jueves, 3 de abril de 2008

Cleopatra's Suicide by Snake a Myth?

Popular lore holds that in Cleopatra's last moments, the distraught queen -- who had just lost her kingdom and learned of her lover's demise -- smuggled a poisonous snake into her locked chamber and died, along with two ladies-in-waiting, of a self-inflicted snake bite.

Such a scenario is next to impossible, according to Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, who shatters the "snakebite suicide" myth in her new book, Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, just published in Europe and slated for an upcoming U.S. release.

"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, told Discovery News.

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 then go? 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.

Based on a number of historical accounts, Cleopatra did die in Alexandria at around 30 B.C., 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 explained.

"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.

In accounts written about by the Greek historian Plutarch and the Roman historian Cassius Dio, Cleopatra had a snake smuggled into her chamber inside a jar of figs or water, but both historians expressed doubts about the scenario.

Tyldesley said the most likely snake would have been an Egyptian cobra, which, while slender, can grow up to 6 feet in length.

"An adult cobra, or three, would have needed an exceptionally large fig basket or water jar," she wrote.

She 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. One of Cleopatra's uncles committed suicide by ingesting poison; death by suicide was seen as a virtue in the Greek tradition her family practiced.

Cleopatra might have "chosen to die on her own terms rather than wait to be killed or humiliated by Octavian," who defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium and later became the Roman Emperor Augustus, said Tyldesley.

Some researchers even believe Octavian murdered Cleopatra. U.S. criminal profiler Pat Brown took on the case in 2004 and approached it as she would investigate a 21st century death.

Brown also found flaws in the snakebite scenario. With the help of University College London Egyptologist Nicole Douek and Oxford University professor David Warrell, she came to the conclusion that Octavian "sent his men in to do the job" and then made it look like suicide.

Tyldesley agrees Octavian would have "wanted Cleopatra dead, although the argument that he wished to end the troublesome Ptolemaic line once and for all holds little water when we consider that he spared the lives of three of Cleopatra's children and allowed Cleopatra's daughter to marry and have children of her own."

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.

"Later artists picked up on the royal Egyptian snake idea and ran with it...fuelling speculation that she died by snakebite," said Tyldesley.