A snarl of snakes forms a knot in the corner of a nondescript indoor pit. Other serpents slither around them. Though it’s an intimidating sight, in this African temple the powerful pythons aren’t feared but instead revered and worshipped.
The Temple of Pythons is a site of historical and modern symbolism and spiritual practice in Ouidah, Benin. The snakes are a major totem for followers of Vodun, a religion practiced by groups of people within West and Central African nations such as Ghana, Togo, and Benin.
Vodun became somewhat widespread in southern regions of the New World as a result of the African diaspora. It became the inspiration for other religions such as Louisiana Voodoo and Haitian Vodou. Snakes are important religious symbols and are highly respected. According to the theology, a rainbow serpent named Dan is an important deity that serves as a middleman between the living and the spirits.
The serpents play a large role in the spirituality of Ouidah. According to local legend, the king of Ouidah took refuge in a forest from those seeking to kill him during a war in the 1700s. When he was in hiding, pythons emerged from the forest and prevented him from being captured. To commemorate their role in his protection, he ordered the creation of three monuments.
Ouidah’s Temple of Pythons is a concrete building topped with a clay roof. Inside, there’s a pit filled with dozens of snakes from a species known as the Royal python (notable for their docility) either slinking around or tangled together. It is reported that approximately sixty pythons make this temple their home.
The snakes aren’t fed, though they are let out about once a week to prey upon chickens and mice. They occasionally make their way into local homes, where they’re treated as ordinary guests before being returned to the temple.
The snakes are harmless and visitors are permitted to hold them. For an extra fee, people can even take photographs with the slithering star attractions.