The modern gris-gris is viewed similarly to a mojo -- sometimes the words are even synonymous. Generally the gris-gris one finds in the United States today are either miniature mojo hands made with herbs wrapped in cloth or leather, or else decorated balls filled similarly, meant to be hung up in a house. A popular folk-etymology is that the word means "gray-gray" because it exists in a halfway point between black and white magic; another explanation is that it refers to the color of old-style herbal mixtures. However, research indicates the similarity to the French gris (gray) seems to be coincidental -- merely an effort to transcribe a native African word according to French spelling rules, apparently having been first introduced to Europe through the works of Le Maire in 1695.
The earliest gris-gris were something rather different than the modern herb charms -- something much more specific. The 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica gives an entry on the word:
Grisgris: a superstition greatly in vogue among the negroes in the interior parts of Africa. The grisgris, according to Le Maire, are certain Arabic characters mixed with magical figures drawn by the Marabuts or priests upon paper. Labat affirms, that they are nothing else than scraps of the alcoran (Koran) in Arabic ; but this is denied by Barbot, who brought over one of these grisgris to Europe, and showed it to a number of persons deeply skilled in oriental learning. None of these could find the least trace of any character they understood. Yet, after all, this might be owing to the badness of the hand writing ; and these words are probably of the Mandingo language, though the characters are an attempt to imitate the Arabic. The poorest negro never goes to war without his grisgris, as a charm against wounds ; and if it proves ineffectual, the priest transfers the blame on the immorality of his conduct. These priests invent grisgris against all kinds of dangers, and in favour of all desires and appetites ; by virtue of which the possessors may obtain or avoid whatever they like or dislike. They defend them from storms, enemies, diseases, pains, and misfortunes ; and preserve health, long life, wealth, honour, and merit, according to the Marabuts. No clergy in the world are more honoured and revered by the people than these impostors are by the negroes ; nor are any people in the world more impoverished by their priests than these negroes are, a grisgris being frequently sold at three slaves and four or five oxen. The grisgris intended for the head is made in the form of a cross, reaching from the forehead to the neck behind, and from ear to ear ; nor are the arms and shoulders neglected. Sometimes they are planted in their bonnets in the form of horns ; at other times, they are formed like serpents, lizards, or some other animals, out of a kind of pasteboard, etc. There are not wanting Europeans, and otherwise intelligent seamen and merchants, who are in some degree infected with this, weakness of the country, and believe that the negro sorcerers have an actual communication with the devil ; and that they are filled with a malignant influence of that evil spirit, when they see them distort their features and muscles, making horrid grimaces, and at last imitate all the appearance of epileptics.
^ An 18th century grisgris preserved in Philadelphia.
The gris-gris is specifically the verse from the Koran, which then is usually wrapped in a particular way as recommended by the maker -- leather or cloth appear to be most common, but metal coverings are also known. Gris-gris are still used in Africa today. Some interesting information can be found at this site, describing modern use of African gris-gris -- they are worn around the neck, or hung in the house, or sometimes the writing is washed off into a bowl of water and drunk. The Koran verse is the only element -- they don't seem to use any other ingredients beyond this. Muslims believe the Koran to be the direct word of God, so the power attributed to it is understandable. One popular (though lengthy) section of the Koran, which is believed to ward off many misfortunes when recited, is the Surah Yasin:
[36.1] Ya Seen.
[36.2] I swear by the Quran full of wisdom
[36.3] Most surely you are one of the apostles
[36.4] On a right way.
[36.5] A revelation of the Mighty, the Merciful.
[36.6] That you may warn a people whose fathers were not warned, so they are heedless.
[36.7] Certainly the word has proved true of most of them, so they do not believe.
[36.8] Surely We have placed chains on their necks, and these reach up to their chins, so they have their heads raised aloft.
[36.9] And We have made before them a barrier and a barrier behind them, then We have covered them over so that they do not see.
[36.10] And it is alike to them whether you warn them or warn them not: they do not believe.
[36.11] You can only warn him who follows the reminder and fears the Beneficent God in secret; so announce to him forgiveness and an honorable reward.
[36.12] Surely We give life to the dead, and We write down what they have sent before and their footprints, and We have recorded everything in a clear writing.
[36.13] And set out to them an example of the people of the town, when the messengers came to it.
[36.14] When We sent to them two, they rejected both of them, then We strengthened (them) with a third, so they said: Surely we are messengers to you.
[36.15] They said: You are naught but mortals like ourselves, nor has the Beneficent God revealed anything; you only lie.
[36.16] They said: Our Lord knows that we are most surely messengers to you.
[36.17] And nothing devolves on us but a clear deliverance (of the message).
[36.18] They said: Surely we augur evil from you; if you do not desist, we will certainly stone you, and there shall certainly afflict vou a painful chastisement from us.
[36.19] They said: Your evil fortune is with you; what! if you are reminded! Nay, you are an extravagant people.
[36.20] And from the remote part of the city there came a man running, he said: O my people! follow the messengers;
[36.21] Follow him who does not ask you for reward, and they are the followers of the right course;
[36.22] And what reason have I that I should not serve Him Who brought me into existence? And to Him you shall be brought back;
[36.23] What! shall I take besides Him gods whose intercession, If the Beneficent God should desire to afflict me with a harm, shall not avail me aught, nor shall they be able to deliver me?
[36.24] In that case I shall most surely be in clear error:
[36.25] Surely I believe in your Lord, therefore hear me.
[36.26] It was said: Enter the garden. He said: O would that my people had known
[36.27] Of that on account of which my Lord has forgiven me and made me of the honored ones!
[36.28] And We did not send down upon his people after him any hosts from heaven, nor do We ever send down.
[36.29] It was naught but a single cry, and lo! they were still.
[36.30] Alas for the servants! there comes not to them an apostle but they mock at him.
[36.31] Do they not consider how many of the generations have We destroyed before them, because they do not turn to them?
[36.32] And all of them shall surely be brought before Us.
[36.33] And a sign to them is the dead earth: We give life to it and bring forth from it grain SQ they eat of it.
[36.34] And We make therein gardens of palms and grapevines and We make springs to flow forth in it,
[36.35] That they may eat of the fruit thereof, and their hands did not make it; will they not then be grateful?
[36.36] Glory be to Him Who created pairs of all things, of what the earth grows, and of their kind and of what they do not know.
[36.37] And a sign to them is the night: We draw forth from it the day, then lo! they are in the dark;
[36.38] And the sun runs on to a term appointed for it; that is the ordinance of the Mighty, the Knowing.
[36.39] And (as for) the moon, We have ordained for it stages till it becomes again as an old dry palm branch.
[36.40] Neither is it allowable to the sun that it should overtake the moon, nor can the night outstrip the day; and all float on in a sphere.
[36.41] And a sign to them is that We bear their offspring in the laden ship.
[36.42] And We have created for them the like of it, what they will ride on.
[36.43] And if We please, We can drown them, then there shall be no succorer for them, nor shall they be rescued
[36.44] But (by) mercy from Us and for enjoyment till a time.
[36.45] And when it is said to them: Guard against what is before you and what is behind you, that mercy may be had on you.
[36.46] And there comes not to them a communication of the communications of their Lord but they turn aside from it.
[36.47] And when it is said to them: Spend out of what Allah has given you, those who disbelieve say to those who believe: Shall we feed him whom, if Allah please, He could feed? You are in naught but clear error.
[36.48] And they say: When will this threat come to pass, if you are truthful?
[36.49] They wait not for aught but a single cry which will overtake them while they yet contend with one another.
[36.50] So they shall not be able to make a bequest, nor shall they return to their families.
[36.51] And the trumpet shall be blown, when lo ! from their graves they shall hasten on to their Lord.
[36.52] They shall say: O woe to us! who has raised us up from our sleeping-place? This is what the Beneficent God promised and the apostles told the truth.
[36.53] There would be naught but a single cry, when lo ! they shall all be brought before Us;
[36.54] So this day no soul shall be dealt with unjustly in the least; and you shall not be rewarded aught but that which you did.
[36.55] Surely the dwellers of the garden shall on that day be in an occupation quite happy.
[36.56] They and their wives shall be in shades, reclining on raised couches.
[36.57] They shall have fruits therein, and they shall have whatever they desire.
[36.58] Peace: a word from a Merciful Lord.
[36.59] And get aside today, O guilty ones!
[36.60] Did I not charge you, O children of Adam ! that you should not serve the Shaitan? Surely he is your open enemy,
[36.61] And that you should serve Me; this is the right way.
[36.62] And certainly he led astray numerous people from among you. What! could you not then understand?
[36.63] This is the hell with which you were threatened.
[36.64] Enter into it this day because you disbelieved.
[36.65] On that day We will set a seal upon their mouths, and their hands shall speak to Us, and their feet shall bear witness of what they earned.
[36.66] And if We please We would certainly put out their eyes, then they would run about groping for the way, but how should they see?
[36.67] And if We please We would surely transform them in their place, then they would not be able to go on, nor will they return.
[36.68] And whomsoever We cause to live long, We reduce (him) to an abject state in constitution; do they not then understand?
[36.69] And We have not taught him poetry, nor is it meet for him; it is nothing but a reminder and a plain Quran,
[36.70] That it may warn him who would have life, and (that) the word may prove true against the unbelievers.
[36.71] Do they not see that We have created cattle for them, out of what Our hands have wrought, so they are their masters?
[36.72] And We have subjected them to them, so some of them they have to ride upon, and some of them they eat.
[36.73] And therein they have advantages and drinks; will they not then be grateful?
[36.74] And they have taken gods besides Allah that they may be helped.
[36.75] (But) they shall not be able to assist them, and they shall be a host brought up before them.
[36.76] Therefore let not their speech grieve you; surely We know what they do in secret and what they do openly.
[36.77] Does not man see that We have created him from the small seed? Then lo! he is an open disputant.
[36.78] And he strikes out a likeness for Us and forgets his own creation. Says he: Who will give life to the bones when they are rotten?
[36.79] Say: He will give life to them Who brought them into existence at first, and He is cognizant of all creation
[36.80] He Who has made for you the fire (to burn) from the green tree, so that with it you kindle (fire).
[36.81] Is not He Who created the heavens and the earth able to create the like of them? Yea! and He is the Creator (of all), the Knower.
[36.82] His command, when He intends anything, is only to say to it: Be, so it is.
[36.83] Therefore glory be to Him in Whose hand is the kingdom of all things, and to Him you shall be brought back.
I've read of this verse being used to render one safe from enemies, and cure sadness, illness and pain. Other shorter verses used for protection include:
- Our Lord! We have wronged our souls: If You do not forgive us and bestow upon us Your mercy, then we shall certainly be from amongst the losers.
- My Lord! I seek protection from the prompting of the Devils; and my Lord! I seek your protection from them approaching me.
- Allah is our Lord and your Lord. For us is our works and for you is your works. There are no arguments between us and you. Allah will bring us together.
These are, interestingly, similar to many of the protective methods used in books like Pow-Wows or the Long Lost Friend (most of which I quoted in Voodoo Conjure.) Even in cultures and religions which disapprove of the use of magic, using protective magic is considered an exception, at least by regular practitioners (often the clergy still have other opinions.) Virtually all the early accounts of gris-gris say they were for protection of some type, rather than luck-drawing or jinx-making amulets.
One sometimes finds in Hyatt's hoodoo spells, mojo hands made containing Bible verses -- perhaps replacing the Koran verses of old African gris-gris.
While a gris-gris was usually made by a holy man of some type, it does not appear that there was any other ceremony about the creation of the verse other than possibly reciting it aloud. Likely the holy men were simply the ones who knew how to write and also knew verses from the Koran from memory to be written. Interestingly, some old gris-gris have been fond, such as the one mentioned in the above encyclopedia outtake, that seem to have either been written by fraudsters or simply by people who didn't know enough Arabic to write out the verse and tried to do their best with something else; the result was supposed gris-gris with "strange designs." This might promote the using of magical seals or sigils in a modernized-old-fasioned gris-gris.
The Voodoo Museum suggests the term gris-gris might be Mandé in origin, while mojo is Congolese. Nevertheless, the Congolese concept seems to have usurped the making of a gris-gris, eliminating its Mandé-Islamic origins from practice.