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When most people think of gypsies, they envision a gnarled old crone peering intently into a crystal ball, calling for patrons to "cross my palm with silver." Or perhaps they see a voluptuous woman, dancing with wild abandon, luring many a hapless man to his downfall. Such are the stereotypes of the gypsy, a member of a nomadic, often dispossessed, race that has left its indelible impression on the collective consciousness.
By examining the legends of the gypsy, or more correctly, the Roma people, we are better able to understand a society that has long been shrouded in an iridescent veil of superstition and mystery.
Before we begin however, remember that gypsies can be found in any culture or era in history; whether Welsh, Greek, Romanian, Persian, etc., many historical records mention nomadic individuals that lead lives outside traditional societal norms. However, for this article, I will attempt to identify the country of origin for each subsequent tale.
The Dragon- A Slovak, Moravian, and Bohemian Story
Many of the Roma legends feature a heroic wanderer who comes upon a town in crisis and uses his wit to solve any dilemma he or she encounters. In the following tale, observe how important the dragon's hospitality is to his continued survival.
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"THERE was a great city. In that city was great mourning; every day it was hung with black cloth and with red. There was in a cave a great dragon; it had four-and-twenty heads. Every day must he eat a woman--ah! God! What can be done in such a case? It is clean impossible every day to find food for that dragon. There was but one girl left. Her father was a very wealthy man; he was a king; over all kings he was lord. And there came a certain wanderer, came into the city, and asked what's new there.
'Every day we must feed the dragon with twenty-four heads. If we failed to feed him, he would crush our entire city underneath his feet.'
'I'll help you out of that. It is just twelve o'clock; I will go there alone with my dog.'
The wanderer had such a big dog: whatever a man just thought of, that dog immediately knew. It would have tangled with the very Devil. When the wanderer came to the cave, he kept crying, 'Dragon, come out here with your blind mother. Bread and men you have eaten, but will eat no more. I'll see if you are any good.'
The dragon called him into his cave, and the wanderer said to him, 'Now give me whatever I ask for to eat and to drink, and swear to me always to give that city peace, and never to eat men, no, not one. For if ever I hear of your doing so I shall come back and cut your throat.'
'My good man, fear not; I swear to you. For I see you're a proper man. If you weren't, I should long since have eaten up you and your dog. Then tell me what you want of me.'
'I only want you to bring me the finest wine to drink and meat such as no man has ever eaten. If you don't, you will see I shall destroy everything that is yours, shall shut you up here, and you will never come out of this cave.'
'Good, I will fetch a basket of meat, and forthwith cook it for you.'
He went and brought him such meat as no man ever had eaten. When he had eaten and drunk his fill, then the dragon must swear to him never to eat anybody, but sooner to die of hunger.
'Good, so let us leave it.'
He went back, that man, who thus had delivered the city, so that it had peace. Then all the gentlemen asked him what he wanted for doing so well. The dragon from that hour never ate any one. And if they are not dead they are still alive."
The Creation of the Violin- Transylvania
In another Roma tale, one is cautioned against making deals with the Devil, and being foolish and vain, as the Devil uses mirrors to ensnare unwary souls. Finally, take note of how important music is to the story's conclusion, and recall one way the Roma people earned money during their travels.
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"IN a hut on a mountain, in a fair forest, lived a girl with her four brothers, her father, and her mother. The sister loved a handsome rich huntsman, who often ranged the forest, but who would never speak to the pretty girl. Mara wept day and night, because the handsome man never came near her. She often spoke to him, but he never answered, and went on his way. She sang the song:
'Dear man from a far country,
Slip your hand into mine;
Clasp me, an you will, in your arms;
Lovingly will I kiss you.'
She sang it often and often, but he paid no heed. Knowing now no other succor, she called the Devil. 'O Devil, help me.'
The Devil came, holding a mirror in his hand, and asked what she wanted. Mara told him her story and bemoaned to him her sorrow.
'If that's all,' said the Devil, 'I can help you. I'll give you this. Show it to your beloved, and you'll entice him to you.' Once again came the huntsman to the forest, and Mara had the mirror in her hand and went to meet him. When the huntsman saw himself in the mirror, he cried, 'Oh! That's the Devil, this is the Devil's doing; I see myself.' And he ran away, and came no more to the forest.
Mara wept now again day and night, for the handsome man never came near her.; Knowing now no other succor for her grief, she called again, 'O Devil, help me.'
The Devil came and asked what she wanted. Mara told how the huntsman had run away, when he saw himself in the mirror.
The Devil laughed and said, 'Let him run, I shall catch him; like you, he belongs to me. For you both have looked in the mirror, and whoso looks in the mirror is mine. And now I will help you, but you must give me your four brothers, or help you I cannot.'
The Devil went away and came back at night, when the four brothers slept, and made four strings of them, fiddle-strings--one thicker, then one thinner, the third thinner still, and the thinnest the fourth.
Then said the Devil, 'Give me also your father,' and again, selfish Mara agreed. Of the father the Devil made a box: that was the fiddle. Then he said, asked for Mara's mother, and when she once more agreed, he smiled, and made of the mother a stick, and horsehair of her hair: this was the fiddle-stick.
Then the Devil played, and Mara rejoiced. But the Devil played on and on, and Mara wept. Now laughed the Devil and said, 'When your beloved comes, play, and you will entice him to you.'
Mara played, and the huntsman heard her playing and came to her.
In nine days came the Devil returned and demanded obedience of his two servants, and when Mara and the huntsman refused, the Devil carried them off.
The fiddle remained in the forest, until a poor Gypsy came by and saw it. He played, and as he played in thorp and town they laughed and wept just as he chose."
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For more Roma folklore from around the world, I suggest reading Gypsy Folk Tales by Francis Hindes Groome, where you can explore stories from Turkey, Scotland, Poland, and more. First published at the end of the 19th century, the collection is one of the most diverse compilations of gypsy lore.