The python temple is one of the highlights of a visit to Ouidah – unless you are bothered by being in a room with over 40 snakes! The pythons are Royal Pythons and are sacred, representing the God Dan who is one of the most popular Voodoo Gods, particularly in Ouidah and brings life and fertility.
In the big courtyard of the temple there is another scared Iroko tree as well as a few smaller temples. The pythons reside in their own building, with painted doors and plenty of space. They are well fed and only have to work when there is a ceremony in the temple. The rest of the time they just laze around enjoying a life of luxury. They are even allowed out in the town at night as the door is left open. If people find the pythons in the town in the morning they return them to the temple.
The inside of the temple has some nice paintings around the top of the walls depicting proverbs. You can hold one of the pythons if you want to.
The temple is open 9 to 7 and you have to pay extra for a camera if you want to take photos.
There is another important sacred tree in the sacred forest with a more recent history. In 1988 there was a strong storm and the tree fell over and blocked the forest path. When the workers came to cut up the tree they found it had put itself back up again by magic!
All the trees in the forest are sacred, some more than others, but this tree is the reason the forest is sacred and is THE most sacred tree.
King Kpasse who ruled Ouidah in the 16th century when it was a small peaceful farming area learned that the dreaded and feared King of Abomey was on his way to capture Ouidah and kill him. He fled into the sacred forest but the King of Abomey learned where he had gone and followed him. To avoid being caught King Kpasse turned himself into this large Iroko tree.
This small temple in the sacred forest stands next to the sacred Iroko tree and is dedicated to King Kpasse who was responsible for the forest becoming sacred in the 16th century. It was built by his descendants who still visit it and hold ceremonies there. It is decorated with a peacock and 2 panthers, guardians of the forest.
The Zomachi monument symbolises repentance and reconciliation. It was built after the first day of repentance and reconciliation in January 1998, when the leading citizens and elders of Ouidah held a ceremony to ask forgiveness from God for the sins of the ancestors who assisted in the slave trade.
Many descendants of slaves visit Oiudah each year from the Americas and the Zomachi was built to represent the link between the American descendants and the residents of Ouidah. Every year on the 3rd Sunday in January a ceremony of repentance and reconciliation takes place in the Zomachi.
The Tree of Forgetfulness was planted by King Agadja, one of the Dahomey Kings who controlled the capture of slaves, who ruled from 1718 to 1732.
The tree was blessed with magical powers. The captured slaves would walk around the tree hoping to forget their past life and their identities before they were put onto the boats for America. Men walked round it 9 times and women 7 times.
The tree is no longer there and a statue of a mermaid stands in its place, which represents the sea and the journey to the new life of slavery.
This temple stands near the sacred Iroko Tree in the sacred forest. Entrance is reserved for Voodoo priests and priestesses, as is the area of the forest beyond it, and it is used for special ceremonies. The most important ceremonies are held every 7 years – 7 is a sacred number in Voodoo.
The temple has a statue of the snake eating its tail by the door which symbolises the continuation of the earth. Above the doorway there are painting of the Panther and Dan the Serpent God, and the double doors are also painted with a panther on each. The Panther is the guardian of the sacred forest.
Many Ouidah people have Portugese names, and De Souza is a common one, after Don Francisco De Souza the famous slave trader. Born in Brazil to a poor farming family, De Souza went to Ouidah to make his fortune in the slave trade, which he did, soon becoming the most important and successful slave trader in West Africa. He was put in prison by King Andonzan but was rescued by King Ghezo and together they overthrew King Andonzan, securing De Souza’s position and allowing him to carry on building his slavery empire.
He Married more than 50 local women and had over 100 children. The De Souza family house still stands overlooking Chacha Place and occupied by his descendants who have become accepted into the society of Ouidah.
A book called The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin is based on his life.
The Door of No Return was the last land stage of the journey of the slaves which started in their villages, when they were captured, then took them to the slave market in Chacha Place, around the Tree of Forgetfulness, to dungeon prisons then finally the 3.5km walk to the Door of No Return.
The monument is impressive and stands at the head of the beach, dominating the surroundings both by its size and its symbolism. The murals show the journey of the slaves, and on each side are Voodoo statues welcoming the souls of dead slaves back to their homeland. You can’t help but be moved by this monument.
The slave trade is a big part of the history of this part of Africa. It lasted for around 300 years starting from the 16th century and during this time millions of Africans were transported from their homes to work in plantations in America, Brazil, Cuba and the Caribbean countries. The kings of Abomey raided towns and villages to get prisoners to sell to the Europeans as slaves in exchange for cannons, guns, tobacco and other goods. The king most responsible for this was King Agadja who ruled from 1718 to 1732 and established Ouidah as the main slave port on the West coast of Africa, with an army of Amazon female warriors to capture the slaves and an efficient administration system.
At the height of the slave trade there were 5 European slave forts in Ouidah – Portugese, English, French, Dutch and Danish. Only the Portugese one is still here dating from 1721. The Portugese still occupied the fort in the 1960’s and were not happy when asked to vacate it, so they burnt it down. It was then restored and turned into the slavery museum depicting the story of the 3 million slaves shipped to the Americas from Ouidah.
Here you can see the objects that were exchanged for slaves, an old map of Ouidah and many old photographs of important people – the first French ambassador to Ouidah, the King and other dignitaries. Also a very shocking picture of one of the punishments of the prisoners in the fort called “Head Dead, Feet Free.” They were thrown off the high walls of the fort and if they landed on their heads they were killed, if they landed on their feet they were set free. You can also see some of the shackles and chains that the slaves wore.
A more positive section shows the influences of the African culture that the slaves took with them to the Americas with photographs and illustrations – the God of thunder Chango is very popular in Cuba, Fa reader or fortune teller is popular in Brazil, the drums and the dances are popular in Haiti. The returnees in turn brought back some adaptations of the original customs and traditions mixed with the Catholic religion.
There is a lovely appliqué detailing many of the most popular proverbs covering a whole wall of one room.
I highly recommend a visit to this museum if you are in Ouidah. It is very good and the displays are very moving. As usual with the museums in Benin, you cannot take photographs and I would recommend getting an English speaking guide if you don’t speak French.
This temple is dedicated to the Gozin, which is a clay pot that was used in traditional ceremonies. If a King ruled for 10 years a ceremony was held in celebration, and then held every 10 years he ruled after that. The Gozins were carried to the river by young girls who must be virgins. They filled them with water and carried them back to the village where the water was used to purify the village. The Gozin ceremony is still performed at special festivals and for special ceremonies.
Chacha Place was the site of the old slave market where the slaves were auctioned under the big tree, planted in 1747 by one of the Dahomey Kings. They were then taken to the dungeons to await their shipment to America. There is a monument of hope to the slaves who were shipped here and the home of Don Francisco de Souza the main slave trader.
The Cathedral is not one of the prettiest, and considering all the other fascinating and wonderful things to do and see in Ouidah it is easy enough to miss. It was built in the early 20th century and refurbished in the 1980's.
It is opposite the entrance to the python temple - far more interesting!
The Chodaton plantation is the venue for the annual festival in honour of twins which is held the first Sunday in October. Twins travel from all over the country and are given special food to eat, then they celebrate with their families.
Twins are considered extremely special and a great blessing in Benin. If a woman gives birth to twins she becomes a very important person with great status and is considered very lucky. The twins are treated as special and everything must be shared equally between them.
If one of the twins dies the surviving twin has to carry around with them a small carved replica of their dead brother or sister which has to be dressed in identical clothes and given a small bit of the same food. The dead twin is not described as dead but “has gone to the forest to look for wood”
The forest of King Kpasse has been a highly important sacred place in Ouidah for hundreds of years, and only Voodoo priests and priestesses were allowed to enter until 1992 when it was opened to the public for the first annual Voodoo Arts and Culture Festival.
King Kpasse ruled the Xweda people in the 16th century and at this time the Kings of Dahomey were looking to expand their kingdom. To escape being captured Kpasse fled to the sacred forest and turned himself into a tree, which is still there.
The entrance to the sacred forest is guarded by 2 panthers, and the forest contains many temples. Most of these temples and some parts of the forest are closed to the public as they are reserved for Voodoo ceremonies. There are statues of the Voodoo gods and scrap metal sculptures. The trees are really old and tall and it is very peaceful in the forest. It takes about 1 hour to walk around, more if you want to know the stories of all the temples and the statues.
The Sacred Forest is open from 9am to 7pm. It is worth getting a guide who can explain the statues to you, as they are really interesting.