Back in 2016, after her visit to the Temple of pythons Ouidah, my darling sister Susan of Waka Waka chronicles sang the tales of glorious Ouidah, a relatively small town in the Republic of Benin, about an hour drive from Cotonou, with impossibly high rich cultural heritage visible almost six seconds after driving into it. I knew I had to visit, if not for anything, but to face one of my biggest and most ultimate fear of snakes. The slithering creatures have petrified me for as long as I can recall, even accidentally catching sight of them in pictures or videos makes my skin crawl and stirs up a deep sense of uneasiness, i have never been able to explain it.
Sitting pretty in the town center of Ouidah is Temple Des Pythons (Temple of Pythons) a haven for over sixty serpents of the Royal Python species. A chilling site of modern symbolism which anchors heavy historical and spiritual significance to the people of Ouidah, the temple of pythons is a major worship centre and the snakes within its walls are a major totem for for anyone who follows and practices Voodoo, a religion practiced by groups of people spread across most of West and Central Africa; Benin, Togo and Ghana lead the pack with the highest numbers of worshipers dedicated to Voodoo.
For an entry fee of 1,000 CFA (N600 or $1.70) you will be granted access into the compound and assigned an english speaking guide upon request who will take you around and share the rich cultural history of temple and snake adoration in general. For an extra 1,000 CFA (negotiable) you will have permission to take photos and make videos inside the compound. Out of respect for the culture, and to get a full experience, I advise paying the full 2,000 CFA fee, because once you cross the threshold, you will have your camera steadily pointed at one artifact, painting, shrine or that random 600 year old Iroko tree in the corner.
The tour started with our guide, Mr. Hassan, welcoming us and reassuring us not to be afraid, “Voodoo is good, Voodoo is positive” rolled effortlessly off his tongue after every three words for the first two minutes. He jumped straight into the history of Voodoo, he gave insights to rituals and festivals hosted periodically to lift exaltations to the 41 divinities of Voodoo, however, our focus was on the number one divinity; the snake-god Dagbe, the king of all the gods, the Royal Python.
Hassan dove straight into recounting the history of how the snake-god and snake adoration became an important feature of Voodoo culture. A rogue war broke out in 1717 back when the ancient kingdom of Dahomey still existed. At the time Houeda (modern day Ouidah) was not under the kingdom of Benin and the struggle to claim it fueled the war. Sadly, Ouidah lost the war and was conquered. For fear of his life, His Majesty King Kpassè, ruler of the Kingdom of Ouidah, fled and took refuge deep inside the forest to avoid capture by the ruthless and notorious Ghèzo warriors. Legend has it that during the haunt for the king, the majestic royal pythons were said to slither in their numbers to attack the warriors, they became the protectors of the King, keeping him safe within the forest and away from harm that would have sparked from his capture. Out of gratitude for their protection, the King built three huts that would serve as monuments to commensurate the pythons. Over the years, the tradition grew and an entire movement was formed.
We continued on to a nondescript concrete building capped with a clay roof, the inside walls are decorated with ancient paintings of various high level voodoo rituals which captured and held my attention until my eyes journed down to the pit in the center, my body shuddered and a chill ran down my spine as I fixated on the most intimidating sight I have ever seen; dozens of snakes were littered across the entire chamber, a snarl of them formed a tight knot in one corner while others slithered across the floor and on the lower parts of the wall, just minding their business. I was not prepared for it.
My body jerked at the sight a silent scream escaped my mouth. Instantly, my fear kicked in and I was rooted to the spot. Hassan, the tour guide, noticed and immediately came whisper calming words to me.
“It’s okay, don’t be afraid,” he cooed. “Voodoo is good, Voodoo is positive” he iterated, this did nothing to help my nerves but my resolution to fight the fear was stronger with him beside me.
At one point my eyes slammed shut when a big mama python slithered her way towards me, even though my eyes were shut, I could still see her. Hassan encouraged me to pick her up, lol, I fled the chamber. It took a lot of internal pep talks, but finally, I willed myself to a degree of calmness and allowed the guide place the star attraction on my neck, the serpent quickly formed a ring and stayed still for the most part while Hassan shared some very interesting facts about it, then it started slithering around my neck and unto my face. I was too numb to tell exactly what was going through my head, but i am certain fear was not exactly one of them.
The tour topped off with a quick stroll through the python graveyard and the artisanal market where tourists can purchase some handcrafted artifacts and voodoo related things. Hassan finally led us outside where he casually pointed at a 400 year old tree like it was nothing. He then ended the trip by pointing across the street to a mammoth sized basilica, directly opposite the python temple stood Basilique Notre Dame De L’Immaculée Conception De Ouidah, the first ever catholic church in West Africa. The land upon which it rests was gifted to the western missionaries by order from the python-god via the voodoo priest. Hassan joked that on Sundays, all the initiated voodoo worshipers go to church, but they all return and spend the rest of the week with voodoo, because.. #VoodooIsPositivie.
Thank you for reading, be sure to follow me on instagram and shoot me DM about anything you’d like to know. Let me know in the comment section, would you ever carry a snake? And would you visit the Temple of pythons in Ouidah?
See you next post,
P.s. Have you checked out the blogpost about Hygge? Click to read now!