Voodoo In The Modern World: A Gris-Gris Love Story
I got my gris-gris bag during a rough time in my life. Even though I was applying to jobs all over town, no one was calling back and my bills were bearing down on me like a freight train. Being low on funds was nothing new, but I’d always been able to find a job before. As my desperation kicked in and I started googling how much kidneys were going for these days, my sister suggested we go downtown to the witch shop. Now, of course, you don’t know my sister but she’s not the kind of person to suggest such a thing. I was intrigued, to say the least.
We pulled up in front of a teeny tiny shop that used to be a teeny tiny house. It seemed to be just big enough for one person to live very cozily with their cat, so pretty much perfect as far as witch shop locations go. Jars filled with dark liquids hung in the window and runes and odd symbols decorated the door and window ledge. Inside, though it was noon and hotter than hell outside, the store was dark and cool. Most of the light came from candles or strings of Christmas lights. Glass jars filled with herbs lined an entire wall. Pendulums hung from the skull of some horned animal and the musty smell of patchouli was everywhere. A hundred different kinds of incense and oils sat near the register, which itself was covered in more symbols and lined with little stones. In the back of the store, a massive altar sat where customers could leave offerings. Cigarettes, little figurines, and even hair were set out on the altar and before it, witches worked silently at a round wooden table: Grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle, mixing things in large ceramic bowls, tying cords around bundles of sage…
In the front of the shop, under the shop’s only window, was a table filled with small baskets of different stones. This is where I headed first. The stones were warm from sitting in the sun and picked up the light like little jewels. Though I didn’t know any correspondences at the time, certain stones drew me in more than others and as I read their carefully handwritten descriptions, I realized I had gathered stones possessing qualities important to me, and stones that seemed designed to help me in my current hopeless state. Jasper for luck, aventurine and pyrite for money… It was so exciting in a way I can’t describe.
Everything about the shop just felt like home, and while other customers came in and gasped at the skull or absently picked up tarot decks and giggled with their friends, nothing about this place felt like a tourist pit stop to me. That’s when I noticed there were other things on the table with the stones: Many small, neatly tied bags.
A piece of decorative paper next to the bags told me they were gris-gris bags, and each one had a specific purpose. They were scented like sachets of potpourri, tied with different colored strings and seemed to hold sand or very fine powder. There was something else in the bag I held, something solid, and I figured I’d open it up and find out what it was when I got home. A little mystery!
When I was ready to check out, I handed my stones to the owner of the shop and she inspected each one, commented on their colors and patterns, then she looked up and asked me if I was having money troubles.
“Yeah, maybe because I spend it on rocks instead of food,” I said. She didn’t think this was very funny, but any awkwardness evaporated when I handed her the gris-gris bag I’d chosen.
“Hmm,” she said, “do you know how to take care of a gris-gris?”
“You mean you don’t just pop it on the shelf?”
She shook her head quickly and explained that gris-gris bags are like spirits, like friends, and they have to be well taken care of to work for you. You should do things like play your gris-gris music, carry it with you in your pocket, and most importantly, once a week, light some incense as an offering for your gris-gris. She said this with such sincerity, I didn’t even make a stupid joke. In fact, I was almost instantly absorbed by this new information — it played to my nature perfectly. She showed me some incense and I added that to my purchases, and when she bagged my items, she was careful to hand me the gris-gris. Already, this little bag was extra special. It didn’t go in a paper bag; I was to carry it.
I was vigilant about taking care of my gris-gris. I lit the incense exactly as the witch had described. I played music for the gris-gris every Thursday. Eventually, things started to turn around for me and when I began getting calls for interviews, I upped the ante. I added a candle to the weekly ritual and put the stones I’d purchased around the gris-gris. When I got a job, the gris-gris got two or three figurines — like the ones I’d seen on the altar at the witch shop.
Over time, this weekly ritual grew, totally by accident, into my first altar. I’d already read all about gris-gris bags online, but I started reading about sigils, too, and correspondences and then everything else in this wonderful, secret world of witchcraft. As you can imagine, my gris-gris is very precious to me (after all these years, I still have my first and only one!) and without it, this world might have stayed closed to me forever. Not to mention, the gris-gris worked like a charm!
The gris-gris bag traces its origins to West Africa. Born of the influences of Muslim scholars, healers, and mystics, the gris-gris bag was absorbed into African cultures, which shaped and transformed the talisman according to local beliefs and customs. Originally, a gris-gris may have consisted of a folded piece of paper with an inscription from the Quran, written in special ink, with meaningful numbers, words, and symbols in a grid. This piece of paper was folded and tied with string and placed in a leather pouch to be worn on the body or affixed to a meaningful location. Where the gris-gris was worn (neck, waist, or limbs) or placed usually related to the gris-gris’ purpose; protection, health, wealth, and social harmony all required different placement. If, for instance, you wished for someone to fall in love with you, you might wrap your gris-gris in meat and feed it to a female dog.
When slaves were brought from West Africa to the United States, many of their customs were imbued with Christian and West Indian influences as well, particularly with voodoo practitioners in Louisiana. Slaves living in unspeakably cruel bondage turned to voodoo and hoodoo for help in matters of protection, healing, and cursing their masters. Through the years, the gris-gris bags’ contents became more complex, while still adhering to important religious protocol — such as maintaining only a certain number of objects and including objects with specific symbolism (bones, powders, roots, etc), all depending on the gris-gris bag’s intended purpose.
Voodoo blossomed in Louisiana (today hailed as the voodoo capital of America), and New Orleans in particular, and gris-gris bags were (and are still) an important part of the religious practice. A few voodoo practitioners, such as Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, became renowned for their skill and were sought out by a racially diverse clientele. Laveau made a living working hoodoo for clients, including making and selling gris-gris bags as part of her love, luck, and protection spells. Gamblers hedged their bets with gris-gris bags filled with good-luck tokens such as shark’s teeth and dove’s blood.
Those wishing to ‘put a gris-gris bag’ on someone for revenge, or to banish them, were regular visitors. Their bags’ ingredients were thrown at the person or left at their home. Imagine stepping outside and catching a gris-gris bag in the face! You would know the spirits were aligning against you and it was possibly time to make a trip to Madame Laveau’s yourself. If a person really wanted to harm another, Madame Laveau would make a gris-gris bag from a death shroud and fill it with things like one-eyed toads, a rooster’s heart, and a suicide victim’s pinky finger.
How To Make A Gris-Gris: Whoops!
Because I am not an initiated practitioner, I don’t have the knowledge required to pass instructions onto you. It’s not simply a matter of putting corresponding things into a bag, not by a long shot. Many gris-gris tutorials online and gris-gris bags for sale these days are actually mojo bags, which is a similar practice but not, in fact, the same as a traditional gris-gris. When crafting a gris-gris, many things are specifically considered, and practitioners who have this knowledge are also masters in studies like history, cosmology, astrology, numerology, color symbolism, etc. — all of which is crucial in the assembly of a true gris-gris.
Everything is specially chosen with a reason in mind (even the paper and ink) and those reasons have deep Islamic and African roots. This is knowledge that must be preserved and passed on, but not information most people should take from a random online tutorial. So, it’s important to remember that not just anyone can make a gris-gris, and the history and culture that this tradition belongs to should be shown respect.
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by SL Bear
I grew up in the Sonoran desert, then moved to Colorado where I spent my 20s and early 30s morphing into an adult in the shadow of the Rockies. My life has been a quilt of extraordinary landscapes and wild terrain, and I have seen some beautiful, impossible things. I credit this upbringing for my ability to see beyond the regular day-to-day, and find the hidden magic that is ignored by so many. I work mainly with art, sigils, candles, stones, weather, and moods. With my articles, I will always try to be positive and find ways to bring new experiences and new ways to practice a craft we all love so dearly. I hope you enjoy.