Thursday, July 23, 2009

California, according to Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo

How the imaginary land of warrior women became the real land of Tinseltown.

[French map of California, 1656. The peninsula was originally thought to be an island.]


After rewriting the four books of Amadís de Gaula, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo wrote the bestseller Sergas de Esplandián (Exploits of Esplandián), published in 1510, which recounts the deeds of Amadis's son. It includes an episode involving female warriors from an island named California, and eventually explorers used that name for a region in the Americas.

The first Spanish explorer arrived at what is now Baja California Sur in 1533, perhaps in search of an island far to the west of the rest of Mexico populated by women, rich in gold and pearls. Indians had told Francisco Cortés about such a place, and his 1524 report to Emperor Charles V uses some of the same language as Sergas de Esplandián, so he apparently had already confounded the Indian rumor with the fantasy in the book. His cousin Hernán Cortés led an expedition there 1535, and he named it Santa Cruz Island. Other explorers followed.

All they found was arid land, rugged topography, and condors, which weren't griffons though they were big — but no gold, no pearls, no black Amazon warriors. They were disappointed.

In the early 1540s, explorers had begun to use "California" as an alternate name for the island (peninsula), perhaps to contrast the supposed riches with reality. By the time General History of the Indies and the Life of Hernán Cortéz by López de Gómara was published in 1552, the name had stuck.

Here is the description of California from Chapter CLVII of Exploits of Esplandián:


Now I want ye to know something so wondrous that nothing like it could be found in writing or in anyone's memory....

Know that to the right of the Indies there was an island named California very close to the coast of Earthly Paradise, which was populated by black women without a single man among them, who were almost like the Amazons in their style of life. They had beautiful and robust bodies, striving and ardent hearts, and were very strong.

The island itself was protected by the most secure and impregnable rocks and peaks as could be found in the world. Their weapons were solid gold, as were the bridles of the wild beasts that they tamed and rode. No other metal existed on the island. They lived in well-appointed caves. They had many ships in which they sailed to other lands on expeditions, and all the men whom they captured they took with them and killed, as ye shall hear further on.

In some places they were at peace with their enemies, and they mixed with them in complete safety and had carnal knowledge, from which many were left pregnant, and if they gave birth to a female, they kept her, but if a male, they immediately killed him. The reason for that, as far as it is known, was because they firmly believed that if they reduced the men to a small number, they could reign over all their lands without effort, so they kept only enough to be able to ensure the propagation of their people.

On this island, California, there were many griffins, who lived in the arid lands in huge flocks, the like of which could not be found anywhere else on Earth. When the griffins gave birth, the women came, wearing thick leather to protect them, and took the young. They brought them to their caves and raised them.

When the young griffins were ready, they fed them the men they had captured and the boys they had borne, with such frequency and skill that the griffins would not harm the women. Any man who entered the island was immediately killed and eaten by the beasts, which, if they were not hungry, would still grab them and fly through the air, and when they were tired of carrying them, would let them fall, so that they were killed....

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