~ Gypsies ~

This article has been compiled by research from many sources. It is just a small part of my e-book "On The Midway," guaranteed to give you many hours of delight, available for a very reasonable price HERE

Copyright © 2012 Wayne N. Keyser

The Romani people, often misnamed "Gypsies", have a distinctive and strong traditional culture. Their contribution to traveling outdoor entertainment, along with their cultural reputation (severely colored both by popular media and longterm prejudice on one side, and by their own cultural habits on the other) make a look at their background essential to an understanding of the carnival world.

There is only sketchy evidence to support any detailed theories about Gypsy origins. Thorough research has been attempted only recently, and scholarship can reach only so far into an unrecorded past, its details lost somewhere along the paths they traveled. Linguistic, genetic and cultural evidence suggests that the Romani people coalesced from diverse groups dispersed from India, probably as hired troops sent from India to repel a Muslim invasion in the 11th century. Left far from home and with no unifying origin, they developed their own group identity and continued wandering west, reaching southeastern Europe about 1300. Some scholars deduce possibly three main migrations over several centuries, taking into particular consideration the word "Rom" (used by most Gypsies to refer to their ethnicity). In many Indic dialects "Rom" means a wandering performer. The Dom, an ethnic minority that survives to this day in India, may have been among the several peoples who eventually coalesced into the Rom.  

What the general public knows about Gypsies (aside from the goofy and offensive caricatures portrayed by popular media) comes from studies of the Rom, Gypsies from Serbia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary.

Today, there are numerous groups who self-identify as "Rom" or "Roma" or as "Gypsy." Members of these groups often call themselves "gypsies" when speaking English, but the several groups traditionally maintain social distance from each other. Considered by language, there are three groups: the Domi of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the Lom of Central Europe, and the Rom (or Romani) of Western Europe. Over the centuries, through their wanderings, they split into numerous branches: four main tribes (the Kalderash, the Machavaya, the Lovari, and the Churari) and subgroups including the Romanichal (English Gypsies), the Gitanos (Spanish cliffside-cave-dwelling Gypsies who gave the world flamenco music), the Sinti, the Rudari, the Manush, the Boyash, the Ungaritza (Hungarian Gypsies), the Luri, the Bashaldé, the Romungro, and the Xoraxai, among others. Additionally, there are the Scottish Travelers, Irish Travelers, and English Travelers, whose ethnic relation to the Rom is unclear or nonexistant, but who consider themselves related.

There is no single Romani language. The most broadly-used family of dialects (Vlax Romani) is related to the languages of northern India, notably Punjabi.

Because the Rom arrived in Europe from the East, 14th-century Europeans thought them to be from some vaguely understood place off to the East … someplace like, maybe (considering their dark skin and hair) Egypt … so they came to be thought of as Egyptians, which is where the word "Gypsy" comes from. Some Gypsies freely use the word, others consider the term offensive.

As "strangers in a strange land," the Rom have felt safest clinging to their group identity and remaining aloof from outsiders. When a tribal culture finds itself far from home without the kind of territorial, political, or economic strength that come from stability and assimilation into local society, the usual response is to be decidedly insular.  A familiar example is the culture of Jews who settled in Europe, forming ethnic enclaves insulated from the rest of European society. Other Jews, in more diverse, cosmopolitan and tolerant lands (Netherlands, for instance, or the United States) were welcomed into almost every level of society, to the extent that many find it difficult to maintain their ethnic identity.

 In many (even most) established societies, insular groups of outsiders are viewed with suspicion. The more persistent they are in keeping their cultural identity instead of being absorbed, the more hostility they face. For this reason alone, Gypsies were the targets of hostile laws. In many places Gypsies were forbidden to buy land or join guilds. In Switzerland children were removed to 'give them a better life,' and under Nazi rule Gypsies were interned and exterminated. Prejudice against Gypsies makes them convenient scapegoats for opportunistic politicians, even in countries that have been home to large Gypsy populations for centuries.  Persecution only reinforces the already insular tendencies of Romani culture. Such cultures rely for security on firm and detailed definitions of who belongs and who doesn't belong, and on how a member of the culture may interact with the outside world. But the way large segments of Gypsy culture view the outside only reinforces the practices which confirm those suspicions — non-Gypsies are referred to by the term "gadje," a word that carries the sense "bumpkin," "yokel," or as carnys understand especially well, "mark."

At this point, I should emphasize that these generalizations certainly cannot be applied to every person of Romani birth. To do so would be inexcusably racist. But it would be naive not to acknowledge some aspects of a culture historically shared by many Rom. 

Some insight might come from a consideration of wuzho, ritual purity, a central value in Gypsy society. Much like the idea of "ritual purity" in other eastern cultures (most familiar as Kosher rules in Jewish culture), a value of essential acceptability (often expressed as "cleanliness") is applied to every matter, great and small, and is an integral part of the maintenance of group identity. It is a powerful force reinforcing the cohesiveveness of the community. All things are classified as either wuzho (pure, and therefore socially acceptable) or marime (impure by nature, or once pure but now defiled), which may include people who have committed impure or disruptive acts. The first principle of wuzhho is that things Rom are purer than alien things. 

The wuzhho/marime concept is inseparably linked to personal hygiene and the differing nature of the sexes. A woman is clean from the waist up and marime from the waist down, because of associations with menstruation and pregnancy. In Rom society, the women wear long skirts and the bottom of the skirt must not touch a man other than the wearer's husband. A woman must not pass in front of a man, or even between two men, but go around them to avoid passing along impurity to them. Men must be served meals from the rear for the same reason. If a Roma woman is not wearing the traditional long skirt, she must cover her legs with a blanket or coat when sitting.

Maintaining personal status as wuzho is vital for a Gypsy, because being separated from the group (even by being too close to gadje) would be unthinkable. Group identity becomes intensely important in a group scorned by the larger society. Isabel Fonseca wrote in a 1995 article in The New Yorker, "Even at home, I was never allowed to be alone — not ever. [They] did not share the gadje notions of or need for privacy. Or for quiet. 'The more and the noisier the better' was their creed — one that I found to be universal among Roma. Their concept of a lone person was a Rom who for some infraction had been banished from the group. There was something wrong with you, some shame, if you had to be alone."

Most Roma today are settled, and many young Roma have assimilated into local society, but many others still cling to their cultural identity.

Some stereotypical Gypsy ways of dealing with gadje are discussed below.

It must be noted that Gypsies are hardly alone in this type of behavior. I can find no culture, ethnicity or nation, present or past, anywhere in the world (including the U.S.) that has not, for money's sake, freely swindled, robbed, cheated and degraded those it holds in less esteem, and then loudly protested its innocence and nobility even in the face of undeniable fact.

Although the traditional views and practices are dying out as the younger generation integrates more easily into the broader culture, traditional Roma believe in the supernatural, in omens and curses. Fortunetelling is practiced as a livelihood only for gadje.

William Lindsay Gresham in his Monster Midway (1953) puts it like this:

"The gypsies call fortunetelling pen dukkerin. It is the traditional trade of gypsy women the world over and throughout history. But along with it goes another art called hokkani boro — "the great trick." A credulous patron (usually a housewife), after having her fortune told, is initiated by the gypsy into the magic of making money double itself when the proper spell is chanted over it. The money is wrapped in a handkerchief and must be "dreamed on" — placed under the pillow at night. Next morning, when the gypsy comes again, lo and behold, the sum is twice that which was tied into the handkerchief. This time the housewife takes all her savings, sometimes even borrows from relatives and neighbors, and has the gypsy tie it up and chant over it. So much money must have more time to double itself — usually three weeks, and the gypsy exacts an oath that the owner will not tamper with the bundle until the spell has had a chance to work.

"The gypsy never returns and the bundle, when opened, naturally contains a roll of wrapping paper, cut into the size of dollar bills. This is hokkani boro, old when the pyramids were new, and still good for taking off modest scores, although it has landed more than one Romany chi in the staripen (pokey to you) and in frontier days in Tennessee, got one old gypsy woman burned at the stake for pulling this trick.

"Another Romany name for this dodge is hakk'ni panki, from which hanky-panky, as a synonym for trickery of any sort, probably stems.

"There is a counting rhyme among English children which goes:

Eckery, ackery, ookery an, Fillisy, follasy, Nicholas John …

which is pure Romany double-talk:

Ekkeri, akai-ri, u kair-an. Fillissin, follasy. Nakelas ja'n …

It means, literally:

First, here, you begin. Castle, gloves; go on, you can't play [you're out]! [ed. — think of it as children now use "eenie-meenie-miney-moe"]

"The interesting thing is that this nonsense rhyme in Romany is the traditional spell uttered over the handkerchief containing the money! Children have retentive memories and a great many of them down the centuries, listening at the keyhole while the gypsy crone enchanted the cash, must have heard this time-honored formula."

How do the gypsies know so much about you with a single glance? It's something magicians have known (and, of course, kept secret) for many years. Magicians call the technique "cold reading."

Charles Godfrey Leland, in Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling (1891), goes into detail:

"The mystery of mysteries in the Romany tongue — of which I have spoken — is this: The hokkani bâro, or huckeny boro, or great trick, consists of three parts. Firstly, the getting into a house or into the confidence of its owner, which is effected in England by offering small wares for sale, or by begging for food, but chiefly by fortune-telling, the latter being the usual pretence in America. If the gypsy woman be at all prepared, she will have learned enough to amaze 'the lady of the house,' who is thereby made ready to believe anything. The second part of the trick is the conveying away the property … And third is to 'chiv o manzin apré lâti,' to put the oath upon her (the victim) by which she binds herself not to speak of the affair for some weeks. When the deceived are all under oath not to utter a word about the trick, the gypsy mother has a safe thing of it.

"This feat — which is described by almost every writer on Gypsies — is performed by inducing some woman of largely magnified faith to believe that there is hidden in her house a magic treasure, which can only be made 'to come to hand' by depositing in the cellar another treasure, to which it will come by natural affinity and attraction. 'For gold, as you sees, draws gold, my deari, and so if you ties up all your money in a pocket-handkercher, an' leaves it, you'll find it doubled. An' wasn't there the Squire's lady — you know Mrs. Trefarlo, of course — and didn't she draw two hundred old gold guineas out of the ground where they'd laid in an old grave-and only one guinea she gave me for all my trouble; an' I hope you'll do better than that for the poor old gypsy, my deari…'

"The gold and the spoons are all tied up-for, as the enchantress sagely observes, 'there may be silver too,' and she solemnly repeats over it magical rhymes, while the children, standing around in awe, listen to every word. It is a good subject for a picture. Sometimes the windows are closed, and candles lighted to add to the effect. The bundle is left or buried in a certain place. The next day the gypsy comes and sees how the charm is working. Could any one look under her cloak, he might find another bundle precisely resembling the one containing the treasure. She looks at the precious deposit, repeats her rhyme again solemnly and departs, after carefully charging the house-wife that the bundle must not be touched, looked at, or spoken of for three weeks. 'Every word you tell about it, my deari, will be a guinea gone away.' Sometimes she exacts an oath on the Bible, when she chivs o manzin apré lâtti — that nothing shall be said.

"Back to the farmer's house never again. After three weeks another Extraordinary Instance of Gross Credulity appears in the country paper, and is perhaps repeated in a colossal London daily, with a reference to the absence of the schoolmaster. There is wailing and shame in the house — perhaps great suffering — for it may be that the savings of years, and bequeathed tankards, and marriage rings, and inherited jewellery, and mother's souvenirs have been swept away. The charm has worked."


The Irish Travelers and Scottish Travelers, descendants of the wandering Irish Tinkers (tinsmiths),  may feel a bit less of the xenophobia directed at Gypsies. From the "Lucky Charms Leprechaun" to "Clancy the Cop," the Irish are generally viewed today by Americans as fellows in the (generically) British-flavored white American heritage. Modern Americans tend to think of the Irish through a fairy-tale "St. Patrick's Day Green Beer and leprechauns" mythology, even though the Irish were America's first "criminal underclass," only later overshadowed by the Mafia. But like some Gypsies, there is a demonstrable tendency among many in this group of clannish, secretive Irish nomads, to treat "country folk" (non-Travelers) as marks.

According to the University of Liverpool, in Ireland "the Travelers make up less than 1% of the population with approximately 23,000 people in the Republic and another 1,500 in the North. It is also estimated that there are about 15,000 Irish Travelers in Britain and another 7,000 in the USA. Irish Travelers belong to a distinct ethnic group within Ireland."

Their origin, like that of the Gypsies, is unclear. From historical references to them, they may be the collected remnants of those who were pushed off the land during different times of social and economic upheaval, like Cromwell's bloody campaign and the Potato Famine. Some writers trace them back to pre-Christian times when metalworkers roamed the country with their families. Other displaced people joined these travelers: itinerant performers, Druid priests displaced by Christianity, tenants dispossessed of their lands when cash rents were demanded in 1585 and property owners uprooted by the land confiscations in 1652 under the Act of Settlement. These traveling people form a distinct group within Irish society, and they are discriminated against even in their own homeland. Like many closed societies, Travelers have a secret vocabulary, called "Shelta," "Gammon" or (affectionately among its speakers) "The Cant," is believed to derive from a language that predates the thirteenth century. 

Those who emigrated to America in the 19th century settled mostly in South Carolina, but there are other clan groups, with almost no intermingling and even barriers of mutual suspicion between regions. The South Carolina group, numbering perhaps 3,000, lives in the gated community of Murphy Village. All closely related, they share only a dozen surnames: Carroll, Costello, Gorman, O'Hara, Sherlock and a few others. Other, smaller Traveler groups can be found in White Settlement, Texas, near Fort Worth. These Travelers are known as the Greenhorns. Another group settled outside Memphis and is known as the Mississippi Travelers, named after the river. A few other groups, each numbering no more than six to eight families, live in northeastern states.

Many Travelers hit the road every spring to engage in a wide array of cons. Though the occasional spokesman reacts with disingenuous outrage over the group's bad reputation, the Travelers are widely known to law enforcement as specialists in home repair scams, from taking large cash down-payments and disappearing, to looting the house they are supposed to be working on. Women in the Travelers are often caught shoplifting while their husbands work a community.



Students: here is a sample footnote citation: Keyser, Wayne N. "Gypsies." Blue Ridge Entertainment. Blue Ridge Online Sales, 11 Sept. 2012. Web. [accessed today's date]. <http://goodmagic.com/>.

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