Why It's Called "California"

Craig Chalquist


Now I wish you to know about the strangest thing ever found anywhere in written texts or in human memory.... I tell you that on the right-hand side of the Indies there was an island called California, which was very close to the region of the Terrestrial Paradise. This island was inhabited by black women, and there were no males among them at all, for their life style was similar to that of the Amazons. The island was made up of the wildest cliffs and the sharpest precipices found anywhere in the world. These women had energetic bodies and courageous, ardent hearts, and they were very strong. -- The Exploits of Esplandian

Around the time of the Governor’s failed voyages--that's Governor Cortés, a terminator for real--a popular knights-in-armor fantasy novel circulated around Europe and then around the New World thanks to the printing press established in New Spain at the end of the 1530s. In a fictional reworking of the Crusades, The Exploits of Esplandian (Las Sergas de Esplandian) by Garcia Rodriguez Ordoñez de Montalvo portrayed a pagan attack on Constantinople and its defense by brave Christian knights. One of these, the hero Esplandian, teamed up with his father to face off against the Californian warrior women. Among the gold-armored inhabitants of the isle buzzed fabulous griffins, condorlike Arabian birds who dropped conquistadors from high up and ate them. They also ate the Amazons’ male children. Cervantes apparently thought little of the book and its utopian fantasies; in Don Quixote, the curate and the barber consigned it to a bonfire.

Cortés usually gets the credit for applying the name of the fictional realm to what he thought a vast island to the north, but the name first appeared in Preciado’s version of the 1539 diary of Ulloa. It’s likely it was bestowed in bitter irony over the contrast between the conquistador-killing coast and the legendary Terrestrial Paradise everyone had been looking for since Marco Polo’s 1298 Book. It was said that exiled Adam and Eve watered this Paradise with rivers of tears.

The Esplandian went on:

At the time when all of the pagans’ grandees left with those very large fleets, as the story has already told you, there reigned on California Island a queen in the flower of her youth who was bigger and more beautiful than the other women on the island, and she conceived a grand design to achieve great deeds. Moreover, of all who ruled that seigniory before her, she had more bold energy and more fire in her brave heart than any of the others. When she heard that most regions of the world were joining together in that expedition against the Christians--regions about which she knew nothing because she was acquainted only with neighboring lands--she conceived a desire to see the world and its various generations...

This, then, is where Ulloa or his chief got the name California. Where did Montalvo get it?

Writing before European eyes had penetrated the peninsula, Montalvo could not have known her long southern leg to be a cali fornax, a hot furnace. William Little believes that Montalvo’s use of the name Villa Califán, an Arabian place in Book Four of the Esplandian, shows that he had in mind the Arabic root khalifa, a successor to Muhammad, which is why Calafía allied herself with the Muslim Turks. Calif is Spanish for a Muslim chief, Califia the female equivalent. (Interestingly, the missions of California are filled with Arabic fountains and windows, a legacy of the long Islamic occupation of Spain.)

A 12th Century lawyers’ anecdote described a “Calefurnia” as a loud and talkative woman who insisted on being her own attorney.

Montalvo may have read the anonymous 11th Century Song of Roland (Chanson de Roland) and its phrasing e cil de califerne: “and those of Califerne,” with the word possibly meaning “caliph’s domain.” Mourning the death of his nephew Roland on the battlefield at Roncevaux, King Charles laments:

My nephew, through whom I conquered so much, is dead.
The Saxons will rebel against me,
The Hungarians, the Bulgars, and so many infidel peoples,
The Romans, the Apulians, and all the men of Palermo,
The Men of Africa and those of Califerne.

Califerne might in turn reach back to the Greek for “beautiful bird” or the Arabic for “large province.” “Paradise” derives from the Greek paradeisos, an enclosed park, and is thought to be of Iranian origin, akin to the Avestan pairidaeza, “enclosure,” and similar to the Greek peri, around, and teichos, wall. Kar-i-farn: the mythical Iranian mountain of Paradise, wherein dwelled, alas, many warlike griffins.

West of the West