From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Runaway cobra: A blast from the Egyptian past

(Egyptian Cobra)
From the New York Times to Twitter, the Egyptian cobra that recently gave its Bronx Zoo attendants the slip has been  continuing to make headlines.  For those in the know, this is
nothing new.  Publicity concerning Egyptian cobras has “gone
viral” for centuries.

The Egyptian cobra is somewhat misnamed for it actually ranges throughout much of Africa, as well as within parts of the Arabian Peninsula.  Nevertheless, its association with Egyptian culture is quite strong.  The cobra goddess, Meretseger (“She Who Loves Silence”), dates all the way back to the tomb-building days in the Valley of the Kings.  According to Wikipedia, she was both merciful and dangerous.  She was the patron deity of those who built the Pharoah’s tombs, and would punish some but heal others.  Her cobra persona enabled her to spit venom at those who tried to rob or vandalize the royal tombs.

The patron goddess of Lower Egypt (and afterwards of all Egypt) was named Wadjet.  She, too, was often depicted as an Egyptian cobra.  She was especially celebrated on December 25 of each year.  Her image, coupled with the sun disc, is known as uraeus.  This uraeus (“rearing cobra”) image became part of the official headgear of Pharoahs.  The uraeus was also a part of jewelry, amulets, and even hieroglyphics.

According to, “a gilded wooded cobra called netjer-ankh (“living god”) was found in the tomb of Tutankhamon.”  It was closely associated with the after-life; in fact, two fire-spitting cobras were thought to be guarding the gates of the underworld.  The fiercely protective nature of cobras was generally emphasized.

Although  some might deem these cobra stories to be mythological, the real mythology might ironically lie in what is often called history.  The suicide story of Cleopatra and the asp is generally interpreted to be a story about Cleopatra and the Egyptian cobra.  Considering that Egyptian cobras often grow to be eight feet long, Richard Girling asserts that Cleopatra would have been hard-pressed to hide one in a basket of figs.  Assuming she did, she would have been even harder pressed to have it bite and kill her and her two servants
within ten minutes.  He concludes that Plutarch’s account (which was written a mere 75 years after the fact) would be inadmissible evidence in any reasonable court of law.  (For those who are hanging onto the edge of their seat about now, Girling hints that it was most likely Octavian who killed Cleopatra.) 


Copyright April 9, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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