Gypsies have long been a fascination of many. Throughout their history they have been the subject of songs (you know the Cher one), Operas (Carmen) and Books (Victor Hugo’s Esmerelda in The hunchback of Notre Dame and Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights).
But why….Why the fascination?
Is it because very little is known about them? Has it got something to do with the fact they are a minority group that has always been feared and discriminated against? Or, is because they have such a rich and fascinating culture?
The Gypsy or Romani people are said to originate in Northern India and set out towards Europe and Africa about 1500 years ago. This is widely believed amongst scholars due to their language and DNA links to that area. But no one is really sure.
What does the name mean?
The name Gypsy was given to these darker skinned peoples moving through Europe. The locals thought that the travellers were from Egypt and so called them “Gyptian” which was short for Egyptian. Later to be shortened to Gypsy.
The group have always been skilled artisans and entertainers with the woman renowned for their beauty and charisma. They were skilled metal smiths, basket weavers and jewellers. Gypsies became great trainers, breeders, traders and carers of the horse. Their rich culture included music and dance and has been influential in Jazz, Flamenco and Bolero. Nowadays they are stereotyped as fortune tellers but are really so much more. Who knows maybe their nomadic lifestyle and living on the run gave them an insight into the world that no others peoples have.
To Gypsies, family is everything. They include the extended family in all areas of their lives. They are inclined to have four or more children and these are raised and schooled by the multi-generational family. They marry early, often in their teens and these marriages are often arranged.
Weddings, like funerals and any family event are exceedingly elaborate. Wedding ceremonies can last for three days. Brides are attended by many bridesmaids which is probably to help with the “More is More” style Wedding dress.
Any nomadic tribe, throughout history, has been met with suspicion and distrust. They are different to the people already settled and for the Gypsies who never found a homeland, this was definitely the case. This nomadic lifestyle has shaped their culture and their behaviour. Because of this, the Gypsies experienced extreme prejudice and still do today. From as early as the 12th century it is reported that they were enslaved and seen as lesser people. This discrimination made it hard for them to seek permanent employment so they move on and on to escape trouble.
During the WWII, The Gypsies of Europe were labelled as unacceptable ethnicity like the Jews and treated the same way. Many were executed, sterilised and sent to the camps. Some historians say the number of Gypsies that perished in these camps could be as high as 2,000,000.
Gypsies continue to suffer to this day. They are pigeonholed as superstitious and deceptive con artists. This is partly due to their refusal to give up their culture and language. They steer clear of traditional schooling and the health systems which contribute to the perception of the group as lower class in many areas.
Contributions to Society
Gypsies and their artistic and flamboyant traditions have bought a lot to many other societies. As skilled artisans, many of their talents were honed over the centuries and therefore produced some of the finest composers, musicians, dancers, singers, artists, actors and entertainers. Their close-knit communities and families ensured these gifts were passed down and are evident today.
Have you ever heard of these people? Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Elvis Presley, Micheal Caine, Yul Brynner, Sean Connery, Rita Hayworth, Roger Moore, Charlie Chaplin, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, August Krogh and Pablo Picasso? They are all of Gypsy descent and part of a long pedigree of beauty and talent.
It has always been difficult to get accurate numbers for this group because of their transient nature but mostly because many prefer not to be known as “Gypsy”. They want to avoid the negative stigma and ensuing discrimination. Experts believe the numbers could be as high as 12,000,000 with over 80% living in Europe. Let us hope their amazing culture can be preserved and maintained.