Voodoo continues to hold a fascination for tourists and filmmakers alike. Even Disney got on board with The Princess and the Frog. Voodoo dolls are an obvious choice, but the gris gris bag is sometimes forgotten.
These amulets can heal, help, or harm, and their sale boosted the business of voodoo queens in Louisiana. You’re most likely to find readymade bags in New Orleans gift shops. But what are gris gris bags?
Let’s have a look at these fascinating items to see what they are, and if they’re misunderstood.
The History of the Gris Gris Bag
Pronounced ‘gree-gree’, the term is both a noun and a verb. Gris gris refers to both the making of the charm and the charm itself.
Some practitioners even consider gris gris to be a magical system in itself.
They can be confused with mojo bags. But they contain a range of ingredients, with some practitioners including minerals, roots, herbs, seals written on paper, and even graveyard dust.
Early gris gris bags have been traced back to Africa, particularly Ghana and Senegal. Adorned with Islamic scripture, the bags warded off bad luck and evil spirits. Surprisingly, both believers and non-believers used the bags. Both worn and attached to buildings, the bags seemed to appeal to a common belief in djinn.
Some of the Africans were Muslims, which explains the links between Koran texts and gris gris. The marabouts, or religious leaders, still make protective amulets using texts from the Koran and prayers.
Arabic was lost over time, but magical alphabets became popular. Using seemingly illegible symbols is an easy way to hide your magical intentions.
Gris gris makes its first appearance in the New Orleans historical record in 1734. Practitioners of Voodoo adopted the bags, which are also common in the practice of Hoodoo. While many of the slaves used gris gris as a form of medicine, colonists feared the practice.
If you believe their reports, the bags became a force for evil, with slaves turning against the owners and using gris-gris for harm. That said, you do have to wonder how reliable the reports of such behaviour are. Chances are, the reports were written by plantation owners to discredit what they didn’t understand.
What goes into a gris gris bag?
In the original Arabic practice, practitioners recited prayers over the charms a set number of times. Even the time of day proved significant. If you Google gris gris bags, plenty of the links you’ll get back refer to Louisiana Voodoo.
According to tradition, the bags are made from leather, chamois, or red flannel. They’re simple drawstring affairs, measuring 2″ x 3″. Colour varies, depending on the practitioner’s specific need. Remember, like attracts like. (e.g. green for money, red for passion)
A range of ingredients goes into the bags. They include coins, stones, herbs, seals, personal effects, or crystals. All of them must be appropriate to the working at hand. There’s no use using tokens for money magic if you’re trying to heal a broken heart.
Don’t use less than 3 items or more than 13 – and you need an odd number. And make sure you write/draw the relevant petition or sigil on parchment to put inside the bag. Gamblers favoured lodestones or magnets in a red flannel bag.
So are they evil?
Like most magical endeavours, it all depends on the intention of the practitioner. Herbs, stones, and charms might charge the bag with healing or protective properties. You can find an article here about creating a bag to draw prosperity.
But The Mystica relates a myth about voodoo queen Marie Laveau. She allegedly used a corpse’s shroud to make a specific bad luck gris gris bag. All manner of nastiness went into the bag, including a dried lizard, a rooster’s heart and ‘the little finger of a black person who had committed suicide’. Nice.
That said, it’s worth bearing in mind that these reports were potentially created by white colonists. Is it possible that they overexaggerated the gris gris bag because they didn’t understand their new slaves? Or did they actually hold real power?
The bags can be used to heal or harm. But following the principles of Hoodoo, you need to be sure that what you’re doing is justified. Or it just won’t work. So if you’re thinking about making a bag to curse the guy that cut you up in traffic, you’re probably better off finding a more productive outlet for your road rage.
Don’t confuse gris gris bags with medicine bags. Worn by First Nation people in the Americas, the bags contain items unique to the wearer. As positive amulets for both tribal identity and personal well-being, they’re far from the same thing as gris gris.
Over to you! Do you think gris gris bags are evil, or just misunderstood?
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