Article | The Mystique of the Romani

Gypsy fascination demystified

Dear reader,

I debated whether this should be a book review or an article. I will leave that up to you.

Background

Ever since I can remember, I have been intrigued by gypsies. I don’t know if it started with my Grandfather’s tales of Gypsy Rose Lee (not truly Romani) who visited his navy ship during WWII or if it was more popular media that drew me in and spurred my imagination, but the fascination still exist. I recently wrote a rough draft of a fantasy novel, featuring…you guessed it…a gypsy girl who travels from Europe to the United States.

Research

Along the way, I did as much research as I could find materials, the above pictured book included. Isabel Fonseca lived among different groups of Romani in Europe, and wrote vividly of her experiences. Fonseca suggests that the fascination started early on for non-Romani with the migration of the lowest caste members of Indian society.

When they first appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century the Gypsies presented themselves as pilgrims and they told fortunes: two winning professions in a superstitious age.

This made Romani very exotic to the conservative society whom they lived among and led to the curse-leveling, magic-wielding reputation that they have today. They found that promoting their exoticism helped them maintain enough disconnect in order to preserve their own society within the society that they lived.

Their leaders called themselves Counts and Princes and Captains. These were not expressions of Gypsy values so much as further evidence of their (often underemployed) talent for adopting local moods and hierarchies in order to sustain their ever-precarious prestige. Us versus Them is a game which, for the time being, is still played in the language of the conquerors—or of the “host” society.

Popular media

Popular media latched on to the Romani exoticism and utilized it for their own creative ends leading to the gypsy curse story in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel who was the cursed character. Charmed also utilized the fantasy of a gypsy witch called a Choxani in its storyline.

But mimicry—or adaptation—has always existed alongside exoticism.

A closed society who utilized its exoticism for survival lends itself to fueling the imagination of outsiders. The less you actually know about people, the more you make up to fill in the blanks and satisfy the mind’s need to fit people and things into categories. We are made this way to help us to define what presents a danger as well as for remembering in general – in other words, survival. The Romani, for their survival, adopted a persona which encouraged fascination and garnered respect. And through this managed to do what no other culture has done – resist assimilation into the culture that they lived among. There are many cultures within cultures that manage to keep their inherent beliefs intact but socially they still make changes to fit into the dominate culture. Romani on the other hand have successfully managed to keep every aspect of their culture the same no matter where they live.

Gypsies lie. They lie a lot— more often and more inventively than other people. Not to each other, but to gadje. Still, malice is not intended. On the whole, lying is a cheerful affair. Embellishments are intended to give pleasure. People long to tell you what they imagine you want.

And herein lies the Romani mystique- a fantasy world created by the Romani based on our own Romani-imagined desires. We have reached an age where magic is indeed fun. An age where Harry Potter and other similar characters are heroes and not feared as it was during the Middle Ages. An era where we can embrace and appreciate the stories Romani spun for survival.