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Gypsies, known more politically correctly as the Romani, Romany or Roma, are members of an ethnic group thought to have originated from the Indian subcontinent, and who now live throughout Europe, the Middle East, Australia and the Americas. As they migrated, they faced intense persecution and discrimination, which peaked during the Holocaust, and which continues today. They are often stereotyped as dishonest individuals who work mainly as fortune tellers, but they have an distinct culture that is often described as being quite colorful, with notable contributions to music. Although many now live in permanent homes, they are traditionally nomadic.
Ancestry and Migration
Genetic evidence suggests that these people likely are the descendents of groups from northern India, and experts believe that they started migrating out of this region around 1,500 years ago. They were settled in the Balkans, or southeastern Europe, by the early 12th century, and by the 1500s, they had reached the western side of the continent. One theory about why they left is that the Ghaznavids, a Muslim army, invaded, either bringing them out of India as slaves or forcing them to abandon their homes in exile. Various legends propose alternate and somewhat fantastic ideas about their roots, such as that they are descendents of the lost city of Atlantis.
Origin of "Gypsy"
Compared to the people of Europe and other nearby regions, Romani had fairly dark skin, so those who encountered them often mistakenly thought that they had come from Egypt. They called them "gypcian," a shortened form of the Middle English "Egypcien," as a result, and eventually this became the modern word "gypsy." Today, people apply the label very generally to many nomadic groups, distinguishing when they mean Romani by capitalizing it. The term has come to have many derogatory connotations, however, so even though some Romani accept it simply due to its widespread use, most do not self-identify with it and consider it to be offensive.
Anthropologists and sociologists usually say that the traditional Romani culture is extremely rich, featuring a strong sense of togetherness. Men usually lead families and communities, but women still have respect and are expected to contribute actively to the support of the family through work or homemaking. It is not unusual for families to be large, because adults see children as both lucky and an economic or labor asset. Marriages often are arranged and occur when children are still teenagers, with many fathers still requiring dowries for their daughters.
Most of the time, the Romani form large clans or bands called kumpanias. These can have as many as several hundred families, and the people usually elect a chieftan, or voivode, to serve as a lifetime leader. A council of elders gives advice and practical help to the voivode, who also looks to a respected, older woman, or phuri dai, for insights and recommendations about the women and kids in the group.
The fact that these individuals were and are still a migratory people meant that they usually did not follow religions that could be considered organized by today's standards. Despite this, contemporary members of the group are largely followers of either Hindu or Islam, with others following Christianity, particularly leaning toward Roman Catholicism. Even when they do not fall into one of these categories, they collectively still hold a strong sense of spirituality, believing firmly in the idea of cleanliness — this often is compared to the Jewish concept of people and things being kosher — and the connected nature of behavior, events and fate.
With their culture and appearance typically very different from that of the nations to which they immigrated, Romani usually experienced extreme prejudice. Various groups enslaved them as early as the 12th or 13th century, and even where they had their freedom, natives typically saw them as lesser people. Getting stable, steady jobs that would have allowed more permanent settlement was difficult, and it wasn't unusual for groups to have to move to get access to basic necessities. This discrimination likely provided plenty of fuel for the adoption of a nomadic lifestyle as standard, with many clans moving eastward into Russia to escape trouble.
The anti-Romanti sentiment reached its peak during World War II. As the German leader, Adolf Hitler, redefined what "acceptable" ethnicity was, his followers and other racists tried various methods of eradicating the group. As was common for the Jews, the Nazis often exiled them out of towns and cities, and as time went on, leaders moved to coerced or forced sterilization to try to control populations. Officers frequently executed them on sight, and thousands were sent to concentration camps. Many were the subjects for experimental medical testing or research, dying from what was done to them, while others were shot or sent to the gas chambers. Conservative estimates place the number who perished at 200,000, but according to some historians, the number might be as high as 2,000,000.
Members of Romani groups continue to suffer persecution throughout the world, and they are still stereotyped as superstitious, deceptive con artists. The close-knit nature of the family, along with their unwillingness to give up their culture and language to assimilate into the larger society, has inspired xenophobia. Anti-discrimination legislation has been helpful in some instances, but the social perception of the group as lower class or even worthless still persists in many areas.
The extreme persecution Romani faced — and still are experiencing today — made it extremely difficult for these people to have a broad range of careers. The two trades for which they are most well-known and stereotyped, often practiced together, are fortune telling and acting as a psychic. Most of the time, however, they worked as metal workers, peddlers or animal traders and amateur veterinarians.
In addition to holding these jobs, they often served as musicians. Their music has been particularly influential in genres ranging from classical to rock, with jazz, bolero and flamenco music bearing especially heavy influence. The culture has inspired musicians throughout Eastern Europe and beyond, including composers such as Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms.
Contemporary Romani are somewhat better able to explore other options, as many now live in more permanent homes and, in certain regions, are protected to some degree by law. Even so, they struggle to get more advanced jobs in many areas, in part because discrimination results in a lack of proper education toward advanced careers. The unemployment rate is generally high.
With many Romani constantly on the move, getting any kind of accurate census record regarding their numbers is a challenge. The fact that some individuals don't consider themselves to be members of this ethnic class while outsiders improperly use the label for themselves makes the problem worse. Experts believe that there are at least 4,000,000 people in this group, with some estimates reaching 14,000,000. The large majority, 66 – 83%, live in Europe.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who are the Gypsies, and where did they originally come from?
Gypsies, also known as Roma, are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group with origins traced back to the northern Indian subcontinent, specifically the regions of Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab. Genetic evidence supports this South Asian origin, and linguistic analysis of the Romani language, which belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family, further corroborates their Indian roots. The Roma began their migration to Europe and North Africa around the 14th century.
What is the cultural significance of the Romani people?
The Romani people have a rich cultural heritage that includes unique traditions, music, dance, and crafts. Their music, for instance, has influenced many genres such as flamenco in Spain, jazz in the United States, and Balkan folk music. Romani culture places a strong emphasis on family and clan loyalty, and despite centuries of persecution and forced assimilation, they have maintained their distinct language and customs, contributing to the cultural mosaic of the regions they inhabit.
How many Gypsies are there worldwide, and where are they predominantly located?
Estimates suggest that there are between 10 to 12 million Roma globally, making them one of the largest ethnic minorities in Europe. They are predominantly located in Europe, with substantial populations in countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Spain. The Roma community also exists in the Americas and parts of the Middle East. However, due to their historically nomadic lifestyle and a lack of formal census data, exact numbers are difficult to determine.
What challenges do Gypsies face in contemporary society?
Gypsies, or Roma, face significant challenges including widespread discrimination, social exclusion, and poverty. They often have limited access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Roma are at a high risk of experiencing severe material deprivation and living in substandard housing conditions. These challenges are compounded by a lack of legal recognition and representation in some countries.
How have Gypsies contributed to the economies and societies they are part of?
Gypsies have contributed to economies and societies through various means, including their artisanal skills in metalwork, woodworking, and textiles. They have also been involved in trade, entertainment, and music, enriching local cultures with their performances and craftsmanship. In agriculture, they have historically provided seasonal labor. Despite facing social barriers, their resilience and adaptability have allowed them to contribute to the local economies and cultural life of the places they reside in.