Where Did Gypsies Come From?

The Indians of Europe

You come across these people in many countries; they do not have a national territory or their own government. Legends describe their arrival from Egypt, but these are only fairytales. Ignorant people in the west associate their origin with Eastern Europe, like Hungary and Romania. That's false, even if indeed large gypsy populations are to be found there (in Bulgaria they represent 15 % of the population, 10 % in Hungary and 7 % in Romania). Gypsies (or Romani, as they call themselves, the Gypsy word for "men") originated in northern India 1,000 years ago. Their language, called Romani, is undoubtedly related to Hindu and other Indian languages (named Indo-Aryan). Nobody knows why they left India. Some say that their ancestors, artisans and artists, accompanied troops and after some military conflicts left India. By 1,300 AD they reached Europe, after passing through Persia and Turkey.

In Spain, they are called gitanos, in Germany zigeuner, in Hungary cigany, in Romania tigani, in France gitanes, and many consider these terms as pejorative, but in fact this is the only way people can identify them; Romani is a new term. Moreover, in Romania, confusion between this word and Romania/Romanian (coming from Rome, Roman) can be easily created.

It is worth mentioning that gypsies 'lost' their language in western Europe. The Calo spoken by Spanish gypsies is just a modified variant of the Spanish language.

Their image has always been controversial in the eyes of the Europeans: in some novels and movies they are depicted as extremely hospitable, careless, nomadic beings, animating sadness or happiness through singing and dancing. The other image is that of unadapted, dirty, untrustworthy people.

During Middle Ages, the universe of most Europeans was limited to their village or town. When gypsies arrived, they were strangers for them, with their dark skin, black eyes and hair, clothing, habits and language. Moreover, gypsies remained isolated, a habit probably inherited from the caste system of India. But curiosity would be replaced by lack of trust within a few decades...

Gypsies were marginalized, forced to make their camps outside the villages and they were not allowed to enter the villages not even for buying stores or taking water. They were known as child eaters and forced by law to cook in the open, so that anybody could see what they were cooking. That's why in many cases their food for a day was overturned. No wonder that in many cases gypsies started stealing in order to survive.

Facing discrimination made gypsies united and they focused more on family life. The relationship between children and their parents is extremely strong in gypsy communities.

In their nomadic life, gypsies turned to skilled blacksmiths and traders, but also talented artists, while many women pretend having supernatural powers to make a living. Their lifestyle also impeded too much cultural connections with those who were not gypsies (called gadje in Rromani or pallo in Calo, the Gypsy Spanish variant). Still, gypsies adopted the religion of the majority in their area. In Europe, they are Christians, whilst in the Middle East gypsies, called Dom, are Muslims.

In time, prejudices led to persecutions. Gypsies were expelled from some European countries (like Switzerland) while in other zones they were taken as slaves for centuries. Gypsy slavery was abolished in 1860 and many moved to Western Europe and Americas. Hitler managed to exterminate in his camps about 400,000 gypsies.

In Spain, the syncretism between the gypsy culture and the local one gave birth to flamenco music and dance, while in eastern Europe, they adapted the local folk music to their own style, and thus the famous "lautari" music from Romania and surrounding areas resulted, a musical genre that inspired Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Haydn, Liszt, Mozart, Rahmaninov, Ravel, or Rossini.

You may not know, but here is a list of famous people with gypsy blood: Charlie Chaplin, Yul Brynner (actor), Rita Hayworth (actress), Pablo Picasso (painter), Django Reinhardt (jazz musician).

Today there may be even 5 million gypsies, most of them living in Europe. Very few are still nomads and many got rich, but in many areas, gypsies are still the lowest part of the society. Communism in eastern Europe changed and improved their life and health conditions; still it could not eliminate the prejudices of the gadje. The fall of the communism in 1990 only made worse their socio-economic life.


By    28 Nov 2007, 15:43 GMT