Queen of Egypt, Goddess to the world

Did she really die by snake bite

CLEOPATRA VII - GODDESS OF EGYPT

Was it really

SUICIDE BY COBRA

 

Cleopatra's suicide is one of histories most well known suicides - for that matter one of histories most fondly remembered deaths. She was imprisoned in her own tomb with no chance of escape and knew that she was going to be returned to Rome and paraded through the street and eventually killed in the Glory that would be Octavian's triumph (A big celebration party in Rome where the emperor publicly showed off his victory and humiliating and killing the defeated ruler would be the grand finale of the spectacle).

Not wanting to go through with this humiliation and in the process deprive Octavian the glory of having her publicly killed, Cleopatra had an Asp (An Egyptian Cobra) smuggled into her in a basket of figs where she committed suicide by enticing the snake to bite her.

That's the legend anyway. But did it really happen? Some historians think that the suicide wasn't possible. 

Egyptologist Joyce Tyldeslev and historian Christoph Schaefer, among others, have somehow dreamed up the story that the most memorable suicide in history is a myth and that Cleopatra really died of concoction of opium and hemlock that would have been lethal and painless - a recipe that Cleopatra was very familiar with since she probably used it herself to kill off unwanted rivals. This theory seems to come up whenever somebody wants to promote a book and needs some bizarre idea to get attention.

 

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First of all, Cleopatra had the ability and knowledge to make this pain free drink so the idea goes that she would take the least painful way to die. Well, they are right in that she had the know-how. She entertained herself and her court by killing prisoners and in the process practiced ways to kill people. So far the myth busters are right. (Wither somebody who thought of herself as a goddess and was thinking of her place in history would want to die like a common thief or mutinous soldier is of course another matter - one that Schaefer conveniently doesn't bring up).

But all the other points of "proof" that she didn't die by snakebite is pretty much an idea dreamed up from having a poor knowledge of snakes and history plus an imagination with the ability to dream up ideas that cannot even be circumstantially supported by historic writings.

First of all, all of the contemporary and ancient writings said she died by snakebite. It wasn't a vague story but contemporary writing gave details. Its not a story that came later like the fallacy that Edward II was killed by having a hot poker drove up his behind (A story that came about from a play eighthly years after he died - probably thought of because he was likely gay). It is a contemporary story. It told how the snake was smuggled to her. The snake was smuggled in with with food. Even the type of food - Figs, is described. It told where the snake bit her. It was on her Arm. Today we have visions of the bite being on her breast. The breast story is from Shakespeare's version of Cleopatra's death. In his story the snake bit her in the breasts. This embellishment has come down to us today. However, before Shakespeare, including all of the ancient contemporary writings, the story is that she was bitten on the arm. This is a lot of detail for a contemporary writer to just make up.

In ancient times it was popular entertainment to kill prisoners for public or private entertainment. It was rarely as grandiose as the Romans made of the spectacle but it was practiced by people other than the Romans. Cleopatra's Egypt would not have been any different. According to Greek Historian and writer Plutarch, Cleopatra had regular entertainment sessions killing condemned people using various poisons and animals. She used these spectacles to practice her deadly craft and in life she believed that a relatively easy way to die was by an asp bite. Moreover, execution by Asp in ancient Egypt was considered a more dignified way to die than most other forms of execution and if somebody was allowed to die with dignity an Asp bite might be permitted.

Snakes were worshipped in ancient Egypt. There were at least four different snake gods in Egyptian mythology and they were all "good" gods. While you had to be careful not to get bitten by a snake you generally would want a snake around. Snakes are not aggressive and don't usually bite unless they feel threatened and are not the feared creatures that many people think of today. Having snakes around kept rodents and rats away from your crops. Without snakes you could not have enough food and might starve. There was a festival in ancient Egypt at the beginning of crop planting season dedicated to the snake god Renenutet. Cleopatra likened herself to the mother earth goddess ISIS. Being associated with a snake would not have hurt this myth that she wanted to portray about herself.

Then there is the "myth busting" fact that a snakebite couldn't have killed three people (Cleopatras two handmaidens died in the same way with her). Tyldeslev posed the following questions:

(1) Do we imagine one snake killed all three women, or were three snakes brought in?

(2)How did the snake(s) get into the room?

(3)Where did the snakes then go?

(4)Since not all snakes are poisonous, how did the women ensure their own deaths? "Basically, I think there are better and more reliable ways of killing oneself,".

Schaefer says "We consulted zoologists and toxicologists; a snake bite would have been too uncertain and taken too long,". I have also herd that since an asp is a very large snake it couldn't have been smuggled in past the guards.

As if these rhetorical type questions presented some sort of proof, here are the obvious answers. Number one above is yes, one snake could easily have killed all three women. Some snakes have enough venom to kill a hundred people. You don't try and catch a snake to tell its species anymore (Like was once recommended - so that you knew what anti venom to use) because it could result in more bites. An asp (Ancient name for what today we call The Egyptian Cobra) is a very large snake (As far as venomous snakes go)  and certainly would have enough venom to kill three people - especially three thin women.

As far as number two goes - well, did you write the book without even consulting ancient texts. The answer is known by any school kid who has read a children's story on ancient Egypt. I almost feel embarrassed insulting the research to answer that. The snake was smuggled to her concealed in figs. Was it to big to be smuggled in past Octavian's guards? Well, lets assume that bribery never came into play (Quite an assumption given that less corrupt government officials today could be bribed into doing much bigger things for people with much less resources at their disposal than Cleopatra had.) A snake might be large when stretched out and the Asp is bigger than most venomous snakes. However, all curled up and in a banquet size pile of Figs he wouldn't take up so much space as long as he stayed still.

But would he have stayed still? People who are scared stiff and get nightmares about snakes might not believe this but snakes are docile and very quickly in captivity snakes settle down. For all we know it could well have been a pet snake born in captivity. You can be assured that there was a royal snake collection. Snakes, especially most poisonous snakes are not particularly active - especially if you get them in an awkward position. If you have ever been to a bizarre in Morocco or Egypt you might freeze in terror at seeing all the huge Black cobras left out in the open in the stall or market with the snake charmers entertaining the tourists. You might wonder why the snake don't just turn away and bite somebody as he makes his escape. Here is another nifty fact about venomous snakes. They generally are not fast moving or particularly active. They are also generally not particularly strong (There are exceptions of course - The Black Mamba comes to mind as an exception). They don't have to be. It is much harder handling a non venomous snake than a venomous one. While non venomous snakes have to be fast, able to grip and be strong enough to squeeze the life out of their prey, a non venomous snake needs no such help from these traits built up through natural selection. It just needs to sink his teeth into something for a couple seconds then wait around for the prey to die and have a leisurely snack.  People learning to handle snakes practice on non venomous ones because if you can handle the non venomous variety the venomous ones then are easy. I find it hard to understand why somebody could have a hard time comprehending how an Asp could have been smuggled past the guards. It is just to possible when an orchestrated plan was put in place given the situation.

As far as number three goes, who cares. Cleopatra herself certainly wouldn't have cared if one of Octavian's guards (Or Octavian himself) was bitten as he came to check on her. This question can only come from somebody completely clueless about snakes. You would think from that question that once the door was opened that the snake would have gone postal and went on a rampage. It would have hidden and tried to escape. Somebody should go to a armature snake show and watch as the snake handler stands around next to the snake and entertains the jaw dropping naive tourist's. I am embarrassed to have to refute such a silly question. Snakes were common in Ancient Egypt (As they are today with snakebites still killing people in Egypt) and people were accustomed to seeing snakes and knew how to deal with them better than we are today. It was just another snake in the area.

Then we have number four. Cleopatra was an expert on poisons and snakes. You can bet that some people around her also knew a thing or two about snakes. You insult Cleopatra's knowledge and intelligence (As well as the intelligence of every snake charmer or entertainer in the world today) by asking this question. Besides, its not like they just went out and grabbed the first snake off the street and hoped for the best. They went looking for an Egyptian Cobra - a very distinctive snake that anybody in Egypt over the age of about eight could identify - even if they never had Cleopatra's knowledge of snakes and techniques to use them in executions.

The last question that death would be uncertain (I assume he means because some people survive snake bites) might be a little valid to people not familiar with cleopatra. There are things that you should do if you get bitten by a snake. Snake venom moves through muscle tissue and not through the blood stream. Therefore you should wrap the bite area tightly and be as still as possible so the venom will move through your body as slowly as possible until you can get medical attention. Cleopatra would have known what actions would have made a prisoner die faster and would have used that knowledge to help ensure her own demise at whatever rate she wanted to die. After all, she never had access to anti venom like you would if you were bitten by a snake today. I think that with her knowledge and history of watching prisoners die from snake bites that she could have made it pretty certain that the suicide would be successful.

While an Asp bite wasn't the fastest way to die it didn't create painful spasms and the venom induces drowsiness. As close as possible to just falling asleep. Not to say that it wasn't painful but the least bad scenario given many different options.

Of course this whole exercise assumes that she wanted to die as quickly and painlessly as possible. Why is there even that assumption? This whole idea was dreamed up by modern writers looking for attention and inserting facts and making assumptions that has no support in historic writings. No historic writing says that she wanted to de as quickly and painlessly as possible. She wanted to get herself done up in a gold costume to look good in death. It is quite possible that she even had a general idea of how much time she had after the bite and spent a couple hours preparing her corpse the way she wanted to be remembered - then just lied down to sleep and die. Is somebody concerned with her legacy really worried about spending her last couple hours of life in pain? Being bitten by a snake is a noble way to die. It forever associates her with the fertility and protection goddesses and to an extension of that with Isis. I find it hard to believe that she would want her death to be remembered in the same light as that of a regular common folk execution. The snake bite seals this legacy and there is no reason why it wouldn't be possible.

Of course since it happened over two thousand years ago you cant have 100% proof. But common sense and historical evidence would dictate that the so called myth is true. Cleopatra could never have imagined how her method of suicide would engrave her name in history and make her an household name two thousand years later. As in life where most of the things she did met with success, her suicide went of perfectly. I think that she would have liked the historical legacy of her suicide by cobra.

Contemporary writers didn't believe that it could have been faked and I think if you really think about it the non historic supported explanations disputing the event is sort of silly. Its not like the snake story only started hundreds of years later or with the Elizabeth Taylor movie in 1963. It was around from the beginning. And pulled off by somebody who was an expert on snakes. After all, her suicide wasn't Cleopatra's first execution by cobra.

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