett Hale
“Sources of the Name ‘California,’ ” Donald C. Cutter, Arizona and the West, 3 (autumn 1961), pp. 233-244
The Island of California: A History of the Myth, Dora Beale Polk, University of Nebraska Press, 1991
“California: A Possible Derivation of the Name,” A.E. Sokol, California Historical Society Quarterly, v. 28 (1949), pp. 23-30
- Hale: “When Columbus sailed on his fourth voyage...he wrote to his king and queen that he should come as near as men could to the Terrestrial Paradise.’ ”
- Hale (writing just after the Civil War): “These griffins are the Monitors of the story, or if the reader pleases, the Merrimacs.”
- Hale: “Observe, O reader, [Calafia] is very beautiful. Why did not Powers carve his statue of California out of the blackest of Egyptian marbles? Try once more, Mr. Powers! We have found her now.”