The Romany (often referred to as the Gypsies or Rom) are an old and unusual people whose history remains hidden in the mists of the past. Stories passed down through time from parent to child weave the tapestry of the Rom’s heritage. Many people today think Gypsies are rather romantic folk because of their wandering life and fabled fortune-telling powers. Like all great works of art, however, the stories are often embellished. While some of the work may be true in fact, much is only true in essence. Of course, some sections of the work have been made up whole cloth just for the hell of it – after all the Romany, of all people, understand the importance of play. The Rom know not all stories and legends are true, but which are fact and which fancy is not of great importance to them. Even today, the Romany transmit their history orally, with outsiders responsible for most written treatises on these people. George Borrow, who lived from 1803 to 1881, spent a good many years among them, speaking their language and writing two books, Lavengro and The Romany Rye, which tell of some of his adventures as a wanderer and friend of the Gypsies. Since the Romany feel that it is both proper and wise to bend and even break the truth when dealing with the gaje (their term for those whom they deem to be ‘outsiders’), such texts are certainly suspect to a far greater degree than what the Rom tell one another. It is said elsewhere that the Gypsies known secrets that would make other folk’s hair stand on end and their blood run cold.
The Romany hold a unique position globally in that Gipsy families can be found in most of the world’s countries, from Brazil to Russia, the USA to India. The story is that about 700 years ago vast hordes of the conquering people called Mongols left their homes on the grasslands of Central Asia and moved westwards. This migration and the disturbances it caused started other peoples wandering, and among them was one without wealth or property which had come from somewhere near the northwest of India. These people gradually drifted into what are now Romania and Hungary and from there still farther west into Germany, France and Spain, even crossing the sea into Great Britain. In each country they came to they were given a different name. In Eastern Europe they were known as Tzigana, in the Iberian Peninsula Gitanos, in the North they were called Poshrats and in the South Didikais. It is said that when they arrived in Britain and were asked where they came from they replied ‘Egypt’, and this is thought by some people to be the origin of the word ‘Gipsy’.
For as long as there have been Gypsies, they have been made to feel unwelcome and even been persecuted by the people into whose countries they wandered. The reasons for Gipsy persecution are many, but several in particular stand out. People were often afraid of the Rom because they believed that Gipsy women had the power of seeing into the future, casting the Evil Eye and influencing fate itself. The Romany’s nomadic ways and casual work habits did not fit easily into the pattern of modern life, as more and more people took to the towns and cities. The ways of the Rom can seem strange, perhaps even senseless to many – for instance, according to tradition, when one of them dies they bury the body in some lonely spot, perhaps in the middle of a wood, and decorate the grave with large shells or brightly coloured stones. This nonconformity can lead to fear, and even hatred, in the gaje, many of whom see the Gypsies as nothing more than vagabonds, roving gangs just out to make a quick profit. Many religious and secular leaders have therefore condemned the Romany, ordering them cast out, imprisoned or worse. In Medieval Spain Gypsies, along with those accused of witchcraft, suffered terribly at the hands of the Inquisition. During World War II, Hitler ordered the Gypsies murdered along with Jews, homosexuals and the many other groups who perished in the Nazi concentration camps. Even today, groups of skinheads, neo-Nazis and the like terrorize the Gypsies in Europe and the Americas, while many of the Rom are being lost to a subtler enemy. Slowly becoming enmeshed in a sedentary lifestyle, caught in the webs of civilization, the music of their blood and heritage grows ever fainter.
The sheer aura of ‘otherness’ many gaje sense when near someone of Romany heritage also sets Gypsies apart. Some have therefore speculated that the persecution which the Rom have suffered over the years is because people inevitably attempt to attack what they cannot truly comprehend. The Romany themselves refer to their unnerving otherness as the prikaza (or ‘bad luck’) of Cassandra. Cassandra was the woman in Greek mythology who had the ability to foresee the future, but she was cursed so that none would believe her predictions. Magic is nevertheless an acknowledged part of any Gipsy’s life. It is said that many Gypsies possess the ability to catch glimpses of both the past and the future, or to give an enemy bad luck with merely a glance. Some Gypsies can speak with the dead while others can cast spells. Young Rom usually discover their talents early in life. When a newborn Romany enters the world, his mother often consults a wise one or mystic to determine whether her child is destined for a particular role in the family. When a mystic performs one of these ‘birth readings’, he takes the baby outside on the first new moon of the child’s life. Traditionally, the mystic then places the baby beside a low fire, a bowl of cool water, a fan made of feathers, a piece of dark stone such as onyx and a black mirror. These five items represent fire, water, air, earth and spirit, the elements the Rom view as essential to life. If the newborn is claimed by one of the five elements, he will be trained in what the Romany feel are compatible skills. Birth readings, along with the Sight, Mediumship and casting the Evil Eye, are all aspects of draba, or Gipsy magic, which must be learned through study with an accomplished drabarne, as the practitioners of this art are termed.
The family and the clan are the two main social structures in the world of the Gypsies. In a very real sense, many Gypsies view anyone of Romany blood as a member of their family, and thus will treat any Gipsy with far more respect than any non-Gipsy. That is not to say that Gypsies do not feud amongst each other – they do, constantly – but they will normally band together against anyone not of Romany blood. There are many, many different Gipsy families scattered throughout the world, with seemingly little in common besides their loyalty to each other and the value they place in a freewheeling lifestyle. Each and every Gipsy continues to hold dear the freedom of the road. For many years, kumpania (or travelling companies) of Gypsies went from town to town in wagons known as vardos, only coming together at festivals and meetings known as pakive. A few Gipsy families maintain this practice even today, but most have been forced to adjust their old lifestyles to the onset of technology. In fact, many Rom have been unusually creative, cleverly adapting new technologies to their own advantage. Modern Gypsies travel North America in caravans consisting of trailer homes, Cadillacs and Harleys; some even have computer systems to enhance their eclectic businesses. Indeed, the Romany have grown particularly fond of modems, travelling the burgeoning information superhighway with the same panache they do the cracked blacktop of the interstates.
The above is but a tiny glimpse into the vast and absorbing world of the Gypsies. Since there is no such thing as a written version of the language of the Rom, with history and traditions passing verbally from generation to generation, this helps ensure that information sacred to the Rom will not be discovered by outsiders. Add to this the fact that, while Gypsies do not feel it is ethical to lie to, cheat or steal from another Romany, it is perfectly appropriate to manipulate and use a gaje, and it becomes clear that almost everything we know about the Rom must be taken with more than a pinch of salt. This has not stopped them inspiring writers and artists throughout history, such as the aforementioned George Borrow. More recently Charles de Lint brought Gypsies to urban fantasy in his novel Mulengro, while Robert Jordan introduced them in an epic fantasy context as the Tuatha’an or ‘Traveling People’ in The Wheel of Time. Interestingly, almost all fiction in which Gypsies appear refers in some way to the fact that they will play an important part in deciding the fate of the world. There are many variations of this story. Some say that Alako, a Gipsy who drank of God’s tears, will return from beyond the veil and grant his people the ability to walk between the light and the dark, between the gods and humanity. Others say that the universe is like a snake that slowly swallows her own tail and, just as she swallows her head, the universe will change and be reborn. Yet another variation of the story refers to the fact that when the End Times come the World Tree will bear more of the sacred Fruit of Knowledge and that any who eat of this fruit will be reborn into the new age to decide the fate of all. Whether the Rom themselves believe these tales is as open to interpretation as anything else concerning this mysterious, secretive and alluring folk.