The word “abyss” may be one of the oldest words still in use. We can trace its roots with certainty back to the ancient Greek “abyssos,” and possibly back to the Sumerian “abzu,” which would make this word, at the very least, 6,000 years old.
In all those millennia, its meaning has changed very little. In the Sumerian creation epic known as the “Enuma Elish,” Abzu was the primordial freshwater sea that mixed with Tiamat, the saltwater sea, to give birth to all creation. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible), the word “abyssos” is used to describe the surging ocean that covered the unfinished earth — “the deep,” as it’s often translated into English. And oddly enough, the word used in the Hebrew Torah is “tehom,” which may be related to the Sumerian Tiamat.
Modern oceanographers refer to the deepest layer of the open ocean as the “abyssal zone.” The only thing deeper is the hadal zone — those lightless chasms of smoking vents and tube worms — whose name literally means “the open sea of Hades.” Which brings us right back to the abyss, because the Book of Revelation repeatedly uses the word “abyssos” (as well as the word “hades”) to describe the underworld.
Even Nietzsche referenced monsters when he issued his famous warning about the abyss: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” And then there’s H. P. Lovecraft, who wrote, “The process of delving into the black abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination.”
It’s a keen form of fascination, I think, for many of us — what Joseph Conrad called “the fascination of the abomination.” Why are we so keen on staring into the dark?
I think a clue lies in the Sufi concept of hüzün — a word that’s often translated as “sadness” or “melancholy,” but actually means something much deeper. You might say it’s a masochistic desire — an urge to dive into the abyss.
As this article puts it, “For the Sufis, hüzün is the spiritual anguish one feels at not being close enough to God … this anguish causes the sufferer to plummet so far down that his soul will, as a result, soar to its divine desire. Hüzün is therefore a sought–after state, and it is the absence, not the presence, of hüzün that causes the sufferer distress. It is the failure to experience hüzün that leads him to feel it.”
In other words, hüzün is the urge to seek God (or the gods) in the blackest depths of the soul — to reach heaven by plunging straight through hell. It’s no coincidence that Abzu and Tiamat are not just oceans but also titanic sea monsters — personifications of the deep — in Sumerian mythology.
In his book “The Idea of the Holy,” Rudolf Otto argues that the root of all religious experience is something he calls “the numinous” — a sense of vast, powerful, and ineffable mystery that can’t be described in terms of other experiences. It’s a feeling one encounters much more in wild places, when traveling (or swimming) alone — a sense of a place’s vastness, power, and Otherness. Just as ancient rituals to appease spirits gradually evolved into acts of worship toward gods, a respect for the numinous transforms dread into awe — terror into ecstasy — the terrifying into the holy.
What lives in the abyss? Monsters, of course. Unknown, nameless things. The things we simultaneously dread and yearn to come face-to-face with.
In short, we plunge into the abyss because, in our hearts, we know that’s where God lives.
Let’s take a dive.