Asp (reptile)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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. 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).

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.
—Cleopatra, Act V, scene II
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Othello also famously compares his hatred for Desdemona as being full of "aspics' tongues" in Shakespeare's play Othello. (Act 3, scene iii)

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Asp (reptile)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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