Gypsy Culture and History

We like to crop people and their lives to make them match our perception. We fail to see what’s behind their ordinary hello, behind the friendly grin or attractive invite. Most of us are not quite comfortable around anyone who’s unique or much different than us. Meeting eccentric people makes us feel dull and average, so we put little labels on them, to feel good about ourselves. Growing up and maturing is about getting rid of those false stereotypes and accepting the fact that we are all here to learn from each other. Everyone can teach you a lesson or show you something new or force you to make your mind when you’re at a crossroad. You can’t really tell if someone is Indian, Gypsy or coming from South Africa or New York, but many people throw the book at others judging on the color of their skin. Gypsies have been tossed aside, marginalized by society and considered thieves for centuries, without people knowing their culture, beliefs or history. Gypsies are the only ethnic group without a homeland, yet they are a minority in almost every country in the world. Even though their true origin is debatable, they have managed to populate every step of the earth. Today, there are almost 14 million Gypsies all over the world. There would have been many more if they didn’t declare as Albanian, Indian or African to avoid being taunted by the false cultural conception we have for the Romani people.

The flag of the Romani people.

History of the Gypsy People

First and foremost, calling someone Gypsy is not politically correct, but we will keep using the term as it describes a specific group with particular customs. When this ethnic group arrived in Europe for the first time, their dark skin reminded Romans of Egyptian Turks so they started calling them “gypcian”, which is short for Egyptian. Historic evidence suggests that they first stepped foot on European land in medieval times, more than 700 years ago. They were known as witty people, who had a way with words and knew how to use their language to persuade the poor as well as the rich. They gained prestige from politicians, lords, dukes, royalties and other people of authority by telling them that they were evicted from their homeland. But that still doesn’t tell us where they actually come from. Some stories say that a group of Gypsies wanted to steal baby Jesus, so they have been cast away and ordered to wander the world without claiming sovereignty from any nation.

Another legend suggests that the king Bahram V Gor asked the king of India to send him lute playing experts. He learned that poor people couldn’t afford to pay for music, so he wanted to provide this pleasure for them and got 1000 men and women as a gift from the Indian king. He gave each one of them a donkey loaded with wheat and an ox, but one year later they came back poor and hungry, so he forced them to exile his country and never come back. Of course, this is just another story about the Gypsy origin, but DNA studies proved that the Romani people do in fact originate from the Indian subcontinent or some parts of South Asia. And we can safely say that they did come out of there as a group, because they have managed to stay a group after nearly 1000 years. How and why might still be a mystery, and all we can do is guess what made them wander the world without identifying themselves with any nation.

The western world thinks that their motherland is Romania or Hungary, but even though they are the largest minority there, their DNA proves that they originate from Asia. Most of them today can be found in Europe, settled in the Balkans, Ukraine, Spain and France, but the Americas can proudly say they provide residence for over 4 million Romani people.

The Gypsy Lifestyle and Myths

When Gypsies first arrived in Germany during the 1400’s, their leaders, Michael and Andrew, told the pope they were on a 7 year long pilgrimage. The pope wrote them a protection letter, which enabled them to cross freely all Christian countries. They lived well for years from the local hospitality and soon gained a reputation of being fortune tellers, robbers or pickpockets. Their roaming lifestyle probably started that way, since they couldn’t stay in one place for a very long time. Not all of them were fortune tellers and robbers, of course. Most of the time they traded horses, they were masters of making iron tools, and collected money from dancing, singing and playing music for the crowds. They were real showmen, knowing how to animate happiness and sadness trough singing and dancing, which made them very popular.

Their nomadic lifestyle forced them to be very close and stay close, through thick and thin. Every member of the group was treated as family and their bonds were very strong. Their arrival at any place was strange. Their dark skin and eyes, clothing, language and overall way of life confused people and made them suspect their presence. Rapidly their reputation preceded them. They were expected to camp outside of the village or town, and forced to cook in the open because people thought they were child eaters.

During the Middle Ages, many of them were accused of sorcery and burned alive together with their children and families. The Spanish inquisition even cut their tongues because they were speaking their own language. All these prejudices people held against them led to oppressions. They were expelled from many European countries or taken as slaves. The gypsy slavery was brought to an end in the 1860’s, when they moved to Spain, Portugal and America. In Portugal, the gypsy lifestyle found its home and the flamenco dance and music was born. Later, Hitler too persecuted them during the world wars, and managed to kill around 400,000 Romani people in his concentration camps. Their death was not evidenced because Hitler too considered them to be at the bottom level of the human hierarchy.

The Truth Behind Their Provocative Lifestyle

Even though today most Romani people live in houses, just like everyone else, they were nomads in the past. They didn’t move from place to place because of their restless spirits or promiscuity as most people think, but because they had to. Nowadays, if a cousin goes to jail or commit a crime of some kind, most family members will skedaddle the moment they read in the papers. Or if we lived in the past, we will pack his bags and a few bucks and wish him luck in his future endeavors. A Gypsy would never do that to a family member no matter what they did. They have strict laws about the bonds between them, about the way they are allowed to act in public and between each other. They are not allowed to speak about those laws with a non-Romani person and if they do, that will cost them their respect within the community.

The conflicts that arise between them or with an outsider are handled by one person called Rom Baro (meaning big man), who is in charge of all informal proceedings called divanos. If the Rom Baro can’t mediate the crisis, a Kris Romani will be necessary, which is something like a court judge. These conciliators handle questions and matters of honor, property losses, stealing and lying, disobedience of the Romani King or Queen or revealing a secret of the Gypsy law to gaje, or non-Romani person. Usually the Gypsy woman is described as highly immoral and promiscuous, but the marime law says otherwise. Women are not allowed to disgrace their husband and family, neither with a dress code or behavior. According to their principles the upper body (from the waist up) is considered pure and innocent, so it can be shown without bringing shame to the family and self. The lower body part is perceived as unclean, so it’s not shown to anyone. Gypsies even have a law about washing their clothes in a manner that the upper body wardrobes are not allowed to be washed with lower body part clothes. Romani women are not very likely to travel alone to present their family name during weddings or funerals, but they can accompany their husband.

When a man wants to marry a woman, his parents have to ask consent from the potential bride’s parents. Usually, traditional families bring gifts or money to offer to the bride’s parents. A special bond between the bride and the husband's mother has to be established before the bride becomes a member of the family. The groom rarely becomes a member of the bride’s family. If a man marries a non-Romani woman, she is welcome to join the husband’s family, but if the groom is non-Romani some communities will castoff the new couple from their future happenings. If the couple wants a divorce, a payment for the bride is in order and the amount is usually settled between the two families to avoid a public scandal.

The oldest member of the family is most respected in their community, and back talking to them is forbidden. Women who have too many clothes, food or other necessities, give them to their friends or less fortunate. They cook much more food than the family can eat, because everyone is welcome to join the meal as they please. Especially during weddings, which often last for more than 3 days, where food and drinks are served endlessly. And at last, the stories about Gypsies and their dirtiness are the ultimate myth. Young girls, from the time they get their period have to remove all their bodily hair. Romani people have three words for dirty: mahrime, magardo and maxado, and strict rules to avoid being contaminated by other people, behaviors or diseases.

So next time you hear the Gypsies are coming to town, you will be better educated and have more respect for who they are and what they have been through.


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