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 The truth about gypsies is, of course, much more complex than a few outdated stereotypes.
Because gypsies, also known as Roma, 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. TV shows like "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" also aim to let us take a peek at their contemporary lives.
Read on for some insights into gypsy history and lifestyle.
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.
Typical Gypsy Jobs
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.
Gypsy Taboo System
Ethnic gypsies 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.
Gypsy Attitudes Toward Schooling and the Sexes
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.
Importance of Family in Gypsy Life
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.
Will we ever really know the gypsies? 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. Perhaps the answer lies within a crystal ball -- held by a gypsy, of course.
Lots More Information
- Encyclopedia. "Gypsies." (May 27, 2011) http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Gypsies.aspx
- Godwin, Peter. "Gypsies: The Outsiders." National Geographic. April 2001. (May 27, 2011) http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0104/feature4/index.html
- Halsall, Paul. "Gypsies in the Holocaust." Internet Modern History Sourcebook. August 1997. (May 27, 2011) http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/gypsy-holo.html
- Heimlich, Evan. "Gypsy Americans." (May 27, 2011) http://www.everyculture.com/multi/Du-Ha/Gypsy-Americans.html#ixzz1NahjhRei
- Smithsonian Education. "Gypsies in the United States."(May 27, 2011) http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/migrations/gyp/gypstart.html