The Islands of Califia

California. How did it get the name?

The origins of the name date back to 450ish BC in Greece. Herodotus of Halicarnassus is called The Father of History because he’s considered the first historian. There is simply no written information prior his book called The Histories.

One of the groups Herodotus wrote about was a mythical tribe of fierce women warriors who fought the Greeks in the region east of the Black Sea. These women were reported to be extraordinarily ferocious, unusually tall and black skinned. They were called the Amazons. These women fought as men and it was reported that they had weapons made of gold including swords, bows, arrows and armor. They used men for breeding and put the male children out on the rocks to be pulled apart by vultures. Not housewify to be sure.

Herodotus has been criticized for his inclusion of “legends and fanciful accounts” in his work. Fellow historian Thucydides accused him of making up stories for entertainment purposes. In response, Herodotus explained that he reported what he “saw and [what was] told to him.” In spite of this, a sizable portion of the information Herodotus has provided has since been confirmed by modern historians . But gold arrows? Unlikely.

Roll the clock forward 1,800 years and the myth still existed. Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián) is a novel written by Garcia Rodrigues de Montalvo in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The publication date is unclear but it was after Columbus. De Montalvo wrote that the fabled Amazons were to be found in the New World. The novel was wildly popular, as in Dannielle Steel BIG.

Esplandian looking for the ladies

None other than Cortez the conqueror of the Aztecs, ever in the search of gold, had read this novel and in the late midlevel mind conflated this fiction with actual fact. So he dispatched an expedition from his stronghold in Mexico to reconnoiter lands to the south. They didn’t find the Amazons but they did find a mighty river which they named after the warriors.

Then Cortez himself (or possibly his nephew as they had the same name) went north along the Pacific (finally we are back in the Pacific) and ended up roughly where Cabo San Lucas is today. There was no Señor Frogs for another five centuries and there were no tall black women with golden armor. They did find some short brown women with a few misshapen pearls. Cortez had a government job and he felt that he had met the moment so he dubbed these folks the Amazon women. They were told to stop dancing around naked and immediately start worshiping Jesus and bow to the King and Queen of Spain. The locals were confused but a few ships’ nails and beads were great treasures so they went along and converted to Catholicism. When Cortez took off, the locals got up off their knees and continued singing and dancing in their birthday suits for the next 250 years.

Oh and the queen of the Amazons was named Califia according to Herodotus and though Cortez failed to find her he did name the place the Islands of Califia which translates into English as California. Eventually this was the name of the lands encompassing today’s New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and upper and lower California. A nice chunk o’ real estate.

Cortez missed the gold in California though it was there, just further north. It continued to sleep underground until 1848.

So what about the ‘myth’ of the Amazon women. They were often discussed by not just Herodotus but were depicted in art in ancient times. It seems there is some truth to the tale. In Armenia graves have recently been discovered revealing women warriors dressed in gold and equipped with weapons. Analysis of the skeletons indicates that the musculature of these women was well developed with upper shoulder strength consistent with archers and leg bones adapted for horseback. Over twenty graves have been located so far predating Herodotus by at least a hundred years and are right where he reported them to be.

Mythologies generally evolve from actual events and people. The stories blur over the many generations of retelling but Zeus and that crowd were once real people and now it appears tales of the Amazon women have a basis in fact. Still I doubt the arrows were made of gold but you can definitely imagine them having little use for men.

From the early 1500s there has been a great deal of confusion as to whether California is peninsula or an island. I’m still not 100% sure.

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  • Love that my state is named after the queen of the Amazons.
    Artful and slippery writing as always. Love to fall down your rabbit holes.

  • Ferdinand D. Bull says:

    You missed Abraham Ortelius’ map, which is considered the earliest depiction of California on a map (I have one). Flemish, I think, cartographer Abraham Ortelius theorized that (1596) the coastlines of Africa and South America appeared to fit together, compelling him to propose that the continents had once been joined but were pulled apart by “earthquakes and floods.” And yet, the theory of plate tectonics represents a fairly young science….. still, his depiction of California was correct, only after was the Island of California put to test. I’m just saying.

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