Cleopatra's ‘snakebite suicide’ a myth

Last Updated: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 - 15:33

Washington, April 02: A leading Egyptologist has dismissed the popular lore surrounding the distraught queen Cleopatra's last moments - that she smuggled a poisonous snake into her locked chamber and died, along with two ladies-in-waiting, of a self-inflicted snake bite.

According to Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, such a scenario is next to impossible.

Tyldesley has shattered the ‘snakebite suicide’ myth in her new book, ‘Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt’.

"It seems to me that the snake theory is just too difficult to sustain, as it leaves too many loopholes,” Tyldesley, a lecturer at the University of Manchester in England and museum fellow, was quoted as saying.

She posed the following questions: Do we imagine one snake killed all three women, or were three snakes brought in? How did the snake(s) get into the room? Where did the snakes go then? 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," she said, adding that some elements of the story are probably true.

According to a number of historical accounts, Cleopatra did die in Alexandria at around 30 BC, and there is no historical evidence of a prior illness.

The moments leading up to her death are also plausible to Tyldesley, particularly Cleopatra's dismissal of her servants, save for two women, Charmian and Eiras.

"The decision to die in front of her female servants made good practical sense, as even the dead (according to ancient Egyptian spiritual beliefs) needed a chaperone," she said.

"One of the horrors of female suicide was that the body might be glimpsed partially naked, by strangers," she added.

The queen therefore safeguarded her virtue in life and in death by retaining the company of her ladies-in-waiting.

Tyldesley believes instead that Cleopatra and her servants died of self-administered poison, which might have been smuggled into the room or worn on the queen in a pin or hair comb.

As for the snake myth, Tyldesley thinks it arose because the Egyptians feared, respected and worshipped snakes. Cleopatra might have therefore worn a crown with a snake depicted on it, which artists latched onto, perhaps with too much fervor.

Bureau Report



First Published: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 - 15:33
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