What does the word ‘stygian’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: stygian….

I didn’t used to read murder mysteries or thrillers but recently, thanks to the fine writing of Tana French, I’ve come to appreciate the sub-genre of the psychological thriller. French is masterful at it — able to write captivating plots and employ evocative figurative language.

I wish the same could be said of Alex Michaelides. While his first book, The Silent Patient, was apparently remarkable, his second one — The Maidens — is one of the worst books I’ve read in the last 10 years. I share the views of the one-star Amazon writers who wrote, “just awful,” “don’t waste your time,” and “OMG. The Sophomore Slump is Real.”

Nevertheless, in an inadvertent act of goodness, the book did give me my word of the week: stygian. Here is how Michaelides used it:

It took her eyes a few seconds to adjust to the stygian gloom, thick with burning incense; its black smoke further diffusing the light from the candles, making it harder to see.

Although I had studied mythology in grades 8 and 9, I had completely forgotten about the River Styx  — the river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. And of course the adjective, stygian, doesn’t even look like the word Styx.

In literary terms, stygian has come to mean dark, gloomy, and hellish or, alternatively, something that is completely inviolable, as a vow sworn by the river Styx. 

The painting shown at the top of this post was created in 1861 by the Russian painter Alexander Litovchenko. Titled “Charon carries souls across the river Styx,” the image presents the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased.

A coin to pay Charon for the passage was sometimes placed in or on the mouth of a dead person. Some authors say that those who could not pay the fee had to wander the shores for a hundred years, until they were allowed to cross the river.

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