Gypsies are nomadic people who probably emerged out of northern India around the 10th century and spread throughout Europe, the British Isles and eventually America. Gypsy tradition has little in the way of its own religious beliefs but is steeped in magic and superstition. From their earliest known appearance in Europe in the 15th century, Gypsies have been renowned practitioners of magical arts, and they undoubtedly influenced folk magic wherever they went. During the renaissance, they were associated with wItches and Witchcraft, and many were persecuted and executed as such. In addition, Gypsies were met with hostility and suspicion from populations wherever they went, which added to their persecution, banishment and deportation. In England, it became unlawful to be a Gypsy in 1530; the law was not repealed until 1784.
The first record of Gypsies in Europe is in 1417 in Germany, although it is quite likely that they arrived in Europe much earlier. They came as Christian penitents and claimed to be exiles from a land called “Little Egypt.” Europeans called them “Egyptians,” which became corrupted as “Gypsies.” Their language, romany, is related to Sanskrit, and many of their customs have similarities to Hindu customs. The Gypsies also absorbed the religious and folk customs of the lands through which they traveled, and many of their practices contain strong Christian and pagan elements. Very little is known about early Gypsy practices; most of the present knowledge comes from observations and records from the 19th century on.
It is not known what led the Gypsies to leave India. Various legends exist as to their origins and why they were condemned to wander the earth: They were Egyptians scattered by Yahweh (Jehovah, or God); they were survivors of Atlantis, left without a homeland; they had refused to help the Virgin Mary during her flight to Egypt; they had forged three nails for Christ’s cross of crucifixion. Voltaire proposed that they were descendants of the priests of Isis and followers of Astarte.
The Gypsies’ lack of religious creed is explained by an interesting Turkish legend: When religions were distributed to the peoples of the earth a long time ago, they were written down to preserve them. rather than write in books or on wood or metal, the Gypsies recorded their religion on a cabbage. A donkey came along and ate the cabbage.
The Gypsy universe is populated with various deities and spirits. Del is both God and “everything which is above”—the sky, heavens and heavenly bodies. Pharaun is a god said to have once been a great pharaoh in the Gypsies’ long-lost “Little Egypt.” Beng is the Devil, the source of all evil. Like Christians, Gypsies believe the Devil is ugly, with a tail and a reptilian appearance, and has the power to shape-shift. Legends exist of pacts with Beng. moon worship and fire worship are extensive among Gypsies; they apparently have not worshiped the Sun to any significant degree. The moon is personified by the god Alako, defender of Gypsies and taker of their souls after death. Alako originally was Dundra, a son of God sent to earth to teach humans law, who ascended to the moon when he was finished and became a god (compare to Aradia). Fire is considered divine, with the ability to heal, protect, preserve health and punish the evil.
The cult of Bibi concerns worship of a Lamia-like goddess who strangles gorgio (non-Gypsy) children by infecting them with cholera, tuberculosis and typhoid fever.
Gypsies also practice phallus worship and an animistic worship of objects, such as anvils. The horse and the bear are regarded as godlike beings.
Gypsies have a strong fear of death and the dead, and numerous taboos govern the way they deal with the dead and dying. All of a dead person’s possessions, including his animals, are considered polluted and will haunt the living unless they are destroyed or buried with him. This practice has dwindled since the 19th century, as a result of economic factors and the lessening of the Gypsies’ nomadic life-styles. A great fear exists that the dead are angry at being dead and will return as vampires to avenge their deaths. Iron fences sometimes are constructed around graves in order to keep the corpses from escaping. The Gypsies also seek to appease a vampire god by leaving out rice balls and bowls of milk or animal blood. The names of the dead are believed to have magical power and are used in oaths and invocations.
The Gypsy witch is almost without exception a woman; she is called a chovihani. She uses her occult powers according to need, to bless and heal or curse and kill. Within the Gypsy community, she is not respected for her magical powers per se but for the money she brings in by servicing the gorgio (non-Gypsy) population. The rise in witchcraft and folk-magic activity in Europe and the British Isles in the 15th and 16th centuries probably was influenced by the spread of the Gypsies.
The chovihani is said either to inherit her ability or acquire it in childhood through intercourse with a water or earth Demon while sleeping. Like gorgio witches, Gypsy witches are said to have an odd or ugly appearance and to possess the Evil Eye.
Of all the magical arts, the chovihani is best known for Divination and fortune-telling, especially by crystal-gazing or reading palms, the Tarot and tea leaves. The chovihani prescribes a multitude of charms to address virtually any situation; many of them involve blood and urIne, two common ingredients in folk magic because of their sympathetic magic properties (see also Hair and Nails). Most illness is ascribed to evil spirits, and the chovihani can heal by exorcising these spirits in a trance possession ritual (see Spirit Exorcism).
Bird omens are important. The owl is a harbinger of death while the swallow, cuckoo and water-wagtail are signs of good fortune.
Magical rites are performed in conjunction with baptisms, marriages and divorces. A newborn infant is unclean. Baptism removes the taboo and protects it from evil. Baptisms consist of immersion in running water, or tattooing. Two names are given, one of which is kept secret in order to fool the Devil and evil spirits. Some baptisms are done within a magic circle. Baptisms are often repeated for good luck. In marriage ceremonies, the newlyweds sometimes step over a broomstick (see brooms) and receive Salt, bread and wine. In divorce, the broomstick ritual is reversed. Another divorce ritual calls for sacrificing a horse by stabbing it in the heart and letting it bleed to death.
- Lockhart, J. G. Curses, Lucks and Talismans. 1938. reprint, Detroit: Single Tree Press, 1971.
- mcDowell, Bob. Gypsies: Wanderers of the World. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1970.
- Trigg, Elwood B. Gypsy Demons & Divinities. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1973.
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