Wordsworth called the Gypsies “wild outcasts of society.” In the folklore of he nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they appear mainly in the guise of dark-haired, mysterious fortunetellers and colorfully dressed violinists, ready to break into song at the drop of a coin.
The gypsies are more- a misunderstood, unknown, coherent yet dissimilar group of people spread throughout the world. Their origins are obscure, their numbers today are uncounted, and uncountable. For nearly a millenium they have existed on the outskirt of society, living apart through choice, but exiled also by prejudices of others.
The precise origin of the Gypsies has never been discovered. Ethnological and linguistic studies ascribe their homeland to the Indus Basin in northern India, where, sometime around A.D. 1000, a westward migration began, prompted perhaps by a local political disturbance. The dispersal of the Gypsies had begun. Bands of Gypsies spread across the continent and eventually to the New World, carrying with them their customs and their ancient language, Romany, thought for centuries to be nothing more than a thieves’ jargon. As a migrant people they became convenient scapegoats for local problems and untold ills.
Henry VIII of England, taking time out from his problems with the Church of Rome, decreed a ban against further immigration of he “outlandysshe People,” and his daughter Elizabeth ordered Gypsies living in England to leave within forty days, because of “their old accustomed devilish and naughty Practices.” The “devilish and naughty” practice that most worried Their Royal Highnesses of England and elsewhere was fortunetelling. When the Gypsies appeared in Paris in 1427, they had “looked into people’s hands and told what happened to them, or would happen.”
The bishop of Paris, alarmed at such disobedience on the part of his flock, forthwith declared that any parisian who went to a Gypsy to hear the future would be excommunicated. Despite such disapprobation, Gypsy fortunetelling continues to this day. And fortunetelling was a means of survival for a people who have little or no other recourse; the non-Gypsies fear of the Gypsies curses and spells, did, in a subtle way limit the brutality and repression inflicted on a minority without adequate defense. By fortunetelling they imposed on the credulous a certain fear and respect: a slim defense but better than nothing.
Estimates of the number of Gypsies exterminated by Hitler run as high as 500,000, though it is not possible to verify the figure. Still, they survive. Estimates of the number of Gypsies in the United States could be as high as one million, constituting an underground populace that lives by its own rules and believes first and foremost in its own societal mores.
Those mores are, in many ways, stricter than the rules we- the “gadje” – live by. They are based on a patriarchal society, on an endogamous, or inbred, society, on a society that lives in constant proximity. A family group among Gypsies is all-important, and cannot be separated.
And what of the Gypsies today? Have we progressed beyond the age old notion of Gypsies as vagabonds, thieves, whirling dancers,musicians, and con men? There is no definitive answer. Gypsies inhabit the world today , just as they inhabited the world of the fifteenth-century. They were not accepted then, and they are not accepted today. They have changed their life-style to a certain degree, but they remain a separate community.
Perhaps we should not worry about the future of the Gypsies; rather, we should accept the philosophy they themselves have adopted. As Jan Yoors wrote in 1967: “The Rom lived in a perpetual present; memories, dreams,desires,hungers, the urge toward a tomorrow, all were rooted in the present. Without ‘now’ there was no before, just as there could be no ‘after’.”