Tuesday, December 10, 2013

CLEOPATRA AND THE ASPS

Today I am going to talk about a rock group called "Cleopatra and the Asps."   Hahahaha!  Okay, that's not really the name of a band, but don't you think it would make a good one?  Anyway, what I'm really  going to talk about is someone named Cleopatra, who was the real queen of Egypt a long, long time ago.  And she killed herself by letting asps bite her so that the Romans wouldn't capture her.

The Death of Cleopatra, by Jean André Rixens, 1874
Musée des Augustins, Toulouse

At least that is how the story was told by Mr. William Shakespeare in his play, Antony and Cleopatra.  He was not making this stuff up, because everybody already knew about Cleopatra and how she died.  Plutarch, who was an ancient Roman guy, wrote about how Cleopatra used to test different poisons and venomous snakes on animals and condemned prisoners to find out which ones were the best and fastest and least painful.  And what she decided was that the asp was the best way to go, so to speak.

You might be wondering, like I was, what sort of snake an asp is.  It turns out that the word asp comes from the ancient word aspis, and that word could mean any of several poisonous snakes in the Nile region.  But mostly it referred to the Egyptian cobra, which lives in much of Africa and also the Arabian Peninsula.

©Alamy, Daily Mail

The average size of the Egyptian cobra is between 3 and 6 feet, and sometimes they are more than 9 feet long.  They have large, depressed heads, and they also have hoods, just like other cobras do.  Their color varies, but usually they are a shade of brown with some mottling.


In mythology, the Egyptian cobra was represented by the cobra-headed goddess Meretseger.  Pharaohs usually had a stylized Egyptian cobra on their headdresses, which showed that they were powerful and divine.  Also, the cobra protected the pharaoh from evil by spitting fire at his enemies.

The snake goddess of Lower Egypt
and the vulture goddess of Upper Egypt

So getting back to Cleopatra, the legend says she killed herself with a couple of Egyptian cobras that were smuggled into her room in a basket of figs.  One bit her on the arm and the other on the breast.  As you now know, we are not talking about little garter snakes here, but about very large snakes that would be hard to hide in a basket.  Also, the asps supposedly bit Cleopatra's two handmaids, besides biting Cleopatra herself.  And all three of them died quickly enough so that the Romans didn't figure out what was going on.

The Death of Cleopatra, by Juan Luna, 1881

Because there are several problems with how this story might have happened, there are some people who think it might not be true.  So they came up with other theories, and one of them is that Caesar Augustus simply had Cleopatra killed.  Another idea is that she drank a mixture of poisons.  In 2010, the German historian Christoph Schaefer said that after studying historical texts and consulting with a toxicologist named Dietrich Mebs, he had decided that the bite of a cobra could not have caused a quick and pain-free death.  So the two men came up with a new theory, which was that Cleopatra actually killed herself by drinking a mixture of hemlock, wolfsbane, and opium.

The Death of Cleopatra, by Reginald Arthur, 1892
Roy Miles Gallery, London


Of course, if you especially like the story of Cleopatra's death by asps, you can go right on believing it.  Painters seem to have liked the idea of Cleopatra and the asps because it made a nice, dramatic scene to paint, especially if they showed the queen and her handmaids wearing very few clothes.  I'm not sure why anybody would want to die without their clothes on, but maybe Cleopatra was lacking in modesty.  Or maybe several generations of painters just wished that she was.

The Death of Cleopatra, by Guido Cagnacci, 1658

Anyway, my suggestion is that if you are planning a death by Egyptian cobra venom, you should make yourself look as sexy and naked as possible while dying.  That way you will be the subject of many famous paintings for centuries to come.

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