Ecstasy

My dictionary from the eighties doesn’t mention it, but nowadays the primary reference of ‘ecstasy’  is to a little pill, a so-called ‘recreative drug’. It is still common knowledge, though, why the pill bears this name. The reason being that  ‘ecstasy’ secondarily refers to a psychic state, also called rapture: experiencing profound passion. At the root of these modern meanings however are less well-remembered ancient ones.  For the ancient Greeks the literal meaning of ‘ekstasis’, and it’s root ‘stasis’ must have resonated in the non-literal one. While they used ekstasis for either a failing of the mental faculties (being out of one’s mind) or a situation of being deeply moved, it could also mean the removal of one’s body or one’s gaze. ‘Stasis’ meant either standing up (physically as well as politically), or a stable situation.

Between present day and ancient use of the concept, ‘ecstasy’ has mostly signified a state of religious exaltation (for which the Greeks had another word: ‘enthousiasmos’), supposed to be reached by mystics after long periods of fasting and praying. In academic literature the concept of ecstasy consequently is mostly found in religious studies. Like in a ground-breaking work from 1971 by I.M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion. A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possesion, which had later revised editions and is still considered a classic in it’s field. Its explicit aim is to criticize the opposition between ‘possession religions’ and ‘shamanism’, which was common among anthropologists in those days. ‘Shamanism’ being restricted to describe spirituality among the tribes from Siberia (who used the term ‘shaman’  in the first place). The opposition would be that in one case humans are ‘taken over’ temporarily by spirits or gods, and in the other they (that is, the shamans) reach for the realm of the spiritual by making celestial voyages.

Lewis not only broadens the use of ‘shamanism’ to indicate ‘a general, cross-cultural phenomenon based on the shaman’s mastery of spirits and the practice of this art with the aid of spirits’, but also implicitly defies the distinction between ‘great world religions’ and ‘tribal’ or ‘indigenous’ religions. For that distinction lies behind the one mentioned above, between shamanist and possession religions. The ‘great’ religions, especially Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have always defined themselves over against ‘pagan’ religion by claiming that their believers do not claim to be able to influence their God. They can pray, or beg, or complain, but they can only await humbly whether God will hear their prayers – would they see it otherwise, it is said, they would believe in ‘magic’: the manipulation of matters in the spiritual realm by men. Thus, they adhere, in spiritual matters, to the ‘top-down’ (the possession or incarnation) model, over against the ‘bottom-up’ (the ‘shamanistic’) model.

Lewis’ definition takes another focus altogether, comparing (from his sociological point of view) all kinds of ‘ecstatic’ phenomena, using data from research amongst ‘indigenous’ peoples all over the world, but also from the Judeo-Christian tradition. To mention just one well-known case from the latter: the revelation Saint Paul received on the road to Damascus. It is not important, says Lewis, to ask whether a person in contact with the spiritual is moving up, or whether a spirit (may it even be God’s Spirit) is moving down, is incarnating – since both manners of expression use spatial metaphors to describe a process which is not happening in normal space or time. As concepts are always metaphorical, transferring meaning from some local experience to a wider realm, their metaphorical character is not the point. Lewis wants to lose these metaphors for the distinction they implicitly make between true and false religion, or high and low spirituality – distinctions which are not fit to build sociological descriptions or explanations of religious phenomena with.

The ancient metaphor of ‘ecstasy’ – and this is my own, philosophical, point, not Lewis’s – could very well be revived in order to understand phenomenologically what takes place in possessed or uplifted states, because of the strange twist in meaning of which it makes use. Where ‘stasis’ conjures up the phenomenon of a person who had been lying down and is now standing up, rising up to take a firm position, ‘ekstasis’ evokes the spiritual situation of a person ‘standing out’ or ‘rising out’ – performing an action impossible in the world perceived by the senses. Still he does/undergoes something which is commonly known to peoples all over the world: going ‘out of one’s mind’ while entering the spiritual realm. Philosophically considered it is an ordinary human experience, albeit extra-ordinary in it’s character of transcending normal action. It happens in all times and places, whether received ‘by Gods grace’, realised through ‘magical practice’, or conjured up by taking a pill. Having said this, however, we have not said anything yet about the reality which is supposed to come over a person while ‘standing out’.

The citation is taken from I.M. Lewis Ecstatic Religion. A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession, third edition, Routledge, 2003 [original edition 1971].

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