ABYSS (Gr. ἀ-, privative, βυσσός, bottom), a bottomless depth; hence any deep place. From the late popular abyssimus (superlative of Low Latin abyssus) through the French abisme (i.e. abîme) is derived the poetic form abysm, pronounced as late as 1616 to rhyme with time. The adjective “abyssal” or “abysmal” has been used by zoologists to describe deep regions of the sea; hence abysmal zone, abysmal flora and fauna, abysmal accumulations, the deposit on the abysmal bed of the ocean. In heraldry, the abyss is the middle of an escutcheon. In the Greek version of the Old Testament the word represents (1) the original chaos (Gen. i. 2), (2) the Hebrew tehom (“a surging water-deep”), which is used also in apocalyptic and kabbalistic literature and in the New Testament for hell, the place of punishment (cf. Eurip. Phoen. for the “yawning chasm of Tartarus”); in the Revised (not the Authorized) version abyss is generally used for this idea. Primarily in the Septuagint cosmography the word is applied (a) to the waters under the earth which originally covered it, and from which the springs and rivers are supplied, (b) to the waters of the firmament which were regarded as closely connected with those below. Derivatively, from the general idea of depth, it acquired the meaning of the place of the dead, though apparently never quite the same as Sheol. In Revelation it is the prison of evil spirits whence they may occasionally be let loose, and where Satan is doomed to spend 1000 years. Beneath the altar in the temple of Jerusalem there was believed to be a passage which led down to the abyss of the world, where the foundation-stone of the earth was laid. In rabbinical cosmography the abyss is a region of Gehenna situated below the ocean bed and divided into three or seven parts imposed one above the other. In the Kabbalah the abyss as the opening into the lower world is the abode of evil spirits, and corresponds to the opening of the abyss to the world above. In general the abyss is regarded vaguely as a place of indefinite extent, the abode of mystery and sorrow.
See G. Schiaparelli, Astronomy in the Old Testament (Eng. trans., Oxford, 1905).