Romani Culture and Traditions
A Detailed Look at Some Facets of This Often-Misunderstood Subculture
Since they mysteriously migrated from India and arrived in Europe roughly 800 years ago, the Romani ethnic group—who are often called Gypsies, a name that some consider derogatory—have remained a shadowy, isolated group in the many countries where they’ve spread. What sets them apart is not just their characteristically dark complexion, or the fact that many speak various dialects of the Romani language, a distinctive tongue whose vocabulary and grammar are related to Sanskrit. As a group that once was enslaved by Europeans, and which over the centuries often has suffered from prejudice, exclusion and sometimes violent persecution, the Romani people have survived in part by developing their own highly insular subculture, with its own largely unique customs, social structure, professions, mores, and spiritual beliefs. Here is a look at some of those key aspects of the Romani identity.
Itinerant Lifestyle: When they first arrived in Europe in the 1300s, the Romani people tended to stay on the move, probably because they had to. Their dark skin color and unfamiliar language led many Europeans to fear that they were advance troops of an Ottoman invasion, and they often were not allowed to establish permanent settlements. Gradually, their wandering developed into a way of life. They found a useful role in the European economy, serving both as a source of seasonal farm labor, as traders and repairers of household goods, and as fortune-tellers and spreaders of news and gossip. Today, most people of Romani roots probably have settled permanently in houses and apartments, in part because of European governments’ efforts to force them to stay in one place. But some still cling to the ancient migratory lifestyle, though they’ve traded the old horses and wagons for cars, vans and recreational vehicles.
Hierarchy: The far-flung Romani people lack a homeland, and they have no central government with a king or prime minister. But over the years, they have developed at least a loose organizational structure for governing themselves. Traditionally, anywhere from 10 to several hundred extended families coalesce into bands, or kumpanias, which traveled together in caravans. Each band is headed by a chieftains called a voivode, whom the families elect for lifetime. While these chieftains once presented themselves to outsiders as dukes or counts, unlike European nobility, their titles are not passed down to their heirs. The extent of a chieftain’s powers varies from band to band, but he traditionally makes decisions after consultation with a council of elders. He also seeks advice from a senior woman in the band, called a phuri dai, who focuses upon the welfare of the group’s women and children. With bands, there are smaller alliances called vitsas, which are made up of families who are linked by ancestry. Some large vitsas have their own chieftains and councils.
Family, Courtship and Gender Roles: A Romani family unit typically encompasses multiple generations, and includes a patriarch and matriarch, their unmarried offspring (both young and adult) and a married son, his wife and their children. By the time an older son is ready to establish his own household, a younger son often will have married and brought his wife and children into the family to take the places of the departing sibling. Roma traditionally marry young, sometimes in their early to mid-teens, with matches made by elders in the family, sometimes to forge ties with another family. Traditionally, the family of a bride pays a dowry to the new husband’s family. Romani families often have many children, in keeping with the Romani aphorism but chave but baxt—in English, “many children much luck.” According to Ian Hancock, an English scholar of Romani descent, Romani children often have been viewed as an economic resource, and often are put to work at young ages to help support the family.
The Oral Tradition: As a people on the move, the Romani didn’t have the opportunity to build libraries and fill them with books, or even to attend school and learn to read and write. Instead, like the ancient Greeks of Homer’s time, they’ve long maintained an oral tradition, in which poets and singers improvise stories of the Romani and the core ideas of their culture. One of the greatest 20thCentury Romani poets was Bronislawa Wajs, better known as Papusza, which in the Romani language means “doll.” Papusza, who grew up in the 1920s, secretly got Polish villagers to teach her to read and write in exchange for chickens she had pilfered. She drew from the Romani improvisational storytelling tradition to compose ballads—long poems that were partly sung and partly recited. Like her poetic predecessors, Papusza focused primarily upon the hard lives that the Romani lived while traveling the lungo drom—the endless journey with no final destination. In one of her most famous ballads, she compares her wandering people to a flowing river:
The water does not look behind.
It flees, runs farther away,
Where eyes will not see her,
The water that wanders.
Professions: Like European Jews, the Romani people historically often were excluded from professions that white Christians practiced, and were forced to find other ways to support themselves as they endlessly traveled. They often trained and traded animals, and before the development of modern veterinary medicine, gave farmers advice on how to breed livestock and care for sick animals. They also worked as metal smiths and utensil repairmen, and peddled cheap household goods that they manufactured themselves. With their rich musical tradition, they also supported themselves as traveling entertainers, and told fortunes—a trade that was highly regarded in their ancestral land of India, but viewed as disreputable in western culture.
Spiritual Beliefs: The Romani traditionally did not embrace an organized religion such as Christianity or Islam, but they still have deep-seated spiritual beliefs. According to Romani scholar Ian Hancock, Romani spiritualism has been strongly influenced by the mysticism of the ancient Vedic culture from which the Romani people emerged nearly a millennium ago. The Romani traditionally believe in a benevolent deity, called o Devel or o Del, and a devil, 0 Beng, who continually struggle for dominance over people’s lives. Pulled both ways in this dualistic reality, the Romani believe that it is crucial to maintain a spiritual balance, and that good and bad actions determine one’s future—a concept similar to the Indian Karma. Respect for elders, for example, is considered essential to maintaining the needed balance. The spirits of Romani ancestors, or the mule, supposedly play a key role in enforcing this system. When they are displeased by a Romani person’s actions, they are believed to mete out warning punishments, called prikaza. Depending upon the seriousness of the transgression, the prikaza can range from stubbing one’s toe to a fatal illness accident. This underlies the traditional Romani belief that no event ever is determined by chance.
Attitude Toward Outsiders: The Romani word for someone outside their ethnic group is gadzo, or in the plural, gadze. The Romani traditionally avoid mixing too much with outsiders, still consider marriage between Romanis and non-Romanis to be a taboo, and often are reluctant to have their children educated in western-style schools or go into professions other than the ones traditionally practiced by their people. Some of this may stem from an insular culture’s urge for self-preservation, but there also is a spiritual rationale. Romani also believe in the importance of spiritual energy, called dji, which they think is drained when one spends too much time in jado, the non-Romani world. The only remedy is to reimmerse oneself in an all-Romani milieu, which is another reason that the Romani tend to keep to themselves.
Cleanliness and Purity: While non-Romani may think cleanliness begins and ends with washing with soap or avoiding dirt, Romani people have a much more complex concept of cleanliness and uncleanliness. They take into account spiritual purity as well as physical hygiene, and bear similarities to the ritual taboos in the ancient Indian caste system. While the precise rules vary among various Romani populations, Romani tradition generally calls for clothing worn above the waist to be washed separately from garments warn below the waist, and for the hands to be washed immediately after touching the shoes. Food that falls upon the floor cannot be eaten, and when bathing, the body must be washed with the water flowing from the head down. Certain parts and functions of the female body are considered unclean. So are doctors, because they deal with illness and death. (Traditionally, some Romani groups burned the clothes and wagon of a dead person because they were considered unclean.) Additionally, a Romani person can become mahrime, or polluted, though misconduct or by becoming too close to the Gadze.