What is an Asp?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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Although it is not widely used by most of the modern world, the term “asp” once referred generically to poisonous snakes, although some people associate asps with cobras in particular. The word often appears in old literature, in places ranging from the plays of William Shakespeare to Victorian novels. In modern literature, the word is usually used poetically, rather than taxonomically.

The word is derived from the Greek aspis, which was used to refer to any poisonous snake from Africa, Europe, or Asia. The Greeks both revered and feared the asp, recognizing the power of the snake in numerous religious statues, songs, and other artworks. Egypt and Rome did as well, as archaeological digs have proved. One of the most famous and enduring images of the Ancient world, the Minoan snake goddess unearthed on Crete, holds snakes which may be asps in both of her hands.

Both cobras and vipers were encountered by people in the Ancient world and referred to as asps. The snakes were used to execute criminals of high social rank, since a snake bite seemed to confer a dignified death. Asps were also worshiped in temples set aside for them, and they still are in many parts of Southeast Asia. In Egypt, the cobra was used as a symbol of royalty, and it is believed that Cleopatra VII of Egypt committed suicide with the assistance of an asp.


One type of asp is the cobra. Cobras are distinguished by their large, flattened hoods, which can be extended to make the snakes appear more threatening. Cobras are in the genus Naja, and they can be found in both Asia and Africa. The forbidding and majestic appearance of the cobra generated a great deal of religious art, as well as a healthy dose of respect, since the venomous snakes have highly toxic bites.

Vipers were also considered asps. The family Viperidae encompasses a large number of snakes, which are also known as adders. Vipers have heavy bodies and hollowed fangs which can deliver a lethal dose of venom. Most vipers also have distinctive triangular shaped heads, due to the structure of their jaws and fangs.

Since “asp” encompasses many snakes, the term is not widely used by biologists. Should you be unfortunate enough to encounter an asp, you should absent yourself from the premises as discreetly and quickly as possible, rather than inquiring about the taxonomic details of the particular asp you are dealing with. The asp will probably be as alarmed to see you as you are to see it, and the two of you should be able to part ways peaceably. If you are traveling to an area where venomous snakes are common, protect yourself by wearing heavy clothing and footwear, as well as keeping an eye on where you are going.


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