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The Python Temple (Temple des Pythons) in the coastal town of Ouidah is one of the most fascinating sacred sites in West Africa. As a voodoo shrine and tourist attraction, it provides unique insights into Benin’s rich cultural heritage and spiritual beliefs. This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know before visiting this intriguing temple.
Overview of the Python Temple
Location: Ouidah, southern Benin
Main Features: A temple housing 50-60 royal pythons that are fed, worshipped and released into the community as part of local voodoo beliefs
Significance: An important spiritual site for voodoo practitioners in Benin. Pythons are sacred in local culture.
Popular Time to Visit: During one of Ouidah’s annual voodoo festivals when rituals at the temple can be witnessed.
Why Pythons Are Sacred in Ouidah
Pythons hold major spiritual symbolism in the voodoo religion practiced across Benin and neighboring West African countries like Ghana, Togo and Nigeria.
Also check out: The Legend of Sango and His Wives: An Epic Yoruba Folktale
In Ouidah specifically, the reverence towards pythons stems from the following local legend:
- In the early 1700s, during the kingdom of Dahomey, the small region of Ouidah came under attack
- The king of Ouidah, King Kpassè, was forced to flee into the forest to escape capture
- Once there, pythons emerged from the trees and shrubs to protect the king from his enemies
- They formed a “shield” that prevented King Kpassé from being found and captured
- In honor of the pythons saving his life, the king constructed multiple python shrines once the conflict ended
- Over time, this legend solidified the python as a sacred creature and voodoo symbol in Ouidah to this day
So in essence, the Ouidah locals see pythons as their protectors and good luck charms – hence the yearly rituals at the Python Temple.
What to Expect at the Python Temple
The temple itself is a simple round concrete building with a clay roof. Inside there is a sunken pit housing around 50-60 pythons up to 5 feet long.
Some key things to know:
- The non-venomous royal pythons roam freely throughout the temple
- They slither around the floor and sometimes knot together in the corners
- Visitors can get up close but are not allowed to touch or handle the snakes
- Taking photos inside is permitted
- On special feast days, the pythons are washed, worshipped and offered food by the voodoo priests
- Once a month the snakes are released from the temple to search for food
- They will enter local homes to hunt mice, staying for several days before returning
So what can you actually see and do when visiting?
Witnessing Temple Rituals
If you time your visit right, you may be able to witness some fascinating voodoo rituals taking place inside the temple:
- Priests washing and anointing the pythons
- Prayers and chants to honor the sacred snakes
- Offerings of chickens, fruit, alcohol and herbs
- Trance dancing while possessed by voodoo spirits
However, this is not guaranteed. Voodoo practicioners are quite secretive about their spirit rituals. Your best chance is to visit during the annual voodoo festivals.
Getting Up Close to the Royal Pythons
At any time of year, you can still see the impressive royal pythons inside the temple. While handling them is prohibited, you can stand at the edge of the pit and watch them slither around below at a safe distance.
It’s common for them to knot together into huge intertwined balls – a mesmerizing sight. Keep an eye out for the rare white pythons which are considered especially sacred.
Nearby Sacred Voodoo Shrines
Right by the Python Temple are some other buildings making up the voodoo temple complex:
- Sacred Iroko Tree Shrine – a centuries old iroko tree festooned with voodoo offerings
- Tchankponon Houeva Shrine – dedicated to the rainbow serpent voodoo deity Dan
- King Kpassé’s Royal Shrine Hut – commemorating the legendary king
So allow some time to walk around the whole complex and soak up the palpable spiritual atmosphere.
Photo Ops with Python Priestesses
At the entrance, female voodoo priests called Nina wait eagerly to pose for photos while holdingpythons.
For a small fee, they’ll let you have your own memorable python temple moment captured on camera. It makes for some incredible shots to share back home!
Fascinating History of the Temple Complex
The sacred Python Temple compound sits on land with great spiritual significance in Ouidah. Alongside the python shrine are smaller shrines dotted across a forest grove, now protected within the UNESCO World Heritage Site covering much of central Ouidah.
Key events in the history of the complex:
1670s – Ouidah gains religious importance as the Voodoo snakes cult emerges
1700s – King Kpassè builds the first python shrines after his escape into the forest
1727 – French fort built, today housing the Ouidah history museum Early 1900s – Python temple gains fame, attracting voodoo worshippers
1950s – Cement temple structure constructed
1970s – Other voodoo shrines added for deities
1995 – UNESCO World Heritage Site status conferred 2008 – Annual festival at temple begins, boosting tourism
So while the present-day Python Temple building itself is modern, the wider complex recognises a long and rich spiritual history in Ouidah.
Insider Tips for Visiting
To make the most of your trip to the famed python temple, keep these tips from our local experts in mind:
- Dress modestly – no skimpy or revealing clothing which could offend
- Bring plenty of drinking water & snacks as there are no shops nearby
- Hire an official guide to maximize your cultural learnings
- Avoid flash photography inside the python temple
- Don’t touch or provoke the snakes in any way for your safety
- Visit on a weekday if possible – weekends get very crowded
- Consider pairing it with the Route des Esclaves and Ouidah Museum
And for some intriguing backstory before your visit, watch the historical drama film The Amazing Grace. It brings to life Ouidah’s slave trade history and voodoo heritage.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are the pythons dangerous?
No, the temple houses royal pythons which are a non-venomous constrictor species. They do not view humans as prey, instead relying on rats and other small mammals for food. Most focus on conserving energy instead of attacking.
That said, they can still bite so visitors must keep their distance. The Ninas handling them have years of experience.
Why are the snakes released from the temple each month?
This ties into local voodoo beliefs. As sacred temple residents, the royal pythons are released back into the community they once protected as a blessing.
The snakes are seen as connected to spirits and allowing them temporarily into homes brings good fortune. They also keep vermin under control before returning to the temple.
Can I take photos with a python priestess?
Yes, the Nina priestesses at the temple entrance offer photo opportunities for a small fee. It makes for an amazing memento of your visit.
You can pose while one drapes a medium-sized royal python across your neck and shoulders for a dramatic shot. Just no sudden movements!
Do I need to follow any cultural etiquette?
Yes, it’s important to respect local customs since you are visiting a practicing voodoo shrine. Some key dos and don’ts:
- Ask permission before taking any photos
- Keep noise levels to a minimum
- Follow the priest’s guidance during rituals
- Greet Ninas with a slight bow
- Touch, handle or make contact with any pythons
- Enter any shrines or ceremonial rooms
- Mock or ridicule the animal sacrificial offerings
- Turn your back on the temple altar if facing it
The Wider Appeal of Visiting Ouidah
A trip to the Python Temple can easily be combined with taking in other significant sites around the coastal town of Ouidah. Home to West Africa’s largest voodoo community, it is considered the ancestral homeland of voodoo culture.
Some top things to do in Ouidah include:
- The Route des Esclaves walk retracing slavery history
- Museum of Ouidah History located inside a Portuguese fort
- Sacred forests with voodoo shrines and statues
- Basilica of the Immaculate Conception – an imposing Roman Catholic church
- Fidomè sand beach with palm trees and local fishing harbours
Ouidah provides the perfect base for discovering the local art, culture, history and most famously voodoo religion in a compact seaside town. And the Python Temple is undoubtedly the star attraction.
So check out this python voodoo shrine for a truly one-of-a-kind West African experience!