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- Myths & Traditions of Gypsies -
In Romany oral tradition we can find mainly elements of the Hebrew mythology with a marked accent on the kabbalistic aspect and some features connected with fire-worship of ancient Persia. There is not any slight hint related with Indian mythology, nor sacred animals, nor fantastic characters that may be traced to any of the traditions of India — Even though many authors try to find in a forced manner elements that in any way might support the hypothesis of the alleged Indian origin of Roma (just because of Romany language, not culture or ethnicity), they do not achieve in getting anything more than weak coincidences, which are present in any other European or Middle-Eastern culture, customs that have been adopted by Roma in Europe and that actually do not belong to their ancestral tradition. The very few elements that may apparently be connected with Indian traditions are in fact originated in the Hurrian culture, in Mesopotamia, that is the common source of the Assyrian-Babylonian, Persian and Indian mythologies as well as the origin of the traditions of the Danubian peoples, with whom most of Roma have coexisted during centuries. Therefore, the so-called "Indian" features of Roma are indeed elements that are found, even in a larger amount, among Hungarians, Russians and Slavic peoples, features that they have inherited from Khwarezm, and farther in the past, from Sumer and Subartu.
Concerning the religious aspect, the Roma traditionally profess a monotheism in which the Personality of the Supreme Being is well defined, a monotheism that is tainted with the Roman-Byzantine idolatry, typical of Christianity and the religions with which Roma have been in touch during the last centuries. There is not any trace of pantheism or belief in transmigration of souls, nor anything that may connect Roma with the peoples of India. On the contrary, the only characters that represent animals or imaginary beings are to be found only in the Hebrew/biblical symbolism. It is not feasible that such elements would have been acquired during the long sojourn among Christian cultures, because the approach of Romany tradition is rather in the style of Hebrew interpretation or even of Midrashic commentaries, although with a less emphasized mysticism. Indeed, it is not even correct to speak about "festivals" which may be typical, exclusive of Roma, but only of peculiar interpretations that they have done of the popular celebrations of the countries where they are dwelling. It is possible to speak only of a Romany "style" of expression of the European culture.
In this site we will consider some legends that Roma have kept and transmitted for generations, in order to analyse their historic and symbolic content.
A Story of Roma of the Balkan Area
Excerpts from: "Traditions, coutumes, légendes des Tsiganes Chalderash"; textes recueillis par le R. P. Chatard présentés par Michel Bernard; La Colombe, Paris, 1959.
«In the beginning, there were O Del and the Beng, who challenged each other. One of those days, while they were walking about by the shore of the great river, the Beng said: "I am able to go down to the depth of the river"…
O Del with His stick commanded the pear-tree and the apple-tree to bear fruit, then He commanded both of them to eat the fruit, respectively Damo to eat the pears, and Yahvah the apples. So they felt desire for one another and after O Del's command they made love. Yet the woman, insatiable, asked the man to repeat many times the act. Therefore, O Del said: "You, woman, will never be satisfied; your desire will always be for your husband". And He left them to their destiny.
O Del created from the earth the Sherkano or serpent and his female partner Halla, and the pairs of all the other animals.
In this primeval world O Del Sinpetri had some companions: Sunto Yakof, Sunto Avraham, Sunto Moishel and Sunto Krechuno. These were the suntse, the ancestors. With them there was also Pharavono, who later separated from them causing the division of mankind - until then being one race and speaking one language - into two groups: the Horaxané led by Sinpetri and the Pharavonuria led by Pharavono. This group kept self-isolated in the beginning, but then, multiplying themselves and being full of intelligence and boldness, decided to conquer the whole earth. Therefore, Pharavono moved war against Sinpetri; but he did not know that Sinpetri was O Del Himself. Heading his army, Pharavono crossed the river, invoking O Del's power; but when crossing the sea, plenty of pride, invoked his own power and was overwhelmed by the water. His last attempt to worship a stone idol was punished by a thunderbolt. The whole inhabited land was flooded. O Del Sinpetri remade the earth and enlarged it, and gave it to His Horaxané and carried the suntse to the Rhayo, the other world above the stars. The Pharavonuria, drowned, fell down in the Yado, the underground abyss where all the dead of evil death go. The few Pharavonuria that survived - that is, the Gypsies - are sentenced to never have their own national territory, nor political organization, nor church, nor alphabet, because all their culture was flooded by the sea.»
This myth of the origins belongs to the tradition of Balkan Roma, and even though drenched with Christian interpolations, the purely Hebrew elements appear evident as well as the Zoroastric conception of dualism. Now we will analyse mainly the phrases and words written in bold in the text above.
The personality of "O Del", that is God, is that of the God of Israel, Who is often represented in an anthropomorphic manner. The God that was "walking about " is a clear image of Genesis 3:8, where it is said that He did so in the garden, which was indeed by the shores of a great river (Genesis 2:10); consequently, the image is approximately the same in the legend and in the Bible. In this case He speaks with His antagonist, while in the biblical account He speaks with man.
The Beng, name that originally meant a frog, is the evil force, quite like AnghraMainyu of Mazdeism, but with typically Hebrew characteristics: the fact that "he goes down to the depth of the great river" identifies him with Leviathan (Isaiah 27:1), a biblical figure of Satan. The serpent "Sherkano" is the Beng himself, and has a female counterpart that coincides with Lilith* of Hebrew tradition (Isaiah 34:14), who was also in Eden. Not only this, but also her name "Halla" recalls that of "Helel" (Isaiah 14:12 - Hebrew), that is indeed the female name of "Satan". Moreover, since the original meaning of the name "Beng" is frog, this is also a Hebrew image of the apostolic period - when the first Christians were all Jews - representing the impure spirits that come out of the serpent's mouth (Revelation 16:13) like frogs.
God created all the animals from the earth (Genesis 1:24), among which the serpent is distinguished (Genesis 3:1), as in Hebrew tradition.
The woman's name, "Yahvah" is very enigmatic, because it is written in the same way as the Name of God, "YHVH". Eve's Hebrew name is "Havah". The Spanish Gypsies call Eve "Hayah", that is a Hebrew name derived from the verb "to live" - Genesis 3:20 "the man called his wife 'Havah' ('Hayah', 'Yahvah'), because she was the mother of all living". Also the expression that the woman's desire will always be for her husband is biblical (Genesis 3:16) and is the consequence of having eaten the fruit.
The names of the "suntse" (saints) are evidently those of the main Hebrew Patriarchs, Yakov, Avraham and Mosheh - it is interesting the fact that to Mosheh's name it has been added the Hebrew ending "-El". Only "Krechuno" and "Sinpetri" (Saint Peter) are interpolations of the Orthodox Christianity.
As well as in Jewish tradition, Pharaoh's pride ("Pharavono") is compared with Satan's - invoking his own name instead of God's. In fact, in Judaism there are two main prototypes of pride: Satan and Pharaoh. In this story two events are mixed: the Egyptian troops overwhelmed by the Red Sea water while pursuing the Israelites and the universal Deluge; this results from an oral transmission of both events of the Hebrew tradition which along the time got confused. The division of mankind into two groups recalls the antediluvian split between the "sons of Elohim" and the "sons of the Adam" (Genesis 6:2). The survivors of the Deluge here identified with the "Pharavonuria" may coincide with the descent of Kayin (Cain), who were wanderers, smiths and musicians, like Roma are by tradition - and often it was alleged that the Roma were Cain's offspring. Also the "multiplication" of mankind and their intellectual development recalls Cain's generation in Genesis 6:1-5. Pharaoh however has not any problem in crossing the "great river", that is the Nile, of which the Bible says that Pharaoh considers himself to be the master (Ezekiel 29:3), passage in which he is compared with Leviathan - therefore, the identity Pharaoh = serpent = Satan. There are also mixed the persons of Pharaoh and Nimrod - as he is also a prototype of pride -, who has been a rebel when the whole mankind still "spoke one language" (Genesis 11:1) and tried to "conquer the whole land" and gather all men under his rule. The idea that man was a wanderer in origin coincides with the period of the Hebrew Patriarchs, all of whom were stateless (Avraham, Yitzhak, Yakov). Also Pharaoh's identity as a "worshipper of stone idols" is Jewish, as well as being "struck by lightning" as punishment for idolatry. Nevertheless, in this story the Roma identify themselves just with the survivors of Pharaoh's army, sentenced to never have their own country, a written language and their own religion - this is exactly the curse of the Tribes belonging to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, sent to exile to lose their independence and identity as a punishment for having worshipped the golden calf, namely, because of their return to the Egyptians' religion… "You shall not be a nation" (Isaiah 7:8).
God's Throne "above the stars" is a biblical image (Isaiah 14:13), while the underground abyss is the dwelling place of the rebel spirits according to the Book of Henok. The Balkan environment has contributed to identify the "Gadgé" (non-Roma) with the "Horaxané", (muslims), and with their "god" Saint Peter (Roman/Byzantine Christianity), to whom "Sinpetri" has given a homeland, an alphabet and a political system, in contrast with Roma, that because of their disobedience are sentenced to perpetual exile, just like the Israelites of the Kingdom of Samaria.
Although there are Christian interpolations, all the traditions listed here cannot be considered as the result of Christian influence, because they come from a purely Hebrew biblical instruction, which in the Balkan region has never been available for common people and much less for Roma. Almost nobody was able to read the Bible except clergy and some individuals of the privileged classes that knew Greek or Latin, the only languages in which the Bible was written in Europe in that period. The scarce Bible knowledge given to people was rather about the New Testament and tainted with traditions concerning the life or sayings of the saints of the church, not commentaries of the Scriptures like the Parashat, as these Romany stories may be considered. Therefore, it is more than likely that this tradition is much older than Roma's arrival in Europe, dating back to the first and second centuries c.e. in Mesopotamia. On the other hand, the interpretation of biblical figures is not Christian at all, but quite Jewish, with evident kabbalistic features. From this and other similar traditions it is inferred that the development of Romany spirituality is the same as that of the Israelites in exile, in which zoroastric elements contributed to their mysticism. And it is certain that the Roma did not read the Scriptures until very recently, when the Evangelical revival developed among them…
* Lilith: it is interesting to notice that there is a parallelism between "Adam's first wife" in the Jewish and Romany traditions. Both of them conceive the idea that before Eve there was another woman, who sinned against her man and was replaced by Eve - in Hebrew mythology she is called Lilith (allegedly Cain's mother), in the Romany one she has not a specific name, but is considered "Roma's mother", that having been expelled before Adam's sin that brought the consequent curse -namely, "by the sweat of your face will you eat bread"-, her descent was not affected by it. The idea of such replacement of the first woman is not found in any mythology except Jewish and Romany, and certainly not even in Christian tradition.
Stories of Bulgarian Roma
O Bashnuvosko Dzhes (The Day of the Cock)
«Long time ago the Turkish decided to wipe out the Roma genus – no children, no boys. They went from door to door and wherever they found a boy they killed him. A woman had a three-year-old son. She wondered how to save him. She took a cock and slaughtered him. She spread the blood upon the door. The soldiers came, saw the blood on the door, and said: “They have already been here. There is no boy any more”. Thus the boy was saved. That is why we celebrate Bashnuv Day, because we, the Roma, have been always chased».
By Malina Antonova
This story is obviously a tradition about the slaughter of the Hebrew male children in Egypt by order of the Pharaoh, mixed with the tenth plague in which it was required that the Hebrews paint the doorposts and the lintel of their houses with animal blood so that the Angel of Death would pass over and not murder the firstborn. A similar tradition is the following one:
«Roma people have several feasts they celebrate in a special way. One of them is Ihtimya. It is the child’s day. Whoever has a firstborn male child, he has to find a rooster and slaughter it in the morning. They spread the blood all over the gate of the house. This is a cast left by the Lord. He has said that if they do it otherwise He would strike each house where a male child has been born».
By Raziika Pamukova
Stories of Russian Roma
Prophet Elijah and the Fire
«When our ancestors lived in caravans and a lightning storm was coming, they prayed Prophet Ilija to send the thuderbolts far away from the camp, because Prophet Ilija has the command on fire. One day he was offering a sacrifice to O Del, and it began to rain so heavily that the altar got completely wet and he was not able to set fire on it. So he ordered a lightning to fall on the sacrifice and burn it, and suddenly, a flash with a noisy thunder fell on the altar and burnt the whole offer, leaving only ashes. Since then, Prophet Ilija took the command on the storms, and he made to rain when he wished, or not to rain any more until he commanded. One day he wanted to go to Heaven, and ordered a fire whirlwind to take him away, and since then, he commands the storms from Heaven. That is why our Roma since ancient times, when a storm is approaching, ask Prophet Ilija to be merciful and to send the storm away».
By Toma, a Kalderash Rom from Argentina, of the Roma that immigrated from Russia.
This story was undoubtedly originated in the Bible account about Prophet Elijah's offering (1Kings 18:35-38), his power over the rain (1Kings 17:1) and his rapture to Heaven (2Kings 2:11). Elijah was a Prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, whose people was later deported by the Assyrians to Media, and from there they reached India. This is an oral tradition that was passed from generation to generation, and the relationship of Elijah as the Prophet of fire is not taught in Christian churches ‒ and Elijah has never been a common subject for sermons. This image belongs to Jewish symbolism. Let us remember that Roma had no knowledge of the written Scriptures until very recent times. The way in which Roma associate the Prophet with his power over lightning and storms is amazingly Jewish.
Roma Women and Drabarimós
«Why do Roma women go around for drabarimós? One day, O Del warned all Roma to leave their country as He was going to punish the king of the Gadje and his people. Roma elders were worried, because they had nothing for the journey. Then, O Del said: ‹You will get whatever you need for the journey if you send your wives to ask from the Gadje women jewels and clothes, and they will give them also food, because I will daze their minds and they will not deny your wives to give them whatever they ask. So you will take from them what you need to afford your wandering around the world›. This is a commandment that we have kept since old, as we have still not finished our journey...».
By Fardi, a Kalderash Rom from Argentina, of the Roma that immigrated from Russia.
Drabarimós is the custom of going around for fortune-telling with the aim of getting some compensation in money or items.
Gadje means "non-Roma".
This story has no parallel in any tradition and not any possible source except the Scriptures: Exodus 3:21-22 and 12:35-36, in which Mosheh gave these instructions to the Hebrews under God's command. This event of the Bible is hardly heard in any Christian church, and such a detailed explanation cannot be the result of hearsay within a Christian environment.
There are many tales like these among Roma all over the world. On the contrary, there is not any oral tradition that may be traced back to any event, real or mythical, of Indian peoples.
A Legend of Roma of Camargue
The Legend of Sara Kali
One of the favourite topics of the supporters of the alleged Indo-Aryan origin of Roma is the legend of Sara kali, through which they hopelessly clutch at straws trying to find a relationship with the bloodthirsty Indian idol Kali. These scholars speculate on the name coincidence, like this:
"Sara kali was black; Kali is a black Indian goddess; therefore, Sara kali is the Indian Kali";
such reasoning is comparable to the following one:
"Elvis Presley died in Memphis; Memphis is in Egypt; therefore, Elvis Presley died in Egypt"...
No, this comparison is not an exaggeration, is quite objective, because they do not search if there is any real relationship between both Kalis, and even do not realize that the legend of Sara kali is absolutely unknown by the largest majority of Roma (that have not any similar legend). Now let us consider which is the origin of this legend, and its relationship with Roma, by quoting the oldest account ascribed to Roma that we have:
«One of our people who received the first revelation was Sara the kali. She was of noble birth and was chief of her tribe on the banks of the Rhône. She knew the secrets that had been transmitted to her... The Roma at that period practised idolatry, and once a year they took out on their shoulders the statue of Ishtari [Astarte!] and went into the sea to receive benediction there. One day Sara had visions which informed her that the saints who had been present at the death of Jesus would come, and that she must help them. Sara saw them arrive in a boat. The sea was rough, and the boat threatened to sink. Sara threw her dress on the waves and, using it as a raft, she floated towards the saints and helped them reach land».
(Franz de Ville, "Tziganes", Bruxelles, 1956).
It is interesting that Roma, not having read the Bible by that time (it was impossible, as it was written in Latin and banned from the popular reach; what is more, almost all people were illiterate, and Roma more than anybody), had knowledge of the Canaanite/Babylonian goddes Ishtar! They did not know anything about Lakshmi, Parvati, Indrani, Annapurna, or any other Indian idol, but they knew Ishtar, that by the time when Roma arrived in Europe, was no longer worshipped under that name for at least a millennium! The account is trustworthy, as the name "Ishtari" cannot have been invented by the author, as the name sounds quite like a purely Romany word. Ishtar was indeed worshipped by ancient Israelites of the Northern Kingdom, those that were exiled by Assyrians and reached India. It is also remarkable the fact that Roma in those times were able to recognize that the Roman catholic religion consisted in replacing the pagan idols with the saints but keeping the same rituals, and that the worship of Mary was exactly the same one of the ancient Ishtar.
A further detail (purposely ignored) is that the character of Sara kali is completely the opposite to that of the Indian Kali, as she (Sara) is presented as a pious believer. The scholars that assert that Roma once were devotees of Kali show how they utterly ignore the Romany character: Roma would never worship a deity of death, violence and destruction! Much less when such worship involves sexual promiscuity! To ascribe such a past to Romany belief is greatly offensive towards Roma.
Another detail that is ignored is the very name of the saint: Sara, whom Roma consider to be the mother of their people. But Sara, until proved otherwise, was the mother of the Hebrew people... Oh, yes, the biased scholars may argue that Sara kali is Sarasvati - in this case, Brahma is Abraham, why not?... If one wants to find name coincidences, usually succeeds.
A further detail is that Sara kali is known only by Western-European Roma (Kalé and Sinti), while the whole Eastern Roma group knows nothing about her, and has not any equivalent legend. The first historical mention of Saint Sara dates back to 1521 c.e. (The Legend of the Saintes-Maries, by Vincent Philippon), and tells of her as a charitable woman that helped people by collecting alms, which led to the popular belief that she was a Gypsy. By that time, Roma were in that region since more than a century. They adopted Sara as their saint because they found in her a common character, and because her name was the one they recognized as that of their ancestress. As the saint was dark-skinned, they called her "e kali", that is, "the black" ‒ it is not a name, but an attribute! When Roma arrived in Europe, they were already Christian. Where did they learn about Sara, Ishtar and Jesus? In muslim-occupied territories? How would they come to know such things, on the way from India through the whole muslim world, until they reached Europe?
Other traditions concerning the origin of the legend of Sara kali are that she was an Egyptian maid of two women called Mary (the "Saintes Maries") that were among the followers of Jesus or else relatives of his mother, and that allegedly reached the Camargue by sea.
Whatever be the origin of this legend, it always leads to the Holy Land, not to India, and has not any common feature with the Indian Kali as some scholars try to demonstrate with unlikely theories.
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