The idea of an abyss (Greek, abyssos, Latin abyssus) or bottomless pit is found in most cultures, cropping up in myth, legend, folklore and the arts.¹
In biblical Judaism the abyss lies deep within the earth, a place where evil spirits of the dead are banished (Job 32:22, Psalm 6:5, 143:7). Whereas in ancient Greece the majority of the dead retire to a gloomy underworld, an abyss of “shades” where they are punished for worldly sins.
The ancient Greeks talked a lot about the underworld but the idea of heaven was not well developed. Only a few ancient Greek heroes pass on to the auspicious Blessed Isles.
However, after the 5th century BCE the belief that the dead reside among the stars appears in Greek thought. But this differs radically from the concept of heaven as articulated by Jesus Christ.
In Hindu lore, a popular version of the Ramayana epic portrays the heroine Sita being consumed by a great opening in the earth. And the Druidic tradition tells of evil foes tumbling down into bottomless caverns. Likewise, the biblical Satan is bound by an angel and cast into a bottomless pit (Rev. 20:3).
The Romanian scholar of myth and religion, Mircea Eliade, says that myths about “binding” evil beings are quite plentiful. It’s as if the evil ones must be bound up by chords or some magical force to prevent them from destroying everything.
In the Beowulf myth, an evil water-troll is slain in her underwater lair by use of a magical sword discovered by the hero, deep under the water’s surface.
More recently, Victorian Fairy imagery depicts watery underworlds inhabited by ghoulish beings, from which fairies are protected by dwelling, often sleepily, within a sort of magical cocoon.
New Testament (NT) accounts of an abyss refer to a hellish region from which a wild beast emerges to temporarily destroy prophets after they have completed their mission. The Abyss in the NT is likewise described as a prison for evil spirits (Luke 8:31; Rev 9:1-2; 11; 11:7-8).
In the modern era, the invention of the bathysphere and the submarine opened the door for pulp fiction and Hollywood “B” movies about underwater horrors.
An underwater abyss is also found in the widely respected science fiction film, The Abyss.
Likewise, Star Wars‘ Luke Skywalker perches on a ledge over an abyss in the evil Emperor’s Death Star. And Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace is chockablock full of strange subterranean beings.
Regardless of the psychological school or religious group one adhers to, generally speaking it seems that a fear of total destruction coexists with a hope for victory over, and order arising from, the dark chaos of the abyss.
As Rod Serling put it in the close of the 1961 Twilight Zone episode “The Shelter,” in which apparently normal American neighbors go beserk during an atomic bomb scare:
For civilization to survive the human race has to remain civilized.
¹ Actually, the idea of the abyss runs throughout most aspects of modern culture, to include comics and gaming. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abyss
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- The Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice – Exalted, the Modern Underworld from Emergence Campaign Weblog (ruscumag.wordpress.com)