Reflections on the Ocean

By Borgese, Elisabeth Mann | UNESCO Courier, August-September 1991 | Go to article overview

Reflections on the Ocean

Borgese, Elisabeth Mann, UNESCO Courier

SOME human attitudes towards the ocean are universal and timeless--almost like the ocean itself. Whether they originated in one place and spread from there into all cultures, or whether they were born identical, in different places, settings, and times, we do not know.

However this may be, human beings have always regarded the sea as the origin of all things. In virtually all mythologies of the world, water is given primacy over the other elements. It was the first thing, after which came all others. To the Greeks as to the Aztecs, even the gods were "born of water". Myths of creation, from Peru and Mexico to North America, India and Scandinavia, depict the Earth as being created from the sea, and life as evolving from the sea.

A second univeral perception of the sea is the perception of ambiguity. The sea is seen as a giver of life and a taker of life: an element of calm and beauty, of physical and spiritual nourishment, a conveyor of wealth and power, a road to new lands, to new knowledge, a medium of communication. At the same time, however, it separates lands and their peoples. It remains mysterious, unfathomable and irrational. In its wrath, with its storms and floods, it destroys wealth and power. It drowns and kills life. It is horrible to behold, generating fear, bereavement and mourning. The Great Flood, exterminating a humankind at odds with nature and its laws, is a universally recurrent myth of doom and damnation.

Other perceptions, though rooted in these universal ones, are more closely linked to specific cultures. In the northern, terrestrial hemisphere, for instance, we tend to think of the oceans, and especially the seabed, as an extension of the landmass. In the southern, aquatic hemisphere, people living in island states think of the land as a continuation of the water mass, the most important part of their environment. The Western image of the oceans is as complex as the Western self-image. The souls of Westerners are mirrored in the ocean, in its very ambiguity between creation and destruction, good and evil.


The role the world ocean has played in the evolution of Western culture is indeed enormous.

Since the Stone Age fisheries have constituted the basis of the economies of coastal communities. For fisheries to be successful, ships had to be built, and this encouraged the development of science, technology, exploration, trade and naval power. The power and influence of the Hanseatic League, the medieval federation of north German cities, was based on their maritime skills. With its variants in many other languages, the expression "He who rules the sea, rules the land" has been conventional wisdom, and naval battles have decided peoples' destinies from Greek Antiquity to modern times.

Western culture thrived on its overseas discoveries and conquests, based on sea power. It has seen the ocean as a great educator, nursing a love for freedom in seafaring people. Republics are the creation of maritime peoples; tyranny was born inland. In his Philosophie des Rechts Philosophy of Law), the philosopher Hegel compares the role of the seas in industrial societies with the role of the earth in agricultural, less developed, societies.

Oceans, storms and waves; ships and sailors; fishermen, mermaids and sea monsters have filled the pages of our literature, the canvasses of our painters, and the scores of our music. Occidental music is indeed the art form most suited to capture the essence of the sea, the playing of silvery ripples and the crashing of surf.

The swelling of storms and their exhaustion find expression in crescendo and decrescendo. The rolling of waves and their eternal cadences are readily translated into the measures of musical time. The multiple layers of ocean space, from the mysterious seafloor through submerged waves and submarine rivers to the bobbing, scintillating surface can be captured in harmony and counterpoint, its flux in time reflected in the duration of horizontal, melodic development. …

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