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Asp is the modern Anglicisation of the word aspis, which in antiquity referred to any one of several venomous snake species found in the Nile region. It is believed that the aspis referred to in Egyptian mythology is the modern Egyptian cobra.
Throughout dynastic and Roman Egypt, the asp was a symbol of royalty. Moreover, in both Egypt and Greece, its potent venom made it useful as a means of execution for criminals who were thought deserving of a more dignified death than that of typical executions. In some stories of Perseus, after killing Medusa the hero used winged boots to transport her head to Mount Olympus. As he was flying over Egypt some of her blood fell to the ground, which transformed into asps.
According to Plutarch (quoted by Ussher), Cleopatra tested various deadly poisons on condemned persons and animals for daily entertainment and concluded that the bite of the asp was the least terrible way to die; the venom brought sleepiness and heaviness without spasms of pain. The asp is perhaps most famous for its role in Cleopatra's suicide (some believe it to have been a horned viper) as immortalized by both history and legend:
With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie: poor venomous fool
Be angry, and dispatch.
Othello also famously compares his hatred for Desdemona as being full of "aspics' tongues" in Shakespeare's play Othello. (Act 3, scene iii)
- Schneemann, M.; R. Cathomas, S.T. Laidlaw, A.M. El Nahas, R.D.G. Theakston, and D.A. Warrell (August 2004). "Life-threatening envenoming by the Saharan horned viper (Cerastes cerastes) causing micro-angiopathic haemolysis, coagulopathy and acute renal failure: clinical cases and review". QJM: an International Journal of Medicine 97 (11): 717–27. doi:10.1093/qjmed/hch118. PMID 15496528. http://qjmed.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/97/11/717.pdf. Retrieved 2009-09-04. "Whether Cleopatra used a snake as the instrument of her suicide has been long debated. Some favour the idea that she chose C. cerastes, but its venom is insufficiently potent, rapid and reliable. A more plausible candidate is the Egyptian cobra or 'asp' (Naja haje)".
- Crawford, Amy (April 1, 2007). "Who Was Cleopatra? Mythology, propaganda, Liz Taylor and the real Queen of the Nile". Smithsonian.com. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/biography/cleopatra.html. Retrieved 4 September 2009.
- Kinghorn, A. M. (March 1994). "'All joy o' the worm' or, death by asp or asps unknown in act v of Antony and Cleopatra". English Studies 75 (2): 104–9. doi:10.1080/00138389408598902. http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a901590944. Retrieved 2009-09-12. "The venomous reptile commonly known today as 'Cleopatra's asp' is a horned viper (Cerastes cornutus)".