History of the Seven Seas

From Ancient Times to the Modern Era

A ship set sail for Europe.
The yacht 'Meteor' of New York, leaving Sandy Hook August 16th, 1869 bound to Europe.

Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

While a "sea" is generally defined as a large lake that contains saltwater, or a specific portion of an ocean, the idiom "Sail the seven seas," is not so easily defined.

"Sail the seven seas" is a phrase that is said to have been used by sailors, but does it actually refer to a specific set of seas? Many would argue yes, while others would disagree. There has been much debate as to whether or not this is in reference to seven actual seas and if so, which ones?

Seven Seas as a Figure of Speech?

Many believe that "the seven seas" is simply an idiom that refers to sailing many or all of the oceans of the world. The term is believed to have been popularized by Rudyard Kipling who published an anthology of poetry titled The Seven Seas in 1896.

The phrase can now be found in popular songs such as, "Sailing on the Seven Seas" by Orchestral ​Manoevres in the Dark, "Meet Me Halfway" by Black Eyed Peas, "Seven Seas" by Mob Rules, and "Sail over the Seven Seas" by Gina T.

Significance of the Number Seven

Why "seven" seas? Historically, culturally, and religiously, the number seven is a very significant number. Isaac Newton identified seven colors of the rainbow, there are Seven Wonders of the ancient world, seven days of the week, seven dwarves in the fairy tale "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," the seven-day story of creation, the seven branches on a Menorah, seven Chakras of meditation, and seven heavens in Islamic traditions -- just to name a few instances.

The number seven appears again and again throughout history and stories, and because of this, there is much mythology surrounding its importance.

The Seven Seas in Ancient and Medieval Europe

This list of the seven seas is believed by many to be the original seven seas as defined by the sailors of ancient and Medieval Europe. The majority of these seven seas are located around the Mediterranean Sea, very close to home for these sailors.

1) The Mediterranean Sea - This sea is attached to the Atlantic Ocean and many early civilizations developed around it, including Egypt, Greece, and Rome and it has been called "the cradle of civilization" because of this.

2) The Adriatic Sea - This sea separates the Italian peninsula from the Balkan peninsula. It is part of the Mediterranean Sea.

3) The Black Sea - This sea is an inland sea between Europe and Asia. It is also connected to the Mediterranean Sea.

4) The Red Sea - This sea is a narrow strip of water extending south from Northeast Egypt and it connects to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. It is connected today to the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal and is one of the most heavily-traveled waterways in the world.

5) The Arabian Sea - This sea is the Northwestern part of the Indian Ocean between India and the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia). Historically, it was a very important trade route between India and the West and remains such today.

6) The Persian Gulf - This sea is a part of the Indian Ocean, located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. There has been dispute as to what its actual name is so it is also sometimes known as the Arabian Gulf, The Gulf, or The Gulf of Iran, but none of those names are recognized internationally.

7) The Caspian Sea - This sea is located on the Western edge of Asia and the Eastern edge of Europe. It is actually the largest lake on the planet. It is called a sea because it contains saltwater.

The Seven Seas Today

Today, the list of "Seven Seas" that is most widely accepted is inclusive of all of the bodies of water on the planet, which are all part of the one global ocean. Each is technically an ocean or section of ocean by definition, but most geographers accept this list to be the actual "Seven Seas":

1) North Atlantic Ocean
2) South Atlantic Ocean
3) North Pacific Ocean
4) South Pacific Ocean
5) Arctic Ocean
6) Southern Ocean
7) Indian Ocean

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Karpilo, Jessica. "History of the Seven Seas." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-are-the-seven-seas-1435833. Karpilo, Jessica. (2021, September 8). History of the Seven Seas. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-the-seven-seas-1435833 Karpilo, Jessica. "History of the Seven Seas." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-the-seven-seas-1435833 (accessed June 9, 2023).