A fetish is an object believed to embody spirits or be inhabited by, or attached to, them. A fetish represents the spirits to its owner and creates a bond between the human and supernatural realms. Usually a doll or carved image, a fetish may also be an animal tooth, snake vertebrae, beautiful stones or even the hut where a witch doctor communes with his spirit guides. Fetishes are widely used in animistic religions. They are often worn as ornamental talismans or amulets, but they are not the same as traditional talismans or amulets, which do not carry inhabiting spirits.
“Fetish” derives either from the Latin factitius, “made by art,” or the Portuguese feitico, for “charm” or “sorcery.” The term usually is associated with the West African juju, meaning “sacred object.” Juju may be a European translation of the native expression grou-grou, or it may refer to the French word joujou, meaning a doll or plaything. Early European traders on the West African coast may have mistaken fetishes, which are sacred, for mere playthings. A slight variation of grou-grou is gris-gris, a modern term for a charm or talisman kept for good luck or to ward off evil.
Ancient Egyptian Fetishes
The ancient Egyptians, who practiced an animistic religion in pre- times, had numerous gods and goddesses of fetish origin, especially those associated with magic, luck, increase, health and life, fecundity and virility, childbirth and war. Egyptian animism was succeeded by magic cults and then cults of animals, birds and trees, the totemism and fetishism of which enabled the higher spirits to evolve into deities.
Africans captured for the slave trade brought their fetishes with them to the New World. Possession of a fetish, however, was punishable by torture and death. Not only were the fetishes graven images of a god other than the Christian one, they also represented tribal ways feared by white masters. Eventually, the slaves began carrying stones or small bags filled with herbs or oils for good luck, for such items were not seen as threatening. Most gris-gris today are made the same way.
In New Orleans, the traditional headquarters of American Vodoun, many persons, even some police officers, carry gris-gris bags for protection. Legends about the famous New Orleans Voodoo queen, MARIE LAVEAU, tell that her gris-gris contained bits of bone, colored stones, graveyard dust (also called “goofer dust”), salt and red pepper. More elaborate gris-gris might have been made of tiny birds’ nests or horsehair weavings. A red-flannel bag containing a lodestone, or magnet, was a favourite gris-gris for gamblers, sure to bring them good luck.
In Santería, the gris-gris bags are called resguardos, or “protectors.” A typical resguardo under the protection of the thunder god, Changó, might be made of red velvet and filled with herbs, spices, brown sugar, aloes and other ingredients and then stitched with red thread. Finally, the preparer attaches a tiny gold sword, the symbol of Saint Barbara (Changó’s image as a Catholic saint), and if the sword breaks, Changó has interceded on the owner’s behalf.
Gris-gris also can be used to cause someone else ill luck. Throwing a gris-gris bag filled with gunpowder and red pepper in someone’s path or on his doorstep supposedly makes that person get into a fight. Leaving a gris-gris at the front door tells a person he is out of favour with “the voodoos” and had better watch his step. Another term for gris-gris is “charm bag.”
Native American Fetishes
Fetishes are part of the traditions of various North American tribes. In some traditions, fetishes are owned individually, while in others they are primarily collective. The Crow and the Dakota, for example, have fetishes of societies of visionaries, while the Sauk and the Fox of Wisconsin have clan fetishes and the Pawnee of Nebraska have village fetishes. The Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society of the Great Lakes region, had a collective fetish of the sacred white shell, which empowered initiates.
The strongest fetish tradition has existed for centuries among the Pueblo, and particularly the Zuñi, the most ceremonial of the Pueblo. Zuñi fetishes are animals, birds and reptiles carved from stone or horn or made from shell; they are regarded as extremely powerful and are used only for religious purposes. The most traditional forms are the mountain lion, bear, coyote, wolf and eagle, which are valued for their prowess in game hunting. Carried in leather pouches around a hunter’s neck, they are believed to aid the success of the hunt. Small ornaments of turquoise, shell, beads or arrowpoints are tied to the backs of the fetishes to increase their power. Besides hunting, fetishes aid luck, gambling and war, protect households and play a role in various initiations and curing rituals.
Some fetishes represent deities, such as the Earth Mother and Creator God. The Corn Mother aspect of the Earth Mother is represented by a sacred corn ear or similar fetish and is kept by each individual throughout life. The fetish contains a seed or seeds, so that the cycle of life may continue. The Acoma, a Pueblo tribe, destroy the corn fetish upon a person’s death; the Zuñi break up their similar fetish and plant the seeds in the deceased’s fields.
If not kept in a pouch, fetishes are housed in jars. They must be properly cared for or they will visit ill fortune upon their owners.
The most powerful Zuñi fetishes are collective ones which belong to ceremonial societies. The Rain Priests own the most holy, called ettowe, which provide the priests’ source of power. The ettowe represent the nourishing forces of the Earth Mother and the soul power or life-giving breath of Awonawilona, the bisexual creator god. Fetishes of frogs, which are associated with water, are used in rain-making ceremonies and are buried near water sources to ensure a continuing supply of potable water.
Zuñi medicine societies have large, animal-like fetishes which represent the Beast Gods (gods of the most sacred animals), which are housed in jars and fed daily. The Ant Society uses its fetish, an effi gy of a red ant tied to a horn medicine pouch, to cure skin diseases. The fetish is placed on the pillow near the patient’s face, where it draws out the illness through the patient’s mouth. The healing also involves 12 mornings of chanting.
Among the Acoma, the Corn Mother fetish is used in curing illness.
Ceremonial fetishes carved from deer antler are highly valued, since the antler once was a part of a living creature. Horn fetishes are associated with seaserpents, whose power is believed to be greater than that of the Beast Gods.
The Zuñi fetishes are regarded as petrifi ed supernatural beings and have their origin in myth. When the first ancestors emerged from the four caves of the Lower Regions—the underworld—they were greeted by a new world covered with water, shaken by earthquakes and filled with monstrous beasts of prey. The Children of the Sun took pity on them and dried and hardened the earth with lightning arrows. Then the Children of the Sun traveled over the land and touched every animal they met, shrinking them and turning them to stone. A few animals escaped, and became the ancestors of the presentday animals. Natural stones that resemble animal shapes are believed to be the original petrifi ed beings, and thus possess the greatest potency.
The Zuñi traded fetishes to the Navajo. Following the publication of a book, Zuñi Fetiches (sic), by Frank Cushing in 1883, a tourist and collector’s market for them developed among whites. Around 1945, the Zuñi began producing replica fetishes for sale to the public. See ANIMISM.
- Budge, E. A. Wallis. From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt. New York: Dover Publications, 1988. First published 1934.
- Gonzales-Wippler, Migene. Santeria: African Magic in Latin America. New York: Original Products, 1981.
- Hultkrantz, Ake. Native Religions of North America. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
- Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans. Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishin
g Co., 1983. First published 1946.
- Tyler, Hamilton A. Pueblo Gods and Myths. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
A fetish is an object, usually a West African wooden doll, that is possessed by spirits and represents those spirits to the fetish owner. Fetishes may also be animals’ teeth, snake bones, beautiful stones or even the huts where witch DOCTORS commune with spirit guides. They are often worn as ornamental amulets or carried on the body.
A fetish is supposed to possess magical powers and be capable of bringing about the owner’s designs or preserving him from injury (see magic).
Possession of a fetish by a slave in the New World was punishable by sadistic torture and death. Not only were the fetishes graven images of a god other than the Catholic one, they represented tribal ways feared by white masters. See African witchcraft.
fetish An object that holds spirits, gods and magical powers. Fetishes can be Poppets or images of gods, animal teeth, snake bones, beautiful stones, and so forth. They are often worn or carried as Amulets. African wooden doll fetishes, called juju, were brought to the New World during the slave trade. Possession of a fetish by a slave was punishable by death and sadistic torture. In Vodoun, fetishes act as talismans as well as amulets. They are sewn into red flannel bags or leather pouches, and are worn about the neck. The more fetishes, the more protection one has from anything harmful or evil. First Matter See Prima Materia. fith-fath See INVISIBILITY. fluid condenser In the magical system of FRANZ BARDON, a special TOOL that concentrates, stores, and manipulates the electric and magnetic fluids of the universal life force. Bardon defined three types of fluid condensers: solid, liquid, and aerial. He created various alchemical recipes for fluid condensers. He said their “charge,” or power, could be increased significantly by the addition of GOLD or gold tincture. The magician’s own Blood or sperm also increases the charge. Solid fluid condensers are made of resins and metals. Liquid ones are tinctures, oils, lacquers, and extracts composed from resins produced by plants. Aerial ones are fumigations, flavours, selling waters, and evaporations; Bardon considered these the least important in magical work. When properly made and stored, fluid condensers can keep their power for long periods of time, even indefinitely. They are used in magical rituals and are manipulated by the magician through will and imagination to affect other things, including the body, and thus physical health. A liquid fluid condenser can be added to potions or incense compounds or placed in bowls to concentrate energies. Bardon said that the elixir of life, the elusive alchemical formula for longevity and immortality, is a magically loaded fluid condenser that influences the physical, mental, and astral bodies.
- Bardon, Franz. Initiation into Hermetics: A Course of Instruction of Magic Theory and Practice. Wuppertal, Germany: Dieter Ruggeberg, 1971.