Introduction: The People of Oral Tradition
The Rom, better known in many countries as “Gypsies,” were a nomadic people suffering from the inveterate hostility of local populaces who regarded them as misfits, intruders, and foreigners. Sedentary peoples have always viewed wanderers with suspicion, and Gypsies have been attributed with every failing over the centuries and subject to much persecution.
The religious concepts of the Rom testify to a profound syncretism of pagan and Christian elements. Having coexisted with numerous peoples of different religions over the course of their tribulations, the Gypsies have certainly borrowed elements from them, but they nevertheless maintained an old pagan pool of beliefs that reveals its existence in the worship of nature, stars, and the elements.
As the Gypsies are a people of an oral culture, credit is due to the collectors of folk traditions and ethnologists for having assembled the materials from which it is possible to form some idea of the mythology of the Gypsies.
DICTIONARY OF GYPSY MYTHOLOGY
ENGAGEMENT: A week before the wedding day, the fiancées go to the nearest lake or river at night where they stick candles in the bank or hang them from a bush. Among the nomadic Gypsies of Transylvania, this is seen as an offering intended to ensure the fruitfulness of the marriage. If the wind blows the candles out, it is viewed as a bad omen, and the betrothed couple hasten to toss apples and eggs into the water to placate the water spirits. It is believed that the fiancé or fiancée whose candle is extinguished first will be the first to die.
If a Bohemian wishes to get married, he hangs a red scarf on the tent of the person he has chosen. If she takes the scarf, it is a sign that she has accepted his marriage proposal.
Folk tales mention another rite used to determine one’s future wife. All the young women of marriageable age are made to line up in the village and the suitors are assembled at the end of the meadow. Each of them throws an egg at the one who has caught his eye, and is obliged to marry whoever the egg hits. In one story, one of the eggs thrown this way strikes a frog who is subsequently revealed to be a young woman who had been metamorphosed.
Wlislocki, Heinrich von, Märchen und Sagen, n° 24; Wlislocki, Heinrich von, Volksdichtungen..., n° 64.
GLOW WORM (grinda somnákube): The Gypsies believe that this creature lingers around places where gold has been buried. When it dies, it changes into this metal.
Wlislocki, Heinrich von, Vom wandernden zigeunervolk, 129.
GYPSY DIASPORA: There are several different etiologies concerning the dispersal of the Gypsies across the world and their lack of any fixed abode. According to one legend, when the trades were being awarded to the different people, the Gypsy hid behind God who granted him a portion of what the people gathered there had received. This is why the Gypsies have no country, are scattered across the world, and have to beg them for their portion.
Another legend says how when fleeing to escape the gaze of God, the Gypsies colored their faces black, tore their clothing, hid beneath a bridge, and waited. When God came along, they tried to scare him. He looked at them and said: “Your fate will be to always roam!”
When God divvied up lands and goods, he overlooked the Gypsies and gave them barren lands, authorizing them to steal and cheat. And when he gave everyone their share of destinies, the Devil was their lot.
It is also said, in the myth of the Egyptian origin of the Gypsies, that Pharavono (Pharaoh) irritated Moses and that God then cursed him to wander over the earth with his people.
Nounev, Y., “Legends,” 49; Kabakova G., Contes et Légendes tsiganes 67, 76; Kenrick, D., Golemanov, D., Three Gypsy tales from the Balkans, 60; Obert, n° 30.
ILLITERACY: The Gypsies regard their lack of a written culture as a curse and have a number of legends that explain why. One shows how Dundra, the messenger of God, revealed to them their secret laws and had them written down in a book. The Gypsies left India for Chaldea, but when this country could no longer feed them, the mages ordered them to separate. The most courageous of them returned to India with the sacred books and, today, no one knows what ever 4 became of them.
According to another tradition, God came down to earth to give the Gypsies an alphabet, but the only person he could find was an old man accompanied by a donkey because everyone else had gone off to harvest the fruit of the blackthorn. He gave this old man the alphabet written out on a cabbage leaf, but the donkey ate it and thus the Gypsies do no not have an alphabet.
Zanko, the chieftain of the Chalderash tribe lamented in 1955: “We have no right to a writing. This is our curse.” According to another tradition, it was their punishment for forging the nails that were used on Christ’s cross. On the other hand, God awarded them the talent to know how to organize festivities and celebrations.
In 1837, Michel de Kogalnitchan (Mihail Kogălniceanu) observed: “The Gypsies still have no alphabet and they undoubtedly will never have one, for as they become more civilized, they will start experiencing new needs and will not feel the need to preserve a language as defective as theirs.”
Berger, Hermann, “Mythologie der Zigeuner,” 810, de Ville F., Tziganes, témoins des temps, 69–71; Kabakova G., Contes et Légendes tsiganes, 68; Zanko, chef tribal chez les Chalderash, 13, 31; Kogalnitchan Michel de, Esquisse sur l’histoire, les moeurs et la langue des Cigains connus en France sous le nom de Bohémiens, Berlin: Librairie Behr, 1837, 36.