The "Seven Seas" (as in the idiom "sail the Seven Seas") is an ancient phrase for all of the world's oceans. Since the 19th century, the term has been taken to include seven oceanic bodies of water:
- the Arctic Ocean
- the North Atlantic Ocean
- the South Atlantic Ocean
- the Indian Ocean
- the North Pacific Ocean
- the South Pacific Ocean
- the Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean
The term "Seven Seas" appears as early as 2300 BC in Hymn 8 of the Sumerian Enheduanna to the goddess Inanna. The Mesopotamians were the first in the history of astronomy to keep records of the observed seven moving objects in the heavens – the seven Classical Planets/Seven Heavens – and they made this connection to their seven seas.
Not all Roman uses of septem maria (Latin) would strike a responsive chord today. The navigable network in the mouths of the Po river discharges into saltmarshes on the Adriatic shore and was colloquially called the "Seven Seas" in ancient Roman times. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and fleet commander, wrote about these lagoons, separated from the open sea by sandbanks:
All those rivers and trenches were first made by the Etruscans, thus discharging the flow of the river across the marshes of the Atriani called the Seven Seas, with the famous harbor of the Etruscan town of Atria which formerly gave the name of Atriatic to the sea now called the Adriatic.
A history of Venice states:
The expression "to sail the seven seas" was a classical flourish signifying nautical skill. It was applied to the Venetians long before they sailed the oceans.
The Arabs and their near neighbours considered the Seven Seas (Arabic: البحار السبعة) to be the seas that they encountered in their voyages to The East. They were trading routes in ancient times and since the time of Muhammad, they are the places where Islam spread and is widely practised.
In the 9th century AD, author Ya'qubi wrote:
Whoever wants to go to China must cross seven seas, each one with its own color and wind and fish and breeze, completely unlike the sea that lies beside it. The first of them is the Sea of Fars, which men sail setting out from Siraf. It ends at Ra’s al-Jumha; it is a strait where pearls are fished. The second sea begins at Ra’s al-Jumha and is called Larwi. It is a big sea, and in it is the Island of Waqwaq and others that belong to the Zanj. These islands have kings. One can only sail this sea by the stars. It contains huge fish, and in it are many wonders and things that pass description. The third sea is called Harkand, and in it lies the Island of Sarandib, in which are precious stones and rubies. Here are islands with kings, but there is one king over them. In the islands of this sea grow bamboo and rattan. The fourth sea is called Kalah and is shallow and filled with huge serpents. Sometimes they ride the wind and smash ships. Here are islands where the camphor tree grows. The fifth sea is called Salahit and is very large and filled with wonders. The sixth sea is called Kardanj; it is very rainy. The seventh sea is called the sea of Sanji, also known as Kanjli. It is the sea of China; one is driven by the south wind until one reaches a freshwater bay, along which are fortified places and cities, until one reaches Khanfu.
This passage demonstrates the Seven Seas as referenced in Medieval Arabian literature:
- The Persian Gulf ("Sea of Fars")
- The Arabian Sea ("Sea of Larwi")
- The Bay of Bengal ("Sea of Harkand")
- The Strait of Malacca ("Sea of Kalah")
- The Singapore Strait ("Sea of Salahit")
- The Gulf of Thailand ("Sea of Kardanj")
- The South China Sea ("Sea of Sanji")
- the Adriatic Sea
- the Mediterranean Sea, including its marginal seas, notably the Aegean Sea, Ionian Sea and Tyrrhenian Sea.
- the Black Sea
- the Caspian Sea
- the Persian Gulf
- the Arabian Sea (which is part of the Indian Ocean)
- the Red Sea, including the closed Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee
The Seven Seas in medieval times also included:
When R. Dimi came he said R. Yohanan said: "What is the meaning of the verse, 'For he hath founded it upon the seas and established it upon the floods.' (Ps. 24:2)? This refers to the seven seas and four rivers that surround the land of Israel. And what are the seven seas? The sea of Tiberias, the Sea of Sodom, the Sea of Helath, the Sea of Hiltha, the Sea of Sibkay, the Sea of Aspamia and the Great Sea. And what are the four rivers? The Jordan, the Yarmuk, the Keramyhon and Pigah."
According to this and other passages, the Talmudic Seven Seas include:
- Sea of Tiberias (Lake Tiberias or The Sea of Galilee)
- Sea of Sodom (The Dead Sea)
- Sea of Helath (The Red Sea)
- Sea of Hiltha (Birkat Ram)
- Sea of Sibkay (Lake Hula)
- Sea of Aspamia (A lake said to be north of Apamia on the Asi River, possibly the formerly flooded Al-Ghab Plain)
- The Great Sea (The Mediterranean Sea)
Various transliterations for the sea names from Hebrew exist. For Helath: Chelath and Shelyith. For Hiltha: Chiltha and Chultha. For Sibkay: Sibchi and Somcho. And for Aspamia: Apamia.
The 17th century churchman and scholar John Lightfoot mentions this set of seas in his Commentary on the New Testament. A chapter titled The Seven Seas according to the Talmudists, and the four Rivers compassing the Land includes the "Great Sea" (now called the Mediterranean Sea), the "Sea of Tiberias" (Sea of Galilee), the "Sea of Sodom" (Dead Sea), the "Lake of Samocho" (probably the (mostly) dried-up Hula Lake, called Semechonitis by Josephus and lake Sumchi in the Talmud), also called the "Sibbichaean". Lightfoot does not comment on the remaining three seas.
In British Colonial times the Clipper Ship Tea Route from China to England was the longest trade route in the world. It took sailors through seven seas near the Dutch East Indies: the Banda Sea, the Celebes Sea, the Flores Sea, the Java Sea, the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, and the Timor Sea. The Seven Seas referred to those seas, and if someone had sailed the Seven Seas it meant he had sailed to, and returned from, the other side of the world.
Before modern reckoning, the term "Seven Seas" has been used to refer to seven of the largest bodies of water in the world:
- The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (3rd ed.). Houghton Mifflin Company. 2002. Archived from the original on March 14, 2009.
Popular expression for all of the world’s oceans.
- ""Seven" – Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2015-04-10.
the seven seas: 2. All the oceans of the world (conventionally listed as the Arctic, Antarctic, North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans).
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- Appendices: IHO Publication S-23 – Limits of Oceans and Seas; Draft 4th Edition, 2002. IHO. Retrieved 2015-04-10.
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- Pliny the Elder. "Chapter 16". Historia Naturalis.
- Lane, Frederic Chapin (1973). Venice, a Maritime Republic. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 4. ISBN 0-8018-1460-X.
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- Neusner, Jacob (2011). First steps in the Talmud : a guide to the confused. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-7618-5435-7.
- "Babylonian Talmud: Bava Batra 74". Retrieved 7 June 2018.
- Schwarz, Rabbi Joseph. "Seas, Rivers, Mountains, and Valleys of Palestine". Retrieved 9 September 2017.
- Lightfoot, John. "The seven Seas according to the Talmudists, and the four Rivers compassing the Land". A Chorographical Century.
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- Kipling, Rudyard (1896). "'The Seven Seas'". Archived from the original on 2009-03-12.