Excerpted from an essay for TLC — Hear the word gypsy, and the image of a scarved fortune-teller likely pops into your mind. Or maybe you think of a band of traveling musicians and dancers in colorfully decorated wagons.
The truth about gypsies is, of course, much more complex than a few outdated stereotypes. What we know for sure is that they’ve proved their resiliency through centuries of persecution, and many are proud they’ve never lost their strong cultural identity by assimilating into any of the countries they live in now.
Many people believe gypsies originally came from Romania, or perhaps Hungary. Not so. Research shows ethnic gypsies actually came from a group of diverse military people who gathered centuries ago in the Punjab region of northern India to fight Muslim invaders. Over time, the group drifted northwest to Persia and Armenia, then into the Balkan Peninsula, where Serbian and Romanian words and phrases crept into their language.
Eventually they split into smaller groups and spread throughout Europe and northern Africa, where several subsets developed, including the Romnichals in England, the Rom in Eastern Europe, the Ludar in Romania and the Black Dutch in Germany. There were also groups in Hungary and the former Soviet Union. Today, there are gypsies in countries throughout the world.
When the gypsies began their migration, they weren’t welcomed by people in other countries because they looked and spoke differently, and they were often harassed or even physically harmed. This likely contributed to the development of their wandering lifestyle.
Today, incredibly confusing nomenclature swirls around the people outsiders frequently label gypsies. A more appropriate generic umbrella term to start with would be travelers which is less reviled and can include nomadic wanderers of many types. From there, we can separate out people who’re part of specific ethnic groups hallmarked by their cultures’ penchant for traveling.
That subset includes groups like the Irish Travellers and the Romani. Then, there are the different subgroups who consider themselves Romani although they also see themselves as part of smaller, more cohesive groups. These include the Sinti, the Romanichals, the Manush and many more. Basically, as one Romani author describes it: “It’s easier to classify them in terms of who they aren’t, rather than who they are. And they aren’t outsiders.”
What they do
Over the centuries, gypsies tended to work at occupations they could perform independently, that required little overhead, that appealed to people everywhere and that weren’t negatively affected by frequent travel. Some of these jobs included metalworking, woodworking, carpentry and horse trading.
Often, jobs were tied to a sect. Many Ludar, for example, were animal trainers and showpeople, while many Rom were fortune-tellers. Gypsies worldwide are famed for their singing, dancing and musical skills; they’re credited with creating flamenco in Spain, while many Hungarian gypsies are musicians.
As the times changed, so did the gypsies’ traditional occupations. Horse traders became used car dealers and repairmen, while metalworkers began hawking items like watches and jewelry. Members of the Kalderash clan, once Romanian slaves who worked as coppersmiths, now work in the scrap metal business.
Yes, they have a very strong taboo system
Basically, gypsies consider the upper half of the body as pure, and the lower half — mainly the feet and genitalia — as contaminated. Pollute yourself, and you just might be ostracized for up to a year — or even expelled from the community.
In practice, this means if a gypsy touches his lower body, he must wash his hands. And anything your feet touch is considered perpetually contaminated. So there’s no such thing as the three-second rule when it comes to dropping food on the floor. And don’t even think about washing your undies with, say, a tablecloth.
While young children and the elderly are allowed some leniency when it comes to taboo situations, they’re strictly enforced on adults, especially married adults. Like in other traditional cultures, gypsy women who give birth are considered totally contaminated, as is the child being born, so both are temporarily isolated from the rest of the family.
Gypsies have a strong family and community focus
They neither want their children to learn foreign, non-gypsy ways, nor become polluted from contact with non-gypsies. Historically, only friends or relatives watch gypsies’ kids (through babysitting or day care), and kids only attend public school until age 10 or 11. Most of the gypsies’ education, then, comes from the home and community.
Like other traditional cultures, gypsy women serve their men and defer to them in general, but women have some power and social standing. They’re respected for their money-making ability, for one thing. Fortune-tellers, who are all female, are sometimes the main source of income, so the husband serves as support staff. And a woman can pollute a man through various actions, sometimes resulting in his expulsion from the community.
Family is paramount to gypsies
Those who still move about frequently tend to travel as an extended family, along with several other similar groups. Although family members often have their own homes, they’re still in constant contact with one another, often because the extended family works together as an economic unit.
Marriages are typically arranged by the parents, with many couples marrying in their mid- to late-teens, then joining the family business. New couples live with the husband’s parents for at least the first year or two, or until the first child is born. Most families have three or four kids, who are often part of adult conversations and endeavors, as children are expected to learn from and emulate their elders.
Whenever there’s a major event, such as a wedding or funeral, family members from all over gather, sometimes numbering in the hundreds or even thousands.
The word “gypsy” might conjure up images of women in voluminous swishing skirts, gold bangles and colorful head scarves, telling fortunes by gazing into crystal balls, consulting tarot cards or tracing the lines of the palms of your hands.
Or maybe you think of street buskers, horse dealers or metal workers. Or perhaps what you’re assuming about gypsies is something much worse. There are a lot of misconceptions out there concerning the people commonly referred to as gypsies. Baby snatching is probably the most outlandish among them, but many others are more insidious, and more widely believed — even today.
Are they nomads?
Not all Roma travel by caravan or other means of mobile living from site to site, migrating throughout the seasons. In modern times, a large portion of the people who consider themselves Roma live in houses. Your neighbor could be a Roma and you might not even know it.
Much of the reason so many Roma do not advertise their status is because of discrimination — quite fierce over the years and continued to this day. By only acting like their true selves around other Roma, and by staying put, some are able to avoid persecution.
That guarded lifestyle does contribute to one urban legend that has at least some truth to it: the Roma are a somewhat secretive people, although that’s partly changed in the modern age.
And… are they lawless?
The idea that Roma are largely lawless is pure urban legend .As with any human population, there are always exceptions that prove the rule. It would be unlikely for the Roma to be any different; some Roma are surely guilty of crimes, stealing among them. But the vast majority doesn’t participate in criminal activity.
Roma culture includes unwritten laws that outline what’s considered proper behavior and what’s not. This complex code of conduct dictates matters such as cleanliness, purity, respect, honor and justice. It’s passed down through the families of Roma communities with each new generation.
Are they poor?
While some Roma are indeed prosperous (again, as with every population, you get people at all spots on the spectrum), rampant poverty and poor living conditions are looming problems for many modern Roma.
Contributing factors include a frequent lack of formal education and inadequate access to health care, along with limited employment opportunities, restricted access to accommodations and denial of building permits.
Some of these issues happen because Roma tend to be distrustful of things they see as potential threats to their culture — like public schooling and mainstream health care. But a lot of the responsibility for this sad situation rests on the shoulders of outsiders, who often don’t see these urban legends about Roma for what they are: baseless myths contributing to harmful prejudices that perpetuate hate.
How should we call them?
Many of the 10-to-12 million people around the world commonly identified as gypsies don’t actually dig that label. That’s because it stems from the fact that their ancestors were confused with Egyptians when they first arrived in Europe some 500 years ago. It’s now widely thought these so-called gypsies originated in India.
The Egyptian confusion aside, those lumped under the generic term gypsy also tend not to consider themselves a unified ethnicity or cohesive cultural bloc. Although they have much in common, they’re a far-from-homogenous group, as we’ll find out in the next myth.
Today, many gypsies consider the name gypsy as offensive as the word tramp. That reaction may be due to the discrimination — and even violence — they’ve faced wherever they’ve migrated. Settled people have blamed gypsies who come through their area for anything that goes wrong or goes missing.
Many countries have enacted laws against gypsies over the years. Some have denied them places to camp, as France did in 2010. During the Holocaust, the Nazis killed as many as 500,000 gypsies. Gypsies may dislike the term also because there are so many cultural stereotypes about gypsies being thieves, heathens and practitioners of black magic.
Gypsies usually call themselves Roma, the plural for Rom, the word in their Romany language that means man. Most gypsies speak Romany in addition to the main language of the country they live in. Romany is similar to Sanskrit and to modern Indo-European languages spoken in northern India. There are variations of the name Roma, such as Rroma and Romani.
So, will we ever really know the gypsies? Yes, it is true that, because gypsies have been persecuted worldwide for much of their existence, they don’t typically trust outsiders and haven’t shared much of their story. But today, more gypsies are speaking up so the rest of the world can understand and appreciate their culture.