In the preface of the first European Atlas by Gerhard Mercator (1512-1594), whose author did not live to see the complete publication of his great work, a warning is borrowed from Saint Isidore of Seville: “As the Earth is one, but its various parts are called by various names, so the sea is indicated by different names according to the various regions”. (Isidore, Etymologiae, 13.15.5: “Sicut autem terra dum una sit, pro diversis locis variis appellatur vocabulis, ita et pro regionibus hoc mare magnum diversis nominibus nuncupatur”). In fact, the Sumerians and Egyptians called it the Upper Sea, since it laid towards the region where they saw the sun on the highest point in the summer. This is why Herodotus, after his visit to Egypt, also talked about it as the North Sea, boreia thalassa (4.42). In the Bible it is yam hagadol, the Great Sea, but also the Western or Philistine Sea. Homer does not use any specific name for it in the Odyssey, only “the sea”, while the shores of the Ilias are washed by two seas, the Thracian and the Icarian ones. The Phoenicians, who sailed it from one end to the other, called it the Greater Sea. For Thucydides it was the Greek Sea, while for Plato “the sea next to us” or “neighboring us”. Saint Isidore of Seville also called it Mare Magnum because of its size, but it was also him who introduced the philologically strange concept of mediterraneum, a name which would have never been approved by Cicero, because this adjective, strictly speaking, could be applied only to something that is in the middle of a land. Ibn Khaldun calls it al-Bahr-al-Abyad, the White Sea, just like the Turks, because white is the distinctive color of the West, just as red for the East, hence the name Red Sea for the sea of Eritrea. The sea, reminds Predrag Matvejević, “changes its gender from one shore to another: it is neutral in Latin and in the Slavic languages, masculine in Italian, feminine in French, sometimes male and sometimes female in Spanish. It has two masculine names in Arabic and Coptic, while Greek, in its many denominations, attributes all genders to it…” (El Mediterráneo y Europa, Valencia: Pre-Textos, 2006, 29).
Here we only want to show a specific example of this human hesitation concerning naming things. The greatest Spanish author is generally known as “the one-armed man of Lepanto”. If you go to Madrid and dare to ask, say, the taxi driver who the one-armed of Lepanto was, then, however maddening the traffic of Madrid is, he will answer without hesitation that the one-armed of Lepanto was of course Cervantes. But let us stop talking to the driver, as it might cause problems. Because many college students, when you ask them, are incapable to locate on the map the above mentioned Lepanto, the theater of the great naval battle of the Holy League against the Turkish fleet, which they have so often heard of. Spanish people in general do not know, even approximately (of course there are always some exceptions…), where is the place where the author of Don Quixote lost his left hand. So you’d better not irritate the taxi driver with impertinent questions.
A replica of the Galera Real of Don Juan de Austria, decorated with a rich iconographic program of emblematic origin. Museu Marítim de Barcelona
And the truth is that the students have a reason to ignore where Lepanto is. because in a certain sense Lepanto does not exist. Let us make a first search on Google Maps, and in the column to the left you will find these options: a supermarket in the Mallorcan Sóller, a tea house in Málaga and a restaurant in Bilbao; or, somewhat below, a metro station in Rome. Directly on the map, the first option leads to the town of Sancti Spiritus, in the middle of the island of Cuba. If we turn to Wikipedia for help, we will not find any entry classified under the name of “Lepanto”. We are redirected to the “Battle of Lepanto”, where the first thing we read is a sullen rebuke. We are told: “The Battle of Lepanto was a crucial naval battle that took place on 7 October 1571 in the Gulf of Lepanto, off the town of Naupaktos (erroneously called Lepanto)”. Interestingly, when clicking on the link of the name of “Gulf of Lepanto” in the hope of finally seeing the light, we are redirected, in an absurd way, to the entry of the “Gulf of Corinth”. So we have always said wrong, and the one-handed of Lepanto should be in fact the one-handed of Naupaktos. And it is clear that if Lepanto does not exist in Wikipedia, then it simply does not exist for a Spanish student.
The matter is more complicated than it seems. If we turn to our philological hobby-horse in hope of getting to the truth on its back, we find that the name of Lepanto comes from the ancient Greek Epaktos – Nepaktos – Nepanto – Lepanto, which literally means “on the beach”. A quite different thing is Naupaktos (or Nafpaktos in modern Greek), that is, the name of the tiny coastal town with its important port. Naupaktos undoubtedly derives from naupegio (shipyard), a composite of naos (ship) + pegnymi (building). * Therefore, the Battle of Lepanto cannot be the Battle of Naupaktos, simply because Naupaktos is not Lepanto. Thus, by scraping a little bit the the roots of the word we find that practically it is only Italy who calls Lepanto the small Greek town which is known to the rest of Europe as Naupaktos. It is therefore clear as the sun that the name is a manipulation of the treacherous Venetians who from the very beginning wanted to appropriate all the merits for what Cervantes called “the greatest occasion ever seen by the past and present centuries and never to be seen by the future ones.”
Res et verba. In the end, who rules the world is the definite winner.
Another day we will also talk about the real importance of this battle in European history, a subject on which there is not much unanimity. And we will narrate how we carried from Barcelona to Naupaktos (or Lepanto?) a life-size statue of Miguel de Cervantes to be erected at the mouth of the port.