The Aethiopian Sea, a name once synonymous with the southern half of the Atlantic Ocean, has long been relegated to the annals of history. But the origins of this ancient moniker and its connection to the identities of the peoples it was named after, are worth revisiting.
For centuries, maps and classical geographical works referred to the southern half of the Atlantic Ocean as the Aethiopian Sea. The name, which can be traced back to the Greek term “Okeanos Aithiopos,” was related to the fact that historically, Africa west and south of Egypt was known as Aethiopia. But the irony of this nomenclature is that the modern-day nation of Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, is located nowhere near this body of water. Instead, it is situated in the opposite eastern end of Africa, much closer to the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
Ancient Greek historians such as Diodorus and Palaephatus, in their accounts of the known world, mention that the Gorgons lived in the Gorgades islands in the Aethiopian Sea. These islands, which were believed to correspond to present-day Cape Verde, were said to be the home of the mythical creatures with snakes for hair and the ability to turn onlookers to stone.
During the Age of Discovery, Portugal claimed the Aethiopian Sea as its “mare clausum” or closed sea. On 16th century maps, the name of the Northern Atlantic Ocean was Sinus Occidentalis, while the central Atlantic, southwest of present-day Liberia, appeared as Sinus Atlanticus and the Southern Atlantic as Mare Aethiopicum.
But as the centuries progressed, the term “Aethiopian Sea” fell into disuse to refer to the Southern Atlantic Ocean. Instead, it was relegated to the realm of cartographical curiosities. Even botanist William Albert Setchell, who used the term for the sea around certain islands close to Antarctica, couldn’t revive its classical usage.
I have always been captivated by the complexities of language and how they shape our perception of history. One fascinating example is the term “Aethiopia,” used by the ancient Greeks to refer to the land of the ancient Ethiopians, the ancestors of the ancient Egyptians accoding to them. This name, which referred to the regions directly south and west of Ancient Egypt, where Black Africans were considered the original inhabitants, provides insight into how the southern half of the Atlantic Ocean was named after them – the Aethiopian Sea. This serves as a reminder that our understanding of the past is not only shaped by historical facts, but also by the language and terminology used to describe them.
It’s fascinating to think that this ancient body of water, now known simply as the South Atlantic Ocean, was once seen as a connection to the identity of a people whose civilization was considered to be one of the most advanced of its time. While the Aethiopian Sea may no longer be in common usage, the legacy of its name lives on as a reminder of the enduring connection between geography and identity.