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.
Learn the truth about these five examples of Romani reality and the myths that muddy them.
5: Gypsies Are Originally From Egypt
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.
4: One Gypsy is the Same as the Next
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 (the two ethnicities recognized in British case law). 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."
For simplicity's sake, we'll stick with Roma, another common catch-all, from here on out, just to get our heads to stop spinning. Ready to tackle the next urban legend?
3: All Gypsies Are Nomadic
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.
2: Gypsies are Lawless Thieves
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. The idea that Roma are largely lawless is pure urban legend.
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.
1: Gypsies Horde Their Wealth
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. You, at least, are now in the know.
Lots More Information
- Bowers, Jake. "Travellers Times Online FAQ Pack." Travellers Times. (June 1, 2011) http://www.travellerstimes.org.uk/downloads/lifestyle_history_and_culture_24052010111520.pdf
- "Gypsies and Travellers." Suffolk County Council. (June 1, 2011) http://www.suffolk.gov.uk/LeisureAndCulture/CommunityCohesion/GypsiesAndTravellers.htm
- Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month Web site. (June 1, 2011) http://www.grthm.co.uk/index.php
- Gypsy Roma Traveller Leeds Web site. (June 1, 2011) http://www.grtleeds.co.uk/index.html
- Hancock, Ian. "We are the Romani People." University of Hertfordshire Press. 2002. (June 1, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=MG0ahVw-kdwC&pg=PP1&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Laederich, Stephane. Rroma Foundation. 2009. (June 1, 2011) http://www.rroma.org/booklet_on_rroma/english_brochure.pdf
- Roma National Congress Web site. (June 1, 2011) http://www.romanationalcongress.webs.com/
- Strochlic, Nina. "Unraveling the Gypsy Myth." Ethos. Jan. 3, 2011. (June 1, 2011) http://ethosmagonline.com/archives/8502
- The Romani Archives and Documentation Database Web site. (June 1, 2011) http://www.radoc.net/
- The Roma Foundation Web site. (June 1, 2011) http://www.rroma.org/
- Travellers Times Online Web site. (June 1, 2011) http://www.travellerstimes.org.uk/