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Medieval European and Arabic literature often spoke of the Seven Seas. Which seven seas are intended depends on the context. "Seven Seas" was a commonplace phrase in many ancient literatures before it was taken up by the Greeks and Romans; it appears in a translation of one of Enheduanna's hymns to Inanna (Hymn 8), written about 2300 BC in Sumer. The number seven has ancient magic of its own in many traditions, informing many groupings of seven. "Seven" as an indefinite number remains for a long time synonymous with "several", as in the Greek Seven Seas. In Greek and Western culture, the "seven" seas were arbitrary and changed over time, varying depending upon the part of the world and the period of time. However, they were usually seven out of the following list of nine bodies of water:
A history of Venice states that the expression refers to a specific navigational challenge in the local waters near Venice, and that the "seas" referred to were small bodies of water:
Deposits of silt had not yet built up in the deltas of the Po and the Adige which now separate the Venetian lagoon from that of Comacchio to the south. In that area in Roman times were open bodies of water to which Pliny gave the name "the seven seas." 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."
Not all Roman uses of septem maria (Latin) would strike a responsive chord today. The navigable network in the mouths of the Po river discharge into saltmarshes on the Adriatic shore; these were locally 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."
Early sailors of the Indian Ocean claimed that it was made up of seven different seas, each with its own name and features. The Islamic author al-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-bar 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."
The 17th century churchman and scholar John Lightfoot mentions a very different 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", and the "Sibbichaean".
Among mariners, starting from Colonial times, "sailing the Seven Seas" meant one had been to the seven small seas throughout the Dutch East Indies. In effect it meant they had sailed to, and returned from, the other side of the world.
A moderately standardized iconography of the Four continents and the Four rivers of the world, which developed from the Renaissance, fixed recognizable images in the European imagination, but the Seven Seas were not identifiably differenced — Neptune ruled all. Rudyard Kipling titled a volume of poems The Seven Seas (1896) and dedicated it to the city of Bombay.[