Hush ye, hush ye, dinna fret; the Black Tinker winna get ye yet," goes one old Scottish lullaby, echoing the fear with which Gypsies ("Tinkers," "Travelers," or "Rom") have long been regarded. Like other groups of cultural outsiders, superstitions about the Gypsies abound: accused in centuries past of witchcraft, child theft and cannibalism, today they are still disparaged as fundamentally shiftless, crafty and dishonest. To some extent, this portrayal holds a kernel of truth if one judges by gadjo (non-Gypsy) values -- for Gypsies prize the enjoyment of life, family ties and group loyalty over such "gadjo foolishness" as a life of hard work for the sake of wealth. And while Gypsy ethics dictate fair treatment and honesty among themselves, tricking the gadjo out of a bit of hard cash is another matter . . . often (to people with few other trades open to them) a matter of survival.
Traditionally, the Rom are a secretive people, clannish, wary of outsiders. They have no written history -- or much interest in such history. But linguistic evidence supports the theory that the original Gypsies probably came from the Indian subcontinent, entering Europe in successive waves from the 14th century onward. Passing themselves off as pilgrims from Egypt, or as royal refugees from the fictitious land of "Little Egypt," the earliest nomads were tolerated in medieval Europe when the fervor for religious pilgrimage was at its height. This tolerance waned as their population grew, and persecution of Gypsies has been the norm ever since. In the last several hundred years the Rom have survived enslavement, xenophobia and successive threats of genocide to become one of the largest minorities living in Europe today. Four years ago, the International Romani Union was granted voting status by the United Nations -- although they are, uniquely, not only a people without a homeland, but without even a dream of a homeland. Their dreams, and their songs, and their stories, are of the road that has no end.
Precise statistics are impossible to determine, but it is estimated that over thirty thousand Gypsies live in Diaspora throughout the world, loosely linked by language and customs, by music, dance and story. Despite the deep suspicion with which the Gypsies themselves are regarded, their mastery of the arts of music, dance and storytelling has been widely acknowledged. The lore of the Gypsies, entwined with the folk tales and songs of each country in which they have settled, forms one of the most vibrant and magical oral traditions extent today. According to a Cale Gypsy story (related by Serafina of Gaudix), at the beginning of the world "God made the 'Busno' [a non-Gypsy] out of slime, then he made a woman out of the Busno's spare rib. Later on he found that the world was so dull with these two Busnos and their children that he said to himself, 'I must liven things up.' So one night, when the man was sleeping in his cave, God goes and takes a bit of his jawbone and in a twinkling of an eye he makes out of it a stiff and sturdy 'Calorro' [Gypsy], alive and kicking."
A less flattering tale, related by the famously fatalistic Rom themselves, tells how a Gypsy blacksmith forged the nails that were used to crucify Christ. For this sin, his descendants were condemned to wander the earth, friendless and homeless. Their life ever after was that of the road, which they traveled in bands, or in family groups. Some lived in the traditional horse-drawn, painted caravans (vurdon), others wandered the countryside on foot, carrying their belongings, tents and children upon their backs. Some had huts or permanent camps to live in during the cold winter months -- but the Gypsy ideal was the freedom of the road, and a bedroll beneath the stars.
By the early 16th century, Gypsies could be found in every country in Europe, plying their traditional trades of blacksmithing, woodworking, horse-trading, fortune-telling and crop-picking, as well as the performance arts. In every country where they wandered or settled, harsh laws were enacted against them, restricting their movements, their trades, sometimes their entire way of life. Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain (a country more amenable to Gypsies than most, and with a thriving Gypsy culture today) gave the Rom sixty days to abandon their wandering, threatening slavery on the galleys for violators. Philip III forbade them to use their own names, dress, or Romani language "in order that this manner of life may be evermore confounded and forgotten." Spanish law grew ever more restrictive under Philip IV and Philip V (echoed by laws elsewhere on the Continent), until by 1783 Gypsies were forbidden any of their traditional trades, to keep horses, or to leave their place of domicile for any reason whatsoever. It was even forbidden for other Spaniards to refer to them as gitanos (Gypsies).
Historians Bertha Quintana and Lois Gray Floyd point out (in their excellent history of the Gypsies of Southern Spain: Que Gitano!) that the sheer number of laws repeatedly directed against the gitano population of Spain attest to the laws' ineffectiveness: Gypsy culture thrived despite such persecution, and the Gypsy population rose. Indeed, life was easier for the Rom in Spain than elsewhere in Europe. In 17th-century Denmark, "Gypsy hunts" were organized by the king; one hunter listed, among the animals he'd shot that year, "a Gypsy woman and a suckling child." Other countries simply deported their Gypsies, burned them out, or poisoned their water supplies. In Romania, Gypsy families were bought and sold as field and household slaves. This legal slavery, similar to the enslavement of Africans in America, only ended in the mid-19th century -- a fact that is shockingly little known today, even in Romania itself.
Although finally freed from slavery just over a hundred years ago, the Gypsies continued to be assailed by the Romanian and other governments trying to cope with "the Gypsy problem." They were forced into settlement programs (herded into government housing blocks, where they promptly set up camps outside their front doors); they watched their children taken away for "re-education" and gadjo adoption; Gypsy women were forced, tricked and cajoled into government sterilization programs; they were brutalized by random acts of mob violence to which those in authority too often turned a blind eye. "The Gypsies," writes sociologist Jean-Pierre Liegeois, "moving about in their nomadic groups, were seen as physically threatening and ideologically disruptive. Their very existence constituted dissidence." Centuries of persecution culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust, where approximately a half million Gypsies died alongside the Jews in Hitler's extermination camps. "What wrong is there to have dark skin and Gypsy-black hair?" asks one traditional Spanish Gypsy song. "From Isabella the Catholic, from Hitler to Franco, we have been the victims of their wars. On certain nights, I find myself envying the respect you show your dog."
Gypsy stories reflect this tragic history, as well as the black humor with which the Rom both explain it and shrug it off. In Gypsy culture, life is lived in the present -- yesterday and tomorrow are of little accord. Money and food are for sharing, enjoying, not hoarding as the gadjo do: "Today we will feast, tomorrow we'll starve, the next day we'll feast again." Once upon a time, goes a Serbian Gypsy tale, the Gypsies built a church of stone, while the Serbs built one of cheese. When both churches were finished, the two groups agreed to an exchange -- the Gypsies would give the Serbs their church of stone, the Serbs would give the Gypsies their church of cheese and five bright pennies as well. The Gypsies immediately ate up the church of cheese -- which is why they've no church of their own. The Serbs still owe the Gypsies five pennies, and the Gypsies are still asking for them . . . which is why the Serbs must still give Gypsies alms (and the odd stolen chicken!).
From Russian Gypsies comes this cheeky tale: Once upon a time St. George was riding along when he came across some Gypsies. "Where are you headed?" he asked them. "Where the wind blows, and you?" they replied. St. George said he was bound for Jerusalem, to see how the Lord got on. "Please remember us to the Lord," said the Gypsies. "Tell him we wander over the land, and ask him how we should live." St. George agreed, but the Gypsies feared that he would forget all about them again. One crafty Gypsy looked at St. George's horse, with its golden bridle. "I'll tell you what. Leave us your bridle. Then you will remember us Gypsies every time you mount your horse." St. George agreed, but he made the man promise to give back the bridle upon his return. Then he went upon his way, until he met some peasants felling timber for a house. The peasants were struggling mightily, for the logs were not long enough for the walls. "What are you doing there?" he asked them. "We're trying to stretch the logs," they replied. "But they won't give. Tell us what to do." St. George scratched his head. "I'll ask God if you like." St. George travelled on and soon came upon two women pouring water from one well into another. "Have pity on us!" they cried. "Tell us when we can finally stop doing this?" "I'll ask the Lord," St. George assured the women, and he carried on.
When he reached Jerusalem he asked for an audience with the Lord. First he asked about the Lord's health, and then he ventured to ask about the peasants and the women at the well. "I gave those peasants that stupid task," said God, "because they'd been so stingy before. Tell them if they'll be more generous and joyous and kind, I'll forgive them their sins. As for those women, I'm punishing them for watering down the milk they sold. But I'll pardon them too if they'll mend their ways, and be less stingy hereafter." "I'll pass the messages on," said St. George. But as he went to mount his horse he finally remembered the Gypsies. "I almost forgot. I promised to ask you how the Gypsies are to live." "Hmmm," said God. "They've never bothered me, those Gypsies. And I like their songs. So go and tell the Gypsies this: Let them live by their own laws. Where they pray, where they beg, where they take without leave -- that's their affair."
St. George set off down the road again, and he passed his messages on to the grateful women, and the overjoyed peasants. Eventually he came to the Gypsy camp. "St. George is here!" the children cried, and the old ones gathered. "So what did God say?" St. George slid clumsily off his horse, anxious to get his bridle again. "He said that where you pray, where you beg, where you take without leave -- that's up to you. Now give me back my golden bridle." "What bridle?" ask the self-same crafty Gypsy he'd spoken to before. "On my soul, I took no bridle from you. Let the moon cut me down if I tell a lie!" After all, God did say it was up to them where they prayed, where they begged, and where they took without leave. They gave St. George a feast and a song, but the bridle remained with the Gypsies.
In England and Ireland, folk tale collectors have found a treasure trove of old stories and ancient folk ballads preserved by the Traveling People. Folksinger and scholar Ewan MacColl took an interest in Gypsy lore in the middle of our century, traveling around the British Isles with a tape recorder and a notebook. Hamish Henderson began his fieldwork with Scottish Gypsies in the 1950s; before that, the great wealth of Scottish Traveler tales was virtually unknown. Born in 1928, Duncan Williamson was the seventh child in a family of sixteen Scottish Traveler children. For many years, he has been one of the foremost tellers of barrie mooskins ("good stories" in the Anglo-Romani dialect). His wonderful Gypsy tales, with their distinctly Celtic flavor, have been collected in A Thorn in the King's Foot; The Broonie, Silkies and Fairies; and Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children. "On cold winter nights," he writes of his own childhood, "when early darkness enclosed the old travelers' camps, a father would turn round and take his children beside him.
'Listen children, sit down and be quiet -- I'll tell you a story.' My father knew he was going to tell us something that was going to stand us through our entire life. Probably he had no tobacco for a smoke; probably we didn't have a bite of meat to eat, we had no supper. But we sat there listening to our father telling us a story and we were full. He was teaching us to be able to understand what was in store for us in the future, telling us how to live in the world as natural human beings -- not to be greedy, not to be foolish, daft, or selfish -- by his stories."
For a magical evocation of a gypsy childhood, see the children's fantasy film "
Jan Yoors is a gadjo who left his home and was adopted by Gypsies when he was twelve years old. He traveled eastern Europe in his Gypsy father's vurdon, the traditional covered wagon, and came to be a well known storyteller himself. He describes the old Gypsy way of life in his introduction to John Hampden's The Gypsy Fiddle and Other Tales. "The folk tales, which in Romani we call paramitsha, are always told by one particular storyteller to whom these stories 'belong'. The Gypsies have another extensive but unrecorded 'literature' -- oral tradition would be a more correct description -- consisting of didactic tales of experience, called swatura. These are supposed to be accounts of things that happened to the person telling the stories, and depict far-off countries through which the Rom traveled in the past. The Gypsies also express themselves in song. These are called djilia, more formalized and poetic in expression. Unlike the tales, the songs can be sung by anyone."
Gypsy music, from the passionately sad "Deep Songs" to the fiery Spanish flamenco, was brought to world attention by musicians like the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, and inspired the composers Ravel, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liszt, and Bizet. (Bizet's Gypsy opera, Carmen, went on to inspire a film of the same name by Carlo Saura, part of the director's gorgeous flamenco trilogy.) Flamenco music and dance took Europe by storm earlier in our century; today it's enjoying a renaissance in the Nuevo Flamenco movement. Spanish dramatist Jacinto Benavente recorded the emotional impact of flamenco in this description of a performance by Pastora Imperio, one of the greatest of Gypsy dancers: "When we watch [her dance] life becomes more intense. The loves and hates of other worlds pass before our eyes and we feel ourselves heroes, bandits, hermits assailed by temptation, shameless bullies of the tavern -- whatever is highest and lowest in one. . . . Finally in a burst of exaltation we praise God, because we believe in God while we look at Pastora Imperio, just as we do when we read Shakespeare."
Carmen Amaya was also recognized as one of the great masters of flamenco, as well as one of the first to bring this art to the world's attention. Today, her great-niece Omayra Amaya leads her own dance troupe in Boston (Amaya, Flamenco Sin Limites), an extraordinary group of dancers at the forefront of the Nuevo Flamenco movement. "My father was a dancer, my mother was a dancer, cousins, uncles, musicians and singers. Everybody was involved with flamenco," Amaya reminisces about her childhood in a recent radio interview with Ellen Kushner on her "Sound and Spirit" radio program. For a good list of music recommendations -- including The Young Flamencos, and Paco de Lucia's Zyryab, Cante Gitano: Gypsy Flamenco from Andalucia. I particularly recommend Kalyi Jag (Black Fire), one of the terrific new flamenco bands bringing this music back to a world stage; and also Ketama, a Spanish group that mixes jazz and African rhythms with traditional flamenco sound.
Writers from Cervantes to Frederico Garcia Lorca have drawn inspiration from Gypsy music, dance, folk tales, and way of life. The Welsh painter Augustus John was so enamored of the Traveling life that he dressed in Gypsy clothes, built a Gypsy caravan, and taught himself to speak Romani; he was president of the Gypsy Lore Society from 1937-1961. In America, Gypsy folklore has come to the fantasy field in the work of three writers: Charles de Lint, Steven Brust, and Megan Lindholm. Canadian author Charles de Lint has created flamboyant Gypsy-like characters in various of his "imaginary world" tales, but in the novel Mulengro he ventured more solidly into the real-life world of Canadian Rom. This urban fantasy novel, set on the streets of modern Canada, blends myth, magic and music into a tale exploring the clash between Gypsy and non-Gypsy ways of life.
"Gypsies in Hungary are feared, hated, held in awe, persecuted, and used as heroes in the folk tales of the country," says Steven Brust, an American writer of Hungarian descent. "That last struck me as odd, and it was one of the reasons I picked the story 'Csucskari' (from Folktales of Hungary by Linda Degh) for my novel about artists, The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars: the parallel was too good to pass up. When the novel was done, the characters -- the three Gypsy boys -- wouldn't go away; they kept showing up in unexpected places. . . . When Adam Stemple and I began writing songs together, those characters were still hanging around, and what emerged was an image of the Gypsies now transplanted from their home, which I think of as close to Faerie as makes no difference, to our world; and we started seeing those characters walking our streets, and trying to imagine what would happen. Three Gypsy boys: the dove, the raven, and the owl; three artifacts: the knife, the fiddle, and the tambourine; and three views of the Gypsies: the Hungarian folk tale, the American image of the old woman telling fortunes in a carnival tent, and the real people with real lives. How would these interact? What would happen when they met?"
The result of Brust's exploration was a magical novel, The Gypsy, co-written with Megan Lindholm, and a cycle of songs, called Songs From The Gypsy, co-written with Adam Stemple and released as a CD (and CD Rom) by the rock-and-reel band Boiled in Lead. (For more information, write: Boiled in Lead, Box 7514, Minneapolis, MN, 55407.) Megan Lindholm was no stranger to Gypsy lore before the Brust project: her own first novel, Harpy's Flight, was a wonderful "imaginary world" fantasy with a colorful Gypsy flavor, following the adventures of a Traveler woman and her charmingly exasperating swordsman companion. Patricia A. McKillip's gorgeously poetic novel The Sorceress and the Cygnet is another good tale of Traveling People in a magical landscape. Elizabeth Ann Scarborough looks the Gypsies in 19th century Scotland in her entertaining magical mystery novel The Lady in the Loch. For children's novels, try The Boy on a Black Horse by Nancy Springer and Gypsy Rizka by Lloyd Alexander.
For other Gypsy reading, I highly recommend Isabel Fonesca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey. Fonesca is an American journalist who has spent much time with the Gypsies, particularly in Eastern Europe; her book is absolutely engrossing. The aforementioned Quintana and Floyd history of Spanish Gypsies, Que Gitano!, is also excellent. Other sources: The Gypsies; Gypsies, Tinkers and Other Travelers edited by F. Rehfisch; The Rom: Walking in the Path of the Gypsies by Roger Moreau; A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia by D. Crowe; The Gypsies (Peoples of Europe) by Angus Fraser; Lavengro: The Classic Account of Gypsy Life in Nineteenth-Century Europe by George Borrow; and Gypsy Folk Medicine by Wanja Von Hausen. Good folk tale collections include the Williamson, Hampden, and Degh books mentioned above; Diane Tong's Gypsy Folktales; John Sampson's Gypsy Folk Tales; Druts & Gessler's Russian Gypsy Tales; Manfri Frederick Wood's In the Life of a Romany Gypsy; Dora Yates's Gypsy Folk Tales; and the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (5607 Greenleaf Road, Cheverly, Maryland, 20785).
Although faced with continuing political and cultural persecution, one still finds Travelers on the road today, making music, telling tales, tricking the gadjo, raising their children, struggling to get by. These days they wander by car, truck and camper van as well as horse-drawn wagon; their communities are both urban and rural, joined by the common dream of the road, the Gypsy ideal of freedom. "To be free, to have money, to live well, and not to work are the things we prize most," one aged Gypsy dancer asserted to historian Bertha Quintana, although another woman added, "Men have more time to indulge in fantasies about freedom. Women have to worry about the table." Gypsy artistry in many forms continues to enrich each culture it touches, each land they pass through. Stories of the road, songs of heart, music drawn from the point where passion and grief entwine and transform into joy . . . all this is part of the Gypsies' lore, and their generous gift to the gadjo.
About the Author:Terri Windling is a writer, artist, and editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts. For more information, please visit her website for more information.
Copyright © 1997 by Terri Windling. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 1997, and may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.
Art: "Gypsy Woman," 1922 and "A Spanish Gypsy" 1937 by Augustus John.