California's medieval Black warrior queen
Queen Calafia was a medieval legend who rode on griffins and led an army of Black women.
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Few people today know that the state of California owes its name to a legendary Black queen. Queen Calafia, a fictional character, who first appears in Las Sergas de Esplandían, a medieval romance book written by Spanish writer Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo.
The novel follows with the adventures of a knight in his attempt to fight the king of Persia and the Muslims. One of the fictional places mentioned in the work is the island of California, a place inhabited by Black Amazons riding griffins — mythological creatures that are half eagle, half lion. Their queen is Calafia (also called Caliphia or Khalif), an Amazon convinced to form a powerful army of women warriors to join the Muslims and fight against the Christians in the battle of Constantinople.
In the end, the queen is taken prisoner and converted to Christianity. With her, the rest of the women on the island join the men and form a new kingdom.
According to legend, the novel became so popular that even Hernán Cortés read it. When he arrived in the Golden State in 1530, he called the land the name of the island mentioned in the novel: 'California.'
But the story of Queen Calafia not only inspired the name of a state, it also reveals the complicated way in which medieval people understood race and the Catholic religion.
Historian Cord J. Whitaker of Wellesley College places Calafia's story within the medieval genre of 'Crusade romances,' which typically involve "a dark-skinned Muslim or pagan who is defeated by Christian forces" and then converts, he told Atlas Obscura. These Crusader romances feature new Christians, especially women, who are Black and recognized as beautiful, because, as Whitaker says, at the time "you need these beautiful Black Christian women to have a global church."
"Christianity was seen as a sign of being civilized, and therefore signaled reason and sophistication," adds Erin Rowe of Johns Hopkins University, whose most recent book traces the history of Black saints in early modern Catholicism. Rowe, as quoted by Atlas Obscura, believes that during the Middle Ages "in general, Black skin was equated with ugliness, barbarism and paganism," and in the medieval Mediterranean slave trade, which trafficked a range of peoples, "white skin was valued above all else." In that view, Calafia would have been seen more as an "exotic."
Today, Queen Calafia can be seen alongside her warriors in various theatrical performances. Even actress Whoopi Goldberg portrayed Calafia in the Disney movie Golden Dreams.