The term "Gypsy" as used in scholarly writings
supports misconceptions that all Roma are migratory, roam the countryside,
and are engaged in questionable or illegal activities, as exemplified by
slang terms like "to gyp," meaning to swindle. For many people, just the
word "Gypsy" conjures up the picture of dirty women in long skirts,
apparently sickly babies in their arms, begging for money or asking to
read palms. For others, they are petty swindlers who rent storefronts and
deceive a gullible public. It is only natural that many Roma, therefore,
the word "Gypsy" as offensive.
For centuries Roma were called Egyptians, because
of their having been mistakenly identified when they first arrived in Europe.
The prevalent term "Gypsy" is a contraction of that earlier name,
as are Gitano in Spanish, Gyphtos in Greek, and Gjupci
in Macedonian. This term perpetuates the misconception that the people
originated in Egypt. Roma are also called Zigeuner in German, Tsigani
in Russian, Zingari in Italian, and Tigani in Romanian. These
names are variants of the Greek word Athinganoi, meaning "don't
touch." It was also the name of a religious sect formerly inhabiting Phrygia
and Thrace in Asia Minor who shunned contact with outsiders.
The Roma themselves perpetuated many myths about themselves for many
reasons. It better suited their purposes to encourage fanciful, imaginative
explanations of their origins. In the past, if they said their origins
were biblical and therefore Christian, they could more easily gain the
sympathy of the people and the officials of the towns and cities they visited.
If, instead, these roots were tinged with mystery, this would enhance their
qualifications for fortune telling and give them a mystical aura and presence.
Many of the myths of biblical origin were very
popular. According to some, the Roma were descended from Noah. According
to others, they were the true descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Their endless
wandering, some people believed, was their punishment for being among those
who refused help to Joseph and Mary on their flight into Egypt. Another
popular story told that during the crossing of the Red Sea, when Pharaoh's
troops were trapped in the waters, a young couple miraculously escaped,
becoming the Adam and Eve of the Roma.
One of the most widespread legends concerning the nomadic Roma was based
on the story of the Crucifixion. According to this legend, many people
were asked to forge the nails of the Cross, but all refused when they heard
the purpose for which the nails were to be used. Finally, some Roma blacksmiths
agreed to make them, and because of this, the Roma were condemned to wander
the earth forever.
Many speculations on their origins were not based
on biblical sources. They themselves often said they had fled from Egypt
and supported this by the use of fanciful titles, such as "Duke of Egypt."
There is no such thing as Roma royalty. No Gypsy king or duke makes
proclamations of law. Roma did use imaginative titles of nobility when
they first came to Europe, but these were meant to impress their hosts.
Since that time, many journalists have found it colorful to write of "Gypsy"
kings or queens, and some Roma, seeking a romantic image, have encouraged
this. However, the fact is that each community is ruled by a man who is
chosen not because he is part of any royal family but for his age, experience,
and wisdom. The leader of a Romani community is a man who inspires respect
by his strength and intelligence, a man who by his own life sets an example
for the other Roma, known in the Vlax Romani dialect as o Baro Rom.
The Roma, too, were thought to be of Babylonian, Nubian or Abyssinian
descent, or even descendants of the Celtic Druids. No explanation of their
origins seemed impossible. A particularly romantic, and inplausible, version
stated that they were the survivors of the mysterious people who inhabited
the legendary island of Atlantis.
Sometimes, the Romani choice of occupations was supposed to provide
clues to their origins. For example, because of their skills at fortune
telling, they were reputed to be the descendants of the Euxians, neighbors
of the Persians, who in ancient times were known for their success in predicting
The deeply ingrained notion that all Roma are nomadic
overlooks the fact that the Vlach Roma in Wallachia and Moldavia,
which are now parts of Romania and Moldova, were officially enslaved until
1856. The Vlach were bound to their owners' homes and farms for
about five hundred years. It is estimated that from the fourteenth century
until emancipation, as much as half of Europe's Roma were enslaved. Among
Vlach, the forced sedentary life of slavery seems to have preserved
internal Roma law and strengthened the culture as a whole, although some
of their cultural characteristics probably were acquired from the host
population. In Europe today, it is estimated that about five percent of
the Roma are nomadic or migratory.
The commonly held notion that Roma steal or buy children has no basis
in fact. Gajikane parents often warn their children that they will
be given, or sold, to the "Gypsies" if they do not behave themselves.
There have been allegations and accusations through the centuries in Europe,
some resulting in circumstantial guilt and punishment by gadjikano
courts, all with no basis in fact or reality.
In spite of myths of Roma immorality, most Roma follow strict rules
of sexual behavior. They are accused of being sexually promiscuous. The
women are said to be ready to seduce non-Roma men, and the men always on
the lookout for innocent non-Roma women. In fact, prostitution and infidelity
are strictly prohibited by the Roma code of marimé. Roma
expect females to be virgins when they marry and to remain faithful to
their husbands until death. Infidelity in marriage historically has had
serious consequences for the wife, including corporal punishment or a sentence
of marimé (ostracism).
Most outsiders often consider Roma a dirty people, unconcerned about
personal hygiene. Cleanliness is a very special matter for Roma, one that
is little understood by the gadje. This misunderstanding is certainly
encouraged by the Roma who often want to appear dirty, knowing that this
is one sure way of avoiding close contact with gadje, whom they
European folklore contains a number of references to the Romani complexion.
A Greek proverb says, "go to the Gypsy children and choose the whitest,"
and in Yiddish, "the same sun that whitens the linen darkens the Gypsy,"
and "no washing ever whitens the black Gypsy." One word in Romani
which Roma in some countries use as a name for themselves is Calé,
meaning "black." The Spanish Roma call themselves Calé, and
the Roma in Finland call themselves Kalo. Caucasian non-Roma are
called parni or parnofi meaning "white" in some Romani dialects,
even by fair-skinned Roma.
Another misconception is that the Roma will eat anything they can find.
While undoubtedly true that their wandering existence and poverty have
forced them to eat foods that might be distasteful to other peoples, there
are very strict taboos against certain foods. The chief among them is horse
meat, which is eaten by non-Roma in many parts of the world. According
to the customs of certain tribes, any Rom eating horse meat may be severely
punished or even banished from the tribe. The relationship of the horse
to the Roma has historically been such a close one that it is unthinkable
to eat this animal. Cats and dogs are also forbidden as foods. These animals
are considered unclean because they groom and clean themselves by licking.
The literature has sometimes described the "Gypsy"
mode of life as "primitive," or has stressed the asserted illiteracy of
the Roma. These characterizations, however, have little meaningful value.
The often incomprehensible conduct of the non-Roma world, as seen by the
Roma, could with equal justification be characterized as "primitive." In
this sense, gajikane values may appear to be rudimentary and irregular
to anybody who does not share them. Similarly, one could maintain that
the non-Roma are illiterate because they are ignorant of the Romanes language
and of fundamental skills needed for effective communication, as seen from
a Romani perspective.
There is another equally one-sided picture of the
Roma, and this is a romantic one. According to this point of view, they
are a beautiful, colorfully dressed people, proud and independent, life-loving
and passionate. They are carefree and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
These people have created a music and dance that throbs with passion and
joy. The women in their colorful long skirts are irresistibly seductive
and exciting. The dark-faced, high cheek-boned men, so proud of bearing,
are symbols of wild, uninhibited virility. These notions have, for centuries,
been encouraged by romantic writers and painters all over the world. These
myths are perpetuated by groups today, such as "medieval" societies and
other "Renaissance" organizations. They are as untrue as other notions
that show the Roma to be a totally immoral and disreputable people.
Equally offensive to Roma are Multi-User Dimension or Dungeon (MUD)
and role-playing games (RPG) that portray Roma as clans with supernatural
and fantastical powers, ancestries and morally offensive codes of conduct.
If these same role-playing games featured any other minority in the same
fashion as they do Roma, the protestations would be deafening. To these
"game" players, the Patrin asks
that you consider refraining from using Roma, or "Gypsies," as characters.
These MUD and RPG games reinforce the notion that Roma are not real people.
These games reduce our people to fantasy cardboard figure cut-outs and
disassociate real-world problems and social issues from real people, the