“The gregories bee things of great esteem amongst them, for the most part they are made of leather of severall fashions, wonderous neatly, they are hollow, and within them is placed, and sowed up close, certaine writings, or spels which they receive from their Mary-buckes, whereof they conceive such a religious respect, that they do confidently believe no hurt can betide them whilst these gregories are about them." ~ Richard Jobson, 1623
One of the most misunderstood traditions from New Orleans Voodoo is that of gris gris. The majority of little bags most folks sell on the internet touted as gris gris I can guarantee you have not been made according to proper protocol or understanding. More than likely, they are assembled like a mojo bag, a similar yet, distinct practice. Most of the time, the term gris gris is mispronounced (please . . . the “s” is silent!).
Gris gris (pronounced gree-gree) is a term used to describe the type of religiomagical system practiced by folks in the New Orleans Voodoo tradition. According to the New Orleans Voodoo Museum, the etymology of the word gris gris (gerregerys) derives from the Mande language groups a little to the north of Benin in what are today Senegal and Mali. With the transatlantic slave trade, the term became part of the Louisiana Voodoo lexicon. With its pronunciation so close to the French word gris meaning “gray,” and given the influence of French on the language and culture in New Orleans, it stands to reason that this is why gris gris is commonly translated as “gray gray.” And because gray denotes that which is between black and white, it also refers to the kinds of ingredients used in the creation of gris gris.
The term gris gris, like the word hoodoo, is a noun and a verb. The gris gris is the magick and the act of creating the charm, which can be in the form of a bag, doll, or powder (among other things). The person doing the gris gris is often called a gris gris man or woman. The resulting object is essentially a portable charm, prayer, or spell. As I explain it in my book, Voodoo Dolls in Magick and Ritual, gris gris is a form of talismanic magick and is based on principles of sympathetic and contagious magic. In the case of sympathetic magic, an object is created in the likeness of the person for whom the gris gris is intended. Most commonly, this type of gris gris is in the form of a doll. Contagious magick occurs when something belonging to the person for whom the gris gris is intended is added to the gris gris, such as a lock of hair, fingernails, or a piece of clothing. The personal item provides a magical link from the physical to the spiritual world of the person; thus, the gris gris is believed to influence that person’s life in a very specific way.
In the New Orleans tradition, there’s a gris gris for anything and everything. I was always taught that gris gris is whatever mixture of herbs and common household ingredients you concoct and whatever words you write and speak for whatever situation that arises. Gris gris can be a combination of powdered minerals, herbs, graveyard dust, roots, bones, and sacred words and seals written on paper with magickal ink. It can be used as a powder thrown in the path of an enemy, in an amulet or gris gris bag, in a doll, mixed with water and drunk, or used in a magickal bath. In the distant past, gris gris even included lethal powders and poisons. Whatever the form and method of deployment, gris gris is a complete religiomagical system that has remained relatively intact in New Orleans as it came from Africa by the first Senegambian slaves in the early 1720s. This makes it not only a unique characteristic of New Orleans Voodoo, but also an important aspect of New Orleans cultural history.
Between 1726 and 1731, thirteen slave ships arrived in French Louisiana; all but one from Senegambia. The others were from the Congo region and Benin (including Whydah, where the serpent aspect of the New Orleans Voodoo religion originates). Many of the major crops grown in Louisiana in the eighteenth century were brought from the Senegal valley—rice, corn, cotton, indigo, peas, and tobacco, to name a few. While the Africans learned much from the Native Americans about local botany and healing herbs, many of them, especially the Bambaran males, possessed knowledge of the plants, herbs, and roots, and knew how to create poisons, charms, amulets, and wangas (Hall, 1992). All of the introduced plants were integrated into Louisiana commerce and Cajun and Creole cuisine, as well as in gris gris magick and the New Orleans Voodoo hoodoo formulary. The popular myth that the Africans knew nothing of the botany of the region is debunked by historical evidence.
Some of the Africans who came to Louisiana were actually Muslim, and their religious leaders, called marabouts, made their living in Africa by teaching children and making gris gris. Even today, one can find folks wearing gris gris as a sort of amulet that is prepared by the marabout among the Senegalese. It is typically worn around the neck on a leather cord, around the waist in cases of infertility, and around the head, arms, and ankles according to the purpose of the gris gris. It is contained in elaborately etched or plain leather pouches that have either handsewn or handwritten text from the Koran inside them along with special numbers with mystical meanings. They are blessed with holy water and specific prayers are said over them before they are given to the wearer (Walter & Fridman, 2004). The marabout directs energy released through the spoken word towards a specific end. This energy is consequently attached to the gris gris amulet which may be held in secret or displayed publicly.
In terms of ethnicity, most (but not all) of the slaves who arrived in Louisiana were Bambara, a Mande people with a strong tradition of oral history. The Bambara resisted Islam and maintained their traditional culture and religion. Among them were the official storytellers, who helped preserve their culture by passing on the myths and legends of their cosmology via oral tradition. Both Muslim and non-Muslim Africans, however, utilized gris gris as part of their religious systems.
References to gris gris used by New Orleans slaves can be found in historical documents dating from as early as 1734. It was observed that when the slaves arrived in Louisiana, they did not want to part with their fetishes, charms, and gris gris. Even as they settled into the camps located in what is now the Algiers section of New Orleans, many of their illnesses could only be cured by African and indigenous healers. Some colonists turned to the Africans for healing certain illnesses; other colonists accused slaves of poisoning their masters and various commanders of the colonies. While the courts would not allow for the “superstitions” of the Africans, they nonetheless punished those believed to be poisoners, stating “perhaps it is poisons that do all the damage attributed to sorcery” (Superior Council, 1729.).
Actually, the colonists had good reason to fear the African’s gris gris. It was routinely used as a weapon of war, as well as a protective defense. Because of the marabouts and their occult skills and military traditions, gris gris played an important role in numerous slave revolts as well as in the Haitian revolution (Diouf, 1998). One example of a gris gris poison was described by Dieterlen. Apparently, the Komo would dip the talons of a bird of prey into mud, snake venom, and ground copper. Even a small wound from talons covered with this mixture was reputed to cause death. Wade Davis and Bernard Diederich confirm that slaves in St.Domingue (now Haiti) and New Orleans made lethal powders from animal and plant matter during the eighteenth century. And yes, the powders were consumed by unsuspecting victims (Davis, 1983; Diederich, 1983).
There are a couple of other things to consider about gris gris and why things are done a certain way when it comes to its practice. Numbers and colors are significant. A person skilled in the gris gris tradition is knowledgeable in other occult arts such as numerology, divination, geomancy, astrology, and astronomy. When making gris gris charms, for example, you don’t just put any number of things into it (as some purport to do with mojo bags). Everything goes into a gris gris for a purpose, and that purpose is closely related to the original Bambara cosmology and/or Islamic tradition. The number three, for example, is the minimum number of ingredients in a gris gris charm. According to traditional Bambara cosmology, the number three represents the male aspect (two testicles and a penis), while the number four represents the female (the four lips). The number seven is the perfect number, because it signifies the androgynous unity of the male and female principles. According to Islamic tradition, the number five refers to the Five Pillars, the five prayers, and the five holy persons (Mohammed, Aliu, Fatima, Hasan, and Useyn). The latter is often written to resemble an outspread hand, with each name on a finger, as a gris gris that protects against the evil eye (Diouf, 1998).
Let’s take a look at the personal effects that are utilized in gris gris: hair, fingernails, and so on. Hair is not just a “personal effect;” it holds a much deeper significance when it comes to working gris gris. Hair represents an important part of the soul called ni. When you take a piece of a person’s hair and work gris gris with it, you are working with a sympathetic link to that person’s soul. Cowry shells are significant because they were not only used as currency and decoration, but are sacred today because they come from the deep waters from the bed of Faro, the androgynous water spirit whose job it was to reinstate harmony between the sexes. This reverence to the earth as Mother and sacredness is one of many beliefs that were held in common by the Africans and the Native Americans.
The importance of the materials used to write the words of power, seals, or symbols used in gris gris should not be underestimated. The marabout traveled the world in order to obtain the paper and ink that was required for transcribing words of power into their gris gris. Sometimes these words of power were deliberately written illegibly so that their secrets could be preserved. The prayers however, were - and still are - recited over and over for a prescribed number of times to keep the charm charged. Sometimes the material in which the charm is made and the time of day in which the verses are recited is significant. For example, one gris gris charm referred to as Aa'maal for Safety from Magic is required to be written on the hide of a deer and sewn in a packet and kept on the person to be safe from the evil conjures of others. Another traditional charm is to be written on a piece of paper and recited after sunset for protection from harmful animals like snakes and scorpions as well as from thieves and devils.
Over time, the number of marabouts diminished and the Arabic writing system was lost in New Orleans. Today, the adoption of the use of magickal alphabets in the gris gris of New Orleans as a means of cloaking petitions may have developed as the influence of European magic increased. New Orleans has a rich history of what is referred to by natives as Old New Orleans Witchcraft, and though it is a separate tradition, like everything else in New Orleans there is some overlap that has occurred and the incorporation of magical alphabets is a good example of this phenomenon.
The multitudes of enslaved Africans from the Kongo (called Bakongo) brought with them other spiritual and graphic communication in the form of symbols and traditional graphic writing systems. Over time, these writing systems were reconstructed through the Diaspora experience and may have also replaced the written Arabic texts. The creation of gris gris can entail the “calling down” of the spirit into the charm through the use of ritual symbols in conjunction with words of power. The vévés found in Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo draw upon cultural components of both Vodún in Benin and Togo and the Kongo in West and central Africa. Vévés are drawn as conduits through which the powers of the various Voodoo spirits are manifested in ritual. Vévés are often drawn and added to gris gris or drawn on the ground or other surface and the charm laid upon the symbol when the assistance of specific spirits are needed. In this way, the gris gris is made on the point of that specific spirit.
ReferencesDavis, W. (1983). On the Pharmacology of Black Magic, Caribbean Review, XII, Summer.
Diederich, B. (1983). On the Nature of Zombie Existence, Caribbean Review, XII, Summer.
Diouf, S. A. (1998). Servants of Allah: African Muslims enslaved in the Americas. New York: NYU Press.
Hall, G. M. (1993). Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press.
Walter, M.N., Fridman, E. (2004).Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, Volume 1, ABC-CLIO.
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