The origin of gypsies brings to mind images of nomadic suspicious bands of bohemian people traveling the back roads of America "playing cons" on naive people or joining carnivals as "hawkers" and fortune tellers. They were the people who wore colorful clothes, funny hats and had lots of jewelry adorning wrists, fingers and their necks. These were the guys who wore earrings before it was 'hip' to do so.
I always found them fascinating and wondered, where did these wanderers dressed in such outlandish clothing (people grandmothers warned their children to beware of) come from? Who were these interesting "pilgrims", always in constant flight across the byways and highways of Europe and North America?
There are many urban legends and colorful tales depicting the origin of gypsies. Movies have depicted them as mysterious, cunning, and nefarious bands of people always living on the "edge". They have never been accepted into the general culture of any society, nor do they really want to assimilate. The "Roma", as they refer to themselves, are a proud diverse gathering of people, whose origin is shrouded in oral legends and biased history text. Scattered over the world it is believed there are over 12 million gypsies worldwide living on the outer boundaries of various nations.
When I was a teenager my family knew an elderly woman who had settled in an old migrant house on the edge of my grandparent's farm. Most everyone believed the old gypsy fortune-teller woman had the "power" (Gaje in Gypsy language) even other gypsies were careful around her. When I visited the farm, in the summer, my braver cousins and I would go and visit the old gypsy woman.
Our Grandma would send us with supplies for the old woman (sugar, rye wheat, corn meal and molasses). In exchange, the strange old seer would tell us stories about her life and her people. We listened intently to them as she entertained us and at times sent shivers down our spines with her tales.
The following is what she told us about where she and her people came from:
"We come from the places far east of the great river", she said proudly.
We settled in around her chair and listened intently to the old woman wrapped in colorful scarves tell her story. She never failed to have fascinating tales to tell and we were a curious audience eager to listen with imaginations that stored the tales for later playtimes, when we would become gypsies.
"My people were tradesmen along the ancient trade routes to the East. Yes, we were wanderers always moving from town to town. Some called us nomads, because we never put down roots or stayed in one place very long.
My grandfather's grandfather told us our people first lived east of the beautiful Crescent Valley very near what is called Pakistan today.
Our family stories have been passed from generation to generation through many centuries. The stories are truths we live by and the only roots we know. We are gypsies, we are found in all corners of the world and we are no nation's slaves.
My people were known for being traders, tinkers, itinerant "cons-artists", mischievous gypsy minstrels and meticulous craftsmen who sold rare and beautiful products of delight. Many people have turned to my people for centuries to predict their future and fortune, through the Tarot and tea leaves.
Our beliefs also scared people, especially the Christians and we have been labeled as witches and pagans at various times in our journey.
Many times we didn't stay in a land because the people would drive us out. My people speak about how the Spaniards drove us from their land in late years of the 1490s. Then the Swedes banished us from their country in the 1660s because of our beliefs. Our blood became mixed with the blood of many people; Greeks, Spaniards, French, Italians, Swedes and many more, but we were never one of them. Many called us "Romanies" saying we came from the seed of "Cain", while others said we came from the seed of "Judas". We are "Rom" or as you say Gypsies and we come from Gypsy bloodlines that are sprinkled with the blood of many.but we are always Gypsies!
Because of the prejudice we faced everywhere we traveled and in order to survive, our ways became sly, shrewd and sometimes illegal.
It is said, among Gypsy leaders, that many people in the lands where we have lived, feared our 'Pagan' beliefs (gypsy magic) and gypsy curses. They needed us to harvest their crops, fix their wagons, train their horses and amuse them with our 'carnivale' talent. Yet, they didn't trust us, so we kept moving and scattered our tribes all over the world.
Nobody teaches you about how many of my people died in the 'Big War' (WWII) do they? The Nazis came for us too! 250,000 of my people perished in the ovens of Auschwitz and at the hands of the 'devil helper' Nazi Doctor Mengele. We call it the 'Night of the Gypsies', when they came for us, in August of 1944. My people were herded like animals in a round-up and sent to be tortured at the hands of evil men who called themselves doctors of the Reich!
When liberation from the 'Big War' arrived, we became even more a scattered people, as many more of us wandered to North America and Asia. Once in the new lands Gypsies had to live by returning to the old ways. Men took up trades in metalwork, became migrant workers, horse trainers and traveling 'cons'. The women grasped hold of the power (Gaje) of the Gypsies to tell fortunes and foresee the future by reading tarot cards, palms and tea leaves. Many of my people who had come to the Americas after the first big war worked in carnivals and circuses; so new refugee Gypsies flocked toward these places to work.
It is said there are about 6 million of us living all around the world today, with the largest Gypsy tribes being in the Balkans and in the Russian motherland.
The only thing that really identifies us in the present world is our old 'gypsy language' and our old 'Tribal Code of Conduct'. We are a mystical, magical and colorful people, who love music and mirth. Our way is to take care of our own and also punish our own, when the Code is broken. It is our belief, since no nation claims us, nor wants us, that we have the right to set our own code of ethics and laws.
The Gypsy life has always been full of suspense and suspicion....travel and exploration...poverty and providence. Gypsy blood is a mixture of many races and the true Gypsy is known by his lifestyle not ethnicity.
We know from where we come," she said, to us bluntly.
"But more important we know we are Gypsy-free - free from being bonded to one creed or one state."
She drew her hands across her chest, as she spoke the last words for the day.
"We belong to the present place we sleep...and we are free! We come from the blood of many strong and passionate people.........we are Gypsy."