Although not widely used in most modern countries, the term “asp” once referred generically to venomous snakes, although some people associate aspics with snakes in particular. The word often appears in ancient literature, in places ranging from William Shakespeare’s plays to Victorian novels. In modern literature, the word is generally used poetically rather than taxonomically.
The word derives from the Greek aspis, which was used to refer to any venomous snake from Africa, Europe or Asia. The Greeks worshiped and feared the aspid, recognizing the power of the serpent in many religious statues, songs, and other works of art. Egypt and Rome did the same, as archaeological excavations have shown. One of the most famous and enduring images of the ancient world, the Minoan snake goddess discovered in Crete, has snakes that can be aspic in both hands.
Cobras and vipers were found by people in the ancient world and called aspics. Snakes were used to execute high-ranking social criminals, as a snake bite seemed to confer a dignified death. Aspids were also worshiped in temples reserved for them, and are still found 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 help of an aspid.
One type of asp is the cobra. Snakes are distinguished by their large, flattened hoods, which can be extended to make snakes more menacing. Cobras belong to the genus Naja and can be found in Asia and Africa. The nasty and majestic appearance of the cobra has generated a lot of religious art as well as a fair amount of respect, as venomous snakes have highly venomous bites.
Vipers were also considered aspics. The family Viperidae includes a large number of snakes, also called vipers. Vipers have heavy bodies and hollow fangs that can deliver a lethal dose of poison. Most vipers also have distinctive triangular-shaped heads, due to the structure of their jaws and fangs.
Because “asp” encompasses many snakes, the term is not widely used by biologists. If you are unlucky enough to encounter an ASP, you should move away from the facility as discreetly and quickly as possible, rather than educating yourself about the taxonomic details of the particular ASP with which you are dealing with. The ASP will probably be as alarmed to see you as you are to see him, and you should both be able to separate peacefully. If you travel to an area where venomous snakes are common, protect yourself with thick clothing and shoes and watch where you go.