Cleopatra's Asp

Cleopatra&slquo;s Asp

It biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder.

—Proverbs 23:32

The asp Vipera aspis is a venomous snake common in many parts of Europe, living mostly in hilly or low mountainous country. It has been recorded at 9,700 feet in the Alps. The snake is generally slow—moving but aggressive and has been responsible for a few fatal bites, especially in southern France.

The asp is best known as the snake Cleopatra used to kill herself. Yet it is very unlikely that she would have used the asp Vipera aspis because this species does not live in Egypt and never has. There is good reason for Cleopatra's snake being called an asp: the name asp used to be a general term for any kind of venomous snake, in much the same way that the word serpent is used to describe any snake.

For thousands of years it was believed that Cleopatra committed suicide by letting an asp bite her. The drawback to using a member of the viper family for suicide is that their bites are not often fatal; moreover, the effects are painful and messy. On the other hand, the biting cobra injects venom that interferes with the action of nerves and muscles. Death is quick and relatively painless. Scientists and scholars believe the snake that caused the death of Cleopatra was actually the Egyptian cobra, Naja haje.

Statues, paintings, and various other forms of Egyptian art often show royalty wearing headdresses or amulets depicting the cobra. They may have even worshiped this snake. It has always been popular with Egyptians; it was both feared and respected. This is natural, since the snakes were very abundant and lived in close proximity to people. As a matter of fact even now it is the only cobra in Africa known to kill a substantial number of human beings annually.

The Egyptian cobra feeds mostly on rodents, which are commonly associated with man. The hunt for rats and mice often takes the cobra into human dwellings. Sometimes after a meal the cobra remains in the house digesting its food. In a leading hotel in Cairo a female tourist sat down one evening on a comfortable couch to read a magazine A cobra that was resting on the couch must have panicked when the tourist sat on it. The bite she received proved almost fatal to the surprised woman. Quick medication doubtless saved her life. Cleopatra was less fortunate.

In ancient Egypt the cobra was often used as a instrument of mercy for condemned political prisoners. Since its poison was known to be quick—acting and almost painless, it was at times offered as an alternative to a more painful and dishonorable way of dying. On record are many cases of Egyptian noblemen and royalty who deliberately went to their reward via the cobra route. As scholars argue, why should Cleopatra have been any different? A bite from the Egyptian cobra brought a rapid death far more merciful than she could expect from the advancing Roman conquerors. And most important, at least to her, suicide by cobra bite was an honorable death. It is really quite doubtful that Cleopatra ever heard of an asp!

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth