Religion and Superstitions
The Roma cannot be said to
have a "religion" of their own. They have usually adopted the faiths of
the countries in which they live. Among the Roma can be found Roman Catholics,
Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Muslims. Many prefer to carry out religious
rituals in their own homes or in the context of folk observances.
The best known Romani religious festivals are
the annual pilgrimages to Saintes Maries de la Mer on the Mediterranean
coast of France and Sainte Anne de Beaupre in Quebec, Canada. In Saintes
Maries de la Mer, Sara the Black is paid homage to by the Roma
on the 24-26 of May. In Quebec, the Roma pay homage to Saint Anne on July
26. These annual religious festivals are also used as social gatherings
for the Roma.
Though they have, for practical purposes, adopted
the religions of those with whom they have come into contact, formal religion
is often supplemented by faith in the supernatural, in omens and curses.
This body of superstitions varies among different Roma groups, but it is
to some extent a factor in the lives of all of them.
Roma believe in their powers,
as exemplified by their use of curses, called amria, and healing
rituals. They practice fortune telling only for the benefit of gadje,
and as a source of livelihood, but not among themselves. The fortune teller
is always a woman, called a drabardi. The concept of fortune telling
contains several independent elements that are misleadingly grouped together.
One element is foretelling the future, called drabaripé or
drabarimos. Another element relates to healing powers, which the Roma
do practice among themselves. The healing elements of fortune telling are
called "advising." Both elements are based on a belief in the supernatural.
Good luck charms, amulets, and talismans are common
among Roma. They are carried to prevent misfortune or heal sickness. The
female healer who prescribes these traditional cures or preventatives is
called a drabarni or drabengi. Some Roma carry bread in their
pockets as protection against bad luck, or bibaxt, and supernatural
spirits or ghosts, called muló. Horseshoes are considered
good luck by some Roma just as they are by non-Roma.
Since Roma feel that illness is an unnatural condition,
called prikaza, there are many supernatural ways in which they believe
disease can be prevented or cured. One method of lowering a fever has been
to shake a young tree. In this way the fever is transferred from the sick
person's body to the tree. Another method to bring down fever has been
to drink powdered portions of certain animals, dissolved in spirits, to
the accompaniment of a chant. Some beliefs include carrying a mole's foot
as a cure for rheumatism, and carrying a hedgehog's foot to prevent a toothache.
Any number of herbs, called drab, are used for the prevention or
cure of various diseases. Herbalism may be practiced by both sexes. Some
of these herbs, called sastarimaskodrabaró, actually have
medicinal value in addition to their supernatural qualities.
Most of Roma society relies
heavily on distinctions between behavior that is pure, vujo or
wuzho, and polluted, or marimé.
has a dual meaning to the Roma. It refers both to a state of pollution
or defilement as well as to the sentence of expulsion imposed for violation
of purity rules or any behavior disruptive to the Roma community. Pollution
and rejection are thus closely associated with one another. Pollution taboos,
and their names, vary from group to group and often among smaller Romani
units. Nevertheless, Roma define themselves in part by their adherence
to these cleanliness rituals. There may be class distinctions among some
Roma, based on how strictly individuals or families maintain distinctions
between purity and impurity.
concept applied to personal hygiene means "dirty" or "polluted." Much of
it stems from the division of a woman's body into two parts, above the
waist and below the waist. A woman is clean from the waist up and "polluted"
from the waist down. There is no shame, lashav, connected with the
upper part of the body. The lower part of the body is, however, an object
of shame, baro lashav, because it is associated with menstruation.
The fact that blood flows without injury seems to be the proof of a bodily
impurity. This concept of marimé
as applied to women is one explanation in many tribes the Roma women wear
long skirts and the fact that the bottom of those skirts must not touch
a man other than the Roma woman's husband.
Traditionally, a woman in a house must not pass
in front of a man, or even between two men. She must go around them in
order to avoid "infecting" them. At meals, the men must be served from
the rear for the same reason. If a Roma woman is not wearing the traditional
long skirt, she must cover her legs with a blanket or coat when sitting.
Many of the traditional laws
of hygiene deal with water. For example, Roma must wash only in running
water. A shower would be acceptable, but a bath would not be, for the person
would be sitting or lying in dirty, stagnant water. Dishes cannot be rinsed
in the same sink or basin that is used for washing personal clothing. The
kitchen sink is used only for washing dishes, and therefore it cannot ever
be used for washing one's hands. In addition, women's clothes and men's
clothes cannot be washed together, because of the impurities of the women's
Certain Roma tribes have set specific and very
rigid rules for the drawing of water from a river or stream. The water
from the farthest point upstream, therefore the purest, is used for drinking
and cooking. Working their way downstream, the water is used for washing
dishes and bathing. Further down the stream water is used for washing or
nourishing horses. Further down washing clothes is appropriate, and at
the farthest point downstream, washing the clothes of pregnant or menstruating
women. In order to make certain that there will be no impurities, separate
pails are always used for the different uses of water.
Some traditional rules might make sense to the
non-Roma. The surfaces of tables used for eating are kept spotless. Handkerchiefs
for blowing the nose are frowned upon. They merely preserve the dirt of
the nose. For this reason Roma prefer to blow their noses in disposable
material. In any case, after blowing the nose or sneezing, one must wash
To some, the marimé
code of pollution may seen unfair to women. However, marimé
also gives women great power among Roma, the threat of pollution is so
great. Pre-pubescent girls and older women are placed in a different category
from other women, because they do not menstruate. This allows them more
freedom and they are allowed to socially interact with men with fewer restrictions.
There are remedies or punishments for a person
who has become infected, or marimé.
Minor offenses, clearly unintentional ones, can be forgiven by those present
at the time the offense is committed. More serious ones must be dealt with
by the community and, in some cases, by the kris.
The stereotype of the Roma
woman with the long, colorful skirt, the heavy earrings, and often a flower
in her hair has some basis in fact. Traditionally, a woman's legs must
not show. Exposure of the legs is a grave offense, so long full skirts
must be worn. It is probable that long skirts were once thought of as protection
against sexual advances, but they also cover the lower part of the body,
which is considered marimé,
or "impure." These skirts are generally of bright colors, often consisting
of many layers.
Except for color, a woman does not have a varied
wardrobe. Among many tribes, if a woman is married she must display that
fact by keeping her head covered by a diklo, or head scarf. Women
usually allow their hair to grow long. Their hair may then be braided or
rolled into a bun on the back of the head. Roma women usually wear jewelry,
not only for its beauty, but for its intrinsic value. Most do not have
bank accounts or safe deposit boxes, so they feel most secure carrying
their valuables on their own persons. Traditionally, acquired wealth has
been converted into jewelry or gold coins called galbi, the latter
sometimes worn on clothing as adornments, or woven into the hair, as with
the women of the Kalderash nation.
As for men, there is really no characteristic
clothing. Since the head is regarded as the body's focal point, many Roma
men draw attention to it by wearing large hats and wide mustaches. For
festive occasions, they will wear a good suit and show a preference for
bright colors. Most of them own one suit at a time and wear it until it
is frayed. A brightly colored neck scarf may be worn on special occasions.
Generally, however, their clothing is indistinguishable from that of the
among whom they live or travel.
Young Roma girls in Rosslau, Germany, 1931
A day will generally begin with very strong black
coffee, heavily sweetened with sugar. Coffee is a staple of Roma existence
for many tribes, and many cups may be taken in the course of a day. There
is usually no lunch, and dinner is served at sunset, or, since the food
is generally on the stove all afternoon, whenever anyone is hungry. The
basic element of this dinner is a thick, fatty vegetable soup, or stew,
with any available vegetables or greens put into it. It is usually made
even more hearty by the addition of potatoes, rice, or pasta. Sometimes
meat is served, generally broiled or cooked on a spit. Game, such as rabbit
and game fowl, are enjoyed when possible. Garlic is a very commonly used
seasoning. Some tribes sometimes serve maize cakes instead of bread. Water
is the most often served beverage during the course of a meal.
Ceremonial events such as
christenings, marriages, and religious festivals are occasions for community
activity and sharing. Enormous quantities of food and drink are consumed
during these celebrations, and the preparation is long and enthusiastic.
A favorite European Roma dish has traditionally been roasted hedgehog,
although this delicacy is gradually falling from favor among many Roma.
It has a rich and succulent meat with a pork-like flavor, which is also
enjoyed by some non-Roma Europeans. Ideally, this animal is flavored with
garlic and placed skin and all above burning hot coals or stones. In this
way, it cooks in its own juices. When the roasting is completed, the animal's
prickles are shaved or picked off and the skin is peeled back. The meat
is served, sometimes wrapped in aromatic leaves. Chicken and other fowl
can also be cooked this way. On these special occasions beer, wine and
other spirits are substituted for water at the meal.
taboos extend to animals as well, from the edibility of certain types of
meat to pet ownership. Romaniya prohibits cruelty to animals and
they may only be killed for food. The German Sinti consider eating
horse flesh a serious offense, as do other tribes. The exclusion of horse
meat has more to do with respect than to marime, the horse has been
so important to the Roma's mobility and survival in the past.
Dogs and cats are considered polluted because
of their unclean living habits. Roma consider cats particularly unclean
because they lick their paws after burying their feces. The critical concern,
as with dogs licking themselves, is that the uncleanliness of the external
world may defile the purity of the inner self if it is permitted to enter
the body through the mouth. Cats are also a sign of impending death to
many tribes. If a cat sets foot in a house, trailer, or automobile, a purification
ceremony may be required. Dogs are also unclean, but to a lesser extent.
Dogs are tolerated outside the house because of their value as watchdogs.
Owls are considered portents of death, just as
with many non-Roma groups. In some tribes, the owl's cry is considered
very bad luck, or bibaxt. For this reason, owls are avoided as food
Other minorities want recognition
of their cultures and integration into gajikane society without
discrimination. But the Roma are suspicious and afraid of being corrupted
by gajikane influences. The fear is for their children, that contact
with non-Roma will lead to the disintegration of traditionally strong family
and community ties. The belief is that this will result in juvenile delinquency.
Many Roma also fear that public admission of being Roma in gajikane
society will single them out for discrimination and persecution.
Among the Roma there are activists who see the
gains made by other minority groups and want to share in these gains. They
ask for the respect of the non-Roma world and for equal job opportunities.
The first step must be education. It is believed by some authorities that
more than 95 percent of the Roma in America are illiterate. This number
may be higher in Europe. However, before education is possible, gadje
will have to overcome their long hostility toward and misunderstanding
of the Roma, and Roma parents will have to overcome their fear of corruption
Although the Roma have largely
adapted to living surrounded by foreign cultures, their social organization
fosters the separation of Roma from non-Roma. This separation places Roma
at a greater disadvantage than other, less separatist ethnic groups. While
other ethnic groups have been denied equal rights in the past, the Roma
have tended to stay apart by choice. Many Roma are slowly integrating and
participating in the mainstream of European and American culture without
compromising their identity. The advent of mass media has made it increasingly
difficult for the Roma to maintain a separate cultural identity. Television
follows them even if they migrate. The traditional closely knit Romani
family provides some measure of immunity from these gadje influences.
Identifying commonalities among all Roma is difficult.
The stress on literacy, which varies substantially among different Romani
groups, seems to compound the problem. Although illiteracy, according to
standards, may help the Roma preserve their ethnic identity by isolating
them, it also handicaps them in modern gajikane society. Illiteracy
among many tribes prevents the cultural and intellectual values of the
from infiltrating and undermining traditional Roma society, maintaining
the Romani sense of dignity and need for autonomy. Gajikane society's
illiteracy of the Romani language and ignorance of Romaniya, contribute
to the difficulties experienced by Roma and gadje.
Although they need and depend
on contacts with their host countries as a source of their livelihood,
the Roma do not want to be part of these societies in any sense that would
involve compromise of their basic beliefs. If there is any semblance of
compromise, it may be in the Roma willingness to adapt to the requirements
of their surroundings. Many Roma fear that over time integration could
lead to assimilation, and the eventual disappearance of Romaniya.
Fraser, Angus. The
Gypsies. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992.
Hancock, Ian. The
Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution. Ann
Arbor: Karoma, 1987.
Greenfield, Howard. Gypsies.
New York: Crown Publishers, 1977.
Sutherland, Anne. Gypsies:
The Hidden Americans. Reprinted Prospect Heights: Waveland, 1986.