Much of my understanding of the occult is not derived from books or historical research, but rather from experiencing life and consuming art. Those who know me personally will recall my rants about how FFXIV: Shadowbringers and Endwalker deepened my understanding of the fixed star Castor and of the planet Saturn. Likewise, the anime Made in Abyss, in my opinion, is a heart wrenchingly beautiful piece of unforgettable art, one that will haunt you and draw you back to it again and again. It is something that has struck a chord with me, reminding me very much of the journey a witch may undergo. Having been inspired by Sasha Ravitch talking about Hellraiser in relation to witchcraft, and hearing Luminous Leeci and McCalla of SaturnVox discussing the anime and how it relates to Gnosticism in their podcast, I feel encouraged to discuss my own experiences with Made in Abyss and my interpretation of it from a lens of traditional witchcraft.
Spoilers for Season 1 and the Dawn of the Deep Soul movie.
To be Born Dead: Forever Crawling Towards the Abyss
In Episode 7 of Season 1, The Unmovable Sovereign, we are revealed the truth about our protagonist, Riko. Below is a transcription of the subtitled English dialogue:
Ozen: And it was all thanks to you that I came to realize that. Did you know that at your birth, you were stillborn? When Lyza delivered you into the depths, you were already dead. Basically, that made you a bit of a nuisance, so I shoved you inside, but you somehow started to come back to life. It got me feeling nostalgic last night, so I tried putting some of the meat that I cooked for dinner in there. Unfortunately, it got loose and started to roam around. After a while, much of it eventually stopped, but half of it continued to lurk about the camp. [...] You know... I wonder how long you will last down in the deepest depths. What's unusual back then, after you started to move as well as my meat dish, both of you attempted to head toward the center of the Abyss. Why do you think that is? You, of all people, might have some thoughts on that. You're essentially the same as the festering piece of meat.
It is revealed that Riko was born dead, a stillborn given birth deep within the Abyss and resurrected back to life by a relic— a relic where everything that it brought back to life eventually dies after a certain time limit is up. All the creatures resurrected by this relic also exhibit a strange tendency to instinctually crawl towards the center of the Abyss upon being rebirthed.
Riko’s story struck a chord with me, for I was born seven months premature and many thought I wouldn’t survive. Considering the state of Thailand’s poor healthcare system in the 1990s, although I wasn’t born ‘dead’ many doctors logically assumed I was born doomed: condemned to a lifetime of vital fragility, of lack and incompleteness. Luckily, that wasn’t (entirely) the case. Likewise, this also reminds me very much of the experience many witches tend to have regarding feeling othered.
Many of us may feel like we are someone inhuman— like a dead thing resurrected back to life, or something aberrant and Other-than-human entirely. Riko, the protagonist, is literally someone who was resurrected back to life, potentially living on borrowed time. She is also touched by the Abyss itself, having been born within its depths. Reg has theorized that ‘Riko’s life as we know it may very well be tied to the Abyss.’ This could also explain why Riko is so compelled to explore the Abyss: for her, the descent downwards is a homecoming. This feels very much akin to the experience I have heard from certain witches where witchcraft isn’t necessarily a transformation into something new, but more so a return to a long lost home. Witches longing for the Elphame. Witches longing for the deep ocean, or the stars.
For me, stellar witchcraft in particular feels like a return back to my roots, to my celestial home. I have in the past sought a kind of witchcraft that would transform me in a manner that would burn away all that I am, remaking me into something new. Yet, I later came to realize that the path I once sought isn’t right for me. It is not the eradication of the self that I seek, but rather a homecoming: a place and a state of being where I can embody my truth and true nature. It reminds me of the Orphic phrase, ‘I am the son of Earth and Starry Heaven, but my race is heavenly.’ This may be why, again and again, I am drawn back to the occult— to witchcraft, stellar witchcraft and astrolatry in particular. Even if I am reluctant to label myself a witch still, I find myself being drawn towards the mysteries of the stars the same way Riko is inexplicably pulled towards the Abyss.
The Abyss: an all-devouring God
Many in the Made in Abyss community have noted the parallel between the Abyss and the stomach, in terms of its appearance and function. A similar comparison too is that of the Abyss and the carnivorous pitcher plant or the venus flytrap. In a more obvious manner, the Abyss is said to expand and consume the land directly above it every two thousand years, dragging the surface cities upon its perimeter down into the Abyss. It is my interpretation that the Abyss is akin to an all-devouring God, a powerful entity capable of bestowing curses and blessings (literally, in the context of the anime) all the while enthralling and devouring souls. Below is a quote from Season 1 regarding the so-called ‘Abyssal faith’:
Mitty: So then, what's the Abyssal Faith about? Nanachi: I guess to put it simply, when a life is lost down in the Abyss, the soul is said to return to the bottom of the planet. And then the soul changes form and departs on a journey to someone who has wished for a new life... or something like that, anyway. The very bottom of this pit is still unknown, so it's kind of like God. Or maybe it's more like a source of comfort that the cave raiders rely on.
The Abyss is also described to be almost alive, with the curse of the Abyss being akin to its blood.
Reg: But what is it, this malice-filled floaty curse? Nanachi: Still don't get it? The force field. Reg: What? Nanachi: The one that carries light to the subterranean world while obstructing observation of it. The one that guards the order of the netherworld. The force field lives and breathes down here, filling every corner of this pit. It's the very blood of the Abyss. And that is the true nature of the Curse. There's no where one can escape from it.
The act of consumption — of cannibalism, of eating and being eaten — is important to gods and god-beings. A well known example is of Utterances 273 and 274 in the Pyramid Texts, also known as the ‘Cannibal Hymn’. The hymn describes the act of a pharaoh hunting and eating parts of the gods. It is interesting too that cannibalism, in this context, is presented as a holy act and an act of love.
A god who lives on his fathers, who feeds on his mothers... Unas is the bull of heaven Who rages in his heart, Who lives on the being of every god, Who eats their entrails When they come, their bodies full of magic. From the Isle of Flame… May I be with you, you gods; May you be with me, you gods. May I live with you, you gods; May you live with me, you gods. I love you, you gods; May you love me, you gods.
In certain witchcraft practices, there is also the heretical ritual of the ‘Red Meal’, also known as the ‘Housle’, which serves a similar purpose of sharing a meal with the dead, the spirits of the land and the witching gods. Bread and wine is offered and consumed— bread being the flesh, wine being the blood. The truth of the ritual that I have come to understand is that it is essentially an offering and sharing of the self. The self is consumed by the spirits, and parts of the spirits are also consumed by the practitioner.
Various witches and occultists and historians have explored the cannibalistic nature of witchcraft over the years. In recent times though, I find myself resonating with Sasha Ravitch’s discussion of this topic in her April 2023 podcast appearance with the Soapbox. Below is an excerpt of the talk:
“We have two types of cannibalism: we have endocannibalism — the consumption of those we love — and we have exocannibalism — the consumption of enemies [...] the primal desire to unhinge the jaw and swallow the lover [...] the desire to drain, to devour and consume those who has wronged us, those who have betrayed us, those who have hurt us [....] those things are so inherent not just in folklore about witches or the films or the novels we see, but it is spoken of profusely in philosophy [...]”
Cannibalism, therefore, may be a core component of what it means to be a witch. Correspondingly, the Abyss consumes its explorers, just as the witching gods and spirits may consume the witch.
The Sacrifice of Humanity: a Blessing and a Curse
Each layer of the Abyss is associated with a curse. In the first layer of the Abyss, one may suffer from dizziness and slight nausea. The second layer inflicts vertigo, dizziness and severe nausea. The third layer is similar, with the addition of auditory and visual hallucinations. The fourth later causes internal hemorrhaging, intense body pain and bleeding from every orifice of the body. The fifth layer causes a loss of all senses. It is at the sixth later though — aptly named the Capital of the Unreturned — where one may suffer a loss of humanity, never to return to the surface as a human ever again.
In other words, once you’ve reached a certain depth, you cannot return unchanged. A loss of humanity is the cost of venturing in too deep. All cave raiders who make their ‘final dive’ into the sixth layer of the Abyss and further down know that they may never see the surface again, sacrificing their humanity to make the journey.
Such is the price of witchcraft.
To quote Folk Witchcraft by Roger J Horne:
“I have observed that magic works through the practitioner, not around him. This means that anything I call forth tends to pass through me on its way out into the world. Sending a curse, in my experience, is a little like spitting poison from your own mouth. It can be rinsed out, and it isn’t a complete return of what you have sent forth, but it changes your spirit ever so slightly.”
Witchcraft changes you. To repeat something several of my friends have said, you become what you work with. What is the nature of the witch then, a being who consorts with spirits and the dead and monstrous entities and the Devil? What does a person become when witchcraft changes them?
Witchcraft, as discussed by Sasha Ravitch in this quote below, requires a sacrifice of one’s humanity:
“When I say ‘witch’, I mean a monstrously Other spirit-worker, someone who has sacrificed some of their humanness in order to become more-so the class of amoral spirits they are pacted with, to, and through […] witchcraft requires a subversion of your humanity, of your humanness, of that which allows you to identify with people. You become more the thing people fear, than revere […] witchcraft is defined in folklore by its transgression of humanity, of its nature as anti-nature, as its primordial hunger and incapacity to adhere to Rousseau-ean Social Contract.”
Is this not similar to the sacrifices the cave raiders make to descend into the sixth layer of the Abyss? To forgo one’s humanity in order to explore the netherworld, the land where no man can return from. Even those who wish to circumvent the curse of the Abyss — an example being Bondrewd, the Sovereign of Dawn — ended up losing what makes him ‘human’ in the process, becoming a soul without a body to truly call his own, turning into a being capable of committing monstrous deeds. This may seem a stretch, but Bondrewd reminds me of Odin. He had sacrificed his eye in the pursuit of power. He had sacrificed himself to himself, turning his own body into a white whistle in the pursuit of knowledge. It should be noted too that to become inhuman does not equal being unable to love. Bondrewd loves his ‘daughter’ sincerely, and the other hollows we see are similarly shown to be capable of love.
The blessing of the Abyss, on the other hand, is akin to the boons that witchcraft grants. The blessing, as evidenced through the character of Nanachi, transforms the body into something beast-like and grants one the ability to traverse the Abyss without being affected by its curse. It also bestows upon the blessed certain abilities, such as heightened senses and the gift to see the curse itself with one’s blessed sight. This is similar to the various abilities said to be possessed by the witch: the ability to travel to fly to a Sabbat, to travel to the netherworld and return, the ability to see things that others cannot, et cetera.
To conclude, Made in Abyss tells a tale of an other-than-human girl on a descent towards the bottom of the netherworld, reminiscent of the myths of Orpheus or Inanna. I believe that it is a story that will resonate with many occultists and witches. I really recommend this show to fellow occultists and anime fans alike. It can be quite graphic at parts, but the music and storytelling and the beautiful animation is quite a sight to behold.