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Historians claim California was named after a Black lesbian queen named Calafia

Some argue that the name can be traced back to a 16th-century Spanish romance novel which told the tale of a fantastical island populated with women and gold.

Historians claim California was named after a Black lesbian queen named Calafia
Cover Image Source: Getty Images (representative)

There is a wide range of theories as to where the Golden State got its name "California" from. While some historical documents suggest that the state was named after the phrase "Calida Fornax" — which translates to "hot, fiery furnace" — by cartographer Deigo Gutiérrez in 1562, others argue that the name can be traced further back to a 16th-century Spanish romance novel which told the tale of a fantastical island populated with women and gold. "It's out of Spanish literature, no doubt about it, but it's very complex the story of how the geographic name evolved," Bill Swagerty, a history professor at the University of the Pacific, told ABC10.



 

Swagerty explained that the name has its roots in the Spanish novel Las Sergas de Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo which featured a legendary queen named Califia. According to LGBTQ Nation, Calafia — the strongest, most courageous, and beautiful woman in the world — ruled over a mythic all-female island of Black women just off the coast of Asia and used an army of flying Griffins to fight Christians at Constantinople. The island, named after the pagan queen, was believed to be "very close to the site of the Terrestrial Paradise" and had steep cliffs, gold as its only metal in existence, and legendary creatures.



 

Queen Calafia is quite reminiscent of the Amazon queens from ancient Greek mythology. While the Greeks considered these queens who ruled over all-female societies of warrior women to be heterosexuals, modern-day writers have explored the likelihood of lesbian relationships among them. This belief stems from the island's all-Black residents' apparent apathy towards men, with whom they were said to have sex only for procreative purposes (of their offsprings, male infants were killed and the females were raised). The men were abducted during raids in nearby ports and fed to the griffins — large flying creatures with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle — after procreation.



 

In fact, the women fed so many men to the griffins that sometimes the birds wouldn't be hungry for man-flesh and would simply fly off with their meals in their talons to drop them to their deaths just for fun. Upon hearing that Muslims were battling Christians at Constantinople, Queen Calafia decides to join the Muslims, not out of disdain for the Christians, but merely because she believed taking part in the battle would break up her kingdom's somewhat humdrum existence of pillaging, abducting, and feeding men to the griffins and win them some adventure, riches, and fame.



 

Unfortunately, the battle doesn't work out well for Queen Calafia or her subjects as they run into quite a few technical issues on the battlefield. For one, having never been used in battle before, the griffins prove difficult to control and start indiscriminately attacking everyone including her own warriors. To make matters worse, the women learn the hard way that gold doesn't make for strong armor and suffer countless injuries. With losses mounting up on both sides, Calafia and another warrior agree to fight Christian King Amadis and his son Esplandian directly to determine the winner.



 

Although Calafia shows up to the showdown dressed to impress in a golden robe adorned with jewels and a large headdress, it is she who has a love at first sight moment when she lays eyes upon Esplandian. Ultimately, the father-son duo ends up beating the regal queen in battle. Unfortunately, Esplandian marries another woman as pagans aren't really his thing and Calafia goes on to tie the knot with a different handsome Christian knight named Talanque. She promises to rule California together with him as the island finally allows men to live peacefully alongside women.



 

U.S. historian Edward Everett Hale concluded in 1862 that the novel — a best-seller in its time — was the origin of the name California as it reflected the Spanish longing for gold, glory, and God. He wrote that when Spanish conquistadors Hernán Cortés arrived on what is now known as Baja California on Mexico’s west coast, he and his explorers may have incorrectly thought it was an island just East of the Indies where Calafia's island was said to be in the novel.



 

"Queen Calafia is a representation of all California women, women of color, and women of the LGBTQ community," cultural writer Abeni Moreno wrote of the Black queen. "By recognizing and valuing the original aspects of Calafia's character: intelligent, thick-bodied, lesbian, biracial, a leader, strong and beautiful, her re-appropriation can reverse the colonized gaze of Montalvo. As a result, Calafia becomes a positive image of women, and we reclaim her as the mother of California."

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