Snake Charming, Serpent Symbolism & Slithery Politics in the Ancient World


The heroine of my novels, Cleopatra Selene, is the daughter of the much more famous Cleopatra VII of Egypt, the notorious Queen of the Nile who is best known for having committed suicide by way of clutching a venomous serpent to her breast. There is some debate over whether or not the story is true, but the legendary iconography remains.



The idea that Cleopatra was a seductress, a wicked woman who lured good Roman soldiers to their deaths, fits in with the Judeo-Christian idea of both women and serpents. The bible presents the snake to us as an object of wicked temptation, luring us to offend the divine order of the universe. But this Judaic view of the serpent is only one of the perspectives in the ancient world.

To the Egyptians, the cobra was a sacred animal that represented the ancient cobra-goddess Meretseger, who guarded the tombs of pharaohs. Another cobra-goddess was Wadjet, who was a guardian and protectress. The symbol of the cobra was so closely associated with the idea of royalty and the right to rule that it would become part of the official crown in the form of the uraeus, an icon of royalty that Cleopatra adopted herself. In fact, she chose three–one serpent to represent herself, her son Ptolemy Caesarion and the Roman man she claimed was her husband, Julius Caesar.

If Cleopatra did choose to die by the bite of a cobra, it would have been a highly symbolic political act–one that declared her the rightful ruler of Egypt, at one with the old gods of Egypt, and immortal.  (The shedding of skin helped to perpetuate the image of the snake as an immortal animal.)

Despite her mother’s association with snakes–or perhaps because of it–Cleopatra’s daughter seems to have eschewed their symbolism in favor of crocodiles. However, she was likely to have encountered snakes in the Kingdom of Mauretania, where she was sent to rule. Snake charming was a popular entertainment in the ancient world and ancient magicians were said to be able to turn staves into snakes.

Snake charming, then as now, was accomplished by way of training a serpent, then pretending as if the music has hypnotized the dangerous animal. In reality, most of these performing snakes had their mouths sewn loosely shut or their fangs removed. However, the reputation of the charmers was often strong enough that they were called upon to rid villages of dangerous snakes.

But even if the Hellenized Queen Cleopatra Selene hadn’t been impressed by the reverence of Egypt for the snake, or by the snake charmers of North Africa, she would still have had to contend with the Greek idea of serpents.

In Greek mythology, the serpentine caduceus is a staff held by Hermes, who was a messenger god, a guardian of commerce, a protector and a guide to the dead. This symbol of the caduceus is often mistaken as a symbol of healing because it is confused with the single serpent and rod of Asclepius, the Greek God of medicine and healing. The shedding of snake skin represented for the Greeks a rejuvenation of the body or spirit. The serpent itself is also a representation of the dual nature of a physician who deals with both life and death. Because of this, the serpent was a highly respected animal in ancient Greece and figured prominently in mystery cults. Even the mother of Alexander the Great was said to keep serpents as pets and was rumored to have been seduced by Zeus in the form of a snake.

With the image of the serpent so prevalent throughout culture and mythology, it’s no surprise Cleopatra Selene was depicted wearing a snake armband on the cover of Song of the Nile!



How Rain, Grain & Cleopatra’s Daughter fed the Roman Empire

For much of its history, Rome depended upon Egypt for grain. While the Romans considered themselves an agricultural nation, and paid great homage to farming in literature, poetry, and art, the simple truth was that they couldn’t feed themselves.

By the time Cleopatra rolled herself out of a carpet at Julius Caesar’s feet, Egyptian exports accounted for fully a third of the 16.8 million bushels of grain brought to Rome. In short, whoever controlled Egypt could starve the world, which is why it was so important to warring Roman Generals.

However, by the time Augustus Caesar conquered Egypt, the needs of the Roman empire had far outstripped even the grain that Egypt could produce. (And some might argue that with a conquered Queen Cleopatra having committed suicide, there wasn’t anyone competent enough at the helm to turn Egypt into the bigger bread-basket it needed to be.)

That meant that Rome’s first emperor had to find a new way to feed his people, and he had to find it fast. He found a partial solution in Cleopatra’s daughter.

Though she’d been captured as a prisoner of war at the age of nine and marched through the streets in chains, the orphaned Cleopatra Selene was taken in by the emperor’s sister, Octavia, and became one of the favorites in the emperor’s household. At the age of fourteen, she was too dangerous to be married off to a fellow Roman who might take up the mantle of the Antonians. She was also far too dangerous to send back to Egypt where she might be immediately hailed as queen the moment her foot touched the shore.

The wily emperor had other plans for her.

He married her off to Juba II, an orphaned Numidian princeling and sent the couple to North Africa to rule over the Kingdom of Mauretania (modern day Morocco, Tunisia & Algeria).

It made good sense to send Cleopatra Selene to the western frontier of the empire. For one, it got her out of Rome, where her father’s old partisans might use her to stir up trouble. Mauretania was also far away from Selene’s native Egypt, where she might be tempted by her mother’s old allies into rebellion against the emperor.

But beyond political reasons, it made good sense to send Cleopatra Selene to Mauretania because the country was thought to be an untapped resource. Though the kingdom was considered still wild and barbarous, the emperor believed it could be turned into a sea of grain-fields that would help sustain his empire–if only the right people were put in charge of it.

This is where Cleopatra Selene was instrumental. As the last Ptolemaic queen anywhere in the world, her name carried with it a certain prestige. Though Hellenistic rulers were monarchs, they aimed to rule through a concept of harmonia–an idea adopted by Alexander the Great that the conquered and the conquering peoples should mingle and show respect for one another’s ways.

It may have been believed that Selene would soften the blow to the natives in having to be ruled by a thoroughly Romanized king like Juba II.

Moreover, Cleopatra Selene was closely linked with the goddess Isis and appears to have been a proponent of her faith even when it wasn’t politically expedient to do so. Isis was the great mother goddess, linked inextricably with the production of grain. Selene adopted Isis as her patron goddess, promoted her on the coins of the realm, and built a giant Iseum in Mauretania.

Pastures were divided up, distributed to Roman veterans and other land owners, and put to the plow. But the task of turning her new kingdom into a grain factory wasn’t easy. Unlike the Egypt of her birth, Mauretania had no central river like the Nile to flood the farm lands with fertile black soil. Farming in ancient Mauretania, then as now, depended on the rain.

First, the autumn rains were necessary to soften the soil for farming. Crops weren’t harvested in the autumn but sown then. Next, a spectacular springtime rainy season was necessary to help the sprouted plants grow big and verdant in time for a summer harvest. (Of course, the climate of this area was probably a little different in the ancient world then than it is now, and the Julian calendar was relatively recently adopted in ancient Mauretania, so it’s impossible to say exactly when the growing seasons were. However, in modern times, wheat is harvested there from May to August.)

Once the summer harvest was in, it was a race to get the grain loaded onto ships to Rome. The winter seas were a perilous crossing to attempt, so the bulk of grain transport ships would want to set sail before November. (See: The Grain Market in the Roman Empire, by Paul Erdkamp.) This was problematic for Cleopatra Selene and her husband Juba, because the harbor they inherited needed to be improved.

In addition to logistical difficulties were the human conflicts. Rome was a colonial power and the new order Cleopatra Selene and Juba II were sent to impose disrupted the normal way of life for the native Berbers who lived in their kingdom. Roman landowners insisted on fencing in their plantations, refusing summer grazing rights to the Berbers who had used the plateaus of Africa to feed their flocks. This loss drove shepherds and other nomadic Berbers farther to the south, towards the desert, and impoverished their lives.

While Selene was alive, the tensions seemed to be balanced and under control. Perhaps she fostered that sense of Hellenized harmonia, because though the Romans in Africa Nova provoked a war with the native Garamante tribes, the Berbers in Mauretania seem to have been largely pacified.

All of this changed, of course, after Selene’s death. Facing ever more encroachment from farmers, Berber tribesmen eventually banded together in rebellion against both Rome and against the King of Mauretania. Their leader was Tacfarinas, and the war would go on for ten years.

Ultimately, the need for grain won out. And in conjunction with the province of Africa Nova, Mauretania would help provide enough food to feed Rome for eight months of the year–Egypt accounting for the other four.

Parallels between Joseph’s Story and Egyptian Mythology

Today, I welcome fellow historical fiction author Anna Patricio to talk to us about a period of Egyptian history I don’t know as well as I’d like to. Anna is a fellow lover of ancient history, with a particular interest in Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome. Her recent novel, Asenath, delves into the biblical story of Joseph. Let’s hear what she has to say. Anna, take it away.

Two Destinies...One Journey of Love. In a humble fishing village on the shores of the Nile lives Asenath, a fisherman's daughter who has everything she could want. Until her perfect world is shattered. When a warring jungle tribe ransacks the village and kidnaps her, separating her from her parents, she is forced to live as a slave. And she begins a journey that will culminate in the meeting of a handsome and kind steward named Joseph. Like her, Joseph was taken away from his home, and it is in him that Asenath comes to find solace…and love. But just as they are beginning to form a bond, Joseph is betrayed by his master’s wife and thrown into prison. Is Asenath doomed to a lifetime of losing everything and everyone she loves?

My novel ‘Asenath’ is about the Egyptian priestess who marries Joseph of the multicoloured coat fame.

I love the story of Joseph, hence my novel on his little-known wife. When I began delving deeper into his story some years ago, I was amazed to come across comparisons made between his story and various tales from Egyptian mythology. I always thought I knew the Genesis account and Egyptian myths pretty well, but I never thought to draw parallels between the two. I found these to be really insightful. Plus, being a mythology aficionado, my interest was duly piqued.

Possibly the most widespread comparison made was that between the Potiphar’s wife episode and the story of the two brothers, Anubis and Bata. As we know, in the Biblical account, Joseph fled the advances of his master’s wife, yet suffered unjustly. In the Egyptian myth, Anubis’ wife too tries to seduce Bata while her husband was out. Like Joseph, Bata spurned her. And like Mrs. Potiphar, Anubis’ wife falsely cried rape, and her husband sought to kill Bata.

The similarities do not end there. Joseph and Bata are long-suffering heroes. As we know, Joseph was in prison for many years until he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and was appointed vizier of Egypt. Bata, too, endures a lot but becomes a ruler in the end–a Pharaoh, at that.

Basically, after hearing his wife’s false accusations, Anubis goes after Bata to kill him. The gods then create a river between the two brothers, protecting Bata. When Anubis goes home, he found his wife duped him, and thus kills her. Meanwhile, the gods give Bata a wife. Alas, she is not faithful to him. When she catches Pharaoh’s eye, she marries the king and has her first husband killed.

Bata, however, is reincarnated several times–and murdered several times as well. Eventually, he is reincarnated as his wife’s son (this is made possible when, as a tree, he is cut down and a small chip flies into his wife’s mouth). When he grows into manhood, he is able to get his revenge and then rules Egypt together with his long-lost brother.

There is also a little-known episode of Joseph which takes place during the Exodus. Most people do not seem to be aware of this, probably because it is mentioned in passing, but when the Israelites left Egypt they brought the bones of Joseph with them. There is an interesting rabbinical story in which Moses, before leaving Egypt, calls on Joseph’s coffin which is apparently buried in the Nile. Joseph’s coffin rises up, and Moses then collects it.

This has been likened to the tale of Osiris. As you probably know, Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Seth and was placed in a coffin, which was then dumped into the Nile. Osiris’ wife Isis went searching for him and later found him.

So, Joseph likened to Bata and Osiris. Intriguing stuff, indeed.

It is really interesting what you find out about these famous Biblical tales when delve deeper into them. There have been so many folktales (or midrashic stories) based on them, so many comparisons drawn with famous myths – the possibilities are boundless and quite astonishing. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do a guest post on your blog, Ms. Dray!

AUTHOR BIO: Anna Patricio is a lover of ancient history, with a particular interest in Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome. She is also intrigued by the Ancient Near East, though she has not delved too much into it but hopes to one day.
She undertook formal studies in Ancient History at Macquarie University. She focused mostly on Egyptology and Jewish-Christian Studies, alongside a couple of Greco-Roman units, and one on Archaeology. Though she knew there were very limited job openings for ancient history graduates, she pursued her degree anyway as it was something she had always been passionate about. Then, about a year after her graduation, the idea to tackle historical fiction appeared in her head, and she began happily pounding away on her laptop.
Asenath is her first novel.
Recently, she traveled to Cairo, Israel, and Jordan. She plans to return to Egypt soon, and see more of it. In the past, she has also been to Athens and Rome.
Anna is currently working on a second novel which still takes place in Ancient Egypt, but hundreds of years after Asenath. She maintains a blog at

The Mystery of Monuments…

Augustus Caesar’s most lasting monument is the Ara Pacis, a monument to peace. It’s a splendid work of propaganda, and one could spend a lifetime unraveling all its hidden symbols and meanings. After having defeated Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Augustus wanted to usher in a Golden Age. He wanted to be remembered for restoring peace. What fascinates me, of course, is that one of the mysterious children depicted on the monument has been tentatively identified as Ptolemy of Mauretania–the grandson of Cleopatra VII, son of Cleopatra Selene and Juba II.

If the Hellenistic figure is actually Selene’s son, an argument can be made that the Mauretanian royal family was far more important to Augustus than historians have led us to believe. It is possible that Ptolemy’s inclusion on the monument is as a royal hostage–Augustus wasn’t shy in pointing out that he held the children of Gaul and Parthia as his ‘guests’. This figure may count as evidence that Selene’s children were raised in Rome, just as she had been, as wards of the emperor.

On the other hand, Mauretania wasn’t a conquered nation and Selene was a nominal member of the imperial family. She was the half-sister of the Antonias and a favorite of the emperor’s sister, Octavia. She’d been raised in their household. Perhaps it’s not so strange that her child should be portrayed on what is, in the end, a family monument.

Either way, Ptolemy’s inclusion on the Ara Pacis casts the importance of Mauretania, which has previously been considered a sort of minor league western frontier, in a new light. Certainly, Virgil’s insistence that Rome would expand beyond the Garamantes (a Numidian and Mauretanian tribal group) gives us a hint as to Augustus’ ambitions. Perhaps it was no accident that he put Selene and Juba II at the western border of the empire where he would need strong allies for a new campaign.

But back to the monument. What captured my attention is the swan in the so-called Tellus Panel, which cannot help but call to mind the mythology of Apollo and Cyrene, whose son became the patron god of cattle, fruit trees, hunting, husbandry. (Selene, of course, was the nominal successor to Cyrene as the queen of Cyrenaica in title if not in fact.) Then, of course, there is the similarity between the portrait of the goddess (identified variously as Tellus, Ceres, Pax and Venus) with her straight over-masculine nose, and the surviving portraits of Cleopatra Selene. But those are the kinds of eye-of-the-beholder things that an author of fiction is bound to make hay with.

If you want a little tour of the Ara Pacis monument, check out this video:

Discovered: Roman Basilica built on ruins of Ptolemaic temple

It’s a good time to be an archeologist in Egypt, especially since satellites have been helping out. This latest find might not seem important, but is directly relevant to the time period that Cleopatra Selene lived in. According to this article, the earliest ever Roman basilica has been unearthed outside Alexandria…and beneath it? One of the temples Strabo (a contemporary of Selene’s and good friend of Juba II’s) discussed in his writing. It’s always wonderful to confirm what the ancient historians wrote about and some of the relics discovered are in great condition!