Abomey: City of Voodoo Kings, Fetishes, and One Cute Chameleon

This weekend I ventured north with three other American girls to the historical town of Abomey. Amanda, Sarah, Alainna and I all come from different parts of the country and have different reasons for being in West Africa, but we had a blast exploring more of the country and it was nice to be around the comforts of American company. :)

From left to right, Sarah is from Ohio and is on her third year as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was relieved to  hear she has been here for three years without ever getting malaria.  Then on the other side of me is Alainna from Colorado, she is volunteering here at a medical clinic and is applying to med school soon. Amanda, on the end, is here as a Fulbright Scholar doing research on the relationship between Voodoo and Christianity as well as Gender Rights issues.  They are all super fun girls and I am so glad I have found new friends in the most unlikely places.

I also learned a lot about the history of Benin. Abomey is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is known for its ancient palaces that once belonged to kings that ruled not only Benin, but at times parts of Togo, Niger, Nigeria, etc.  Voodoo is a huge part of the Beninese culture, as it originated here. All voodoo that people hear of in Haiti originated in Benin and spread to Haiti and other areas with the dawn of the slave trade when many Beninese slaves were sent to such countries.

So we arrived on Saturday and checked into our hotel, then went in search of a zem so we could get to the famous palace museum. Negotiating with the zems is always a pain because they always try to overcharge you for being a Yovo (white person, or person not from Benin). Here you can see the girls trying to bring down the price.

We headed off to the big museum in town, which is also the site of an ancient palace. Unfortunately they wouldn’t let us take any pictures, but I heard some incredible stories, many of which involved the presence of voodoo in their culture.

I know that when many people think voodoo, they think little voodoo dolls with pins sticking out everywhere, but there is much more to this animalistic religion. From what I have come to understand, much of it has to do with honoring the spirits of ancestors  (the original word for voodoo is vodun and means “spirit” in the local Fon language.) The stereotype of using peoples hair or bodily fluids to create spells and curses is however, accurate. For example,  one of the exhibit displays showed a calabash bowl that was carried by a princess for her father, the king. She followed him around so that when he wanted to spit, he could do so in the bowl. Then she had to disappear with the bowl and bury it in a place where no one would see. She did this because if one of the king’s enemies got a hold of his spit, they could use it to create bad voodoo against the king and create all sorts of havoc.

From 1625 to 1900 twelve kings ruled in succession in the Kingdom of Abomey. Each king had his own seperate palace, so there was so much to see while we were there! With his own palace, each king also had his own symbol, be it a lion, a fish and basket or what have you, as well as his own speciality (like voodoo, war, or art.)

On Sunday we took a tour of several other historical sites around Dahomey. Our guide, who was absoultely awesome, started off by drawing a map in the dust of the historical empire of Abomey.

Then, the fellow guides joined him in a sort of song/prayer to the map.  We couldn’t understand what they were doing, but they were singing and dancing to it and it was cool to watch.

We also made some little friends at the beginning and end of the tour. First, this tiny little kitten (so cute.)

Sarah then told us the story of  how when she first got here, she had a pet cat, and it went missing. She asked the neighbor kids if they had seen it, and they pointed her to a house down the street, where found her neighbors preparing it for dinner. :( Guess it is a good thing I didn’t bring my cat, Olive, with me!

And Alainna made friends with a baby goat… no stories associated with that one, but people (including yours truly) eat goats here all the time.

One of our first stops was to a palace where there is this legendary tree.  The story is that before the kingdom was named “Dahomey” there was a a man who became a famous ruler in a very unique way. The voodoo oracle told him that he must kill a member of the court. When he followed through in this murder, he threw him down in the grave face up, then split open the man’s stomach and planted a seed inside. That seed grew into the tree pictured below…

This is a closer one of the intricate roots…

Then we went to another palace where we learned that most of the kings had upwards of 200 wives… Part of their voodoo culture often involved human sacrifice (I have heard this still exists today).. hundred of member of the royal court could be beheaded and sacrificed to the voodoo gods during times of war, general unrest, or sometimes during peace. When a king died, all of his wives would be buried alive so that they could serve him in the afterlife. One king married 12 new wives every year. At one point two of his former wives got fed up with never seeing him and plotted to kill him (understandable, I think.) He heard of this plotting and they confessed their intentions when confronted. As punishment, he buried them up to the neck for seven days, but not before putting oil in the holes that would attract flesh-eating ants. (Nice guy.)

During the seven days that his defiant wives suffered in the ground, he began to have strange dreams. He dreamed that his wives came to him while he was sleeping and asked for forgiveness, even trying to seduce him. He was so bothered by these dreams that he went to the oracle and asked what they meant. He said it was true, his wives did come to him, because the voodoo had already taken them. The oracle then instructed him to build a temple to honor  his dead wives, the Temple of Jealousy. The temple is  pictured here:

After visiting the Temple of Jealousy we went to the Fetish Market. This may have been the most interesting part of the trip. You know how in stories about witches, you hear them say that make potions out of, “A tail of rat, a scale of snake, a lizard’s nose…” Well this is where those witches went shopping…

Every kind of animal head, butt, or arm was available for purchase here.

Boars, leopards, horses, armadillo looking things, snakes, birds, grass cutters (basically giant rats), hedge hogs, literally anything you could think of was there.

Then the boys who were running the fetish stand brought out the live animals.. first a pair of snow white owls, which Sarah contemplated trying to free, but decided against it. They just looked so sad in their little cage. But we did get to play with the cutest chameleon ever! He was sooo tiny. Can you see him?

Here, you can see him better in this one….

and this one…


That was close to the end of our tour! After several history lessons and putting little Mr. Chameleon on our faces, we jumped in a cab and headed back to Cotonou and Porto Novo! More to come soon!


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  1. Joe Kempin says:

    That is something else. Thankz.

  2. JJ Martin says:

    Darling chameleon! I think that should be your new profile pic.
    This adventure was fascinating. Thinking of cooking Olive makes me cry.
    Keep on sending the great stories!

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