I live in Constanta, Romania. My city has a rich history and dates back 2000 years…or so. Greeks founded the city, on the shores of the Black Sea, and named it Tomis. You can still see the ruins of the old city in some parts of town. Somebody from the local History & Archeology Museum (highly recommend if you are in town), once told me, that no matter where you dig in Constanta you will find something. And it’s probably true. But we in Romania are not keen on archeology, so it doesn’t get funded. It’s truly a sad story.
But right now I want to talk to you about my beloved sea.
The Black One
The story with the name is more complicated than I thought. You have no idea how many times I have edited and rewritten this article. The more i was reading about it, the more interested and intrigued I got.
The story with the name depends on who is telling it. And I will start telling mine with the one that made the most sense to me, the turkish version.
The Turks named the two seas they just loved to control and were ready to wage war about it, Kara Deniz (Black Sea) and Ak Deniz (White Deniz, it’s actually the Mediterranean). They named them so because of the association done during the middle ages between cardinal points and the light: east/west- sunrise/sunset and north/south – darkness/light. So, the Black Sea to the North and the White Sea to the South.
And the name stuck.
The Greek story is a bit more complicated due to linguistics and etymologies, but what I can tell you 100% is that they named it ontus Euxinus, which translates to The Friendly Sea. Scholars have several opinions about why they named it so, and here is where it gets interesting.
Some say, greek sailors called it so because after the long journey in the Aegean, which could last weeks to months even, towards the end of the journey they usually ran out of fresh water. But the Black Sea being far less salty than its neighbors could accommodate a drink now and then. I think this is somewhat bullshit. It is known that drinking salt water can kill you, especially if dehydrated. If you ever find yourself in a shipwreck, or stranded at sea…
DON’T DRINK SEA WATER !
Other Scholars, say the greeks wanted to change the ancient persian name “axaena” (black, dark grey, dark colored), because they were understanding it as “axeinos” which basically translates to unfriendly.
I wanted to get to the bottom of this and found an interesting article published in “The Classical Quarterly” at Cambridge in 1948, that would have probably shed a lot of light on the subject, but unfortunately they want 20 pounds in order for me to read it, so…NO!
“The Name of the Euxine Ontus Again”
“Etymology, especially that of an ancient language like Greek, is not as a rule a field in which one expects to get conclusive demonstration; and between rival explanations one is often provided with a choice which cannot be made with much confidence. But despite this I think that I should reply to the article by W. S. Allen on ‘The Name of the Black Sea in Greek’ (C.Q. xli (1947), pp. 86–8), which has raised again the question dealt with in my article ‘The Name of the Euxine Pontus’ (C.Q. xxxiv (1940), pp. 123–8). This is not so much because I do not feel satisfied with Allen’s explanation (as I do not), as because this particular etymology has considerable historical, in addition to linguistic, interest.”
Moorhouse, A. (1948). The Name of the Euxine Pontus Again. The Classical Quarterly,42(1-2), 59-60. doi:10.1017/S0009838800028263
Boy! I bet this would have been incredible to read! Some other time maybe.
There is even a Romanian story. This one I know from my grandfather, he was a colonel in the Romanian Navy. The story was later confirmed by friends. As you see, if you live in Constanta chances are at least one of your friends is sailing the high seas for a living. It’s not easy, so they have my outmost respect.
Romanian sailors, fully embraced the Black name, but they sing a different tune. They call it Black (Neagra), because of how fast she turns on them.
Because of her black heart!
Isn’t it romantic?!
I have heard stories and seen footage from friends who have been at sea, that they found themselves from enjoying a flat calm to facing the storm of their life in under 15 minutes. Storms in the Black Sea bring forth high waves and crazy winds.
But she’s not just turning on sailors. Oh, no! I’ve lived with her for 34 years and learned to respect it, but many tourists see themselves as Aquaman and nothing good comes of it. Every year like clockwork, when summer comes so do drowning casualties. I’ve seen her angry, and I totally understand the fun you can have in the waves, but the currents are so strong in situations like this and if you venture too far…you’re gone!
She’s a young sea. She’s feisty and fierce!
Looking at the big picture, it seems that everybody got it right, except the Greeks and their failed attempt at a rebranding. Everything else fits and can be said about The Black Sea.
My favorite story has to be the Romanian one. Because it portrays her as a woman, and I am a supporter of confident, empowered women. But if my life depended on me choosing just one, I would go with the Turks. Geographic position never lies!That, and geography was my favourite subject in school.
The persians got it right too. Even when the waters are blue, still it is a DARK shade of blue we’re talking about.
So, there you have it! Black Hearted or not, you should come see it for yourself. And if you ever find yourself enjoying the Black Sea waters, not only in Romania, do it responsibly. She is known to trick people.
Do you know something I don’t? Let me know! Tell me! I would love to hear from you.
Remember to always stay informed.