While the concept of the gris-gris is indigenous to Voodoo in the Benin region of Africa, the word is not. Originally spelled as “gre-gre” it derives from the Mande language groups a little to the north of Benin in what is today Senegal and Mali. With the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, it has become integrated into the Voodoo lexicon, especially in Louisiana.
The gris-gris are both the physical objects that used (such as gris-gris bags, Voodoo dolls, love potions, etc.) and the verbal invocations that are made to effect the magical properties of Voodoo. There are an infinite variety of gris-gris and no “how to” text can every accurately or completely encompass all the formulas and petitions. Most are inspired by the spirits through whom the Voodoo Queen or Doctor is working, and are very individual. In working, the inanimate object often becomes, or is inhabited by the spirit. The gris-gris are usually used for mattes of love, finance, luck, legal matters or to uncross a hex.
In purely academic terms there are two types of gris-gris magic. In the first case, called sympathetic magic, the object is made to look like or identify with the target person. In the later case, called homeopathic magic, the object is attached to something intimately linked to the target person (such as a lock of hair, or piece of their clothing).
The area between the Senegal and Niger Rivers in present day Senegal and Mali is dominated by the Bambara peoples. These people were specifically selected by the French for export to Louisiana because of their intelligence; loyalty and experience with the cultivation of rice. Upon arrival in Louisiana they were noted for being unwilling to part with their small fetish charms. Consequently, the practice of gris-gris predated the formal introduction of Voodoo and apparently caused it to become a primary aspect of the practice of Voodoo in New Orleans.
At the point where a gris-gris is used with out invoking or involving the Voodoo spirits, the practice is no longer religious, but superstitious. This apostate practice is often called Hoodoo
There are certain terms that are closely related to gris-gris. They include he following.
Gris-Gris: either an object or an incantation used to make magic, probably from the Mande language.
Goofer: an object used to make magic, associated with the dead, from the Congo.
Hudu: an object used to make magic, not becoming a spirit, from the Ewe of Togoland.
Ju-Ju: an object containing the elements of a living thing used to make magic, also a type of ghost or soul, associated with the Ibo of southern Nigeria.
Mojo: an object used to make magic, usually good, from the Congo.
Ouanga: an object used to make magic, often evil, associated with the Congo.
Toby: an object used to make magic, usually good.
Zinzin: an object or an incantation used to make magic, synonymous with gris-gris, from the Bambara.
Vudu: not an object, the sprits.