ARL Archive · Know Your Words

Looking into “Abyss”

Depressives use the phrase “over the edge” all the time to delineate the passage from pain to madness. This very physical description frequently entails falling “into an abyss.” It’s odd that so many people have such a consistent vocabulary, because the edge is really quite an abstracted metaphor. Few of us have ever fallen off the edge of anything, and certainly not into an abyss…. It’s difficult to even find an abyss to fall into. When asked, people describe the abyss pretty consistently. In the first place, it’s dark. You’re falling away from the sunlight toward a place where the shadows are black. Inside it, you cannot see, and the dangers are everywhere. While you’re falling, you don’t know how deep you can go, or whether you can in any way stop yourself. You hit invisible things over and over again until you are shredded, and your environment is too unstable for you to catch on to anything.

– Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon

Abyss
Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Solomon might find it “odd” that a large number of people think of the word abyss in a similar way, but given the widespread use of the word throughout history, not to mention its archetypal aspects, it might be more odd if the term wasn’t described consistently.

According to the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, the English word abyss:

[Is] borrowed abyss from Late Latin abyssus, which in turn derived from Greek abyssos, an adjective meaning ‘bottomless,’ from a- ‘not’ and bussos ‘bottom,” a dialectical variant of buthos (which was related to bathys ‘deep,’ the source of English (bathyscape). In Greek the adjective was used the phrase abussos limne ‘bottomless lake,’ but only the adjective was borrowed in Latin, bringing with it the meaning of the noun as well. In medieval times, a variant form arose in Latin, abysmus. It incorporated the Greek suffix –ismos (English, -ism). It is the source of French abime, and was borrowed into English in the 13th century as abysm (whence the 19th century derivative abysmal). It began to be ousted by abyss in the 16th century, however, and now has a distinctly archaic air.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories makes a similar claim, albeit without the editorial regarding the term’s antique flavor.

Abyss [late middle English] originally an abyss was an “infernal pit’; it came into English via late Latin from Greek abyssos ‘bottomless,’ the elements of which are a- ‘without’ and bussos ‘depth.’

These two excerpts mesh nicely with my own ideas about the word abyss, which I always conceived of as 1. a (large) hole so deep that, if something fell in, it was gone forever, or 2. the seeming bottomless, dark depths of the oceans. Yet, as I’ve come to understand, such notions of the abyss are just the beginning.

As J.E. Cirlot explains in his Dictionary of Symbols, the term abyss “is usually identified with the ‘land of the dead,’ [and] “the underworld,” a notion echoed by John D. Davis in his Dictionary of the Bible.

Abyss [bottomless]: Hades, the place of the dead, in particular the dwelling of evil spirits presided over by Apollyon, that is, Satan

… And in Oskar Seyffert’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art:

According to the belief current among the Greeks, the world of the dead, or the spacious abode of Hades, with its wide doors, was in the dark depths of the earth. In the Odyssey, … [it] is the abode of the Cimmerians, veiled in darkness and cloud, where the sun never shines/ The soil of this court, and indeed of the lower world in general, is a meadow of asphodel, an unattractive weed of dreary aspect usually planted on graves.

Yet, as Cirlot also notes, there is an inherent duality in the symbol of the abyss.

 On the one hand, it is a symbol of depth, on the other, a symbol of inferiority. The attraction of the abyss lies in the fact that these two aspects are inextricably linked together.

Udo Becker, author of The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols, seems to concur.

That which is without foundation or base symbolizes conditions that have not (yet) assumed form or are unimaginable from the standpoint or ordinary consciousness. It thus symbolizes the origins of the world, which are shrouded in darkness, as well as the end of the world, the indeterminacy of earliest childhood and the dissolution of the individual in death. Yet it also symbolizes the process of becoming one with the absolute in unio mystica (God). C.G. Jung sees the symbol of the abyss in connection with the archetype of the loving, yet simultaneously terrible mother and with the powers of the unconscious.

Surely our inability to “imagine from the standpoint of ordinary consciousness” is what fuels our fascination with the abyss, but not necessarily because it invokes such incomprehensible subjects as the beginning or end of the world. Rather, I’m inclined to believe that the sense of awe and wonder we experience when we encounter an abyss (be it figurative or literal) is the same that one experiences when contemplating life’s vast possibilities.

This brings us to the conception of the abyss as outlined in The Dream Dictionary from A to Z. According this text, the appearance of an abyss or chasm in a dream may suggests that the events of our lives may not be as predictable and secure as we might think.

If the deep, precipitous slides of a chasm or large hole threaten to engulf and swallow you up in a dream, or if an abyss suddenly opens up in front of you, transforming a previously pleasant scene into a terrifying one, could your unconscious [be] warning you that your position in waking life is not as stable as you might think and that you could be facing unexpected mishaps or pitfalls? Chasms and holes in dreams always suggest an element of the unknown or something in some way risky, and they urge the dreamer to make a decision one way or another in waking life.

Is there a better metaphor for the human condition than that of being confronted with unknown, but compelled by circumstances to act? Given the universality of this experience, no wonder so many people think of an abyss in the same way.

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