Styx, Stygian

Another choir season has commenced. Tonight we were working on, among other things, Johannes Brahms’s Nänie, a fine piece which begins “Auch das Schöne muss sterben” (“The beautiful, too, must die”). One noun phrase in it caught my attention: des stygischen Zeus, which the English translation (which we are not singing) renders as the Stygian Jove.

The sounds of the two versions of this noun phrase are markedly different. In stygischen the fricatives are alveopalatal (“sh”) and the g is a real /g/ sound, and Zeus is said the German way, “tsoyss” to Anglo ears. Stygian Jove, on the other hand, stays at the tip of the tongue (ending forward of that with /v/) with its pair of munchy voiced affricates (“j”).

But there are a couple of questions the phrase raises. One would be “Why Jove and not Zeus or Jupiter?” I suspect not Zeus because of the assonance of Jove, and not Jupiter because the music calls for a single syllable. (Jove sounds poetic, old-boy-ish, or both; as it happens, it’s from the older Latin name for the top-dog god, Jovus, while Jupiter is formed from Jovus pater, “father Jove”. But I’m not on Jove today, by Jove, so I’m not even going to start on its similarities to names for the godhead in other languages… this time.)

Another question is “Whaddya mean, ‘Stygian Jove’? Zeus is up on Olympus. The lord of the Styx is Hades, a.k.a. Pluto.” And the answer to that is actually “Exactly. Stygian Jove or Stygian Zeus is a cute way of saying Pluto or Hades. Because what would the real Jove be doing down in the sticks? Hardly a very jovial place!”

Yes, by the way, jovial does come from Jove. But when I refer to the sticks, I don’t really mean the boondocks; I mean the Styx. If our recent dip into the Lethe has not erased it from your mind, you likely know that Styx is the name not only of a rock band but of the river that one crosses to enter the Underworld – it is a point of no return (not Point of Know Return, which is an album by not Styx but Kansas), and you must be ferried across by Charon (whom I associate with “Don’t Pay the Ferryman,” by not Styx but Chris de Burgh). In the Greek mythology, everyone ends up there, by contrast with the Christian version (which has actually gained a considerable Greek influence in our imagery), in which a person goes there only if he is unfit for heaven – for instance, if a criminal mind is all he’s ever had. (Oh, sorry, that’s from “Criminal Mind” by Lawrence Gowan, not by – wait! Lawrence Gowan is now the lead singer for Styx… with whom he does perform that song, though it’s from his solo years.)

OK, now, why is that rock group named Styx? Aside from that it’s the kind of name that sticks with you. It smacks of Hell, to be sure; it naturally leads a person to assume that Styx must be a heavy metal group. They have even been mistaken for one (they were accused of having backwards messages in their songs, too, and mocked this in their song “Heavy Metal Poisoning”). But they are not, not at all – what, the band that gave us “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Babe,” “Mr. Roboto,” and “The Best of Times”? They chose the name Styx when, having to rename their band early on, it was (according to James Young a 1979 interview in Circus magazine) “the only one that none of us hated.”

That’s a delicious irony, because Styx is related to the Greek verb στυγεῖν stugein “hate” and adjective στυγνός stugnos “hateful, gloomy”. I don’t know that the word itself seems especially hateful or gloomy – it starts with St, a saint or the street (both things that are not found on the far side), and ends with that rakish pair, yx, a reverse male, an incomplete double-cross. What comes between st and xy, by the way? Just uvw: a set that looks like the waves of a river – and in fact they are all from the same Latin letter. It gets better, though: that y is actually a Latin representation of the Greek letter υ, which is actually also the source of u, v, and w, and which we represent in direct transliteration as u. Hiding in the middle of this word is the river itself, multiplying over time (soon to be legion?), waves getting rougher u v w as you get across.

It’s not exactly stagnant, then. Nope. And stagnant is an unrelated word. But you get from stugein a hint of how we get from Styx to Stygian: Greek has a derivational relation between the g and the x. From a word-tasting perspective, we may note that Styx is short and has a crisp, clean sound, while Stygian seems tighter, more pinched, more congested even. And longer. It makes me think a bit of a stinky pigeon (or was that just a Bat Out of Hell? Oh, wait, that’s an album by Meatloaf, not Styx). And the stigma of astigmatism.

But Stygian is often used to mean “dark” or “gloomy” and astigmatism doesn’t make things darker; it just blurs vision axially. Styes might dim your vision a bit more, if temporarily. But they wouldn’t lead to a truly Stygian darkness either. One needs the shades of Hades. By which I do not mean a pair of D&G or Oakley sunglasses worn by some plutocrat. Well, unless they’re wearing them as Charon takes their carry-on (picture Cerberus as a purse dog) – the beautiful people, too, must die.

2 responses to “Styx, Stygian

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