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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 Nilemarker 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 .

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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