Ecstasy: an introduction (etymology)

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The ancient Greek ancestor of our word ecstasy is ekstasis, formed of ek (outside or beyond) and stasis (“standing, stature” or “standing still, stationariness” or “the place in which one stands or should stand, position, posture, station”) (Liddle). Thomas Conley understands the stasis portion somewhat differently, “either as ‘strife’ or as ‘immobility,’ as in the English word static” (Conley 32). Holm offers a singular account of an earlier translation of ekstasis, “removing oneself from a given place” and suggests that an extended meaning “implies that the ego is no longer in the physical frame” (Holm 7). Mordell claims the best translation is closer to “to make stand out” (Mordell 18). A less controversial translation might be “outside position.” Ekstasis is not antistasis. It is not the opposite of stasis or the opposite position, but, instead, it is a position that is off the spectrum of position.

The OED records ekstasis transforming in meaning in “late” Greek, becoming “withdrawal of the soul from the body, mystic or prophetic trance.” Particularly among medical writers, “ecstasy” was used interchangeably with “trance.” “Ecstasy” arrived in English via Old French sometime in the fourteenth century as a transliteration of the Greek.

It seems that ecstasy did not engage the ideas of extraordinariness or otherworldliness until  mystical writers in the seventeenth century. In France, the 1694 definition reads, “ravissement d’esprit, suspension des sens causée par une forte contemplation de quelque objet extraordinaire ou surnaturel” (Dictionnaire). In English, around the same time, we get “a state of rapture that stupefied the body while the soul contemplated divine things,” or “exalted state of good feeling” or “rapturously happy” (OED). The earlier usage, when “ecstasy” first entered English, reads more like “set aside.” To set aside is to objectify and to “make other,” and is certainly very different from “pleasurable frenzy.” However, these two definitions have come to be represented by the single word.

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