Today, World Oceans Day 2020, the world recognises five oceans: Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, Pacific, Southern. These are the biggies in the watery world, the ones that form a large part of the 71% of ‘Blue Planet’.
But what about the other bodies of water – the Seas – and more specifically The Seven Seas?
For hundreds of years “to sail the seven seas” was synonymous with achieving high nautical skills and was used by the Venetians before “seven seas” had actually been identified by them. In fact, over the centuries different cultures have included different seas in their own ‘seven seas’ list.
From the septem maria, the navigable networks in the mouth of the Po River of Ancient Rome, the ‘Seven Seas’ have variously referred to:
• Medieval Arabian literature: Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, Strait of Malacca, Singapore Strait, Gulf of Thailand, South China Sea
• European Medieval literature: Adriatic Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Red Sea; it could also include Atlantic Ocean, Aegean Sea, Indian Ocean, North Sea
• The Babylonian Talmud refers to the seven seas and four rivers surrounding Israel which, include The Sea of Galilee, The Dead Sea, The Red Sea, Birkat Ram, Lake Hula, Sea of Aspamia, The Great Sea (The Mediterranean Sea)
• East Indies: the ‘Tea Route’ from China to England meant crossing seven seas near the Dutch East Indies and so the seven seas were the Banda Sea, the Celebes Sea, the Flores Sea, the Java Sea, the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, and the Timor Sea
• Early Modern: Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico
Within the Early Modern list are four oceans and, with the subsuming of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic and omitting the Mediterranean, the number was down to four. By splitting the Atlantic and Pacific into North and South and adding the Southern Ocean the total was back to seven.
Why the need for a tally of seven?
In all my researches I have found nothing that explains why there were seven seas, or seven major bodies of water, across cultures and across time. So, I offer my own theory. In Western culture seven has long been considered a ‘lucky’ number, as well as being symbolic. According to the Old Testament God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh which led to the seventh day – or seven – as representing completion and perfection.
There are seven heavens in Judaism.
The seventh sign of the zodiac, Leo (counting from the beginning of the year with the rising of Aquarius) is considered the luckiest zodiac sign.
Mathematically seven is a prime number.
Scientifically seven is the limit of the brain’s working memory, or the typical capacity for spoken word which, in the 1950s when it was discovered, psychologists referred to the “magical number seven”.
What a wonderful world we live in. It is a privilege to be a caretaker.
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