The Stygian. Quintessential Egyptian wannabe? Are they nothing more than a meager attempt by Robert Howard to include the Egyptians in his mythical fantasyland? Many people simply describe them as Egyptian and assume they carry all attributes correlating to their actual historical counterparts, but Robert Howard intended them to be as alive and rich a culture as any of his races. In part I of this essay I will describe where REH purposely differentiated the Ancient Egyptian from the Antediluvian Stygian. As well, I will paint a very clear picture of the Stygian, a standalone race, by describing their social structure. Because Howard’s description of Stygian ancestry is largely left to interpretation there has been confusion and a differing of opinions in this matter. What I present here is only one view, albeit an accurate one, for the purpose of roleplaying in Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures.
Much of Howard’s Stygia is reminiscent of Egypt. Its geographical setting is a Hyborian equivalent, it contains mysterious Pyramids and deserts mixed with fertile farmland along its rivers, and many of its names are suggestive of Egypt, such as Thoth-Amon. What are most commonly overlooked, however, are Stygia’s Greek connotations. The name of the country refers to the mythically coined Greek river that defines the very northern border of Howard’s Stygia. Most people are familiar with the legends of the River Styx from Greek mythology yet a majority of people still see Egypt as the sole inspiration for Howard’s race. Even characters from the royal class of Stygia carry Greek names as opposed to Egyptian ones:
“Who are you?” Bluntly countered Conan…
…”I am Thalis the Stygian,” she replied…
…”I am the daughter of a king, no common woman as you can see by my skin…” -Conan and Thalis Xuthal of the Dusk
In addition to Greek references, the King of Stygia during Conan’s reign is named from an ancient Persian city named Ctesphon, which is located 20 miles south of Baghdad in modern day Iraq. Considering this information it would be erroneous to assume that Howard intended that Stygia be the exclusive representation of Egypt. However, it seems as though only the Stygian royal class carried Greek, or Persian names in REHs tales, so unless FunCom makes it available to make a royal class Stygian, a roleplayer may want to avoid Greek or Persian names for the sake of consistency. What is important is to know that because something is Stygian, it is not, inherently, also Egyptian.
Stygia is a diverse race in Hyboria, and to roleplay this race one must be familiar with its hierarchical structure, as this structure seems to dictate the general status, and attitude of the average Stygian. At the bottom of this structure is the commoner and slave classes grouped simply as the lower class. This class consists of fishermen, farmers, laborers, tradesmen, and probably lesser merchants as well as the bulk of its common soldiers. The common class is mostly of mixed Stygian proper and Shemitish, “Negro” and even Hyborian blood. Although REH himself uses the term “Negro”, a more proper term for today would be Kushite as this is what Hyborians would call most races of the Black Kingdoms. Within this low class are the slaves of Stygia who mostly consist of pure blooded Shemitish, and Kushite races, which is largely responsible for the continued mixing of blood within the common class. Whether pure blooded alien slave, or mixed blood common Stygian this class is treated as nothing more than the backs on which the great Stygian nation is built on. This class is bred through generations to be a subservient people accustomed to being the ‘mongrel class’ of the dark country, as described in The Hyborian Age essay. In The Hour of the Dragon this is displayed by a Stygian fisherman regarding the affairs of the Setite Priests of the upper class:
“When priests war with one another a common man can but lie on his belly and hope neither treads upon him.”
“…Conan snarled in nervous exasperation at this servile philosophy, and turned to his men” -Stygian Fisherman to Conan The Hour of the Dragon
This is also demonstrated when Conan dons the fisherman’s mantle to sneak into Khemi, the largest port city of Stygia:
“No one cast him more than a casual glance as he mounted the long steps, unobtrusively avoiding the torches that flared at intervals above the lapping black water. He seemed but an ordinary, empty-handed fisherman, returning after a fruitless day along the coast. If one had observed him closely, it might have seemed that his step was somewhat too springy and sure, his carriage somewhat too erect and confident for a lowly fisherman.” The Hour of the Dragon
Although the Stygian common classes are not permitted to carry weapons, in a testament to the lavish lifestyles of Stygia, even this lowest of classes is commonly clad in silk. A small concession for a life of hardship and under-appreciation in the name of your King, and his lord, Set. Of course the average commoner would not dare allow himself to even consider this fact for fear that Set may hear his thoughts.
The upper class comprises Stygia’s nobles and aristocrats, its warrior caste of protectors, its economical backbone, and its moral leaders in the form of the Setite priesthood. It consists of the original mix of Eastern pre-Stygians and the pre-human race that dwelt in the south before the Cataclysm that saw the fall of Atlantis. It is logical to conclude that the decendants of Shem share some common blood with the Stygians, and this is likely responsible for the ‘hooked-nosed’ traits shared between the two Hyborian cultures that is seen entirely in the common class and some of the upper class. Here the history becomes quite contested but it is reasonable to conclude that the original Eastern pre-Stygians procreated with the pre-human race of the south to evolve into the white skinned, straight featured caste of the upper class.
“The Stygians were an ancient race, a dark, inscrutable people, powerful and merciless. Long ago their rule had stretched far north of the Styx, beyond the meadowlands of Shem, and into the fertile uplands now inhabited by the people of Koth and Ophir and Argos. Their borders had marched with those of ancient Acheron. But Acheron had fallen, and the barbaric ancestors of the Hyborians had swept southward in wolfskins and horned helmets, driving the ancient rulers of the land before them. The Stygians had not forgotten.”The Hour of the Dragon
It is of this original Stygian race that the common class is further diluted of stock, but the dusky sect of the upper class carries the features of the Stygian proper and physically, although likely not culturally, can be described as vaguely Egyptian. Although in REH’s Hyborian Age essay he describes the Hyborian upper – or ruling/noble – class Stygian as ‘Straight featured’ he also describes nobles with the hawk like features characteristic of mixed Shemitish blood, in The Hour of the Dragon.
“The Stygians are tall and well-made, dusky, straight-featured – at least the ruling classes are of that type. The Hyborian Age
“…there was a brief glimpse of a tall, hawk-faced noble, with a silk cloak wrapped about him, and a gold band with a rearing serpent-head emblem confining his black mane…” The Hour of the Dragon
For roleplaying, it can be safely assumed that the upper class is comprised of both characteristics, although the ivory skinned, straight-featured nobles are likely of much older, pure blooded families, and directly descendant from the joining of the pre-Stygian easterners and the pre-human race of the south. Whether there is elitism between the ivory skinned nobles versus the dusky skinned counterparts cannot be said for sure, although considering the consistent themes of REH’s works it would be logical to assume there is. Whether it is a prevalent attitude or not is debatable and cannot be supported by original lore. For the purposes of roleplaying this is probably best left to the gaming population to decide, although the upper class, collectively, is almost assuredly elitist and likely very contemptible towards the socially inferior commoners.
The royal class of Stygia is easily distinguished from the rest of the race. The original Stygians, although not of that name, lived in the east of the Thurian continent, – geographically East Russia, but not culturally – isolated during King Kull’s time some 67,000 years before Conan’s birth according to the most accurate, entirely Howardian inspired timelines. After “the Great Cataclysm” between the time of Kull and Conan, the Lemurians of the eastern isles were forced to the mainland and into the clutches of this original pre-Stygian race, destined to become slaves. After many thousands of years, the descendants of Lemuria overthrew their masters, forcing them to migrate to where Stygia would emerge:
“The survivors of that civilization, who have escaped the fury of their slaves, have come westward. They fall upon that mysterious pre-human [Giant Kings] kingdom of the south and overthrow it, substituting their own culture, modified by contact with the older one. The newer kingdom is called Stygia, and remnants of the older nation seemed to have survived, and even been worshipped, after the race as a whole had been destroyed.” The Hyborian Age
This quote both helps to understand the migration of the original Stygians, and describes the origins of the worship of Set, the snake god, in modern Stygia. Although snake worship took many forms even 67,000+ years prior; even before Kull’s life. Although The Hyborian Age essay does not detail much of the physical features of this original Stygian race beyond their “straight-feature(s)”, many other stories describe them as a tall – descendant of giants – white or pale skinned race:
“Her ivory skin showed her to be Stygian of some ancient noble family, and like all such women she was tall, lithe, voluptuously figured, her hair a great pole of black foam, among which gleamed a sparkling ruby.[i] Description of Akivasha, the Stygian princess who never died The Hour of the Dragon
It is important to note in my above statements that ‘giant’ does not mean the 30+ foot tall behemoths of high fantasy (D&D, etc.) but rather the 7-8 foot giants of reality, and in keeping with REHs written descriptions of giants.
Origins of the physical attributes of Stygians can be disputed as Robert Howard committed suicide before ever clarifying his immense history of Stygia, but many conclude that the inter-breeding of the original eastern race, and the ‘mysterious pre-human kingdom’ resulted in the tall, straight-featured, ivory skinned bloodline of the Hyborian Stygian royals, along with the race of Acheron. A blood that was diluted in the common classes, and most of the upper classes, but has stayed pure in the royal class. This class appears to be closely tied to the Stygian spiritual leadership, and is likely seen as symbols of Stygia’s ancient and favored position among their serpent god. Although REH himself never elaborated on the royals position within Stygian society one can assume that the royal class is the true power of Stygia, although likely symbolically rather than officially. As well it is reasonable to conclude that the King of Stygia is likely of this bloodline, though the King holds a great deal of official power, even within the priesthood of Set.
[i]”King Ctesphon of Stygia gave me great honor, casting down the magicians from the high places to exalt me above them.” -Thoth-Amon The Phoenix on the Sword
This quote shows that even the high priests/magicians of Stygia are subservient to the King. This could indicate another Egyptian connection, as the Egyptians saw their Pharos as incarnations of their main god, and thus, his commands as the words of divinity. This would indicate that the Stygian King is not only ruler of the country, but ruler of the religious power as well, although this can only be speculated. Regardless, this will have little impact on an individual’s roleplaying, and whether this premise is followed within the game or not will be up to FunCom and how they portray King Ctesphon as an NPC.
Understanding the social makeup of Stygia is the first key to understanding Howard’s race. It becomes clear that Stygia is much more than a simple mirror of our histories Ancient Egypt, and once this is understood a roleplayer is given a tremendous start to a vibrant and immense race that should be an absolute joy to roleplay. Even so, Stygia’s social structure is only one aspect to fully understanding the Stygian mythos. Be sure to look for part II of this essay, where I will discuss Stygian religion, coming in the next installment of The Drunken Pict!
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