views updated May 11 2018



ALTERNATE NAMES: Gypsies; Vlach Roma; Rom; Romanichals; Cales; Kaale; Kawle; Sinti/Manouches

LOCATION: Dispersed population in Europe; parts of Asia, North, Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, North and South Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

POPULATION: 610 million

LANGUAGE: Romani dialects; also the language of the host country

RELIGION: Hinduism with Christianity or Islam (host country religion)


The Roma people originated in India. By the eleventh century ad they were located in the area called Gurjara, in what was then the Rajput Confederacy. A group called Dom belonged to the aboriginal peoples of India but had adopted the Hindu religion and an Indo-Aryan language derived from Sanskrit. Some groups of Dom were nomadic entertainers and artisans.

In the tenth century, a Muslim kingdom arose in what is now Afghanistan, with its capital at Ghasni. In 1017, its ruler, Mahmud Ghazni, launched a series of massive raids into India. He and successive rulers entered India, plundering and massacring the people, carrying off thousands of slaves, and laying waste to the countryside. The Rajputs fought back, during which groups of people were displaced or forced to move out of desolated areas. At some point during the eleventh century, the ancestors of the Roma made their way into the Upper Indus Valley from Gurjara and spent some time in this region.

The ancestors of the Roma then left India and entered northwestern China. From there they followed the ancient trading routes which led them to Persia, then through southern Georgia, Armenia, and finally to the Byzantine Empire. From the Byzantine capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), they reached Romania by at least the fourteenth century. Some groups remained in Romania but many moved on, traveling both west and east. By the end of the fifteenth century, Roma could be found as far west as the British Isles and Spain and as far east as Poland and Lithuania.

At some point during their migration from India, scholars believe their original name, Dom (or Domba in the plural), changed to Rom (singular) and Roma (plural).


Since the fifteenth century, Roma have been a dispersed ethnic population in Europe. Roma in the Romanian-speaking principalities, later including Transylvania, were once enslaved and are known as Vlach Roma (the "ch" in Vlach is pronounced as k or as ch in Scottish loch ). After their emancipation in 1864, many made their way into Central and Western Europe and the Balkans, eventually reaching North, Central, and South America by the 1890s. Today the Vlach Roma are the most numerous and most widespread group of Roma.

In Western Europe, because of persecution in most countries, Roma were forced to become nomadic (moving from place to place). This characteristic gave rise to the tradition in popular literature of the roving "Gypsy." In the past, colonial powers deported or transported Roma to their colonies in Africa, the West Indies, the Americas, and Australia.

Roma from many groups have more recently migrated from Europe to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and elsewhere. They take on the nationality of their host countries and consider themselves American Roma, Canadian Roma, Australian Roma, South African Roma, and so forth.


The speakers normally refer to their language as Romani, Romani chib, or Romanes. There are many dialects, some of which go by different names, such as Romnimus (in Wales), Kaale (in Finland), or Calo (in Spain). Romani has its own unique grammar, as opposed to adopting the grammar of the country in which its speakers live. As an example, note the following comparative sentences:

I am going into the village to buy a horse
from the non-Roma man.

Inflected Romani
Jav ando gav te kinav grast katar o gadjo.
(These words are of Sanskrit/Indian origin)

English Romani
I'm jall in' into the gav to kin a grai from
the gorjo.

Spanish Romani
Voy en el gao para quinelar un gras del

Romani uses many idiomatic expressions, proverbs, and sayings, often with metaphorical qualities. This situation makes it difficult to write dictionaries of Romani with word-for-word equivalents. For example, "He is retiring" in English would be expressed in Romani as Beshel lesko kam (His sun is setting). "What are you thinking?" is expressed as So si tut ando shoro, which means "What do you have in your head?"

Roma usually take Christian names like those of the people around them, such as Milano, Yanko, or Zlatcho for men, and Mara, Tinka, or Pavlena for women. The Vlach Roma have no surnames. Other groups adopt last names similar to those of the people among whom they live. The Vlach Roma also do this for identity papers, driver's licenses, and other documents, but do not use these names among themselves.


Roma folktales and legends are known as paramichia. A legendary hero among the Vlach Roma is Mundro Salamon or Wise Solomon. Other Roma groups call this hero O Godjiaver Yanko. Mundro Salamon is a wise man who uses his mental powers and cunning to escape from those who would harm him or to save others from danger. A typical Mundro Salamon story runs as follows:

One day Mundro Salamon learned that the Martya, or Angel of Death, was about to come and claim the soul of the village miller who was his friend. He went to the Martya and asked her to spare the miller's life because he had small children to support, and the people of the village needed him to grind their corn. She refused, so Mundro Salamon tricked her. "How could you take his soul," he asked her, "if he locked himself in a room?" "I would simply dissolve into smoke and slip under the door," she told him. "Rubbish," Salamon replied. "You mean you could slip inside this peashooter I am whittling for the miller's son?" To prove it, the Martya dissolved into smoke and entered the peashooter. Salamon then plugged both ends of the peashooter, trapping the Martya inside. He locked the peashooter inside a metal box, rowed out to the sea in a boat, and dumped the box over the side. For seven years nobody died, until one day two fishermen casting their nets caught the metal box and retrieved it. They smashed it open, found the peashooter, and unplugged it, allowing the Martya to escape.

Now she began to search for Salamon to get her revenge. But Salamon had anticipated she might escape and had taken precautions. He had shod his horse backwards so that the prints of the horseshoes led the Martya to look for seven years in the wrong direction. She then realized her blunder and spent another seven years looking in the right direction. She finally found Salamon, now an elderly man. "Now I'm going to make you suffer," she told him. "For seven years I will freeze you in ice. Then, for another seven years I will roast you in fire. Then, for seven years I will turn you into rotten pulpwood and you will be nibbled on by maggots. Only after this will I put you out of your misery and take your soul." "Rubbish," Salamon said mockingly. "How can you take my soul? You don't have the power. You're bluffing me." "I'll show you," the Martya screamed, and blew three times on his face. Salamon died smiling. He had outwitted the Martya even in death!


Roma religious beliefs are rooted in Hinduism. Roma believe in a universal balance, called kuntari. Everything must have its natural place: birds fly and fish swim. Thus hens, which do not fly, are considered to be out of balance (and therefore bad luck), as are frogs, which can go into the water and also walk on land. For this reason, Roma traditionally do not eat hens' eggs and avoid frogs. The Roma also believe it is possible to become polluted in a variety of ways, including breaking taboos involving the upper and lower halves of the body. A Roma who becomes polluted is considered out of balance and must be restored to purity through a trial before the Roma tribunal of elders. If declared guilty, he or she is usually given a period of isolation away from other Roma and then reinstated. In severe cases of pollution, a Roma can be outlawed from the group forever, but this is rare today. Children are exempt from these rules and from pollution taboos until they reach puberty.

The surrounding host-culture religions are used for ceremonies like baptisms or funerals for which the Roma need a formal religious institution. Except for the elders who are the spiritual leaders, there are no Roma priests, churches, or bibles except among the Pentecostal Roma, who are a small and new minority. Despite a 1,000-year separation from India, Roma still practice Shaktism, the worship of a god through a female consort. Thus, while Roma worship the Christian God, they pray to Him through the Virgin Mary or Saint Ann.


Roma celebrate the holidays of the various countries in which they live. The Vlach Roma and many other groups celebrate Christmas (December 25) and Easter (March or April). In Romania, there are holidays commemorating the emancipation of Roma slaves. In Muslim countries, Roma often observe Muslim religious holidays.

Christmas and Easter, among the Vlach Rom, are always celebrated by feasts. Sometimes family heads will get together and pool their resources to hold one large feast for the entire community. There will be music, dancing, singing and socializing. At Easter, each family will dye Easter eggs a special color and place them in a large bowl. These are given, one each, to every guest. There is also a ceremony called chognimos, or egg-whipping, where the visitor or guest will bring an egg and hold it in the palm of his hand. The host will do the same, and they will slap their palms together, usually cracking or crushing both eggs. This is believed to bring baxt, or good karma.


When a baby is born, the mother and her baby are considered polluted and are separated from the rest of the household and from other Roma for a predetermined period, which varies among clans and groups. Once this period is over, godparents are selected from the Roma community. They take the baby to a church for the actual baptism ceremony. They also give the baby a small gold cross. When the godparents return with the baptized baby there is a feast called bolimos.

At puberty, shave (boys) and sheya (girls) are initiated into the world of adults. Boys are taught to drive and to work with their adult male family members at the family trade. Girls are instructed by female adults in women's work and strictly chaperoned when they go to movies or shopping. Roma girls do not go on dates and must be chaperoned outside the home. Boys have more freedom and are allowed to go to dances and socialize with non-Roma teenagers. Teenagers enter adulthood when they marry, which is generally at fifteen or sixteen for girls and from sixteen to eighteen for boys. The young married person becomes a Rom (male adult Roma) or a Romni (female adult Roma). The bride, or bori, must serve a period of apprenticeship in the home of her in-laws until the mother-in-law is satisfied that she is following the laws of respect and pollution to the family's satisfaction.

When adults become middle-aged, they graduate to the ranks of the elders: men become spiritual leaders of the community and sit as judges on the tribunal of elders. It is believed that after women go through menopause, they can no longer pollute men. They too become spiritual elders who advise the younger women.

After a death, there is a one-year mourning period called pomana, with feasts for the dead held at three-month intervals. The Roma believe that their deceased join their ancestors and watch over the actions of the living. The spirits of the ancestors are called as witnesses at solemn events like the swearing of oaths at the tribunal of elders, where they are assumed to be spiritually present and able to send a prekaza (jinx) to any Roma who is lying. Roma do not discuss their dead.


When a guest arrives, the Roma host will say "Welcome! God has sent you!" The guest or guests must also be served food and drink. The usual greeting is a handshake, although Roma men often embrace relatives and close friends and kiss them on the cheek. Women also embrace and kiss when they meet. When family or friends visit, the host will often provide entertainment and ask his sons to play music and his eldest daughter to dance. Women must appear modestly dressed before guests and at group gatherings.

Roma body language varies in different countries, but most Roma are very expressive and impulsive. They make use of gestures, use their hands when talking, wink, snap their fingers, and indulge in mimicry. When talking about somebody else, they will imitate his or her voice or mannerisms.

Whereas most modern cultures have two concepts of cleanliness (clean and dirty), the Roma have three: wuzho, or clean; melalo, dirty with honest dirt; and marime, which means polluted or defiled among the Vlach Roma (other groups use different words). While non-Roma are concerned with visible dirt, Roma are concerned with beliefs about ritual pollution.

Another central belief regarding cleanliness involves the upper and lower halves of the body. Roma do not take baths but shower standing up, since the lower part of the body is considered an agent of pollution. The body above the waist is considered clean, and the head is the cleanest and purest area of all. Clothing worn above the waist must be washed separately from clothing worn below the waist (also, men's clothing cannot be washed with women's clothing). Roma wash their hands constantlyafter touching their shoes or door-knobs, or doing anything considered necessary but potentially defiling.

If a Roma person is declared to be polluted, he or she may not socialize with other Roma nor have any dealings with them, since Roma believe that the pollution can spread from one person to another and contaminate the entire community.


The living conditions of Roma vary enormously, from the wealthier, technologically advanced countries like the United States and Canada to impoverished, third-world countries. In any society, Roma usually live at a somewhat lower standard than the non-Roma.

Roma adapt well to societies where there is a surplus of consumer goods that they can buy and sell, or where there is scrap they can collect to recycle. While many Roma are nomadic, especially in Europe, others are sedentary. They might settle in trailer camps, living in horse-drawn wagons or travel trailers, or in modern apartments. Others live in houses in Eastern European villages. Conditions are especially bad in Slovakia, where many Roma live in dilapidated shacks. Others live in shantytowns, or bidonvilles, in France and Spain, which are often bulldozed into oblivion by the town councils while the occupants are at a local feast. Many Roma in Western Europe are squatters, occupying condemned buildings while trying to find more suitable accommodations. In the United States, many Roma own their own homes or rent decent living accommodations. In Central and South America, many are still nomadic and live in tents. In Portugal, Roma travel with horses and wagons and sleep in tents.

Nomadic Roma are often healthier than those who lead sedentary lives. The Roma diet was evolved for a nomadic and active people, and when they settle down and still eat the same types of foods, they often become overweight and suffer from health problems. Women generally live longer than men, who often die in middle age from heart attacks. Roma life can be stressful because of constant problems arising from their lifestyle, which is often misunderstood by the law-enforcement agencies who move them on when they are traveling or, when they are sedentary, harass them over by-laws, work permits, and licenses. In Eastern Europe, there is a high mortality rate among Roma children and infants. Perhaps 80 percent of the orphans in Romania are Roma children suffering from diseases like AIDS (transmitted by infected medical syringes).

Except in rural areas of the less developed countries, most Roma use cars, trucks, and travel trailers. In countries like the United States, they fly to visit relatives or to attend weddings. In Europe, they travel by train, bus, or in their own cars and trailers. The Roma in the United States and other developed nations see the car as a status symbol and try to own an impressive vehicle. They often buy expensive jewelry, watches, home furnishings, and appliances as well as luxurious carpets. In Europe, Roma caravans are often full of expensive china dishes.


Roma families are usually large and extended. The nuclear family is rare and unmarried adults are looked upon with suspicion. To be unmarried means to be out of balance, according to the Roma beliefs. Among the Roma, women are equal to men, but each sex has its own traditional role. The men go out to work and earn the larger sums of money, which tend to come in sporadically, while the women earn the day-today expenses needed to run the household. The Roma woman is the absolute ruler of the home. The eldest daughter, or she bari, also has a special role in the family. She replaces the mother in the role of housekeeper when the mother is sick or absent, and is responsible for the meals, house-cleaning, and the care of her younger siblings. Men do a limited amount of cooking and housework.

Pets are rare among the Roma. Watch-dogs may be kept outside. Cats, which can jump and climb, are taboo.


There is no traditional male Roma costume. Women among the Roma wear a traditional costume composed of a full, ankle-length skirt tied on the left side at the waist, a loose, low-cut blouse, a bolero vest, and an apron. In the United States, the bandana of the married woman is often replaced by a thin strip of ribbon. In Europe, the full traditional female costume is still in common use among the Vlach Roma and other more traditional groups. Roma men like to dress well and often adopt a particular style. Roma men wear expensive suits but seldom wear ties, except for Western-style bolos (string ties). In Europe, men in some groups wear a diklo, a type of neckerchief, often with a fancy ring which they use to tighten it. Most Roma men like fancy belt buckles and lots of jewelry. Women also wear jewelry.

For everyday wear, Roma dress casually. Men wear business suits without ties. Hats are popular among older Roma men, who wear them indoors as well as outdoors. Teenagers and younger men adopt the local styles, such as baseball caps, sneakers, and windbreakers. Girls may wear jeans, but if guests arrive, they change into a dress.


Roma food differs from one country to another. Roma enjoy stuffed cabbage rolls and stews. In the past, nomadic Roma always kept a stewpot simmering in the camp. Hedgehogs (porcupines) are a delicacy among some nomadic Roma.

The two basic dietary staples of the Roma are meat and unleavened bread, called pogacha, augmented by salads and fruit. Roma drink a lot of tea, prepared with slices of fruit and sugar. Lambs are roasted outdoors on revolving spits and sprinkled with beer.

There are many taboos surrounding food. Certain foods like peanuts can only be eaten at a pomana or funeral feast. Bread cannot be burned, and any food that falls on the floor is polluted and must be destroyed. Horsemeat is forbidden to all Roma. Food served at a funeral feast must be eaten before sundown or given away to strangers.


Until this century, a formal education was virtually unheard of in the Roma community. Even today, the illiteracy rate is high. In Eastern Europe, some Roma have become doctors, journalists, teachers, nurses, and technicians. Some Roma, however, see formal education as assimilating their childrenschools are viewed as dangerous places and agents of pollution.

Once children of both sexes reach puberty, they are usually taken out of school, and the boys begin to work with their male elders. In Europe, most schools aim at assimilating Roma children into the dominant culture of their country.


The Roma have a strong cultural heritage, which is expressed mainly in music and dance. The roots of Roma music go back to India and show traces of all the musical cultures to which the Roma have been exposed in their migrations. Roma music from certain countries has become world renowned. Foremost is the Flamenco of the Spanish Roma, who are called Cales. Flamenco displays Roma, Moorish, and Spanish influences.

Hungarian Roma music, played on violins and cimbaloms, can be heard in many Hungarian restaurants, even in the United States and Canada. Russian Roma music has also become famous. Under the czars, Roma choirs performed for the royal family and the nobility, while other musicians played for army officers and businessmen at restaurants and inns.


Since their arrival in Europe, Roma have been self-employed artisans, entertainers, and middle men dealing in various commodities. Roma traditionally became horse trainers, animal dealers, and ratcatchers. The Roma economy has been built around self employment and the perpetuation of old skills, plus the acquisition of new skills to adapt to new technological developments.


Sports in general do not appeal to the Roma, although certain regional games can be found, such as Roma wrestling in Romania. Many Roma enjoy horse racing and will patronize local racetracks. Roma men and teenagers also like to play billiards, often for money with non-Roma. It is a status symbol among American Roma teenagers to be a good billiard player. In Europe, Roma participate in mainstream sports, and there are a few Roma soccer teams.


Roma, especially children and teenagers, enjoy going to the movies. The television, if there is one, is usually left on so that the children may watch it. Since Roma often have little to do with non-Roma, except for business, many form their ideas of non-Roma culture from what they see on television. Teenagers may adopt the slang they hear from teenagers on television or copy their way of dressing, but for the most part, the surrounding mainstream culture contravenes Roma taboos.


While some individuals have excelled as painters or sculptors, and in other art forms, the majority of Roma practice few handicrafts. Some Roma men make belts or leather clothing, and women may do elaborate embroidery work, while both sexes create artifacts, such as baskets, for sale.

The carving and fretwork (cut-out woodwork) designs seen on the Roma wagons in England became world famous and were later copied by European Roma in some countries. Today, some of the ornately carved versions are made for European collectors by Roma craftsmen.


In Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Hungary, Roma have become the target of prejudice and discrimination. There have been ethnically motivated killings of Roma in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, while in Romania, mobs have burned Roma homes and driven the Roma from villages. In some countries, the Roma are stereotyped as romantic misfits or backward savages who should be civilized and assimilated into the general population.


Gropper, R. C. Gypsies in the City: Cultural Patterns and Survival. Princeton, N.J.: The Darwin Press, 1975.

Hancock, I. A Grammar of Vlax Romani. London & Austin: Romanestan Publications, 1993.

McDowell, Bart. Gypsies: Wanderers Of The World. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 1970.

Tong, D. Gypsy Folktales. New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

Yoors, J. The Gypsies. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967.


Embassy of Romania, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Romania. [Online] Available, 1998.


views updated May 18 2018


ETHNONYMS: Self-designations: Lorn, Roma; Russian: Tsygane


Identification. Gypsies of the former USSR can be divided into more than ten groups distinguished by language or dialect, culture, and way of life. Included among these are the Vlach Roma: Kelderari and Lovari; the non-Vlach Roma: Servi, Russkie (Khaladytko Roma), and Sinti (German); Krymskie Tsygane (Khorokhaia), Lorn (Armenian), and Bosha (Zakavkaz); and Liuli [Jugi] and Mazang Mugat (Central Asian). They live scattered unevenly across European Russia and Ukraine, the Caucasas, southern Siberia, and Central Asia. Groups of Kelderash, Lovari, and Sinti are the only ones who live in great numbers beyond the borders of the former USSR: these Roma have settled in almost every country of the world. Many emigrated to America from Moldavia and Russia at the end of the last century. This article concerns mostly the Roma, or western Gypsies of the former USSR.

Demography. The 1979 census enumerated 209,000 Tsygane in the former USSR. Experts in the West and in the former USSR estimate that there are two to three times that number. The undercount may be because being recorded as a "Tsygan" bears a stigma that many prefer to avoid by registering as a different nationality. At any rate, according to the 1970 census, which reported a total population of 175,335 Gypsies in the Soviet Union, there were 97,955 Gypsies in Russia, 30,091 in Ukraine (34,500 in 1979), 6,843 in Byelorussia, 5,427 in Latvia, and 1,880 in Lithuania. Turning to Central Asia, there were 11,362 in Uzbekistan and 7,775 in Kazakhstan. These figures are based on the number of people holding passports. The number of Central Asian Gypsies may be as high as 156,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Roma speak various dialects of Romani, which is an Indic language related today most closely to modern Hindi. Some dialects of Romani are Rushi (Baltic), Sinti (European), Ungrike (Hungarian), Keldarari and Lovari (Wallachian or Vlach), and Lomari (Armenian). These are in turn influenced by borrowings from the languages of surrounding nationalities: for instance, Kelderari living in Russia borrow from Russian. Recent studies show an increase in Soviet Roma who admit to speaking Romani (59.3 percent in 1959; 74 percent in 1970). Central Asian Gypsies speak Lavzi-Mugat as well as Tajik and Uzbek. Many Moldovan Gypsies speak Romanian as their mother tongue.

History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic evidence suggests that Gypsies left India in the tenth or eleventh century AD., migrating west to Iran (Persia) and the Arabian Peninsula, with some splitting off to the north to Central Asia (although some argue that the Central Asian group arrived in an earlier migration). Some moved westward to Byzantium and the Transcaucasus, reaching Europe by around 1250. The Seljuk and Ottoman expansions caused mass migrations, and by the fifteenth century Roma lived throughout Europe.

Roma entered Russia in two main waves: from the Balkans, some moved to Moldavia and Wallachia, where they were enslaved until the nineteenth century, moving to Russia only after the abolition of slavery in the 1860s. From Europe, Roma first appeared in the Ukraine in 1501 and moved on into Russia and the north. By the mid-eighteenth century, special taxes were imposed on them to limit the occupations and trade they could undertake, and in 1759 the Empress Elizabeth forbade them to enter St. Petersburg. Within the century, however, they were allowed to live there and in Moscow, and many, particularly those who belonged to the famous tsyganskie khory (Gypsy choirs), thrived. Others settled in urban centers and in towns: today there are families who have been settled for generations. Others traveled, some extending their circuit from Moscow to Siberia. Most of these people lived with villagers in the wintertime, renting rooms from them, and traveled from April to October.

In the fifteen years after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Roma flourished. In 1925 the All-Russian Romani Union, led by Alexander V. Germano, was formed, and Gypsies acquired nationality status. In 1927 a Romani alphabet was devised by a group of Romani and Russian teachers. Four schools for Romani students were opened, and others offered some instruction in Romani. Texts, books, and collections of poetry and stories were published in Romany by Romany writers Ivan Rom-Lebedev, N. A. Pankov, Krustalev, N. Dudarova, and others. Two journals, Nevo Drom and Romani Zoria (New Road; Romani Dawn), were published in Romani from 1928 to 1937. In 1931 the Moscow Teatr "Romen" (Romani Theater) was created. For the first three years it performed in Romani; after that it played in Russian. For many years the theater was the center of a Romani cultural renaissance and drew Roma (and other Gypsies) to Moscow from all over the country.

In 1937, however, everything but the theater was "liquidated" (the Romani Union even earlier, in 1931), as Gypsies did not, according to Stalinist reasoning, have a territory or a "stable culture." In the late 1930s, thousands of Roma, under increased pressure to settle and collectivize, were sent en masse to Siberia or shot. Some all-Gypsy collectives were disbanded; the members were forced to integrate with other collectives. In the 1940s entire collectives were destroyed and at least 30,000-35,000 Soviet Roma were killed in the genocide during the Nazi occupation of 1941-1945. After the war, surviving collectives were disbanded by Stalin, and members were made to settle in mixed-nationality collectives. Even so, some Roma began to enter universities during this period, shifting from developing literacy in Romani to becoming educated in Russian. These intellectuals cut a path for some Roma to enter the Communist party and to build academic and professional careers.


During the reign of the czars, Gypsies, in the areas where they were allowed to settle, stayed in camps at the edges of rural village communes, in some places renting rooms or houses in the towns in the winter in exchange for the use of their horses, veterinarians, and metal repair and other services. Traveling was seasonal, in kumpaniia (groups) made up of several extended families. Many Gypsies were already settled in villages of their own, however, before the 1920s, and it was often these people who responded most readily to the government's offer of land for farming. Those who resisted settlement continued to travel, which led to the 1956 decree of the Supreme Soviet, "On Reconciliation of the Vagrant Gypsies to Labor." Rural Roma in many parts of the former USSR still travel seasonally, however, as drovers, farm workers, livestock traders, and street merchants, especially in remote areas of Siberia and Central Asia.

In the big cities, choral groups were among the first to settle. Groups who moved to urban centers after the Revolution preferred to occupy an entire apartment block together rather than be dispersed. In those early years of settlement, some families preferred to carry out most work and daily activity in the courtyard rather than remain inside, separate from each other. Many still live compactly, maintaining community and family ties, language, and Romani identity.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Gypsies were known for their skill as metalworkers, tinsmiths, woodworkers, carpenters, blacksmiths, horse traders and trainers, and in associated occupations. Many Gypsies, especially in Central Asia, work as drovers for collective herds. Many Kalderari still work as tinsmiths, bringing work home to the small settlements near the cities where they live. Work is usually contracted for an entire group (vortachi ) and the profits shared.

During the Russian civil war (1918-1921) Gypsies supplied the Red Army with cavalry horses and in the spring of 1925 formed the first Gypsy collective farm, Khutor Krikunovo, near Rostov. In 1926 the party decreed that the Union republics should set aside land for Gypsies who wanted to farm. Numerous collectives were set up all around the country over the next decade. In addition, many small Gypsy artels, or manufacturing collectives, were set up in the cities; an example of these collectives are the Tsygpishcheprom (Gypsy food industries) in Moscow. Most of these were eliminated as national cartels in the late 1930s, and there are now no all-Gypsy collective farms. There are, however, Gypsy cooperatives that make and sell shirts and jewelry. Some women work as fortune-tellers or as street merchants.

Gypsies are known as dancers, singers, and musicians. Gypsy choruses were extremely popular in the nineteenth century, and today many ensembles, which are usually built around a family, make a living playing at urban restaurants and for weddings. Some of these groups tour Europe. The Moscow Teatr "Romen" employs only about seventy Gypsies full-time. Russia's popular cireuses employ many Gypsies as performers and as animal keepers and trainers.

Many Gypsies work at the same kinds of jobs as do other peoplein offices, factories, and construction and as store managers and gardeners. There are also several doctors, at least one surgeon, several teachers, and lawyers and academics.

Industrial Arts. Many Roma have found applications in construction and industry for their skills as metal workers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, and woodworkers.

Trade. In pre-Soviet times, nomadic Russian Gypsies, living on the edges of Russian villages and towns, carried on small-scale barter of skilled labor for food and clothing or for payment in money. Today some work as street vendors, selling jewelry, chocolate, cosmetics, cigarettes, and other hard-to-come-by goods at the main bazaars. Such tradena levo ("on the left": the black market)was illegal until recently.

Division of Labor. In urban, rural, and nomadic families there are clear-cut work roles for males and females. In the city, men carry out industrial and craft labor, whereas women work as merchants and occasionally as fortune-tellers. Rural and nomadic men are more likely to work with livestock. In urban, assimilated families, women often work outside the homein industry, construction, medicine, and occasionally as teachers and academics. Like other women in the former Soviet Union, Gypsy women work a second shift at home, doing the cleaning, cooking, laundry, and child care. When a daughter-in-law moves in, she takes on many of the tasks of her husband's mother, allowing the older woman some leisure. Men do much of the shopping.

Land Tenure. Well-defined Gypsy land-tenure patterns are difficult to discern since they were not encouraged to settle or acquire land in czarist times, although there are instances of Gypsy settlement in Ukraine in the nineteenth century. In the first two decades of Soviet power, some Gypsies acquired farms and formed collectives and agricultural ventures.


Roma place great value on the extended family. Even in urban areas and among highly assimilated Romani families, the extended family, or tsigni vitsa, is strong. Although they may live in separate homes, family members keep constant contact by telephone and daily visits. The extended family is an important economic unit and the base of a network of economic ties. Kinship for any individual may be reckoned bilaterally, although patriliny is usually the basis of membership in the larger vitsa (clan). A son may decide, however, to retain membership in his mother's vitsa, whereas a wife may take on her husband's. This flexibility is perhaps aided by the fact that Romani kinship terminology is cognatic (i.e., kinship links are not distinguished by gender)father's sister and mother's sister are both called bibi, for example. Kinship terms may be used by younger people as forms of address for older people, and the converse is also true. Phral and pey (brother and sister) can be used as terms of friendship and greeting. Cousins (worof ward ) are not distinguished by degree. Roma often use or are influenced by Russian terms, collapsing terms in usage (e.g., "second-line brother" for "cousin").

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Rom (man) and romni (woman) also mean "husband" and "wife." Roma avoid Soviet ceremonies and have their own interesting wedding ceremonies, which are strictly observed, even in big cities. These ceremonies blend Orthodox wedding ritual and Gypsy custom. Weddings generally take three days. The first day is set aside for the church wedding. On this day there is a mock negotiation of bride-price, or sometimes a mock abduction: the groom's friends and family storm the bride's home, which is barricaded by the bride's family. The bride and groom arrive separately at the church; after they have been "crowned," they travel together to the reception. There they kneel, holding icons while elders bless them with bread and salt. In some weddings, a procession circles the bride, who carries a staff. Dancing and singing are as important as tables bending under the weight of the food. After it is established that the bride is a virgin, guests don red armbands. (In some weddings the sheet is shown.) Guests offer gifts of money to the couple, placing the bills in a carved-out loaf of bread or announcing the amount with words such as, "from me a little, from God much more."

Marriages are customarily arranged by the parents, with the matchmaking usually initiated by the parents of the groom. Many couples marry in their mid-teens. Unmarried young men and women are not allowed to socialize alone together, as great value is placed on female chastity.

Domestic Unit. Young marrieds live with the parents of the husband. The bride is called bori, which means "one that my vitsa has acquired through marriage." The bori takes on most household tasks, giving up all outside activities for some time. For a couple to have only one or two children is rare; usually there are three or four. It is obligatory to live a year or two with the parents, at least before the first child is born. This pattern is reinforced by the urban housing shortage. Among rural and nomadic groups, extended families may stay together, living in adjoining houses. Among drovers, herdsmen travel together on seasonal cattle drives, whereas the women continue their chores in the home area.

Men command deference from women and are served by them in the home. Women may be considered potentially unclean (marime ); in the past a woman had to take care not to brush the man accidentally with her skirts, which could pollute him. This was, however, also a source of female power, for a woman could avenge herself on a man by lifting her skirts before or over him. This could lead to his ostracization for up to a year. Although men make many family decisions and only male elders can judge in the kris (court), women are respected for their skill at bringing in daily provisions. The physical deference of women and the separation of the sexes does not always mean that women are silent, especially once they become elders in their own household.

Inheritance. With state control of most private property the rule in the former USSR until the Gorbachev era, inheritance usually included only personal items. In some cases, among entrepreneurial Gypsies, this can mean significant family treasures. Gold, especially, is prized as a gift between generations.

Socialization. Gypsy families prefer not to turn their children over to day-care centers, although urban women, like other Soviet women who work outside the home, may do so. Women are responsible for most child care, but often they do not care for the children alone; in the country relatives are always nearby, and in the city visits are frequent. Children are often included in adult company, and small ones may be passed from one to another: they receive kisses, are asked to speak, and often are held out to face the rest of the company. Men are also affectionate with children, male and female.

Romani is learned at home, Russian outside the home. There may be conflicts between Romani and Russian (and formerly, Soviet) values, especially for those who receive more schooling. The prime loyalty is to the family: Roma may consider other nationalities to be insufficiently family-oriented. Training in skills begins quite early, and children help their parents in whatever is the family occupation, be it dancing, carpentry, or something else. Girls become skilled at household tasks and may have experience with other kinds of work by the time they marry in their mid-teens. They also learn modestly deferent deportment.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Even today the social organization of Roma is very strong. It is different from the organization of Russian society or Soviet hierarchies. Gypsies are perceived by outsiders as being of low status. Roma themselves have a complex sociopolitical structure. Within, for instance, the group Roma, there are subgroups, "nations," or natsiia, such as the Servi, Kelderari, and so on. Within the natsiia there are bare vitsi and tsigne vitsi (large and small clans), which are often named for a founder. The family is the smallest permanent unit. There are also temporary groupings, called kumpaniia or vortachiia, which work or travel together or are settled in the same place.

Political Organization. The choice of the leader of the kumpaniia is as much a matter of social organization as one of political organization. Although leaders emerge as bare roma (big men), their position is not a fixed office. Different leaders may be chosen for different purposes as well. Certain people who are skilled at communicating with outsiders may take up the title of leader, though sometimes this is only for convenience. Gypsies around the world are organizing the Romani Union, in which educated Gypsies are being elected to offices that correspond to those in the governments of other nations.

Important decisions on the community level are made by the kris, or council of elders. Disputes between families or even entire vitsa are also settled there. Women are usually not allowed to speak during the kris, although they may lobby and brief their male relatives beforehand. Women generally gain influence after they are older, especially after they have acquired wives for their sons.

Social Control. Social control is strict regarding matters of hygiene, modesty, hospitality, marriage, and so on. Breaches may result in ostracism for up to a year, longer in extreme cases. The offending party may be labeled marime and shunned. In some cases, rules are different concerning outsiders: for the sake of the group, one must be more careful in contact with them.

Conflict. Strong societal prejudice has always existed in Russia toward Gypsies, although it may have been tempered in the past, when their skills and trading were more essential to a preindustriai society. Soviet laws designed to stop Gypsy traveling were intended to halt what was considered the source of Gypsy social misbehavior. Many Gypsies, however, do not see traveling as a crime but as a means of livelihood. From the other point of view, Gypsies, who have other notions of proper behavior, often consider other groups to be less clean, hospitable, and so on, than they are. Cultural differences have also contributed to mutual misunderstandings.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Despite the official atheism in the former USSR, many Gypsies have maintained religious traditions and beliefs. Gypsies customarily observe the religion of the people among whom they live. Those in Russia and Ukraine are usually Russian Orthodox; in Estonia and Latvia, Lutheran; in Lithuania and Belarus, Catholic; and in the Crimea and Central Asia, Muslim (Sunni). Religious holidays are very important. In Orthodox families, Christmas (kriguno ) and Easter (patradi ) are specially observed. Tales and rituals enhance Romani interpretation of religious teaching.

Arts. Since the eighteenth century, Russian and Romani cultures have been extensively interrelated. (This type of relationship exists in other countries as well.) Numerous Russian, Ukrainian, and Soviet writers have been inspired by an image of Gypsies that symbolizes Russian longings for "freedom." Two Russian authors deeply influenced were Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) and the symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921). In Pushkin's poem "Gypsies," the hero, Aleko, joins a Gypsy band in Bessarabia but ultimately murders his Gypsy wife Zemphira, who has rejected him, a Gazho (outsider), for a Gypsy lover. This story inspired Blok, who used some of the lines from the Pushkin poem: "the Gypsy camp was moving, the stars shine above."

Much of Romani lore reflects the boundary between Rom and Gazho, although not so romantically, of course, because these reflect the more mundane trials of surviving day to day in a Gazho world. More fantastic tales tell of sons who save the family from giant snakes; of clever boys who steal the Gazho king's horse; of children born at the same hour, their fates intertwined. Much is oral, improvized, and embellished by the best storytellers, who may add a humorous twist. Romani authors have published in the former USSR. In the 1930s Germano, Pankov, and Dudarova published scholarly works and political pamphlets, along with prose, translations from Russian, and textbooks. Ivan Rom-Lebedev and Krustalev wrote plays for the Romani theater, as well as stories. After 1937 nothing was printed in Romani until the 1980s, when there appeared a collection of tales and songs by the sons of storyteller Ishvan Demeter, R. S. and P. S. Demeter. Mateo Maximoff, a Gypsy author writing in Paris, was born in Russia.

A particular musical style known as the "Gypsy Romance" was formalized by the urban Gypsy choral groups in the nineteenth century. Singers perform Russian folk and urban love songs with a vibrato and a semitone decoration that draws from Romani singing. Some songs in Romani are also performed. Violins and guitars back the usually female singers. The style is considered by Russians to be melodramatic and romantic but is still quite popular. Other styles of Romani music are less well known.

It is in the Moscow Romani Teatr "Romen" that many Soviets have come to know Romani music and dance. The original repertoire of the theater was didactic and was designed by Gypsies for Gypsies. After a few years the theater concentrated on non-Gypsy audiences. The repertoire includes plays written by Gypsies, such as We Are Gypsies, 1 Was Born in a Gypsy Camp, and A Girl Who Brought Happiness, as well as Russian and European works such as Pushkin's Gypsies and Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding. The most famous singer to emerge from the theater is Nikolae Slichenko, from Ukraine. The songs of the theater are known all over the former Soviet Union, as the theater has traveled and made films that have a wide distribution.


Andronikova, I. M. (1970). "Evolutsiia Zhilishcha Russkikh Tsygan" (Evolution of Russian Gypsy housing). Sovetskaia Etnografiia 4:31-45.

Barannikov, A. P. (1931). Tsygane SSSR: Krathii istorikoetnograficheskii ocherk (Gypsies of the USSR: Ethnohistorical studies). Moscow: Tsentrizdat.

Barannikov, A. P. (1934). The Ukrainian and South Russian Gypsy Dialects. Leningrad: Publishing Office of the Academy.

Demeter, N. G. (1987). "Semeinaiai obriadnost' tsigan v kontse XIX-XX VV. (na primere etnicheskoi gruppy kelderari) " (Household ceremonies of Gysies from the end of the 19th through the end of the 20th centuries [with the Kalderash ethnic group as an example]). Dissertation, ANSSSR Institute of Ethnography, Moscow.

Demeter, R. S., and P. S. Demeter (1981). Obraztsy fol'klora Kelderarei (Forms of Kalderash folklore). Moscow: Nauka.

Demeter, R. S., and P. S. Demeter (1990). Tsygansko-Russki i Russko-Tsyganski slovar' (Kelderarskii Dialekt ) (Gypsy-Russian and Russian-Gypsy dictionary [Kalderash dialect]). Moscow: Russkii Iazik.

Germano, A. (1928). "Tsygane" (Gypsies). Bezbozhnik 1:11-13.

"Gypsies," "Gypsy Literature," "Gypsy Music," and "Gypsy Romance." In The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. 3rd ed. Vol. 28, 197-198, 437-438.

Janicki, Joel (1989). "Gypsies." In The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet Literatures, edited by George J. Gutsche. Vol. 9, 186-189. Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International Press.

Rom-Lebedev, I. I. (1990). Ot tsyganskovo khora k teatru "Romen " (Concerning the Gypsy chorus in the "Rom" theater). Moscow: Isskustvo.



views updated May 21 2018


The name Gypsy, an abbreviation of "Egyptian," has been used for centuries by English-speaking people to denote a member of a group of wanderers who traveled Europe during the Middle Ages, and whose descendants are still found in most European countries.

Many other names, such as "Saracen" and "Zigeuner," or "Cigan," have been applied to these people, but "Egyptian" is the most widespread. It does not, however, relate to Egypt, but to the country of "Little Egypt" or "Lesser Egypt," whose identity has never been clearly established. Two Transylvanian references from the years 1417 and 1418 suggested that Palestine is the country in question, but there is some reason to believe that "Little Egypt" included other regions in the East. It is now almost unanimously agreed that the Gypsies came into Europe from India.

There are strong resemblances between Indian and gypsy language. Gypsies speak of themselves as "Romany" and of their language as Romani-tchib (tchib= tongue). Physically they are black-haired and brown-skinned, their appearance, like their language, suggesting affinities with Hindustan.

In recent centuries, if not in earlier times, many of their overlords were not of Gypsy blood, but belonged to the nobility and petite noblesse of Europe, and were formally appointed by the kings and governments of their respective countries to rule over all the Gypsies resident within those countries. The title of baron, count, or regent of the Gypsies was no proof that the official so designated was of Gypsy race.

The appointed rulers, were empowered by Christian princes, and under Papal approval, were necessarily Christian. Moreover, their vassals were at least Christian by profession. Although their behavior was often inconsistent with such a profession, it was in the character of Christian pilgrims that they asked and obtained hospitality from the cities and towns of Medieval Europe.

This twofold character is illustrated in connection with the services held in the crypt of the church of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, in the Ile de la Camargue, Bouches-du-Rhône. In this church many Gypsies annually celebrate the Festival of the Holy Marys on May 25. The crypt is specially reserved for them, because it contains the shrine of Saint Sara of Egypt, whom they regard as their patron saint. Throughout the night of the 24th-25th May they keep watch over her shrine, and on the 25th they leave. Among the Gypsy votive offerings presented in the crypt, some are believed to date back to about the year 1450.

All this would appear to indicate that the Gypsies were Christians. Another statement, however, tends to qualify such a conclusion. The assertion that the shrine of Saint Sara rests upon an ancient altar dedicated to Mithra, that the Gypsies of that neighborhood who are known as "Calagues," are descended from the Iberians formerly inhabiting the Camargue, and that their cult is really the Mithraic worship of fire and water, upon which the veneration of Saint Sara is superimposed.

Many believe that confirmation of this view is the worship of fire still existing among the Gypsies of Southern Hungary although this is also characteristic of India. There are special ceremonies observed at childbirth, in order to avert evil during the period between birth and baptism. Prior to the birth of the child, the Gypsies light a fire before the mother's tent, and this fire remains until the rite of baptism has been performed. The women who light and feed the fire recite the following chant:

   "Burn ye, burn ye fast, O Fire!
   And guard the babe from wrathful ire
   Of earthy Gnome and Water-Sprite,
   Whom with thy dark smoke banish quite!
   Kindly Fairies, hither fare,
   And let the babe good fortune share,
   Let luck attend him ever here,
   Throughout his life be luck aye near!
   Twigs and branches now in store,
   And still of branches many more,
   Give we to thy flame, O Fire!
   Burn ye, burn ye, fast and high,
   Hear the little baby cry!"

It is noted that the spirits of the Earth and Water here are regarded as malevolent, and only to be overcome by the superior aid of fire. These women who are believed to have learned their occult lore from the unseen powers of Earth and Water are held to be the greatest magicians of the tribe.

Moreover, the water-being is not invariably regarded as inimical, but is sometimes directly propitiated. As when a mother, to charm away convulsive crying in her child, goes through the prescribed ceremonial details, including casting a red thread into the stream and repeating the following: "Take this thread, O Water-Spirit, and take with it the crying of my child! If it gets well, I will bring thee apples and eggs!"

The water-spirit appears again in a friendly character when a man, in order to recover a stolen horse, takes his infant to a stream, and, bending over the water, asks the invisible genius to indicate, by means of the baby's hand, the direction in which the horse has been taken. These two instances demonstrate the worship of water and the watery powers. Although these rites may be ascribed to Mithraism in its later stages, they may have an earlier origin.

Joseph Glanville 's observation of a young Gypsy inspired Matthew Arnold's poem, "The Scholar-Gypsy." In his Vanity of Dogmatising (1661), Glanville states, "There was lately a lad in the University of Oxford who was, by his poverty, forced to leave his studies there, and at last to join himself to a company of vagabond Gypsies. After he had been a pretty while exercised in the trade," this scholar-gypsy chanced to meet two of his former fellow-students, to whom he stated, "that the people he went with were not such imposters as they were taken for, but that they had a traditional kind of learning among them, and could do wonders by the powers of imagination, their fancy binding that of others; that himself had learned much of their art, and when he had compassed the whole secret, he intended," he said, "to leave their company, and give the world an account of what he had learned."

It is believed that ancient Gypsies had knowledge and exercised hypnotism. Even among modern Gypsies this power is said to be exercised. Col. Eugene De Rochas stated that the Catalan Gypsies were mesmerists and clairvoyants, and the writer Lewis Spence supposedly experienced an attempt on the part of a South Hungarian Gypsy to exert this influence.

The same power, under the name of "glamour," was formerly an attribute of the Scottish Gypsies. Glamour was defined by Sir Walter Scott as "the power of imposing on the eyesight of the spectators, so that the appearance of an object shall be totally different from the reality."

Scott in explanation of a reference to "the Gypsies' glamour'd gang," in one of his ballads, he remarks: "Besides the prophetic powers ascribed to the Gypsies in most European countries, the Scottish peasants believe them possessed of the power of throwing upon bystanders a spell to fascinate their eyes and cause them to see the thing that is not. Thus in the old ballad of 'Johnnie Faa,' the elopement of the Countess of Cassillis with a Gypsy leader is imputed to fascination

   "Sae soon as they saw her weel-faur'd face,
   They cast the glamour o'er her."

Scott also relates an incident of a Gypsy who "exercised his glamour over a number of people at Haddington, to whom he exhibited a common dunghill cock, trailing, what appeared to the spectators, a massy oaken trunk. An old man passed with a cart of clover, he stopped and picked out a four-leaved blade; the eyes of the spectators were opened, and the oaken trunk appeared to be a bulrush." Supposedly the quatrefoil, owing to its cruciform shape, acted as an antidote to witchcraft. Moreover, in the face of this sign of the cross, the Gypsy had to stop exercising the unlawful art. As to the possibility of hypnotizing a crowd, or making them "to see the thing that is not," that feat has often been ascribed to African witch doctors. What is required is a dominant will on the one hand and a sufficiently plastic imagination on the other.

Scott introduces these statements among his notes on the ballad of "Christie's Will," in relation to the verse:

   "He thought the warlocks o' the rosy cross,
   Had fang'd him in their nets sae fast;
   Or that the Gypsies' glamour'd gang
   Had lair'd his learning at the last."

This association of the Rosicrucians with Gypsies is not inapt, for hypnotism appears to have been considered a Rosicrucian art. Scott has other suggestive references including:

"Saxo Grammaticus mentions a particular sect of Mathematicians, as he is pleased to call them, who, 'per summam ludificandorum oculorum peritiam, proprios alienosque vultus, varus rerum imaginibus, adumbraie callebant; illicibusque formis veros obscurare conspectus.' Merlin, the son of Ambrose, was particularly skilled in this art, and displays it often in the old metrical romance of Arthour and Merlin. The jongleurs were also great professors of this mystery, which has in some degree descended, with their name, on the modern jugglers."

Various societies are credited with possession, of the art of hypnotism, during the Middle Ages. Presumably, it was inherited from one common source. How much the Gypsies were associated with this power may be inferred from a Scottish Act of Parliament of the year 1579, which was directed against "the idle people calling themselves Egyptians, or any other that fancy themselves to have knowledge of prophecy, charming, or other abused sciences." For the term "charming," like "glamour" and other kindred words (e.g., "enchantment," "bewitched," "spellbound") bore reference to the mesomeric influence.

The statement made by Glanvill's scholar-gypsy would lead one to believe that the Gypsies inhabiting England in the seventeenth century possessed other branches of learning. They have always been famed for their alleged prophetic power, exercised through the medium of astrology and chiromancy or palmistry, and also by the interpretation of dreams, this last named phase being distinctly specified in Scotland in 1611. It does not appear that any modern Gypsies profess a traditional knowledge of astrology. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the scholar Francis H. Groome was shown by a Welsh Gypsyman the form of the written charm employed by his mother in her fortune-telling, and that form was unquestionably a survival of the horoscope. Both mother and son were obviously unaware of that fact, and made no profession of astrology, but they had inherited the scheme of the horoscope from ancestors who were astrologers.

The practice of palmistry is still identified with the Gypsies, as it has been for ages. A curious belief was current in medieval times to the effect that the Three Kings or Magi who came to Bethlehem were Gypsies, and in more than one religious play they were represented as telling the fortunes of the Holy Family by means of palmistry. This circumstance evoked the following suggestive remarks from Charles Godfrey Leland.

"As for the connection of the Three Kings with Gypsies, it is plain enough. Gypsies were from the East; Rome and the world abounded in wandering Chaldean magi-priests, and the researches which I am making have led me to a firm conclusion that the Gypsy lore of Hungary and South Slavonia has a very original character as being, firstly, though derived from India, not Aryan, but Shamanic, that is, of an Altaic, or Tartar, or 'Turanian' stock. Secondly, this was the old Chaldean-Accadian 'wisdom' or sorcery. Thirdlyand this deserves serious examinationit was also the old Etruscan religion whose magic formulas were transmitted to the Romans.

"The Venetian witchcraft, as set forth by Bernoni, is evidently of Slavic-Greek origin. That of the Romagna is Etruscan, agreeing very strangely and closely with the Chaldean magic of Lenormant, and marvelously like the Gypsies'. It does not, when carefully sifted, seem to be like that of the Aryans. nor is it Semitic. To what degree some idea of all this, and of Gypsy connection with it, penetrated among the people and filtered down, even into the Middle Ages, no one can say. But it is very probable that through the centuries there came together some report of the common origin of Gypsy and 'Eastern' or Chaldean lore, for since it was the same, there is no reason why a knowledge of the truth should not have been disseminated in a time of a traditions and earnest study in occultism."

These surmises on the part of a keen and accomplished student of every phase of magic, written and unwritten, are deserving of the fullest consideration. By following the line indicated by Leland it may be possible to reach an identification of the "traditional kind of learning" possessed by the Gypsies in the seventeenth century.

Leland also identified the gypsy language Shelta (as distinct from Romany) surviving in Ireland.

Gypsies have also been noted for their folk music, especially for the Flamenco style surviving in Andalucia (Spain).


Bercovici, Konrad. The Story of the Gypsies. Cosmopolitan Book Corp., 1928. Reprint, Detroit: Gale Research, 1974.

Black, George F. A Gypsy Bibliography. London: Gypsy Lore Society, 1914. Reprint, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Gryphon Books, 1971.

Borrow, George. Lavengro; the Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest. 3 vols. London, 1851.

. The Romany Rye. London, 1957.

Clébert, Jean-Paul. The Gypsies. London: Vista Books, 1963. Reprint, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1967.

Leland, Charles G. The English Gipsies and Their Language. London, 1893.

. Gypsy Sorcery. New York: Tower, n.d.

Starkie, Walter. Raggle Taggle; Adventures With a Fiddle in Hungary and Roumania. London, 1933.

Trigg, E. B. Gypsy Demons and Divinities: The Magical and Supernatural Practices of the Gypsies. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1973. Reprint, London: Sheldon Press, 1975.

Roma (Gypsies)

views updated Jun 27 2018


ROMA (GYPSIES). The Roma, or Romani, entered southeastern Europe via the Byzantine Empire in the late Middle Ages from India. Early chronicles referred to the Roma as AEgyptians, hence the name Gypsies. However, in much of Europe they are referred to as Zigeuner, cigán, cigány, or tsiganes, which are derived from the Byzantine Greek word Atsínganoi, 'itinerant soothsayers and wanderers'. Most members of this diverse ethnic group prefer to be called Roma, 'group', or Romas, the adjectival form being Romani.

By the beginning of the early modern period, there were Roma scattered throughout the Balkans. While most lived as nomads, those in Walachia and Moldavia (modern Romania), traditionally the European homeland of the Roma, had been enslaved by the boyars (nobility). Initially the Roma were respected for their skills as metalsmiths, gunsmiths, equine specialists, and musicians. As the Ottoman Turks gradually took over other parts of the Balkans, the Roma were subject to a growing body of prejudice that sought to restrict their settlement patterns or force them into a more permanent nomadic status.

Some Roma who tried to seek refuge in central and western Europe met with similar prejudice, particularly in the Holy Roman Empire. By the beginning of the early eighteenth century, Habsburg rulers threatened nomadic foreign Roma with branding, torture, and execution if they were caught. Such policies changed during the Enlightenment, particularly under Maria Theresa (ruled 17401780) and her son Joseph II (ruled 17801790). They adopted new policies designed to force the Roma to assimilate into Habsburg society; this included kidnapping Roma children, who were then placed into foster Catholic homes. They also ordered that wheels be taken off Roma wagons, and they limited the number of horses that a Roma family could own. Most of these policies failed, and many Habsburg Roma resumed their nomadic ways. One of the few good results of these policies was a series of extensive Habsburg Roma censuses detailing Roma life at the end of the Enlightenment.

The plight of the Roma in the rest of the Balkans was not much better, particularly in Walachia and Moldavia, where the Roma remained slaves until 1864. The Roma suffered from similar discrimination in other parts of Europe during this period. They had entered France as early as the fifteenth century and also moved out of the Balkans into the German states, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Russia, although the bulk of Europe's Roma remained in the Balkans.

While most of Roma history in the early modern period tends to focus on various aspects of the discrimination they faced, the Roma contributed significantly to the history and culture of Europe during this period, particularly in the fields of music and literature. They formed the modern basis of Russian choral music and Spanish Flamenco and inspired some of Europe's most prominent writers.

See also Balkans ; Holy Roman Empire ; Persecution ; Romania .


Crowe, David M. A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia. New York, 1995.

Fraser, Angus. The Gypsies. Oxford, 1992.

David M. Crowe


views updated May 21 2018


GYPSIES is the general term as well as a self-designation for a number of distinct ethnic groups that differ from one another socially, politically, and economically. Each group maintains social distance from each other and from non-Gypsies. A source of fascination and suspicion, itinerant Gypsies were subject to expulsion by authorities. Between 1859 and 1931, twelve states passed laws, subsequently repealed, to tax or regulate "roving bands of nomads, commonly known as gypsies."

The Romnichels emigrated from England as families primarily from 1850 to 1910. Some purchased land and created settlements or "Gypsy corners"; land ownership provided an assured camping place, loan collateral, or supplementary income. Romnichel immigrants were cutlers, basket makers, and rat catchers, but with the increased use of horses in agriculture and urban transportation, this group's primary occupation became horse trading. They traded horses while traveling and shipped animals by rail to urban sales stables. When the horse trade declined following World War I, they resorted to previously secondary occupations, such as manufacturing rustic furniture, basketry, fortune-telling, driveway paving, and septic tank cleaning.

Although their religious preferences were conventionally Protestant, many formed fundamentalist Christian congregations. Kindreds, identified by surnames, are associated with distinctive cultural and psychological traits that are important in social evaluations based on an ideology distinguishing ritually clean from unclean behavior.

Rom families emigrated from Serbia and the Russian empire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in groups as large as two hundred persons. Although Rom occupations included horse trading, fortune-telling, and repairing industrial equipment, coppersmithing, the wipe tinning of copper kettles, was a specialty. When new technologies replaced copper vessels and horses, Roma developed urban fortune-telling businesses, using vacant stores for both houses and businesses and contracting with amusement parks and carnivals. Local ordinances and Rom territoriality based on the fortune-telling business dictated population density. Driveway sealing and paving, trade in scrap metal or used vehicles, and auto body repair also became common occupations. During the Great Depression, spurred by the Rom leader Steve Kaslov and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and social service agencies in New York City established short-lived adult education classes and a coppersmith workshop for this group.

Rom kinship is strongly patrilineal, and household organization is patrilocal. Conflicts are resolved by juridical systems that impose fines or the threat of banishment. Their ideology separates pure from impure, good luck from bad, male from female, and Gypsy from non-Gypsy. Marriages are arranged by families and include a bride price, or couples elope. Roma generally are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, and their communal rituals echo Serbian Orthodox practices. However, some Roma founded Pentecostal Christian churches that preached against earlier practices.

Ludars immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1910 from Bosnia and speak a Romanian dialect. Animal exhibitors, they arrived with trained bears and monkeys. Initially, they worked in horse trading and industrial wage labor. The Great Depression forced some to take WPA-sponsored road construction work, while the WPA circus employed a Ludar showman and his performing bear. Subsequent occupations included carnival concessions, manufacturing outdoor furniture, driveway paving, and seasonal agricultural work.

From 1908 to 1939, Ludars established permanent camps on leased land, particularly in the Bronx and Queens, New York; Stickney Township near Chicago; and Delaware County, Pennsylvania, from which they made seasonal journeys or commuted to tell fortunes from house to house. Ludar religion is traditionally Eastern Orthodox, and marriages, arranged by parents with a bride price, are performed by a justice of the peace or in Orthodox or Catholic churches.

Slovak Gypsies, historically sedentary, immigrated to the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries primarily from Saros County in eastern Slovakia. Speaking a dialect of Romani, the men arrived singly or in small groups, and their wives and children followed later. Defined by musical performances, some settled in New York City, where they played in saloons, hotels, and theaters. Others, including the WPA Gypsy orchestras, established settlements in western Pennsylvania; Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit; and Chicago, where they played for ethnic and general audiences and performed industrial labor. Most remained Roman Catholics.


Gropper, Rena C. Gypsies in the City: Culture Patterns and Survival. Princeton, N.J: Darwin Press, 1975.

Lockwood, William G., and Sheila Salo. Gypsies and Travelers in North America: An Annotated Bibliography. Cheverly, Md.: Gypsy Lore Society, 1994.

Salo, Matt T. "Gypsy Ethnicity: Implications of Native Categories and Interaction for Ethnic Classification." Ethnicity 6, no. 1 (1979): 73–96.

Salo, Matt T., and Sheila Salo. "Gypsy Immigration to the United States." In Papers from the Sixth and Seventh Annual Meetings, Gypsy Lore Society, North American Chapter. Edited by Joanne Grumet. New York: Gypsy Lore Society, 1986.

———. "Romnichel Economic and Social Organization in Urban New England, 1850–1930." Urban Anthropology 11, no. 3–4 (1982): 273–313.

Sutherland, Anne. Gypsies: The Hidden Americans. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1986.

Matt T.Salo


See alsoEthnohistory ; Immigration .


views updated May 18 2018


Gypsies (tsygane in Russian, while Roma is the name preferred by this group) have been one of the most visible and yet least powerful of ethnic groups in Russia. The population is considerably larger than the 153,000 in the Russian Federation who were listed as Gypsies in the 1989 census. This is due to underreporting, a high birth rate, and immigration from former Soviet republics. Roma leaders claim a population of at least one million. As is true of Roma populations all over Europe, little is known of their ethnic origins and history as a people, though it is theorized that Gypsies originated in India. Many migrated to Russia by way of Germany and Poland during the eighteenth century after suffering persecution there. Romani, the language spoken by most gypsies, has Indo-European roots with some links to ancient Sanskrit.

Gypsies are widely dispersed across Russia, with communities in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Samara, Komi Republic, Sverdlovsk, Vologda, Volgograd, Voronezh, Yaroslavl, and elsewhere. Following long-standing cultural traditions, Roma have resisted assimilation and exist on the margins of society. Geographic dispersal and social marginalization meant that the Roma did not enjoy the state support that often characterized Soviet nationality policy. Gypsies had no territorial entity of their own, no schools offering instruction in their own language, and no newspapers. The first Roma newspaper in Russia began publication in Samara only in 2001. Even under Josef Stalin, however, the cultural role of gypsies in Soviet society was recognized. In 1931 the Romen Theater opened in Moscow. It was the first theater in the world to showcase gypsy culture, and gypsy actors and musicians performed and were trained there. The theater continues to be active in post-Soviet Russia. Gypsy themes have been prominent in Russian culture, particularly through the popular film Tabor Goes to Heaven (Tabor ukhodit v nebo ) which was released in 1976.

In Russia as in the rest of Eastern Europe, gypsies have been the object of public scorn and official repression. Many have traditionally engaged in illegal or semilegal occupations such as black marketeering, petty theft, fencing stolen goods, and organized begging. This is both a cause and effect of the lack of acceptance of gypsies in Russian society. During the Soviet period, gypsies often engaged in black-market selling of alcohol and perfume, as well as fortune-telling and other occult arts. State repression of the gypsies reached a new height during the Nikita Khrushchev period. New regulations issued in 1957 attempted to restrict their movements outside of places where they were registered. This attempt to prevent the movement of gypsies has continued in post-Soviet Russia, with the police sometimes tearing down illegal gypsy settlements and forcing residents to return to their home region. With the expansion of private enterprise in post-Soviet Russia, the Roma reportedly have been squeezed out of their traditional commercial occupations, with even fortune-telling taken over by non-gypsy entrepreneurs who had an easier time dealing with the authorities. There has been an increasing incidence of gypsies involved in more serious crimes, such as the drug trade, a tendency bemoaned by leaders of the Roma community.

In 2000 the Russian government officially recognized the need for gypsies to have a political voice, and it authorized the creation of a council that would defend gypsy interests. Its leaders have campaigned against frequent stereotyping of gypsies in the media and have condemned police harassment based solely on ethnic identity.

See also: gypsymania; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Crowe, David M. (1994). A History of Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia. New York: St. Martin's Press.

European Roma Rights Center (2003). "Written Comments of the European Roma Rights Center Concerning the Russian Federation for Consideration by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at its Sixty-second Session, March 321, 2003." <>

Darrell Slider

gypsies and tinkers

views updated May 17 2018

gypsies and tinkers had different origins although the terms are sometimes interchangeable. Gypsies came from northern India and adopted a wandering life-style, keeping their Romany language and traditions. They arrived in the British Isles during the 15th cent. and their foreignness led to the presumption that they were Egyptians, corrupted to ‘Gypsy’. They earned their livings by dealing in horses and making small household goods. Some of the women told fortunes and sold charms, which added to their air of mystery and magic, although it brought the dangers of being associated with witchcraft.

In Scotland and Ireland gypsies were often called tinkers because of their similar wandering life-style. A ‘tinker’ was an itinerant metalworker, who sharpened cutting tools and made or repaired items for household or farm use.

Despite the idyllic life described by George Borrow and other romantics of the 19th cent., tinkers and gypsies had a reputation for fecklessness and theft. They attracted hostility largely because of their refusal to accept a settled way of life. They were often treated harshly. Gypsies from Germany, expelled by laws forbidding their traditional life-style, were denied refuge in the British Isles early in the 20th cent. Recently local authorities have attempted to control travellers' movements by designating approved sites, and powers to move them on were enhanced during the 1980s.

Ian John Ernest Keil


views updated May 29 2018

gyp·sy / ˈjipsē/ (also gip·sy) • n. (pl. -sies) a member of a traveling people with dark skin and hair who speak Romany and traditionally live by seasonal work, itinerant trade, and fortune-telling. Gypsies are now found mostly in Europe, parts of North Africa, and North America, but are believed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent. ∎  the language of the gypsies; Romany. ∎  a person who leads an unconventional life. ∎  a person who moves from place to place as required by employment.• adj. (of a business or business person) nonunion or unlicensed: gypsy trucking firms.DERIVATIVES: gyp·sy·ish adj.


views updated May 23 2018

gypsy a member of a travelling people with dark skin and hair, speaking a language (Romany) related to Hindi, and traditionally living by seasonal work, itinerant trade, and fortune telling. Gypsies are now found mostly in Europe, parts of North Africa, and North America, but are believed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent. They have at various times been subjected to persecution and forced migration, notably in Nazi Germany.

The word (originally gipcyan) dates from the mid 16th century, and is short for Egyptian, because gypsies were popularly supposed to have come from Egypt.


views updated May 21 2018


ROMA. SeeGypsies .