JC Scull taught international business relations and strategies at universities in Panama and China.
The Mystical 'Gypsies'
They are said to have mystical powers of fortune-telling and bewitchment. Their passionate temper and irascible personality reflect their indomitable spirit. Legends say that their love of freedom often drives them to commit acts of crime as they wonder in their caravans from one town to the next. They have been accused of spreading disease, abducting children, treachery and murder. Some experts say the same accusations often leveled on Jewish people going back hundreds of years.
Dr. Abigail Rothblatt Bardi writes in The Gypsy as Trope in Victorian and Modern British Literature, the Romani people or Gypsies have been portrait as having "sinister occult and criminal tendencies" and of being associated with "thievery and cunning."
In English Renaissance Scenes: From Canon to Margins, Paola Pugliatti and Alessandro Serpieri describe how in the English Renaissance and baroque theater they were said to incorporate “elements of outlandish charm” and of being “the lowest of social outcasts” connected with “magic and charms,” and with the ability of "juggling and cozening."
In European literature and music, Romani women have been portrayed as seductresses, extravagant, loud, sexually available, exotic and mysterious. These stereotypes have over the years endured and transcended geographical, cultural and societal boundaries. Hollywood and European movies have promoted these characteristics for strictly commercial purposes, meanwhile establishing the image of Gypsy women as archetypical temptresses, enchantresses and sorceresses.
The Real Gypsy People
The reality, however, is much different from the legends that have over the centuries been created about them.
The Gypsies, as they have been pejoratively called, are the descendants of two distinct people who began to migrate from the Indian subcontinent sometime around 512 CE. They are the Romani (alternatively called Romany, Rom, or Roma) who speak the Romani language and the Dom, who speak the endangered language Domari. They are both Indo-Aryan ethnic groups who originally migrated mainly to Europe and the Americas from the Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab regions of modern-day India, although today, they can be found all throughout the world.
The English term Gypsy originates from gypcian, which is short for Egyptian. The Spanish term Gitano and French Gitan have similar etymologies as they derive from the Greek Αιγύπτιοι (Aigyptioi), meaning Egyptian, via Latin. This moniker is due to the belief that the Romani and Dom people were itinerant Egyptians.
Traditionally, being itinerant people not all of the Gypsy groups are considered as nomadic as the Kalbelias from the Indian state of Rajasthan. Hence, Romani groups such as the Romanichals Travelers of England and the Gitanos of Spain have become less nomadic over the years, many living within smaller communities in South Wales, Northeast Wales, and the Scottish Borders, and, of course, the Spanish Gypsies living all throughout Spain.
DNA tests and other research have confirmed both groups to have originated from northwest India more than 1,500 years ago and to have been associated with each other while occupying neighboring areas. Although they separated around this time, they share a common history. Their migration subsequently dispersed them widely throughout the world. Today their most concentrated populations are in Mid-West Asia, Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, which includes Turkey, Spain and Southern France.
While they share the same flag, adopted in 1971 by the World Romani Congress, they are considered to be a different ethnic group with different customs and rarely intermingling.
Today, the Dom (also called Domi or Doms) are mainly found scattered across the Middle East, North Africa, Caucasus, Central Asia and still parts of the Indian subcontinent. Their population is estimated to be around 2.2 million. The majority of their population live in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. Smaller groups can be found in Afghanistan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Jordan, Syria and other countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
The Romani, on the other hand is a much larger group, totaling between 12 to 20 million people, making them one of the largest ethnic minorities in Europe. While 70 percent live in Eastern Europe, over a million Roma live in the United States and other countries in the Americas.
The Romani People
In accordance to the human’s rights organization Open Society Foundation, some of the groups that are considered Roma are the Romanichals of England, the Beyash of Croatia, the Kalé of Wales and Finland, the Romanlar from Turkey and the Iberian Cale. The Travelers of Ireland are often erroneously considered part of the group, however, they are not ethnically Roma. Although referred to as “Gypsies”, genetic analysis has shown them to be people of Irish extraction who diverged from the settled local population in the 1600s, during the time of the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland.
In the Romani language the word Rom means man or husband. It is related to the words dam-pati which mean lord of the house. However, another theory holds that it could be related to doma meaning a low caste of travelling musicians and dancers.
The Romani people are unique in that they have never identified with a territory or country. They do not yearn for a distant homeland from which their ancestors might have migrated. They have no concept of national sovereignty but rather identify with the ideal of a freedom which is unconnected to a birthplace or land of origin. This notion of national detachment has perhaps been formed by the fact that they lack a written history. Their origins and history have been passed down through generations by means of legends that often contradict each other.
Until the late 18th century, theories of the origin of the Romani people were at best theoretical. In 1782, German linguistic professor Johann Christian Christoph Rüdiger was able to make the connection between the Romani language and Hindustani. Later his hypothesis was proven showing that Romani people shared a common origin with other Indo-Aryan languages of Northern India. Recently a further connection has been made between Romani and Sinhalese, a language spoken in Sri Lanka.
Iberian (Calo) Gypsies
Los Gitanos de España: The Spanish Gypsies
Known as Gitanos (pronounced heetanos) the Roma people of Spain belong to the Iberian Cale group who are also present in smaller numbers in Portugal and southern France. They are known for a strong sense of identity and cohesion due to a shared value system known as the Gypsy laws or ‘leyes gitanas.’ These social codes call for Cale Gypsies to maintain their social circles limited to within their own and often practice endogamy or the practice of marrying within their ethnic group.
It is not entirely unknown how the Gitanos arrived in the Iberian Peninsula, however a popular theory purports they came via North Africa by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. This theory is bolstered by the fact that they were originally called ‘Tingitanis’ or Gypsies from Tingis (today Tangiers).
Another theory is that they came from France by perhaps crossing over the Pyrenees mountain range through the granting of safe passage in Perpignan, France by Prince of Aragon Alfonso in 1415. It is believed the first Gypsy to arrive in the peninsula was Juan de Egipto Menor (John of Egypt Minor) who also received a letter of insurance from Alfonso V in 1425.
For the 300 years that followed, Romanies were subject to a number of laws meant to expulse them from Spain. Gypsy settlements were broken up and the residents dispersed. Sometimes, Romanies were required to marry non-Roma people and were prohibited from using their language and rituals. In 1749 major raids were organized by the government to get rid of the Gypsy population. Romani were arrested and imprisoned, although major discontent from the population at large forced the government to release them.
No other art form is more descriptive of the Gitano culture in Spain than flamenco. The word flamenco applies to the song, dance and guitar used and performed by the Gypsy artists. While much of the information regarding the origin of this art form has been lost in history, it is certain Andalusia is its birthplace.
Flamenco is a hybrid music that evolved from when the Arabs dominated Spain between the 8th and 15th century. After their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula their music and musical instruments were modified and adapted by Christians and Jews, later by Gypsies.
During the mid-1700 to mid-1800s, flamenco’s popularity increased to the point in which schools teaching the art form where created in Cadiz and Seville. This was the time that flamenco dance and singing became a permanent fixture in the ballrooms, bars and stages of the era.
Initially, flamenco songs and dance were performed without musical accompaniment; only by the rhythmical clapping of hands called toque de palmas (palm playing). In the mid-1800s, classical guitarist Julian Arcas introduced guitar playing to this genre.
The Golden Age of Flamenco considered to be between 1869 – 1910 saw this Gypsy art form performed in all cafés cantantes (music cafes) and many other art venues.
The Kalbelia a Romani People Also Known as the Cobra Gypsies
With a tradition of snake charming and venom trading that goes back more than a millenia, the Kalbeliyas or Kalbelias are a tribe of wondering Roma native to the state of Rajasthan in northern India. Their ancestors captivated the imagination of royalty and statesmen with the tricks they performed with serpents. These performances later developed into public shows at the local fairs and bazaars through which they travel.
They are known for a dance form also known as Kalbeliya which has evolved over time and is intricately linked to their lifestyle and history. The dance’s hypnotic and emotional quality encompasses serpentine and reptilian movements representing the cobras which they specialize in charming. In fact, the name Kalbelia means those who love snakes.
Since ancient times, the Kalbeliyas have been frequently moving from one place to another. They do this while the men carry cobras in cane baskets and their women sing, dance and beg for alms.
They revere the cobras and advocate for their preservation. They specialize in safely removing any serpent which inadvertently enters a home. Once they catch the reptile, they take it far away from the village without killing it.
They are a fringe group in society living outside villages residing in makeshift camps called deras. The Kalbelias typically move their camps in a nomadic fashion, creating a circle which they repeat at the end of each cycle. As an alternative source of income, they are experts in local fauna and flora which they use to make herbal remedies they sell to the people of the villages they visit.
Roma People Worldwide
It is known by different names: antiziganism, anti-Romanyism, Romaphobia or anti-Romani sentiment. However, they all describe the same type of hostility, prejudice, racism and discrimination directed at the Romani people and non-Romani itinerant groups of Europe who are also referred to as gypsies. (Some of the non-Romani itinerant groups of Europe are the Yenish, Irish Traveller, Indigenous Norwegian Travellers and the Dutch Woonwagenbewoners.)
Antiziganism goes back hundreds of years, especially in Europe. Some of the hostility and abuse aimed at the Romani in Europe are as follows:
Egyptians Act banned Romani from entering the country and required those living in the country to leave within 16 days. Punishment for not complying would result in confiscation of property, imprisonment and deportation. Act was amended in 1554 which ordered the Romani to leave the country within 30 days. Non-complying Romanis were executed.
Moravia and Bohemia
First anti-Romani legislation issued under the Habsburg rule. Three years later a series of fires in Prague blamed on Romani. Ferdinand I ordered them expelled. The Diet of Augsburg declared the killing of Gypsies not to be a crime. A massive killing spree followed. The government finally forbade "the drowning of Romani women and children."
Romanies were prohibited from residing in France by Louis XIV.
Romanies were deported to Brazil.
Organized raids were put together to get rid of the Gypsy population.
Moravia and Bohemia
Joseph I issued a decree declaring the extermination of Romani ordering that "all adult males were to be hanged without trial, whereas women and young males were to be flogged and banished forever." Additionally, they were to have their right ears cut off in the kingdom of Bohemia and their left ear in Moravia. In 1721, Charles VI, amended the decree to include the execution of adult female Romani, while children were "to be put in hospitals for education."
World War II
Nazi Germany and other invaded countries
Some 500,000 Romanies were murdered in a genocide referred as the Porajmos. Like the Jews, they were put into ghettos before they were sent to concentration camps or extermination camps. It is estimated that 25% of European Roma perished in the genocide.
Communist central and eastern Europe
Romani assimilation schemes and restrictions of cultural freedom. Romani language and music banned from public performance in Bulgaria. In Czechoslovakia, tens of thousands of Romanies from Slovakia, Hungary and Romania were re-settled and their nomadic lifestyle was forbidden. Romani women sterilized in Czechoslovakia.
Deported tens of thousands of Romani to central and eastern Europe.
1990s and early 21st century
Europe and Canada
Romanies attempting to migrate were turned back. Visa restrictions were put in place.
Czech Republic and Slovakia
During the dissolution of Czechoslovakia Romanies were left without citizenship.
The Dom People and Their Culture
It was originally believed that the Dom people were part of the Romari until a time in which they split up. Recent research of the Domari language suggest they were a separate group who departed the Indian subcontinent earlier than the Romani, probably around the 6th century.
From early times, the Dom people have possessed an oral tradition which has expressed their culture and history through poetry, music and dance. Consequently, there are three predominant Domari legends about their origin. In one legend the Persian Shah invited a population of some 10,000 Indian musicians (or luri) to come to Persia and serve as official performers. Attempts by the king to have them settle in Persia failed causing the Dom to remain nomadic.
The second legend portrays the Doms initially as Arabs whose connection to India is not original but rather inflicted upon them by expulsion from their original lands. This legend falls in line with the notion that the profession peripatetic (nomadic) performance was imposed upon them as a punishment by Salem ez-Zīr from the tribe of Kleb. The punishment handed down to them said that they must always wander in the wilderness during the hottest hours of the day, ride only donkeys, and live only from singing and dance.
Finally, the third legend states that in the 11th century, India was attacked by a Turko-Persian Muslim general, whose aim was to push Islam into India. As a non-Aryan Indian from a lower castes of society, they were conscripted as foot soldiers. During the battles they headed west into Persia and stayed there at the end of the hostilities, rather than return to the discrimination they faced in India. Although they stayed in Persia for a long period of time, eventually many continued to travel as far west as Armenia and Greece. Eventually, some arrived in Europe, while others went to Syria, Egypt, and North Africa.
The Dom people have long specialized in metalwork and in entertainment. However, these two professions have been associated with different tribes or clans. The sedentary clans or tent-dwellers have for centuries worked as tinners, smiths, producers of skewers, horseshoe makers and other metal artifacts. The more itinerant or nomadic groups are for the most part dancers and entertainers.
The Doms are divided into the following clans or tribes:
French speakers from Algeria.
A group from Egypt.
A tribe that migrated back to Egypt from Europe, mainly made up of men that are blacksmiths and women who work as rope-dancers, tattooists and singers.
Thought to be originally from Aleppo. They are considered to be a long-established group in Egypt and Libya. The men sell animals and act as vets and the women tell fortunes.
The most famous of all the tribes. They are well-known female dancers and musicians of Egypt.
These Dom are sometimes known as Muslim Gypsies and reside in Algeria as well as in parts of the Balkans. They are also erroneously described as "Middle Eastern Roma." Also called "Turkish Gypsies" and "Arabic Gypsies."
Domari Society of Gypsies
The Domari Society of Gypsies, Established in Jerusalem by Amoun Sleem in October of 1999, is a non-profit organization that aims to combat the major issues the Dom people face such as discrimination, cultural marginalization and poverty. It focuses on cultural awareness, empowerment of women and education for the children of the Dom people.
My Personal Experience
She spotted me sitting on a bench by a small park in the center of the city of Iquique in Chile, (a coastal town at the edge of the Atacama Desert just west of the Andes Mountains.) I was waiting for the only travel agency in this sleepy remote outpost to open back from its lunch break: a sacred time of the day in these small Latin American towns when workers go home to consume a hefty lunch and take an hour nap.
Most establishments open at seven in the morning, take a two-hour lunch break at noon but afterwards stay open until nine in the evening. However, back when cellular phones were only a feature of science fiction movies, calling ahead to ascertain hours of operation was a difficult endeavor. Hence, I took a chance and grabbed a taxi from my customer’s office shortly after noontime but arrived an hour before the office would reopen. Needing to kill some time before I could change my ticket to a flight to La Paz, Bolivia, some 400 miles to the northeast, I decided to go across the street and relax at the park.
Dressed in the business uniform of the era: blazer, grey pants, light blue shirt and striped tie, I was easy to spot as someone who did not belong in this casual and somewhat underdeveloped city in Chile. The cement park bench I occupied gave me a direct sight to the front door of the establishment, but it also made my presence obvious to the children playing and the couples taking a midday stroll. I could see them looking at me and recognizing the incongruousness of my presence.
As I sat waiting, I noticed her to my left. She was circling me like a predator trying to determine when the right time to ambush me would be.
She wore a bright red flower-embroidered dress that fell to her ankles. Its low-cut shoulders revealed her dark sun-weathered skin. A red bandana held her hair close to her head. From the corner of my eyes I could detect her protruding clavicle bones betraying poverty and skipped meals. Three children of varying ages kept a safe distance. Obviously, following instructions as to not interfere in their mother’s money making efforts. They had shaggy hair, olive skin and dirty clothing. They were well behaved as they huddled in a circle holding a low voice conversation.
After determining I was a safe and easy target, she made her approach. Her smooth body movements were non-threatening. She advanced toward me from the side, still making sure I could see her coming. She stretched out both hands the way a mother reaches down to pick up a child. She grabbed both my hands in one quick gesture, so swiftly but so gentle that it took me by surprise.
Her hands were rough. Her fingernails had been gnawed making her fingers look like short stumps. She had dozens of bracelets made out of beads. A red string around her neck held onto a small cloth picture of the Virgin Mary. Her sandaled feet had copper rings on three of her toes. She had old Spanish filigree fringe earrings doubtlessly passed on to her from one of her ancestors.
Stunned by her forwardness, I listened to her say: “On lonely days as this one, your soul opens and a fortuneteller like me can guide you and divulge what awaits you in the future.” She continued: “Let me see your palms.” Hypnotically, I acquiesced. As she cuddled my hands in on one of her hands, she used the other to rub my palms and elucidate about the trials and tribulations of my life as well as what the future held for me.
To be honest, I don’t remember what her attempt at prophecy entailed. Undoubtedly, it was all nonsense. However, at the end of her spiel, while still holding firmly to my hands, she said, “how much are you willing to donate to me and my family.” As she let go of my hands I reached in my pocket and pulled out a small bundle of Chilean pesos. At 600 pesos to one US dollar, it looked like a fortune. In reality it was only about four dollars.
My intention was to split the amount with her, but she was too quick and smoothly took the entire booty. She quickly left. At first I was upset to be taken for a fool, but later became amused and happy to perhaps put some food on her table.
Resources and Further Reading
- Romani People
- 5 Intriguing Facts About the Roma
- Roma Culture: Customs, Traditions and Beliefs
- Who are the Roma People
- Gitanos - Roma Confederation
- Dom People
- Nawar People
- Domari Language
- What is Domari?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on May 20, 2020:
Unfortunately, they have been subjected to a lot of bigotry, prejudice and hatred. People often fear cultures and ethnicities that are different from theirs and they don't understand. Thank you for commenting Jo.
Jo Miller from Tennessee on May 20, 2020:
Very interesting, J.C. When I was growing up in these parts I sometimes overheard grown-ups speak of gypsies who might be passing through. They were always feared. I haven't heard them mentioned for years.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on May 15, 2020:
Thank you Mary.
Mary Borges from San Diego, California on May 15, 2020:
JC I enjoyed reading your personal story with a gypsy because a similar thing happened to one of our friends when we were in Italy a couple of years ago. You share so much valuable history in your articles, which makes them a joy to read. Thank you for all your hard work.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on May 15, 2020:
Thank you Mary.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 15, 2020:
This is a very informative article. I once attended a lecture in Pakistan in which the speaker claimed that the Gypsies came from that part of the world. Pakistan used to be part of the Indian subcontinent so this is supported by your article. Enjoyed reading this.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on May 15, 2020:
Thank you Lorna. Always a pleasure to hear from you.
Lorna Lamon on May 15, 2020:
I enjoyed reading this interesting and informative article JC. There are many Irish Traveller groups dotted all over the UK with quite a few in Ireland. For the most part they keep to themselves and live their lives in peace. I have always found this culture fascinating and was a big fan of the music of the Gypsy Kings. Thank you for sharing their history.
Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 14, 2020:
Yeah but why let facts get in the way of a good story.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on May 14, 2020:
Thank you Mel. The legend about the Romani girl stealing the nails doesn't sound right. The Rom people left the Indian subcontinent some seven hundred years after Christ.
Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 14, 2020:
Very interesting article. I can't say I have ever met a real Romani. Urban legends about Cher being Romani are not true, she is Armenian, so I know of no famous Romanis either.
I read an interesting legend where a Romani child stole the nails that were going to be used to crucify Christ. For this reason, God granted them a special exemption from sin for stealing. I don't know who this legend is promulgated by, the Romani or their foes.
Curious that these people are still being persecuted, even in modern democracies. Very well written and organized piece.