HYPOSTASIS.

English and Russian both have words derived from Greek hupóstasis ‘sediment; foundation; substance; (in Christian use) any of the persons of the Trinity.’ The Christian sense is basic to both English hypostasis and Russian ипостась (ipostás’). Looks like an easy case for bilingual equivalence, eh? Think again, and consider these sentences from “Stovelore in Russian Folklife” by Snejana Tempest, whose Russian seems to have taken precedence over her English:
“In Russian folk tales the stove frequently appears as a female character endowed with a specific, if varying, name. In this hypostasis, her main role is to reward respectful attention on the part of children by extending them protection in her bosom in case of danger.”
“Different hypostases of the Russian dragon slayer—a brave protagonist of fairy tales and legends who rescues his bride-to-be from the clutches of the dragon—bore names which pointed to their connection with the stove: Ivan Popialov, Matiusha Pepel’noi, Zapechnyi Iskr, Ivan Zapechnik (from the Russian words for ashes and stove).”
Whereas the English word has remained a technical term in philosophy and theology, unknown (I would venture to say) to 99.9% of the speakers of the language, the Russian word has entered common use in the extended sense ‘role, capacity’—the only definition in Katzner. The Oxford dictionary, stuck in an earlier era, defines it as ‘hypostasis,’ which helps not at all when trying to read modern texts. Another example of the perils of treating lookalikes as synonyms. (And another example of the havoc wrought by the lack of editing in books these days; even the laziest of copyeditors would query the use of “hypostasis” in the Tempest article, and it should definitely have been changed to “capacity” in the first sentence and “version” or perhaps “avatar” in the second.)


Incidentally, the Russian word, in the old spelling with initial izhitsa, is the last entry in Dahl‘s great Russian dictionary.

Comments

  1. Ian Myles Slater says:

    As a matter of fact, whatever dictionaries record, hypostasis has been used in English for “projections” of gods and heroes, from an original or supposed archetype. It is hardly a common usage, though, and I would agree that it is unhelpful as a translation in the examples you give.
    W.F. Albright used the term for explaining the nature of Anath-Yahu in the Judeo-Aramaic Elephantine texts as something other than a mere pagan goddess, for example, which I initially found rather confusing, since he was clearly not proposing a Christian-type theology in early Exilic times.
    The term remains in use in Biblical studies, in a non-trinitarian sense, which seems to go back to Albright; see http://fontes.lstc.edu/~rklein/Documents/smithgod.htm (Journal of Hebrew Scriptures – Volume 4 (2002-2003) – Review of Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel).
    I think that I’ve seen it used by Egyptologists trying to explain the relation of various ancient deities as developments of one cult figure toward another, popularly differentiated, one. Unfortunately, I can’t produce a quotation on short notice.
    Of course, “avatar,” although much more readily understandable, could be seen as having its own set of theological implications!

  2. Implications shmimplications — “avatar” can be understood by the average decently educated user of English; “hypostasis” cannot. Case closed. One of the many things that try my patience in this world is spec1alists trying to make everyone else conform to their specialized meanings: beg the question is a classic example. Once words leap the fence and escape into the wild, there’s no holding them back!
    [Aargh -- I had to rewrite the "spec-" word to escape my own spam filter!
    *shakes fist at spammers*]

  3. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen hypostasis used this way in English before. I cant’ cite any examples, but certainly the first example semed perfectly clear to me.

  4. scarabaeus stercus says:

    HYPOSTASIS: “…the English word has remained a technical term in philosophy and theology, unknown (I would venture to say) to 99.9% of the speakers of the language….”
    I dothe believe that their be a few more brainwash clegy that exceed 0.1% of the unwashed, that understand their quaint Religion.
    I be getting a little hyposensitive

  5. LH, if it is true that “‘avatar’ can be understood by the average decently educated user of English; ‘hypostasis’ cannot,” the Anglophone world must be in big trouble. But it’s also true that Russians over- and misuse ipostas’ without understanding its original and proper meaning.

  6. Ian: I apologize — that came off as snarkier than I meant it to, and the rant at spec1alists wasn’t directed at you (I have no idea what your background is, obviously) — I tend to segue from the particular to the general with little or no warning.
    Justin: No offense, but you are a Latinist; I’m afraid I’m going to have to disqualify you from the “general educated public” category.
    scarabaeus: Well, Ethnologue estimates there are a little over half a billion speakers of English, of which 0.1% would be around half a million. I guess it’s possible there are enough high-church types with a bit o’ Latin and philosophers combined to surpass that figure, so let’s compromise on 99% — I was deliberately being a bit hyperbolickal, but I’m a reasonable man.
    Alexei: Why exactly must the Anglophone world be in big trouble? The word “hypostasis” is about as recondite a term as I can imagine; even in its primary theological meaning the term overwhelmingly used is “person.” I think you’re being influenced by its status in Russian. (And of course its “proper” meaning is however Russians use it; the original meaning is irrelevant — or if not, you have to deprecate the religious meaning as well, since that’s a late development in the history of the word, which should mean ‘sediment.’)
    To everyone who doubts my estimation of the status of the word in English, do what I did and google it. See how many pages of results you have to wade through to find a use in ordinary prose; I haven’t found one yet. Every single hit is some sort of specialized/technical use: theology, philosophy, dictionary definitions, in one case a band name (and bands have been scouring the lexica for unused names for decades now). I thought I had found one on the fifth or six page when I saw an excerpt that included the ordinary-sounding “I’m inserting a piece of lead into the mouth of a pencil backwards,” but “Hypostasis” turned out to be the name of a poem that includes the lines:
    “i’m memorizing 500 yrs
    of theology -
    for fun”
    So I’m sorry, but you’ll have to do a little work to convince me it’s a word in common educated use. (I trust no one is disputing my contention that “avatar” is such a word.)

  7. “Ni es presuncion, pues su extasis actiua,
    (si sigue amor al gran conocimiento
    del Sumo bien) demas vnion informa,
    pues de vna metamorfosi vnitiua,
    al ver a Dios, fue tanto el crecimiento,
    que a Ignacio en Dios, y a Dios en el transforma,
    de Dios toma la forma,
    en Dios arrebatado;
    y está tan endiosado,
    que si ya no la hipostasis blasona
    naturalezas dos y vna persona,
    amor mas estrechez ha blasonado,
    hechos Loyola en Dios, y en Dios Loyola,
    de dos naturalezas vna sola.”
    1622. Monforte y Herrera, Fernando de. Relación de las fiestas que ha hecho el Colegio Imperial de la Compañía de Jesús de Madrid.

  8. I like the technical word “hypostasize”, which means to treat an abstraction or a trait as a thing or an agent: “Progress ensures that…….”, etc.
    I didn’t know that “sedimented” is one of its root meanings, but I do see “sedimented” in a lot of translations from the French, though with a slightly different meaning, I think: something like “A historical condition or state taken to be a timeless universal”. I wonder if the two usages have any connection.

  9. I think that I’ve seen it used by Egyptologists trying to explain the relation of various ancient deities as developments of one cult figure toward another, popularly differentiated, one. Unfortunately, I can’t produce a quotation on short notice.
    Try Karl W. Luckert, Egyptian Light, Hebrew Fire
    I’m all for extending this word beyond its specialized use. Actually, I had no idea it was so uncommon; I tend to assume that if I know a word, everyone must know it. If someone can suggest a more familiar synonym for a concretized abstraction, I’ll gladly use it.

  10. Ian Myles Slater says:

    Dave: Thanks!
    Most of my books on Egypt are in boxes after a move (although Luckert isn’t among them).
    To judge from some on-line sources, W.F. Albright was talking about “hypostatization” as a regular process in religions/mythologies as far back as 1925! It may not have been original with him, but already current among Semiticists trained in Divinity Schools.
    However, I remember being puzzled by his use of “a hypostasis” in “Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan,” published in 1968, and having to work out what he was talking about from an unabridged dictionary.
    The annoyance has stayed with me, obviously. I still don’t like the word. But it is established usage, and has even made it into Wikipedia as such.

  11. bathrobe says:

    ‘the perils of treating lookalikes as synonyms’, otherwise known as the perils of faux amis.

  12. LH, the proper meaning of “hypostasis,” if you ask me, is religious — Christian, to be precise. As such, it is the same in any language. The notion of hypostasis is an essential element of all except the most eccentrically unorthodox Christian traditions. Christianity is essential to the natively English-speaking world, thus “hypostasis” belongs, or should belong, in the core vocabulary of its culture. On the contrary, “avatar” comes from an entirely different, I’d say alien, cultural realm, and the fact that it is intelligible to the average English speaker while “hypostasis” is not, sounds anomalous to me.

  13. But Alexei, it’s not up to you to determine the “proper” meaning of a word! The ancients used it to mean ‘sediment’ or ‘foundation’; modern Russians use it to mean ‘role’; you want to keep it stuck in an intermediate stage which few people these days are aware of. It’s true that “the notion of hypostasis is an essential element of all except the most eccentrically unorthodox Christian traditions” (emphasis added); the word is not. Most English-speaking persons talk, and have always talked, about the three “persons” of God; “hypostasis” has always been an arcane term. Surely you’re not going to tell me those who say “persons” rather than “hypostases” don’t truly have faith?

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