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Stygians

 Known as the “Serpent of the South,” Stygia was a decadent theocracy characterized by being xenophobic, inscrutable, and obsessed with the subjects of death and immortality. To the Hyborian races, Stygia represented a sinister, sorcerous menace, a black land of nameless horror whose cult of the fanged serpent god, Set, was looked upon with cold dread.

The Theocracy of Stygia came into being when the ancestors of modern Stygians drove westward and conquered the land from the serpent-men who had built the black pyramids and the haunted tombs beneath the pyramids. The Stygians of Conan’s time were a mysterious people whose society was strictly organized in a caste system dependent, by and large, upon physical types. The king, the royalty and the most ancient nobles were relatively tall people with black hair and fair skin. Below these, the ruling elite of aristocrats and a powerful middle class were dusky-skinned, hawk-nosed men, haughty of mien. The lowest classes were peasants and slaves of hybrid stock, a mixture of Kushite, Shemite, Hyborian, and Stygian ancestry.

Dominated by a ruthless theocracy dedicated to the worship of the serpent-god Set, the Stygians  were masters of occult secrets and diabolic lore. Their scholarship was legendary and their mastery of the magical arts was without equal anywhere in the known world. Unlike the Hyborian kingdoms, the Stygians cared little for what went transpired beyond their borders; while the Aquilonians and the Nemedians measured their worth in castles and glittering armies, the scholar-priests of Stygia cared nothing for such trifles. They learned long ago that true power lay in knowledge and in pacts with dark powers older than the cosmos itself.

Stygian society was divided into three rigid hereditary castes: the nobility, the aristocracy or middle caste, and the peasant caste. The noble caste was much diminished during the Age of Conan. Unlike the lower castes, whose blood had been increasingly intermingled with Kothian, Shemite and Kushite stock, the Stygian noble caste was tall and dark-haired, with fair, ivory-colored skin just like the ancient  Acheronians. They were rarely seen even in the largest Stygian cities, and were never known to travel abroad, preferring to spend lives of indolence and contemplation in their lotus-perfumed estates. The middle caste comprised the Stygian aristocracy, and was the true ruling power of the realm. Tall but dusky-skinned, black-haired and hawk-nosed, the aristocracy provided the scholars and priests that ran the kingdom’s many temples and maintained its fabled libraries. Beneath their heel lay the peasant caste, marked by their shorter stature, swarthier skin and heavier build. The aristocrats ruled the peasant caste  with an iron grip, steeping them in a culture of absolute subservience and fear. The peasant caste existed to serve the aristocracy and to feed the appetites of their god Set, and even the merest hint of disobedience was enough to merit an agonizing death in the torture chambers of the city temples.

Stygians as a people favored cunning, intelligence and agility over brute strength. Swords and axes  were the hallmarks of a barbarian, not a civilized person. For this reason, most Stygians found outside the borders of their reclusive kingdom were typically scholars or seekers of knowledge. This quest for knowledge could come in many forms, whether through the practice of sorcery, the study of the body and the healing arts, or the stealthy practice of assassination or thievery. Each pursuit was equally valid in a Stygian’s eyes, because they required intellect, education and discipline; qualities they believed to be lacking in the lesser kingdoms of the age.

Stygian society was dominated by the priesthood and cult of Set, who were the true rulers of the land while Stygia’s king was little more than a figurehead. The chief god of the Stygians was Set, the Serpent God, whose influence had stretched from the lands of Stygia into nearly all other lands. Rarely will a Stygian venture forth from his own lands. Even more rarely will an outsider enter his, as it was death for one who was not a Stygian to enter a Stygian city. Any wanderers found inside Stygian territory were killed. This was sometimes done unceremoniously, or it may have involved a sacrificial ritual to Set. The Stygians had never been known to allow captured trespassers to live. The only exception to this rule was the harbor-city of Khemi, where foreign merchants were allowed entry during the day, but must return to their ships at night. Sitting on the south shore of the River Styx where it met the Western Sea, Khemi was a stark vision of black walls and looming citadels. It was the priestly capital of Stygia as well as that desert nation’s commercial center, making it essentially the most powerful city in the entire country.

Khemi was a major seaport for the serpent kingdom, but kept only a sparse navy in its docks. Few  would ever try to war with Stygia from the sea, as the Stygian connection with the dark god Set was paramount and inspired much fear among the surrounding peoples. Even those who questioned religious faith thought twice about crossing the Setite priesthood.

Khemi was scattered with castle-like estates of the Stygian nobility, some standing proudly while others were allowed to wither away into ruin. Above all the citadels, the walls, and the towering castles was a gigantic black pyramid—the resting place of the very coils of Set himself, or so they say. There was a great deal to back up such superstitious claims, as serpents of many breeds and sizes slithered through the city’s streets freely. In fact, these beasts were protected by Stygian law, and even those attacked by the creatures were expected not to fight back. At night, the scaled swarms became aggressive, and the very shadows of Khemi writhed with reptilian life and the echoing cries of death.

The city itself was barred from ocean travelers by the rocky island port of Akhet, or Tortoise Island. It was used as a barrier to the rest of the city, buffering infidel foreigners from the “holy city” proper.  Always buzzing with visiting travelers, traders and merchants from all over, Akhet was the closest that many foreigners ever got to Khemi itself.

Even inside the city there were areas that were not commonly traveled. Stygia was a land of social castes, with an established pecking order that could be as deadly as the desert hyenas. Areas like the Horn  were dominated and populated by the Setite priesthood, who were the sole keepers of the monuments, temples and gardens found there. The holiest of Set’s children worshiped there, and disallowed those not of the faith to walk amidst the sacred buildings. There was also the Odji District, where slaves were bought and sold and the light of day seemed unwilling to brave the darkness of alleyways and awning-covered streets. Odji was deadly and dangerous, even for those who did not arrive there in chains or a cage. It was close to the harbor, and only a select few merchant traders were ever allowed to go there.  There was a fortune to be made or lost in slaves in its markets, depending on what end of the life-trade someone found themselves.

Khemi was a concrete reminder that the dark god Set truly ruled Stygia through the ironclad coils of his powerful clergy. Those who came to Khemi, especially those who managed to get beyond Akhet, could find all the pleasures, terrors, and adventures of Stygia lurking in the shadows of Set’s city.

Stygia had many other cities, including the capital of Luxur, and the lesser settlements of Set, Pteion, Sukhmet and Keshatta, often called the “City of Magicians.” As for the land itself, most of Stygia was desert, although arable, richly cultivated earth lay alongside the River Styx, which flowed north from the jungles of the Black Kingdoms, then westwards for 2,000 miles to the city of Khemi and the Western Ocean. Luxur, Stygia’s capital city which was also barred on pain of death to all foreigners, lay on a tributary of the Styx called the Bakhr.

In southern Stygia, the great deserts finally broke into patches of stinking marshland with tropical trees poking from the otherwise barren earth. If one journeyed even farther south, the marshlands turned thicker, the trees grew denser, until a traveler stood on the edge of the Black Kingdoms and the true jungles of those mysterious lands.
 
Between Stygia’s hostile deserts and the impenetrable jungles of the Black Kingdoms, the Purple Lotus Swamp spread like a tropical smear across the realm. It was named after and known for the beautiful, valuable flower that grew there and nowhere else in Hyboria. Large marsh snakes glided underneath the silt-darkened water, ready to drag wanderers down into a drowning doom. Deep tar pits dotted the landscape, filled with the bones of the unwary.
 
 The Purple Lotus flower was dear to the hearts of sorcerers and assassins alike. For the former, it  was a powerful narcotic used to enhance meditation, for the latter, an aid to killing. Consuming a potion made from Purple Lotus petals left the imbiber paralyzed for many hours, though he remained awake and aware of his surroundings. Accordingly, the swamp was often home to bands of lotus-hunters, seeking the blooms for various purposes arcane or nefarious in nature—most often both.
 
During the reign of King Conan, the swamp was claimed as hunting lands by the Asitambuke tribe of Darfar. These hunters were led by the beautiful, powerful shaman Wub—a priestess of the serpent god Damballah— who possessed the slit pupils and gold eyes of a serpent. Anyone venturing through the Purple Lotus Swamp was sure to run afoul of this clan from the Black Kingdoms at some point.

The desert kingdom of Stygia, possibly the most infamous nation on the Hyborian mainland, was the birthplace, home, and wellspring of the Priesthood of Set—the serpent god of darkness. The entire kingdom was ruled by the clergy, with each devotee or disciple of Set possessing near dictatorial power throughout the Stygian territory. From the coast of the Western Sea to the shores of the River Styx, the power of Set’s snake-worshiping acolytes was supreme.

Although bordered by the dark-skinned Kushites and the cannibal Darfari to the south, and to the north by the influential merchant-traders of Shem—Stygia showed no fear of its neighbors. So ironclad  was the Stygians’ belief in Set that they looked upon all outsiders as infidel lower creatures who had not yet discovered the truth in Set’s darkness. Outsiders were less than they were, and only a shackle’s clasp away from being a slave.

The Stygian population was notably small, for, despite Stygia’s large size, there was little arable land, and that was mostly along the banks of the River Styx (also sometimes called the Nilus). The Stygians developed an economy based on nomadic herding, fishing, and harvesting the palm date; major industries included the production of sorcerous charms and amulets, as well as drugs and pharmaceuticals for both medicinal and magical use. Silk and steel arms were also manufactured here and were sought after for trade by the merchants who traveled the numerous caravan routes across the nation.

However, the Stygians were less effective working with iron than the cultures of the West and Far East, but they were great masters of bronze casting and carving ivory. Their treasures were ancient, and told of a time when the ancient empire of Old Stygia was far grander than the dusty ruins of the Hyborian  Age revealed. The Stygians’ land was one of forgotten and dangerous mystery, but it was known that their armies were well organized. In generations past, their tall and muscular warrior castes swooped across the desert in their bronze and brass chariots and inflicted grievous damage upon the Shemite and Acheronian ranks that had stood against them. The ruler of Stygia was always the one most favored by their god Set. Legends of the Stygians tell that before the times of men, the serpent-men ruled Stygia. They were seen as ancestors of the Stygians, and were treated as holy demigods.

To the outsider, the beliefs of the Stygians seemed very strange. Their dead were mummified in long, involved rituals, which called upon the spirits of the underworld to perform many of the required tasks. The tombs of the Stygians were not like the tombs of other grand empires. They lacked the masses of wealth which other races placed within their graves. The dead of Stygia rest guarded by necromantic spells, and were buried with the scrolls and potions needed to return from the dead whenever their spirit  was disturbed.

Names:  Stygian names are similar to Egyptian names. They are often combinations of several meaningful syllables, such as: Nafer, Nut, Thoth, Merkri, Ak, Mek, Amon, Mes, Ra, Mun, Ankh, Cris, Ri and Phon. Note that if additional names are researched, they should be derived from ancient Egyptian rather than modern Egyptian sources. Examples: (male) Ctesphon, Kutamun, Thoth-amon, Thothmekri, Thugra Khotan, Thutmekri, Thutothmes, Tothmekri, Totrasmek, Tuthamon, Tuthmes; (female) Thalis, Akivasha. Suggestions: (male) Bakt, Imhotep, Kamoses, Menes; (female) Ankhesenamun, Enehy, Hebeny, Imiu, Isetnophret, Kiya, Miw-Sher, Netikerty, Sadeh, Yunet.