What does this idiom mean and who did we inherit it from?


Image via Pixabay.

Some idioms weather the years with grace. Their meaning keeps them relevant even after cultural context leaves them in the dust. We advise our friends against “beating a dead horse”, for example, or point out that you can take it to water but not make it drink — despite the fact that almost nobody today has even interacted with a horse.

Then there are those idioms that aren’t only removed from the modern way of life but are also factually incorrect. Yet they persist. “Sailing the seven seas” is one such idiom. Today, we’ll take a look at how it came to be and which seas, exactly, it harkens to.

Nowadays the term “seven seas” is a shorthand for “all the seas and oceans”; sailing the seven seas, then, means you’re quite the accomplished sailor. But, these “seven seas” carried various meanings throughout history and across cultures. Each civilization understood it differently, through the lens of their religion, culture, and the places they knew. Keep that in mind as we delve into the seven depths of this idiom.

Seven degrees of mystical seas

The earliest use (that we know of) is religious in nature. It comes from the ancient Sumerians, the first people to inhabit Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq. Enheduanna, a high priestess of the goddess Inanna and the moon god Nanna from the city-state of Ur, and the first poet to have their name recorded in history, refers to ‘seven seas’ in a hymn written around 2300 BC. Betty De Shong Meador provides a translation of these hymns in Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna (University of Texas Press, 2000, page 73), which reads (note that I’ve added all the commas and breaks between verses based on how I interpret the text):

“[….] O, house / Your shining face is the great snake of the reed marsh / Your foundation, o, shrine / The fifty abzu’s, the seven seas, has plumbed the inner-workings of your prince / Decision maker / Crown of wide heaven / He, Ashimbabbar, king of heaven, o , Ur / Shrine has built this house on your radiant and placed his seat upon your dais.”

Ashimbabbar seems to be a normalized, alternative spelling of Nanna’s name; Nanna was a moon god and “the tutelary deity of the city of Ur”, according to Oracc. In this context, abzu’s — from ‘ab’ meaning waters and ‘zu’ meaning deep in Akkadian — are probably fresh underground waters, such as those from springs or dug wells. The Sumerians believed underground waters came from the primordial sea and held an important religious significance.

Ok, hardhats on, it’s time to go on a limb here. In the Babylonian creation epic, Abzu morphs into a key deity. It’s possible they/it has been so all along. But, the fact that Enheduanna cites ‘fifty’ abzu’s suggests to me that this wasn’t the case while she lived, or that the two concepts were similar but already separated. Abzu, as a deity, represents a primordial freshwater ocean which, after coupling with Tiamat, a primordial saltwater ocean, essentially leads to the creation of the Universe. The two birth younger gods, who eventually usurp & murder them and create the world as we know it from their corpses.

Fresh- and salt-water seem to play a central part in the Sumerian religion and culture. The fifty abzu’s (which are fresh, Abzu’s domain) and the seven seas (seas tend to be salty, Tiamat) may have symbolized the primordial, raw stuff of which reality was born from in Enheduanna’s eyes. These ‘seven seas’, then, may have symbolized knowledge, creation, or the essence of both the mundane and the godly — not a stretch of the map. Possibly; that’s my take on it.

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Seven western seas

Western cultures likely inherit the idiom from the ancient Greeks and Romans (who basically exported Greek culture throughout Europe). NOAA states that “the Seven [Greek] Seas were the Aegean, Adriatic, Mediterranean, Black, Red, and Caspian seas, with the Persian Gulf thrown in as a ‘sea'”. This fits well with the world as known to the ancient Greeks, who were quite the accomplished sailors themselves. Although they never moved out of the Mediterranean and its connected seas in large numbers, that still places them within a reasonable distance of Mesopotamia, its culture, and our known source for the idiom.

Another reference to the seven seas comes from Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer and admiral. Writing in his book The History of the World (the quote below is taken from Chapter 16, or ‘XVI’ in Roman numerals) these ‘seas’ were, in fact, the navigable salt marshes that the river Po forms when it meets the Adriatic sea.

“And there is not a river againe, that in so little a way, groweth to a greater streame [than the Po]: for over-charged it is and troubled with the quantitie of water, and therefore worketh it selfe a deepe channell, heavie and hurtfull to the earth under it, although it be derived and drawne into the other rivers and goles, betweene Ravenna and Altinum, for 120 miles: yet because he belcheth and casteth them out from him in so great abundance, he is said to make seven seas.”

“[….] All those rivers and trenches afore-said, the Tuscanes began to make first out of Sagis, carrying the forcible streame of the river acrosse into the Atrian meeres, which are called the seven seas, and made the famous haven of Atria a towne of the Tuscanes; of which the Adriaticke sea tooke the name afore time, which now is called Adriaticum.”

Here too we see that the ‘seas’ themselves weren’t necessarily seas per se, but the idiom has at least moved firmly into the realm of geography by this time.

The ‘seas’ in seven seas change over time, keeping pace with the most up-to-date maps. NOAA goes on to explain that in medieval European literature, “the phrase referred to the North Sea, Baltic, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Black, Red, and Arabian seas”. On the Arabian side of the cultural divide, these seven seas were the waters on the Eastern trading routes — the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Khambhat, the Bay of Bengal, the Strait of Malacca, the Singapore Strait, the Gulf of Thailand, and the South China Sea, according to LiveScience.

As Europe crawled out of the middle ages and reached for cultural dominance through exploration (and sadly, colonization), the seven seas changed to mean the Arctic, the Atlantic, the Indian, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico (when Europeans first reached the Americas), and then the Banda Sea, the Celebes Sea, the Flores Sea, the Java Sea, the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, and the Timor Sea as trade in spices and tea between Europe and Asia intensified.

In other words, the ‘seven seas’ idiom evolved over time to mean ‘a faraway place’ rather than a particular area or group of seas — probably under the combined efforts of sailors and captains looking to impress land-locked ladies. Maybe it’s an old-timey equivalent to ‘in a galaxy far, far away.’

But this still leaves one part of the puzzle unanswered:

Why is it always ‘seven’?

This is a trickier question to handle.

It may be a vestige of Enheduanna’s hymns. Ancient Sumerians regarded the heavens as being formed of seven domes, each made of a different type of precious stone. It’s possible, then, that each of the seas she refers to could have spawned one of the domes, and the wording just stuck.

Another possible explanation, in my view, has to do with the number itself. One of the most cited papers in psychology today, published in 1956 by George A. Miller, a Harvard psychologist, reports that the average memory span of young human adults is approximately 7 items. Whether this is the cause or not, I cannot say for sure — but the number seven pops up time and time again in all manners of places and contexts.

Rome was built on seven hills, and the world, according to Christian mythos, was made in seven days — although technically the last one was a cheat-day. Christian traditions also tell us of seven deadly sins and seven virtues, of Noah being told to bring seven pairs of every animal aboard his ark, of Jericho’s walls falling on the seventh day after seven priests with seven trumpets march around it seven times. Hinduism tells of seven different chakras, Islam of seven hells and seven heavens, and Mahatma Gandhi lists Seven Blunders of the World — to name a few. A massive poll carried out by writer, mathematician, and broadcaster Alex Bellos a few years ago found that 7 was the most-voted ‘favorite number’ (10% out of some 44,000 voters).

Do I believe that the number 7 is magic? Of course not — the only magic I believe in is Santa Claus and that booze can make me dance. But, seeing the number pop up so often definitely suggests something is special about it.

“Seven is the only number among those we can count on our hands that cannot be divided our multiplied within the group [it’s a prime number]. [It] is the only number between two and ten that is neither a multiple nor a factor of the others. In this way, “lucky number seven” stands alone—and we grasp this implicitly,” Bellos told Brandon Specktor for Reader’s Digest.

“It’s unique, a loner, the outsider. And humans interpret this arithmetical property in cultural ways.”

“By associating seven with a group of things, you kind of make them special too. The point here is that we’re always sensitive to arithmetical patterns, and this influences our behavior—even if we’re not conscious of it.”

One voter from New Zealand even told Bellos in his comments that “People don’t usually tend to pick 7, and I like to be different,” humorously supporting his hypothesis.