Gypsy Magic & Customs
Gypsy Traditions Today
Few gypsies today meet the romantic ideal of the traveller. No longer do they live and travel in colourful, horse-drawn caravans, or cook over campfires and tell tales of magic and mystery into the midnight hour. Instead, many travel in sleek, shiny motor homes that come complete with satellite dishes and mobile internet connections. Despite this, there are still some who carry on the old traditions, which include fortune telling, casting spells, creating good luck charms and relating old gypsy myths and legends.
Although few realize it, gypsies have a sophisticated set of beliefs and customs, many of which are rooted in magic and the occult. Because they live close to nature, the gypsy vision of the world is closer to that of shamanism than it is to the rationalistic outlook of modern Western culture. This lens provides a glimpse into the lifestyle and customs of the gypsies.
One gypsy who still follows the old ways is Emily Webb, who lives for most of the year on a narrowboat on the broads and rivers of Norfolk, England. For her, the narrowboat is a practical and affordable replacement for the gypsy caravan. She is only part gypsy (through her maternal grandmother), but very much identifies with the lifestyle and spirituality of the traditional gypsy.
"My grandmother taught me how to tell fortunes and how to use herbs and plants in healing," she relates. "During the summer months I tell fortunes at holiday resorts to help make ends meet and to see me through the lean winter months. I really think it makes a difference if you've got gypsy blood running in your veins. Gypsies have always been excellent psychics and the punters love the idea of having an authentic gypsy tell their fortune."
Besides telling fortunes, Emily practises gypsy magic, the basics of which were also learnt from her grandmother. "When I decide to cast a spell, I usually go out to the woods to find a power object," she explains. "This entails concentrating on the intent of the spell - be it money, love, or whatever - and then if something catches my eye like a pebble, branch, flower, or anything like that, I take it home with me to make a magical talisman. I carry this with me until whatever it was I wished for comes true."
As a distinct ethnic group the gypsies - or, to give them their proper name, the "Rom" (Romany) - originated in the east. During the mid-ninth century a large group of people left their homeland in the north of India and migrated westward. What prompted this initial move is not known. But it was the start of a wave of dark-skinned nomads that grew in number and spread across Asia and Europe. By 1417 there were gypsies in Germany and by 1430 they had reached England.
At first they were reasonably well received by most of the countries they entered. But eventually - whether deservedly or not - they earned a reputation as wily beggars and confidence tricksters.
Because of their occult knowledge and divinatory skills, many started to associate them with witches and sorcerers, claiming they worked black magic and were in league with the devil. This led to gypsies being persecuted.
The first to take action against them was King Ferdinand of Spain. In 1492, he banished gypsies from his country. Any who would not leave were killed. The persecution continued right up to the Second World War when almost half-a-million gypsies were gassed, shot or hanged in the Nazi concentration camps.
Even today, in Europe and America, gypsies continue to be hounded and their nomadic lifestyle is looked upon as somehow antagonistic to conventional modes of living.
Amulets & Talismans
Not everyone is anti gypsies. Many consider them mysterious and are intrigued by their wealth of occult knowledge, which is very much evident in their everyday life. Many gypsies, for example, carry amulets and talismans as good luck charms.
In gypsy lore an amulet is an item from nature that is either naturally, or artificially (through ritual), charged with magical power. A typical amulet would be a stone with a hole through it or a rabbit's foot.
Talismans, on the other hand, are manmade objects charged with magical power by the gypsy spell-caster. A typical talisman would be a piece of parchment or wood, which has been inscribed with specific symbols, or words of power.
Amulets and talismans are usually carried on the gypsy's person in a cloth or leather pouch, known as a "putsi". You might see a gypsy woman wearing a putsi hanging from a cord around her neck. To the non-gypsy this looks like nothing more than an accessory to her colourful dress, but in reality it would likely contain amulets and talismans, and other magical items.
Gypsies are most renowned for their fortune telling abilities. Indeed, the stereotypical image is of the gypsy fortune teller staring into a crystal ball. Many gypsies do "skry" or crystal gaze, but they also have other ways of divining the future, including reading Tarot cards, playing cards, and coins. Or they use sticks and stones.
Slavic gypsies are renowned for divining with dried beans. The client is asked for a coin and this is held in the reader's hand, along with nine dried beans. The beans and coin are shaken up while the reader concentrates on the question being asked, and then the hands are opened and the beans and coin allowed to fall on the table or ground.
The coin represents the client and the positions of the beans in relation to this are interpreted. The area immediately in front of the reader represents the present; the area farther away, the future. Two, three, or more beans lying close together indicate very powerful forces. Beans in a straight line mean a journey. Those in a curved line, a problem or delay. Three beans in a triangular shape indicate a woman, and four beans in a square indicate a man.
Interestingly, gypsies rarely divine for each other; only for "goujos" or non-gypsies. Because of this, sceptics say that they don't read for each other because they know it's all a fake. But experts on Romany life point out that the gypsy, generally, has no interest in the future. The gypsy philosophy is to live for the day; therefore there is little demand for fortune telling amongst the gypsies themselves.
Another reason cited is that, due to living close to nature, nearly all gypsies have highly developed psychic abilities, anyway, and so can divine for themselves perfectly adequately.
The gypsies were, and largely still are, nomads who travel the highways in caravans, their home on wheels. In years gone by, the gypsy caravan - or vardo - was decorated with brightly coloured carvings, often highlighted in gold leaf. Many of these carvings served as good luck charms and most had some level of mystical meaning.
The vardo itself was a one-room house, which was light enough to be pulled along by one horse. It had a stove for cooking and warmth, plus beds and storage cupboards. Up until World War 2 it was common to see lines of vardos moving slowly along the country lanes and even on the major roads of England, Wales and Scotland.
Although the non-gypsy would not recognise it as such, the horse brass is a form of gypsy talisman. A horse brass is a symbol, or set of symbols, made out of brass and hung from the horse's harness. Sometimes a number of these brasses are hung together, mounted on a strip of leather known as a martingale.
Dozens of symbols are used. Some of the oldest and most popular are the sun, the moon, stars, a heart, a cross and the triskele or three-legged sun wheel. Other designs include bells, horses, acorns - and just about anything that had meaning to the maker.
The brasses were originally worn to protect the horses from disease and the evil eye. They were also worn to give strength and endurance, and to promote fertility. Many of the designs with a heart at the base were actually intended to "give heart" to the animal, to give it strength. Some gypsies still wear these brasses themselves to promote love. It's not uncommon to see a horse brass hanging from a gypsy's belt.
Birth & Baptism
Gypsies believe that their children are born into a world of powerful forces - positive and negative, good and evil. Therefore, as soon as possible after birth, the child must be "baptized." That is, it must be ceremonially sprinkled with salt water and named. Many also fumigate the child with incense.
In Scandinavia, a large fire is built at the mouth of the birthing tent. Its purpose is to hold at bay any evil entities until such time as the child has been consecrated. Throughout his or her life, the gypsy child will be constantly aware of the struggle between good and evil that exists on earth.
Gypsies are occasionally approached by farmers asking how to make their fields or animals more fertile. Until recent times - and probably still today, in some areas - the gypsy would give advice that was common knowledge and practised in the Middle Ages.
The farmer would be advised to have sexual intercourse with his wife in the first furrow ploughed in a field, or in the barn where the animals were kept. This had to be done in the waxing cycle of the moon, as close to the full moon as possible. A similar spell was used to promote business for a businessman. He would be instructed to have sex with his wife in his shop or office, on a night of the waxing moon.
Most gypsy magic was connected to the phases of the moon - the waxing cycle for promoting and advancing, and the waning cycle for depleting and getting rid of things or people.
Years ago, in many parts of England, when the head of a gypsy family died, the body would be placed in his or her caravan, or "vardo", along with all their possessions, and the whole thing set on fire. The rest of the family would then be taken to live with the relatives. There seems to be a parallel with the Egyptian and other cultures' practises of burying the dead with all that might be needed in the afterlife.
Today, with vardos being sold to American collectors for eighty to a hundred thousand dollars or more, it would be unusual to burn one.
Vampires & Werewolves
The Romany word for ghost, or spirit, is "mullo". This word can also refer to the "living dead" or vampires. Gypsies believe that only the gypsy dead become vampires and so have no fear of the spirits of the non-gypsy dead.
According to gypsy belief, a vampire may return in order to have sex with any woman he may choose. Indeed, in some instances young women are believed to have had long romances with men whom they later came to discover were vampires. Some gypsies claim that such vampire lovers are visible only to those with whom they are having sex.
In Slavic countries there is a gypsy belief in werewolves. Some think that anyone who has led an especially evil life will become a werewolf, while others think that werewolves are the result of a victim having the blood sucked from them by evil-doers.
Such a victim will gradually lose the power of speech, and during nighttime hours, will be transformed into a wolf to go and serve the evil-doer.
The Romany word for witch is "chuvihani". It means witch in the archaic sense of the word - that is "wise one", one knowledgeable in all aspects of the occult.
Elwood B. Trigg, author of "Gypsies Demons and Divinities" (1973) says that gypsy witches "serve the important function in gypsy society of being able to both bless and curse, heal and make sick... the chuvihani is one who is respected for both wisdom and knowledge of magical beliefs and practises."
In no way is the witch considered evil or repugnant. For gypsies she is simply someone with special knowledge and/or power that is used for good or bad, according to circumstances.
A Dying Culture?
In the end, when it comes to gypsies, one fact remains. As an ethnic people, the gypsies are disappearing. Shortly after World War 2, authorities in Britain forced the travellers to place their children in schools, and to keep them there for at least one year. This forced many gypsies to take up permanent residence somewhere.
Those gypsies today who attempt to travel are often harassed by local officials or police, who enforce laws seemingly designed to single out the travellers.
As Pierre Derlon says in "Secrets of the Gypsies" (1977): "Bureaucracy, the police state, national fanaticism, and a narrow shop keeping mentality are getting the better of the last 'free men'. There was a time when the only things that mattered to the gypsy were his own integrity, his tribe, the few square feet of earth on which he slept, and the roof of starlit sky which covered him. He had a harsh awakening."