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Cobras of the ancient world

In my middle-grade novel, Abracadabra Tut, a cobra makes a startling appearance.

Well, I suppose any snake creates shock and awe. The other day, while hiking in a California desert, a very long yellow snake with brown patterns slithered across the trail. My first thought was RATTLESNAKE, but then I quickly noticed that this snake had no rattles. I found out

later that it was a harmless GOPHER SNAKE. The park ranger explained that they’re frequently mistaken for rattlers, and that even the gopher snake uses that to its advantage. The ranger had seen a gopher snake grab a bush with its tail and “rattle” the branches, to give its predators the impression that it was the real thing.

Luckily, there are no cobras in the California desert. The venom of the Egyptian cobra is much stronger than that of a rattlesnake, and in ancient Egypt, the cobra was both feared and revered. Cobras can grow to be 10 feet long.

Some historians think that Cleopatra, the last active pharaoh of ancient Egypt, died from a self-inflicted cobra bite after learning of the death of her lover, Marc Antony. Cleopatra believed herself to be the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who created the first Uraeus from the dust of the earth and the spit of the sun god.

The Uraeus, the Egyptian symbol for a cobra, represented royalty and divine authority. Pharaohs wore them as crowns.

One of the most famous representations of a Uraeus is the one featured on King Tut’s death mask.

Egyptians have practiced snake charming for thousands of years. The Bible tells a story about Moses and the Pharaoh challenging each other to see who was more powerful. Moses threw down his rod (walking stick) and it turned into a serpent, and then the Pharaoh did the same. As odd as it sounds, this story has some truth. Some years ago, I listened to a talk by a noted Egyptologist who recounted how he’d seen a snake charmer in Egypt perform the same trick. By applying pressure to Egyptian cobra at the base of its head, it’s possible to make it stiffen and remain immovable for a period of time.

Talk about silly pet tricks. Don’t try that one at home!

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