"Queen Califia" mural (1937, Lucile Lloyd) in the California Capitol

Who is Calafia? The Forgotten Literary Origins of the State of California

California, the Golden State, was first explored by Europeans in the sixteenth century when Spanish explorers began traversing the Pacific coastline. By the late-eighteenth century, the Spanish had established a series of missions which ran along the state which was referred to as “Alta California.” After a relatively brief stint as a Mexican province, California became the thirty-first state to join the United States on September 9th, 1850. For English-speakers, the origins of the name “California” remained relatively obscure until the late nineteenth century, when a fantastical literary origin, with which Spanish Europeans had long been familiar, provided an answer to this mystery. (1)

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A Literary Legacy: From King Arthur to the California Coast

Believe it or not, the name “California” can be traced directly back to the chivalrous romances written in the wake of the popularity of the “Arthurian legends,” which refers to the body of works spanning centuries which chronicle the adventures of King Arthur and his court. Originating in Celtic mythic history, King Arthur and the knights of the round table exploded in popularity in the later half of the Middle Ages and have shaped the course of European literature ever since. (2)(3)

Arthurian literature inspired tales of forbidden courtly loves and lordly knights of noble stock. One such story in this legacy is Amadis of Gaul or in Spanish “Amadis de Gaula.” The exact origins of this post-Arthurian story are murky, however the earliest edition comes to us in Castilian Spanish from a fifteenth century writer named Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. Not much is known about Montalvo except that he spent years translating and transcribing Amadis de Gaula into Castilian from Portuguese, and even made changes to the narrative which persist in the story of Amadis to this day. One of the most noteworthy things that Montalvo changed was the addition of a sequel. (4)

Frontispiece to “Las Sergas de Esplandián” by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo
Frontispiece to “Las Sergas de Esplandián” by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo. Public domain image supplied via Wikimedia Commons

Las Sergas de Esplandian or “The Adventures of Esplandian” is Montalvo’s own work. It is a novel which continues the legacy of Amadis by following the adventures of his son, Esplandian. Likely written shortly before the end of the fifteenth century, after Montalvo’s death in 1505 Las Sergas de Esplandian blossomed in popularity.

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Calafia and the Island of the Amazons

Las Sergas de Esplandian follows its hero and his father through a conflict with an army of Muslim warriors who attempt to dethrone their Christian kingdom. This is, no doubt, a reflection of the centuries-long Reconquista period of conflict between Iberian Islam and Christian Spain. Antagonism by Muslim forces would have been a familiar cultural theme for fifteenth century Spanish readers. (5)

In Las Sergas de Esplandian, Esplandian’s Muslim enemies are joined by an unusual character by the name of Queen Calafia. It is believed by modern linguists that Calafia’s name is meant to reflect the Arabic word “Khalifa” or “Caliph” referring to a religious leader. Queen Calafia is described as a fierce woman with dark skin and clothed in gold who hails from an island called “California.”

Depiction of Queen Calafia supporting the industries of California in the "Allegory of California" mural by Diego Rivera in the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange, San Francisco
Depiction of Queen Calafia supporting the industries of California in the “Allegory of California” mural by Diego Rivera in the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange, San Francisco. Image supplied via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons 2.0

Know that to the right hand of the Indies was an island called California, very near to the region of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was populated by black women, without there being any men among them, that almost like the Amazons was their style of living. These were of vigorous bodies and strong and ardent hearts and of great strength; the island itself the strongest in steep rocks and great boulders that is found in the world; their arms were all of gold, and also the harnesses of the wild beasts on which, after having tamed them, they rode; that in all the island there was no other metal whatsoever. They dwelt in caves very well hewn; they had many ships in which they went out to other parts to make their forays, and the men they seized they took with them, giving them their deaths, as you will further hear. And some times when they had peace with their adversaries, they intermixed with all security one with another, and there were carnal unions from which many of them came out pregnant, and if they gave birth to a female they kept her, and if they gave birth to a male, then he was killed… On this island, called California, there are many griffons… and in the time that they had young, these women would… take them to their caves, and there raise them. And… they fattened them on those men and the boys that they had borne… Any male that entered the island was killed and eaten by them… There ruled on that island of California, a queen great of body, very beautiful for her race, at a flourishing age, desirous in her thoughts of achieving great things, valiant in strength, cunning in her brave heart, more than any other who had ruled that kingdom before her…Queen Calafia.

From Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandian (6)

Calafia is fearsome, untamed, and deadly. To Esplandian, she is a monster who represents all that goes wrong when a nation is led without Christianity and without the proper balance between men and women. Calafia’s story ends with her falling in love with Esplandian, choosing not to interfere in his betrothal to a more proper match, converting to Christianity, marrying a knight, and returning to California to rule as a Christian monarchy with both men and women.

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The Promise of Gold and Plenty

The story of Esplandian and Queen Calafia is somewhat obscure to modern audiences, but in sixteenth century Spain, Las Sergas de Esplandian was quite a popular book. So well-known, in fact, was Montalvo’s work, that it is mentioned in the much more well-known Don Quixote. (7)

So, when early Spanish explorers came to California, they were evidently quite familiar with Calafia and the book from which she originates. One important item to note is that during the Age of Exploration, two things were erroneously assumed about the geography of this planet. One is that the Pacific Ocean was thought to be much smaller than it turned out to be. The other is that explorers having visited Mexico believed that the Baja Peninsula was an island off of Mexico’s Pacific coast, rather than the peninsula it turned out to be. So, when explorers discovered this peninsula, not only did they believe it to be an island, but they believed it to be an island just east of the Indies, exactly as Montalvo described California. Although the first expeditions to California did not use this name, before long documents logging California’s exploration began referring to it as such. California was, in fact, believed to be an island until the beginning of the eighteenth century. (8)

1658 Visscher Map of North America and South America depicting California as an island.
1658 Visscher Map of North America and South America depicting California as an island. Public domain image supplied via Wikimedia Commons

Further inspiration for the California name is owed to the belief that the Age of Exploration would yield a “terrestrial paradise.” This belief is reflected in myths like that of El Dorado and is found in important European literature dating back to the very start of the Age of Exploration, such as Thomas More’s Utopia, which described a perfect society across the Atlantic Ocean in the New World. (9)

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California in Name and Spirit

California did not immediately reveal itself to be the “utopia” that the Spanish explorers had hoped for. As it transferred hands from a Spanish settlement to a Mexican Province, to a territory of the United States, California’s name was, at times, a sort of misnomer. Life on the Western frontier was not for the faint of heart. In 1848, however, gold nuggets were discovered at a mill in the Sacramento Valley, sparking a series of events which would bring California statehood and reveal the truth in its name. The Gold Rush revealed the wealth of precious minerals within California’s earth, much like Calafia’s mythical island on which the only metal was gold, and fortune-seekers who rushed to the Golden State found freedom and natural beauty in droves as well. Many modern audiences find that the incredible legend of Calafia perfectly encapsulates the wild land of promise which California turned out to be. (10)

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