The purpose of this article is to educate people on Romany Gypsy spirituality and belief. I wrote this article because the industry I am in (spirituality) seems to hold many misconceptions about us, our culture and what makes us Gypsies. Please keep an open mind when reading.
I should start off this article explaining what Gypsies are as there seems to be some confusion about this. A Gypsy, Gitana, etc. is the same thing. These are all names for the Romany people. No matter if they are living in France, Sudan, Russia or Cuba they will speak the same language, have the same beliefs and follow the same culture.
All Gypsies are biologically related as one people. They are identifiable as one group who left India around 1000-1500 years ago, possibly due to invasion. We traveled West and spread out all over the world. Our language, Romani, is descended from a mix of Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language) Hindu and other Indian languages with some European influences.
When someone refers to a ‘Gypsy,' they are usually always referring to the Romany people. At one point, Gypsies were believed to come from Egypt (Gypsy is short for Egyptian). Only in recent times have people realized that Gypsies came from India. The word Romany (or Rom) is Romani (Romani is our language) for ‘people.' For a Gypsy, the correct term to use is Romany (Gypsy can be offensive) however I will use them interchangeably here to prevent confusion.
Someone asked me if Gypsies ‘bred’ with Gorgers in the countries which they inhabited. I will say some Gypsies married Gorgers, but this is not a standard practice. In genetic tests, Romany people are still mostly identifiable as Indian, and we still carry genetic disorders unknown outside of small pockets of Indian cities.
People often falsely say “Spanish Gypsies” “Scottish Gypsies” or “Egyptian Gypsies.” Ethnically, this is not possible and in some cases is insulating. Just because these Romany people are living in these countries, does not mean they are a part of that culture, so it is wrong to refer to them as being Scottish, Mexican, etc. As far as we are concerned, we are Romany and Romany only.
Living in a wagon and wearing an ankle bracelet does not make you a Gypsy. You have to be born and raised in Gypsy culture to be ethnically Romany. Even then, biology is not enough to be accepted by other Gypsies as one of us; you must follow our laws and rules to be considered a Gypsy by other Gypsies. A pure Gypsy could be considered an outsider (Gorger) and an adopted child would be a Gypsy if the adopted child followed our rules and the pure blood did not.
Following our laws and rules results in a pure life. Gorgers do not live by our laws and rules, so we believe culturally and spiritually this is what separates us from them. Associating with anyone who does not live by our rules can contaminate us; the group we are living in can also be contaminated. Contamination reinforces our belief we should limit contact with Gorgers.
Our belief that Gorgers and their influence is somehow dangerous has kept our culture alive for thousands of years across great distances. If we did not hold these beliefs, Romany culture would cease to exist. People may find it hard to believe that traditions remain the same through time and space but this is probably the one thing which has kept our culture alive and will continue to do so.
Because our beliefs are closely tied to our way of life, our beliefs are not viewed as being ‘religious’ or ‘special’ by Romany Gypsies. Our spirituality is seen as being factual and the truth, not something you must have faith in to believe. Roma incorporates their beliefs in their day to day life, and many are not aware that non-Gypsies (Gorgers) do not believe most of these things or feel that way.
Our ‘universal truths’ are accepted as facts of life and realities even by Romany people who claim atheism. Often, Christianity and Islam is twisted to fit alongside our indigenous beliefs so if you ask a Romany person they are ‘extremely religious’ but do not realize that they have a distorted view of their religion because of their upbringing. Our beliefs are very much a way of life, not just reserved for church on Sundays.
We have no church, no Bible, no priests or nuns. Our beliefs are passed down through word of mouth from parents and other family members. Anyone who claims they have their Gypsy grandmother’s spell book is a liar. There are no exceptions to this rule. If they had a spell book, they would be influenced by Gorger culture and, therefore, not considered one of us by us.
One is considered part of the Gypsy culture if they follow certain laws and rules. If you do not follow our laws and rules (or have brought shame, ladza, to your community), then you are not considered Roma. You must be raised like us to be one of us. To be “pure” you must follow certain rules; it is following these laws and rules which separate us from Gorgers who are not aware of these universal truths or refuse to follow them.
Romany people who do not follow these laws which are living among a Gypsy community will be punished. It is common for a Gypsy to start learning how to run a household when they are in their teens. If they are observed making a mistake (contaminating a dish, for example), then they will be called out on it. Even as children, we ostracize and called each other names for not following the rules. Not following the rules means you will be treated differently by the group for some time.
Some crimes are punishable by banishment. If you have been banished, you are not considered Gypsy by other Gypsies. If a teenager contaminates a plate, they will be called a Gorger by the other children. It is considered an insult because you are viewed as not fitting in. Ostracization ensures we do not make the same mistake again because our ‘Gypsiness’ is our most prized possession.
There is an endless list of things we consider pure and impure, however; impure things fall into certain categories;
- Anything from the outside.
- Anything from the ground or that which touches the ground.
- Anything from the lower body.
- Parts of the body which produce emissions (genitals, spots, silva)
- Women on their period and pregnant women.
- Places associated with life, death or illness.
- Certain words (Devil, period).
- Certain thoughts (thinking negatively about a sick person).
- Animal contact. Gypsies would never put their face to an animal, let an animal lick us or let an animal touch or come close to anything which must remain clean. A cat would never be allowed on our kitchen bunkers, for example.
- Some groups of animals (rodents, reptiles) are especially marime and are treated with extra caution. Most families would say the word ‘dog’ out loud but not the word ‘rat.'
- In general, because we have a dualistic worldview we don’t like anything which doesn’t have its place. Monkeys are animals but are like humans and therefore some families look at them with suspicion. Illnesses are in between life and death, and that is one of the reasons why we fear illness as well.
Living a pure life is known as having (or following) Romanipen. Gypsies who do not have or follow Romanipen are not considered Romany because they lack gypsiness. Romanipen is needed for a spiritually balanced life which is known as Kintala (which is similar to Karma). Coming into contact with dirty things or living an impure life affects your Kintala. Therefore, life revolves around strict rules which limit contact with these things and avoids contamination of pure things.
Due to our spirituality revolving around cleaning, we have routines about what is the correct way to clean. When washing clothes, purity rules are kept in mind. We would not wash face clothes with underwear, for example. Some things are washed in their own separate bucket assigned for that purpose and that purpose only, such as dishcloths.
Clothes and towels have different statuses. Because clothes touch clean dishes, they are to not touch anything else. If a cloth falls on the floor, we must bleach it in its own special bucket. We would never wipe the floor or even our hands on a cloth which touches our dishes; we wipe our hands on a towel and wash the floor with a floor cloth. Towels are viewed more devious than clothes because we wipe our body on a towel.
It is vital before doing dishes hands are washed. Dishes are always done in a plastic basin (never directly in the sink). Dishes are washed in a particular order which usually takes into account which ones have most direct contact with the mouth (cups always first, pots always last). It is a must that all dishes are rinsed after washing to get rid of the stale water (in general Gypsies don’t like water that sits still). Any baby items are washed separately with clean water, never with other people’s dishes.
If I were not to follow the proper routine I would be considered impure (marime). I must not put my face on the cat. I must wash cups first. I must wash certain clothes separately. These things (and the others) are viewed as essential, and every Gypsy from around the world follows these rules. Marime laws are what holds our culture together as one people.
Romany children are told by their elders not to accept food or drinks from people they consider dirty or impure. Before entering their home we are warned that if they try to give us anything, do not accept it. I am in my twenties and still get warned these things off my mum and grandmother. By going into people’s houses outside my culture (or some families my family view as being lower class than mine), I can bring things back to my group.
It is very insulting not to accept food or drink off of a Gypsy as they will assume that you think they are dirty. Gypsies think that people who refuse are doing so because they feel the Gypsy is dirty. Therefore, if a Gypsy offers you something to eat, tea or even water ALWAYS take it.
Romany people are obviously aware that Gorgers do not follow our laws. However, I don’t think that most Gypsies realize that certain laws or beliefs are only followed by them. It’s funny when I’m out and about with granny, and she points out that people have their cloths hanging outside with their underwear.
We do not believe that Gorgers are born dirty or impure; they are not that way naturally. They have chosen not to follow these (what Gypsies believe) are obvious truths of what is considered dirty and what is not. From what I have observed, some Gypsies actually do believe that some Gorgers choose to follow these rules but there are ‘dirty’ Gorgers who choose not to. However, taking the risk by finding out which ones do and don’t can put us in danger, so it is best to avoid Gorgers.
Another thing which causes impurity is shame being brought to a family. However, one of the ways of being considered shameful is to not follow purity laws, so the two are closely linked. Through shame and impurity, you are considered not just dirty physically but also spiritually.
The power of impurity is so strong that you can be considered impure just by associating with impure people; you can be contaminated by them. This is why certain individuals may be out cast from a family for some crimes. Impure individuals can contaminate an entire family.
One of the symptoms of living an impure life may be signals from the universe or the ancestor spirits that they are unhappy (prikaza). These signals could be as severe as a serious as death but as simple as tripping in the street. Prikaza, therefore, causes bad luck (bibaxt).
There is not one source of good and bad luck. It may be spirits (mulo) or the ancestors (mule) which cause the misfortune, God (Del) or The Devil (Beng). Most commonly, however, it is the universe itself which causes bad luck.
There seems to be this belief by Gypsies that the universe contains its own force. God and The Devil may just be a part of the universe’s natural way. God and The Devil are not all powerful beings; even they are tied to universal laws, and not all misfortune or luck is the result of them. The universe is in a state of balance (right and wrong, male and female, etc.) and marime things upset this balance causing misfortune.
Other than physical impurity there are a couple of other things which can upset the balance of the universe. Having ‘spiteful’ thoughts is one impure thing which doesn’t have a physical origin. Having dirty thoughts explains how some diseases are passed in groups who have not recently had contact with the outside world.
If my granny has a cold then I catch it, she sees this as evidence that I have thought ‘spiteful’ thoughts about her while she was ill and this is the true reason the cold was passed to me. In this way, you can also ‘catch’ not just diseases but also injuries such as broken bones. It is not HOW ill health is passed but WHY which is the focus of attention.
In a way, curses are always passed by the power of thought, not by actual spells. Thinking evil thoughts about someone is called ‘wishing bad’ on them even if the person isn’t actively wishing anything bad to happen. Jealousy is considered one of the worst character traits to have because it can cause anything from failed relationships, lost objects, and illnesses.
When ill, Gypsies often stay away from each other, because an ill person is considered marime for a time. Because illness threatens life and may be a form of punishment, we try to avoid ill health.
Hospitals are viewed as being one of the last places we wish to visit due to their impurity and fear Gorgers ‘will mess with us’. However, because childbirth and death are considered impure, we would rather give birth or die in hospitals than in a bush at home (Gypsies never give birth inside their homes). Other than during childbirth the hospital is viewed as a last resort.
There seems to be a trend of Gypsies encouraging each other to leave the hospital sooner than the doctors recommend; I have only ever left the hospital against doctor’s orders and, to be honest, my family came up to get me and escort me out of the place. We wish to leave because, although we know hospitals can make us better, we also believe hospitals are an impure place which can make us sicker. Unless you are dying, there is no need to stay there (death also contaminates the home). Therefore, it is best to get medicine and escape as soon as possible.
When I have gone to visit my family who is in the hospital, I have observed they think it is ‘shameful’ to have your hospital curtains open ‘for people to see you’ while you are in a hospital worthy state. I am unsure why this is, but I think it also has something to do with it being viewed as shameful if you draw attention to yourself in some way (by being ‘on display’ in a hospital bed). Because there is this undercurrent belief of illnesses happening for a reason, then being ill in itself may cause Gorgers to want to work out why and unfairly judge us.
Gypsies do not openly discuss our beliefs about fortune telling, God, The Devil, etc. for the simple fact that this is one of the things which warrants the most interest by Gorgers. I have seen resources which claim that Gypsies do not believe in fortune telling which is actually false. Just like Gorgers some do believe and some do not (however, the only Gypsies who I know who claim not to believe in fortune telling also refuse to sleep or stay in the same room as my Tarot cards or crystal ball.)
It is a common misconception that all Gypsies are sitting around all day learning about the occult. It is not believed that every Gypsy can be a psychic. Readers usually begin as children; we may read as a hobby before becoming teenagers. Our readings are influenced by our worldview, and this is the true ‘secret’ to our readings.
When I perform readings, I don’t tell someone they are having misfortune because they are living impure lives because I am aware that Gorgers will have no idea of what I am talking about. However, this does not mean that other Romany people are aware that Gorgers do not live like us. Ignorance to how Gorgers live and what they believe is probably why a lot of Gypsies think it is okay to tell Gorgers they are cursed or will receive misfortune.
Gorgers seem to have this belief that you can pay a Gypsy to perform spells to prevent your bad luck or bring good luck. I cannot see how this is possible because for us that just isn’t the way the universe works; misfortune is caused by living an impure life, and the only way to correct it is to live a pure one.
If a Gypsy tries to sell you a spell either 1. You are being robbed by ethnic Gypsies or 2. You are being robbed by Gorgers claiming to be Gypsies. Sadly, the second one is usually true nowadays; I see these adverts every week on Facebook groups advertising spell castings by people who are certainly Gorgers. However, in the whole of the Facebook world, I have only ever come across two other authentic Romani Gypsy fortune tellers and have never once met an authentic Romany spell caster anywhere online. It is extremely rare for Gypsies who were raised in a traditional manner to be able to read and write.
This may be difficult for other people to understand, but Gypsies know other Gypsies; I can tell an ethnic Roma just by scanning their profile, seeing their pattern of speech, their surnames and even the way we introduce ourselves to each other. Because our culture differs so significantly to Western culture and we are close-knit, everything down to the way we physically move is a clue to other Romany that we are Romany people also.
Only someone who was raised in a traditional manner will be able to read your fortune in ‘Gypsy’ style. Anyone advertising as a Gypsy and advertising chakra cleansing, aura sprays, yoga, or anything similar (I can confidently say) does not read in the traditional Gypsy manner. I know this because their reading style is clearly influenced by Gorger culture and only a tiny percentage of Gypsies know what these things are. Even if they wanted to the average Gypsy is barely literate enough to read about anything New Age. Like I said before, it is not sufficient to be 100% Romany; you have to be raised like us, to be one of us.
It is possible for Gorgers to, hypothetically, learn how to read like a Romany person through an understanding of our symbolism. However, our spirituality is tied mostly to the way which we live which, in turn, is tied to our upbringing. This worldview is not something you can learn from a book; we live this way from when we wake in the morning to when we go to sleep at night, and our laws and rules affect every area of our life.
Gypsies do not believe that our readings are better than Gorger reader’s readings. However, we are well aware of the fact that there seems to be a preference for our readings because Gorgers seem to believe our readings are superior. Any benefit we receive for our ethnicity is significantly outweighed by a growing movement against us.
As Gorgers try harder and harder to legitimize the psychic industry, they may contrast ourselves against themselves to appear ‘respectable.' Racism against us is often perpetrated by people who claim to be about ‘one love’ so does not seem to be racist. Because Gorgers are not even aware that we are an ethnicity, it is openly acceptable and even encouraged to rip apart Gypsies.
When I first set up online as a professional reader, I worked hard and promoted my page, paid for advertising, etc. Other readers (at least one a day) would go to my business page and rate me one star. They would post crap such as “Gypsies will rob you, come to me” and went out their way to contact my page likers to slate Gypsies. Racism affected my life significantly and nearly ruined by business. Obviously, this is one of the dangers of ethnic fraud which people don’t seem to understand. That post is for another day, though.
If you have enjoyed this post and want to expand your fortune telling horizons, check out the free divination symbols eguide and learn how to interpret everything from numbers to actions in dreams, crystal balls, cards and more (and its instantly downloadable on mobile, tablet and computer!)
Lisa Boswell is an award-winning psychic reading teacher who currently resides in Scotland. Through her website DivinationAndFortuneTelling.com she teaches both experienced and would be diviners how they can predict the future.
Born into a Romany Gypsy family of fortune tellers, Lisa has had an active interest in the occult from a young age. She specialises in teaching predictive divination, easy mediumship and fortune-telling. Learn more here.