California, Calafia, Khalif: The Origin of the Name "California"

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Johannes Vingboons. 1650. | Image from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

From Beijing to Buenos Aires, from Moscow to Mecca, all around the world people know of California. And it is a place that exists in our imagination, as much as it does a physical location. Geographically standing at America's western frontier, California has psychologically come to represent a land of promise, possibility, and opportunity. And over the last century, waves of migrants, from filmmakers to oil men, from farmers to "dot com" entrepreneurs, have journeyed to the state in hopes of attaining their own piece of the California dream.

But even though the name "California" is known throughout the world, most people, including its own residents, are unaware of the origin of its name. And this origin story demonstrates that the California dream is not a new phenomenon, but rather has existed in the imagination of men and women for hundreds of years.

The California of 16th Century Spanish Explorers
The name "California" derives from a 16th Century romance novel written by a Spanish author named Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo. It was titled, "Las Sergas del muy esforzado caballero Esplandian, hijo del excelente rey Amadis de Gaula," meaning "The exploits of the very powerful cavalier Esplandian, son of the excellent king Amadis of Gaul."

The novel described an island, very close to the Garden of Eden, full of gold, which was ruled by strong and beautiful black women. This island was also populated by griffins, a fantastical lion-eagle hybrid, which the women kept as pets. Any man who found his way onto this island was killed and fed to the griffins. The name of this mythical island? California.

Mural of Queen Calafia and her Amazons in the Room of the Dons at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco, California.
Mural of Queen Calafia and her Amazons in the Room of the Dons at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco, California. | Photo from | Wikimedia Commons

 Montalvo described it as follows:

How did the name of this mythical island become the name of the 31st state of the union? Spanish explorers during the 1500s were familiar with the story and applied the name to what is now called Baja California, which at the time, they thought was an island. Based on legends prevalent at the time, Spanish explorers were searching for a mythical island paradise. Even though it later became clear that Baja California was not an island, once the name started being used on maps, it stuck.

California's Islamic Origin
So 16th century Spanish explorers got the name from Montalvo's story, but where did Montalvo get the name? Muslims.

The inspiration for the word was likely "Khalif" or "Khalifa" which means "successor" in Arabic but more specifically refers in Islam to a head of state or leader of the Muslims. Montalvo was surely familiar with these words. Portions of Spain were ruled by the Moors, who were Muslim, from 757 to 1492. And it fits the story's narrative. Montalvo's novel was a fanciful rehash of the struggle between Christians and Muslims during the crusades.

The Islamic origin of the name illustrates an example of how our lives are affected by many different cultural influences, even if we are not explicitly aware of them. In addition to coffee, algebra, hospitals, and toothbrushes, the name of our state finds its origin in the Muslim world. Just like our present day state, the name "California" is a confluence of multiple cultural influences.

Queen Calafia's name is likely a derivative of the Arabic word 'Khalif' or 'Khalifa' .

So the name "California" traces its origin to a centuries old story about an island, full of gold, run by black women who fed men to their pet griffins. Like other Amazonian legends, the island of California was a place filled with strong, self-sufficient women who solicited male attention completely on their own terms. This story resonates in California, which has a long history of gender roles being reconstructed. And it is fitting that this state, which has served as a frontier for issues of race, gender and religion, gets its name from a mythical story where race, gender and religion collide. Finally, the story of an island full of gold foreshadowed the Gold Rush, which propelled the idea of the California dream around the world.

This state, which has spawned so many of its own myths, has its origin in myth. The Spanish explorers were looking for an "island dream" when they gave California its name. And hundreds of years later, people still come to California searching for their own piece of the California dream.

George Davidson. "The Origin and the Meaning of the Name California." Transactions and Proceedings of the Geographical Society of the Pacific, Ser. II, 4, Pt. 1 (1910).
Edward Everett Hale. "The Queen of California." The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 13, Issue 77 (1864).
Dora Beale Polk. The Island of California: A History of the Myth (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991).
Ruth Putnam. "California: The Name." University of California Publications in History, 4, No. 4 (1917).
Kevin Star. Americans and the California Dream 1850-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973)