Bill Long 8/23/08
The Big Word of the Day
The OED lists the word under "greegree," though "grigri" is an alternative spelling, while the Century lists it as "grigri." The Collegiate lists it as "gris-gris," though listing "gri-gri" and "grigri" as variants. The Unabridged (3rd International) screws everything up in the following way. It gives the main word under "gris-gris," but then lists the five other variants, "gri-gri" and "gree-gree," as well as the non-hyphenated forms of these three words. So far, so good, even if confusing.
But then, the Unabridged has a separate entry for "gri-gri" which it says is a variant of "gru-gru." It lists "grigri" separately, however as a variant of "gris-gris." Confused yet? Well, everything would be all right if all the definitions agreed that a greegree or grigri was an "African charm, amulet, or fetish," but the Unabridged tells us that "gru-gru" is "any of several tropical American spiny palms..." I heave a bit of a sigh, not because the Unabridged is wrong, but because we see the fruit here of a non-standardized form of spelling.
Back to the Africa Amulet
But I, in fact, am interested in the African charm/amulet which I will call a grigri. The first appearance of the word in English, according to the OED, was in 1698:
"They wear about their Neck, Arms, and Legs, and even bind about their Horses, little leathern bags, which they call Grisgris, in which are enclosed certain Passages of the Alcoran (i.e., Koran)..to secure them from venemous Beasts."
The OED, which usually is helpful on giving precise etymological or geographical references, only says "African." But, we can be much more precise. The term arose from Western exploration of what is now Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia; nearby to what was formerly known as the Gold Coast of Africa. The evolution of terminology here is interesting. Early French explorers (of the 17th century; I will cite Jean Barbot below) learned the name of these amulets as grigri, but then, in the early 18th century, the Portuguese explorers coined a new word for them: fetishes.
The late 19th century British anthropologist Charles Keary, in his 1882 book Outlines of Primitive Belief Among the Indo-European Races [itself an interesting title. I think that people could only start calling others "primitives" when they saw themselves as "modern" people (when did that happen?; the OED lists the first attestation of the word "primitive" to denote "a person belonging to a preliterate, non-industrial society" as 1779, "The Haraforas, who seem to be the primitives of the island (New Guinea)"). Then they started using the word "primitive" to characterize the belief systems of other people]:
"Seeing that the native Africans likewise had their cherished amulets (their gri-gris) deemed by them sacred and magically powerful, the Portuguese called these by the same name of fetich," p. 32.
From Grigri to Fetish
Thus, a fetish (from the Portuguese word for "charm" or "sorcery") originally referred to an object, perhaps a bag which contained various small things, used by natives on the Guinea coast and neighboring regions as amulets. But, after the 1760 publication of Le Culte des Dieux Fetiches by early French anthropologist Charles de Brosses, the word fetish became used in a much broader sense: "An inanimate object worshipped by primitive peoples on account of its supposed magical powers, or as being animated by a spirit."
In this brief linguistic development we have a wonderful insight into the history of anthropology. First step: people (Europeans, that is) see a strange phenomenon in a far-off land. The phenomenon is seen in space and time in a particular place. In this case it is the grigri. Second: someone then writes a description of the people who wore the grigri, what precisely it consisted of, and the society in which the grigri-wearers lived. In this case, as I will indicate below, the Frenchman (who lived in England for a long time) Jean Barbot was among the first to have used the word grigri in his work to describe these amulets of Guinea Coast residents at the end of the 17th century.
Third: as the expansionist desire hit Europe big time in the 18th century, scholars caught the "bug" too, and decided to develop expansionist terminology to meet their broader ambitions. So, first the practice becomes "Europeanized" by our inventing a word familiar to us to describe the phenomenon. "Fetish" is the word. But then, in a fourth stage of development, we seek to universalize what is in fact particularized. So, what may have meant something specific in the Guinea and Gold Coast area (especially the notion of having verses of the Koran connected with the grigri) becomes generalized and applied to a phenomenon that some scholar thinks now is "universal." Individual variation is lost in the interest of European systematization. Just as the Europeans were stripping the natives at the at time of any semblance they had of their prior independence, so the anthropologists and scholars were stripping them of their language and then of the uniqueness of their practices.
The result of all this is that a phenomenon, which is supposed to become clearer as time goes on, is actually made more obscure. Students in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, most of them in their late teens or early 20s, read books about fetishes and the universal expression of "fetishism," memorize a few words, regurgitate the concepts back on an exam and, in fact, have learned nothing. In fact, they have learned less than nothing because they have been hoodwinked by scholarship into thinking that a thing called "fetishism" is somehow a universal phenomenon that probably was an "earlier stage" of "primitive religion" that we, in fact have left in the dust.
Everything, then, becomes understood as a sort of preliminary run-way or lead-up to our lives today. Our reading becomes a judgment rather than an illumination, a limiting of our perspectives rather than an enlarging of perspectives, an unhelpful series of generalizations rather than helpful specific knowledge. By the end of our education, then, our students really know nothing but are dangerous precisely because they think they know something. They think they know what fetishism is, but in fact it is only a term invented by some Portuguese guy in the 18th century to try to understand something before his eyes on the Guinea Coast of Africa. Textbooks and most scholarship, then, rather than affording a hyaline or transparent glass into another world, become nothing more than a sort of mirror, reflecting back on ourselves and our limited understanding of the world. My foray into the historical development of words can, to an extent, make us aware of the problem and perhaps keep us from plunging over into the abyss of false knowledge.
We are on a roll here, and I need another essay to finish this.