The use of the term "Europe" has developed gradually throughout history. In antiquity, the Greek historian Herodotus mentioned that the world had been divided by unknown persons into the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Libya (Africa), with the Nile and the river Phasis forming their boundaries—though he also states that some considered the River Don, rather than the Phasis, as the boundary between Europe and Asia. Flavius Josephus and the Book of Jubilees described the continents as the lands given by Noah to his three sons; Europe was defined as between the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar, separating it from Africa, and the Don, separating it from Asia.
A cultural definition of Europe as the lands of Latin Christendom coalesced in the 8th century, signifying the new cultural condominium created through the confluence of Germanic traditions and Christian-Latin culture, defined partly in contrast with Byzantium and Islam, and limited to northern Iberia, the British Isles, France, Christianized western Germany, the Alpine regions and northern and central Italy. The concept is one of the lasting legacies of the Carolingian Renaissance: "Europa" often figures in the letters of Charlemagne's cultural minister, Alcuin. This division—as much cultural as geographical—was used until the Late Middle Ages, when it was challenged by the Age of Discovery. The problem of redefining Europe was finally resolved in 1730 when, instead of waterways, the Swedish geographer and cartographer von Strahlenberg proposed the Ural Mountains as the most significant eastern boundary, a suggestion that found favour in Russia and throughout Europe.
Europe is now generally defined by geographers as the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, with its boundaries marked by large bodies of water to the north, west and south; Europe's limits to the far east are usually taken to be the Urals, the Ural River, and the Caspian Sea; to the south-east, the Caucasus Mountains, the Black Sea and the waterways connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.
Sometimes, the word 'Europe' is used in a geopolitically limiting way to refer only to the European Union or, even more exclusively, a culturally defined core. On the other hand, the Council of Europe has 47 member countries, and only 27 member states are in the EU. In addition, people living in insular areas such as Ireland, the United Kingdom, the North Atlantic and Mediterranean islands and also in Scandinavia may routinely refer to "continental" or "mainland" Europe simply as Europe or "the Continent".
Clickable map of Europe, showing one of the most commonly used geographical boundaries (legend: <spans boundaries)
In ancient Greek mythology, Europa was a Phoenician princess whom Zeus abducted after assuming the form of a dazzling white bull. He took her to the island of Crete where she gave birth to Minos, Rhadamanthus and Sarpedon. For Homer, Europe (Greek: Εὐρώπη, Eurṓpē; see also List of traditional Greek place names) was a mythological queen of Crete, not a geographical designation. Later, Europa stood for central-north Greece, and by 500 BC its meaning had been extended to the lands to the north.
The name of Europa is of uncertain etymology. One theory suggests that it is derived from the Greek roots meaning broad (eur-) and eye (op-, opt-), hence Eurṓpē, "wide-gazing", "broad of aspect" (compare with glaukōpis (grey-eyed) Athena or boōpis (ox-eyed) Hera). Broad has been an epithet of Earth itself in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European religion. Another theory suggests that it is actually based on a Semitic word such as the Akkadian erebu meaning "to go down, set" (cf. Occident), cognate to Phoenician 'ereb "evening; west" and Arabic Maghreb, Hebrew ma'ariv (see also Erebus, PIE *h1regʷos, "darkness"). However, M. L. West states that "phonologically, the match between Europa's name and any form of the Semitic word is very poor".
Most major world languages use words derived from "Europa" to refer to the "continent" (peninsula). Chinese, for example, uses the word Ōuzhōu (歐洲), which is an abbreviation of the transliterated name Ōuluóbā zhōu (歐羅巴洲); however, in some Turkic languages the name Frengistan (land of the Franks) is used casually in referring to much of Europe, besides official names such as Avrupa or Evropa.