The Seven Seas
Sailing the Seven Seas. It’s a fairly common expression, one you might have heard before. It also can be a bit confusing to people well-versed in Geography.
If one looks at a map, it’s easy to see that there are hundreds of different bodies of water in the world. Any good Sporcler can tell you that there are more than seven seas. So where does this idiom come from? What are the seven seas, and where can we find them?
As with lots of things, it depends on who you ask.
There is no general consensus as to what the seven seas are. Throughout history, the term ‘seven seas’ has been used to describe many different bodies of water. Sometimes, these bodies of water aligned along trade routes. Other times, the seven seas were associated with distant and exotic bodies of water.
The first use of the phrase can be traced to ancient Sumer around 2300 BC. It was used in a hymn by the Sumerian high priestess Enheduanna. As with many cultures, the number seven had a great deal of significance to the Sumerians and others in Mesopotamia. The Mesopotamians were the first in the history of astronomy to keep records of the observed seven moving objects in the heavens. Consequently, they likely made this connection to their seven seas.
In Other Cultures
Mentions of the seven seas can be found in various other cultures and regions throughout the world as well.
For Arabian explorers, the seven seas were bodies of water that they encountered while traveling east along trade routes. These were the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, Strait of Malacca, Singapore Strait, Gulf of Thailand, and the South China Sea.
It was Greek literature introduced the term to the Western world. For the Greeks, the seven seas were the Aegean, Adriatic, Mediterranean, Black, Red, and Caspian seas. In addition to those was the Persian Gulf, which was ‘sea’ number seven.
In Medieval Europe, the phrase referred to the North, Baltic, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Black, Red, and Arabian seas.
After the New World was ‘discovered’ by Europeans, the seven seas were yet changed again. North America was taken into account, and explorers began to refer to the seven seas as the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, plus the Mediterranean Sea, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Sailing The Seven Seas Today
Today, the term is used more as an idiom or figuratively. Most geography standards list five oceans, each consisting of numerous seas, bays, straits, and other bodies of water. However, even though our geographical knowledge of the world has expanded, the phrase ‘seven seas’ continues to live on.
So what would be the seven seas today?
Like other times in history, it still depends on who you ask. If one did want to get literal, the National Ocean Service has devised a list of ‘modern’ seven seas: the Arctic, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, Indian, and Southern Oceans.
So any mariner looking for adventure should fear not. There are still seven seas you can set sail for.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.