The cobra was a significant royal symbol in ancient Egypt. A rearing cobra, hood flared, ready to strike, was drawn and sculpted as an image called a uraeus, which refers to protection. One creation myth relates that the sacred eye of a creator-god discovered it had been overshadowed by the sun and turned itself into a deadly cobra in a rage. To placate the eye, the god placed it on his head, transforming the striking cobra into the sign for protection of kings.
Egyptian Banded Cobra
The Egyptian Banded Cobra is impressive and deadly. It can reach 8 feet long and raise its head and flared hood 2 feet in the air. The hood spread can be 5 inches across. The snake’s venom is a powerful neurotoxin that will cause respiratory failure in 10 painful minutes if a strike is not immediately treated. The Smithsonian National Zoo speculates that Cleopatra’s asp was actually a cobra, a useful weapon for a relatively quick, dignified suicide–or fratricide. The snake’s symbol, or uraeus, was the representation of a formidable goddess who oversaw both life and death. Mummified cobras have been recovered from Egyptian tombs.
The cobra with raised head is found everywhere in Egyptian tomb art. It is carved into furniture, sometimes forming legs, arms or chair backs. Vessels used for liquids by royalty and the upper classes were shaped like rearing cobras. The snake was worn as jewelry, often seen as arm bands and always on the front of the circlet or crown of the reigning pharaoh. A cobra might stand in for Hathor or Sekhmet, messengers and avengers of the sun god Ra. Ancient Egyptians believed that Ra gave the uraeus, the kingly symbol of might and protection, to his descendants who would become the pharaohs, Egypt’s godlike rulers.
The menacing cobra was also considered to be the expression of the goddess Wadjet. Wadjet represents Lower Egypt and wears a red crown. She is particularly concerned with the protection of the king or pharaoh. Although real Egyptian cobras do not spit venom, Wadjet spits venom at anyone who threatens a pharaoh or a royal tomb. The wearer of a cobra crown believed that Wadjet defended him and validated his claim to rule Egypt. Wadjet was a mother-figure to kings; their royal status was, like life, a direct gift from her. A vulture goddess, Wadjet’s counterpart named Nekhbet, wears a white crown and represents Upper Egypt. The jeweled funerary pectorals buried with the boy-king Tutankhamun depict both Wadjet and Nekhbet, wearing their colored crowns and guarding the king, who has transfigured into the god Osiris.
Cobra heads were popular amulets in ancient Egypt. The rearing heads with their spread hoods and fangs were carved from gemstones and worn as necklaces or carried as lucky objects. Cobra amulets were formed into elaborate rings and hammered into precious metal armbands and bracelets. They were also wrapped in the windings of a mummy’s bandages to reward the deceased with a safe, healthy and blessed afterlife. An amulet carried the magic its form symbolized, so a cobra shielded its owner from fatal snakebite, not an uncommon occurrence in the fields bordering the Nile where real cobras were plentiful.
- Ancient Egypt: Life, Myth and Art; Joann Fletcher
- British Museum: Gold Cobra Wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Egyptian Amulets
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Head of a Cobra
- Smithsonian National Zoological Park: Egyptian Banded Cobra
- University of Chicago: Basalt Statue of Cleopatra
- Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images