Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Gris-Gris Charm

An African gris-gris charm in leather wrapping.
The gris-gris or “Gregory bag” originated as an African charm and the word itself is of Mande origin. It is sometimes rumored that the word means “grey-grey” due to the French word for grey being gris, but the sound-alike is coincidental. The original gris-gris were seemingly made primarily out of verses from the Koran, chosen for specific purposes and carried on the person. The Koran is believed by tradition to be the literal word of God, and so for a Muslim its verses would make a potent charm indeed. A French account of the gris-gris dating to the year 1714 notes that in addition to the Koranic verses there were also Figures Negromanciennes (‘black magic symbols’) being used.* No rituals were performed in the making of the gris-gris -- the mere knowledge of how to write the necessary prayers (which were always in Arabic, not in the native language) was considered a special and powerful skill all its own. Once the rite was Americanized and thereby Christianized, Bible verses sometimes took the place of the old Koran segments. Images of Catholic saints were also popular New World filler. This then aligned itself with some European grimoire tradition, and magical seals and talismans from works like The 6th and 7th Books of Moses and The Black Pullet came to be included in the American gris-gris once literacy made them accessible. Voodoo veves and folk talismans influenced by them also have documentation in the gris-gris.
A handwritten gris-gris charm paper, 18th century.

During the 20th century, the separate magical traditions of the mojo and the gris-gris merged into one, and the modern gris-gris usually tends to have contents which are herbal or mineral in nature like a mojo. A modern gris-gris specimen recently purchased in New Orleans contained only polished gemstones. Many sources for how to make a gris-gris now say it needs to be dressed or fed like a mojo. It should be noted that the mojo was originally conceived as containing a living spirit, thus the need to be cared for as a living creature; contrarily, the gris-gris by tradition is not living but merely a vehicle through which divine power is harnessed, and so does not need special maintenance. 
An account from the 1770s says that leather, cloth and animal horn were typical casings for African gris-gris. Multi-colored scraps of cloth are typically the way gris-gris charms are wrapped in America today.
It’s of note that the word gris-gris in the present day is sometimes applied to other items, including mojos. Some folks even use it as a term to refer to any magical item. I recall walking around in a Parisian suburb called Maisons-Laffitte, and a Frenchman inquired en français about the lucky rabbit’s foot I had dangling off my backpack (evidently not a familiar custom in that country); I wasn’t sure what word to use to describe its purpose as a hoodoo talisman, and after hearing me stumbling over vocabulary for a few moments, the man suggested it was a gris-gris.

*Godefroy Loyer, Relation du Voyage du Royaume d’Issyny.

1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent post. I like that you differentiate between the gris-gris and the mojo -- something that very few practitioners seem aware of!


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