They were originally dolls or images of the gods in the 1800s.
Today, most gris-gris are small cloth bags filled with herbs, stones, oils, small bones, hair and nail clippings, among others, that are gathered under the direction of a particular god to protect the wearer.
Essentially, gris-gris is a Voodoo amulet or talisman originating from Africa that is kept for good luck, spiritual protection or to ward off evil.
Being a part of early Islamic culture in West Africa, the gris-gris bag is usually inscribed with scriptures from the Qu’ran.
In some areas in Senegal, the gris-gris was and is still used by women as a form of contraception.
Though the origin of the word gris-gris is unclear, many scholars have traced it to juju, the West African name for a fetish or sacred object.
“Juju may be a European translation of the native expression grou-grou (hence gris-gris), or it may refer to the French word joujou, which meant ‘doll’ or ‘plaything.’ Most of the African fetishes were in the shape of dolls, and early Europeans on the African West Coast may have mistaken serious religious objects for innocent-looking poppets (see African Witchcraft),” writes Occult World.
Even though the practice of using gris-gris came from Africa, it was brought to America by enslaved Africans near Senegal and Mali in the 17th & 18th centuries. Soon, the practitioners of Voodoo adopted the practice.
During this period, the gris-gris was believed to have black magic powers used to put a spell on a person one disliked. As a matter of fact, scores of slaves used the gris-gris against their owners as some of the sacred objects can still be seen adorning their tombs.
One of the popular users of gris-gris was Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans in the 19th century.
Sources say that her gris-gris “contained bits of bone, colored stones, graveyard dust (also called goofer dust), salt and red pepper.”
“One of Marie Laveau’s more horrible wangas, or badluck charms, reputedly was a bag made from the shroud of a person who had been dead nine days. Into the bag went a dried, one-eyed Toad, the little finger of a black person who had committed suicide, a dried lizard, bat’s wings, a cat’s eyes, an owl’s liver and a rooster’s heart. If such a gris-gris were hidden in a victim’s pillow, the unfortunate would surely die,” writes Occult World.
In the 1800s, gris-gris was used interchangeably in Louisiana to mean both bewitch and a traditional amulet.
By 1932 when the Voodoo culture became popular after films were made about the gris-gris, the practice became associated with good luck and healing powers.
In New Orleans, where gris-gris are common, they are made to solve financial issues, attract love, protect the home, maintain good health, among others. “Even police officers have been known to carry gris-gris for protection,” according to Occult World.
A 1982 survey also showed that gris-gris were one of the top three methods of contraception known to women in Senegal.
“The effects of Gris-Gris are immediate,” according to California Astrology Association.
“Within twenty-four hours you could instinctively know that something has changed. You may experience a feeling of exuberance and enlightenment, and your outlook on life may be more positive, hopeful, and clearer.”