Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/February 1880/The Origin of the Gypsies

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IT has been repeated, until the remark has become accepted as a sort of truism, that the gypsies are a mysterious race, and that nothing is known of their origin. And a few years ago this was true; but within those years so much has been discovered that at present there is really no more mystery attached to the beginning of these nomads than is peculiar to many other peoples. What these discoveries or grounds of belief are we shall proceed to give briefly, our limits not permitting the detailed citation of authorities. First, then, there appears to be every reason for believing with Captain Richard Burton that the Jäts of Northwestern India furnished so large a proportion of the emigrants or exiles who, from the tenth century, went out of India westward, that there is very little risk in assuming it as an hypothesis, at least, that they formed the Hauptstamm of the gypsies of Europe. What other elements entered into these, with whom we are all familiar, will be considered presently. These gypsies came from India, where caste is established and callings are hereditary even among out-castes. It is not assuming too much to suppose that, as they evinced a marked aptitude for certain pursuits and an inveterate attachment to certain habits, their ancestors had in these respects resembled them for ages. These pursuits and habits were, that—

They were tinkers, smiths, and farriers.
They dealt in horses, and were naturally familiar with them.
They were without religion.
They were unscrupulous thieves.
Their women were fortune-tellers, especially by chiromancy.
They ate without scruple animals which had died a natural death, being especially fond of the pig, which, when it has thus been "butchered by God," is still regarded even by the most prosperous gypsies in England as a delicacy.
They flayed animals, carried corpses, and showed such aptness for these and similar detested callings that in several European countries they long monopolized them.
They made and sold mats, baskets, and small articles of wood.
They have shown great skill as dancers, musicians, singers, acrobats; and it is a rule almost without exception that there is hardly a traveling company of such performers, or a theatre in Europe or America, in which there is not at least one person with some Romany blood.
Their hair remains black to advanced age, and they retain it longer than do Europeans or ordinary Orientals.
They speak an Aryan tongue, which agrees in the main with that of the Jäts, but which contains words gathered from other Indian sources.

Admitting these as the peculiar pursuits of the race, the next step should be to consider what are the principal nomadic tribes of gypsies in India and Persia, and how far their occupations agree with those of the Romany of Europe. That the Jãts probably supplied the main stock has been admitted. This was a bold race of Northwestern India which at one time had such power as to obtain important victories over the Caliphs. They were broken and dispersed in the eleventh century by Mahmoud, many thousands of them wandering to the West. They were without religion, "of the horse, horsey," and notorious thieves. In this they agree with the European gypsy. But they are not habitual eaters of mullo bãlor, or "dead pork"; they do not devour everything like dogs. We can not ascertain that the Jãt is specially a musician, a dancer, a mat-and basket-maker, a rope-dancer, a bear-leader, or a peddler. We do not know whether they are peculiar in India among the Indians for keeping their hair unchanged to old age, as do pure-blood English gypsies. All of these things are, however, markedly characteristic of certain different kinds of wanderers or gypsies in India. From this we conclude, hypothetically, that the Jãt warriors were supplemented by other tribes; chief among these may have been the Dom.

The Doms are a race of gypsies found in Central India to the far northern frontier, where a portion of their early ancestry appear as the Domarr, and are supposed to be pre-Aryan. In "The People of India," edited by J. Forbes Watson and J. W. Kaye (India Museum, 1868), we are told that the appearance and modes of life of the Doms indicate a marked difference from those who surround them (in Behar). The Hindoos admit their claim to antiquity. Their designation in the Shastras is sopuckh, meaning dog-eater. They are wanderers, they make baskets and mats, and are inveterate drinkers of spirits, spending all their earnings on it. They have almost a monopoly as to burning corpses and handling all dead bodies. They eat all animals which have died a natural death, and are particularly fond of pork of this description. "Notwithstanding profligate habits, many of them attain the age of eighty or ninety; and it is not till sixty or sixty-five that their hair begins to get white." Travelers speak of them as "gypsies." The Domarr are a mountain race, nomads, shepherds, and robbers. A specimen which we have of their language would, with the exception of one word, which is probably an error of the transcriber, be intelligible to any English gypsy, and be called pure Romany. Finally, the ordinary Dom calls himself a Dom, his wife a Domni, and the being a Dom, or the collective gypsydom, Domnipana. D in Hindostani is found as r in English gypsy speech—e. g., doi, a wooden spoon, is known in Europe as roi. Now, in common Romany we have, even in London—

Rom A gypsy.
Romni A gypsy wife.
Romnipen Gypsydom.

Of this word rom we shall have more to say. It may be observed that there are in the Indian Dom certain distinctly marked and degrading features, characteristic of the European gypsy, which are out of keeping with the habits of warriors, and of a daring Aryan race which withstood the Caliphs. Grubbing in filth as if by instinct, handling corpses, making baskets, eating carrion, living for drunkenness, does not agree with anything we can learn of the Jãts. Yet the European gypsies are all this, and at the same time "horsey" like the Jãts. Is it not extremely probable that during the "out-wandering" the Dom communicated his name and habits to his fellow emigrants?

The marked musical talent characteristic of the Slavonian and other European gypsies appears to link them with the Luri of Persia. These are distinctly gypsies; that is to say, they are wanderers, thieves, fortune-tellers, and minstrels. The "Shah-Nameh" of Firdusi tells us that about the year 420 a. d., Shankal, the Maharajah of India, sent to Behram Gour, a ruler of the Sassanian dynasty in Persia, ten thousand minstrels, male and female, called Luri. Though lands were allotted to them, with corn and cattle, they became from the beginning irreclaimable vagabonds. Of their descendants, as they now exist. Sir Henry Pottinger says ("Travels in Beloochistan and Scinde," p. 153): "They bear a marked affinity to the gypsies of Europe. They speak a dialect peculiar to themselves, have a king to each troupe, and are notorious for kidnapping and pilfering. Their principal pastimes are drinking, dancing, and music. . . . They are invariably attended by half a dozen bears and monkeys that are broke in to perform all manner of grotesque tricks. In each company there are always two or three members who profess. . . . modes of divining which procure them a ready admission into every society." This account, especially with the mention of trained bears and monkeys, identifies them with the Ricinari, or bear-leading gypsies of Syria (also called Nuri), Turkey, and Roumania. A party of these lately came to England. We have seen these Syrian Ricinari in Egypt. They are unquestionably gypsies, and it is probable that many of them accompanied the early migration of Jãts and Doms.

The Nãts or Nuts are Indian wanderers, who, as Dr. J. Forbes Watson declares, in the "The People of India," "correspond to the European gypsy tribes," and were in their origin probably identical with the Luri. They are musicians, dancers, conjurers, acrobats, fortune-tellers, blacksmiths, robbers, and dwellers in tents. They eat everything, except garlic. There are also in India the Banjari, who are spoken of by travelers as "gypsies," They are traveling merchants or peddlers. Among all of these wanderers there is a current slang of the roads, as in England. This slang extends even into Persia. Each tribe has its own, but the general name for it is Rom.

It has never been pointed out, however, that there is in Northern and Central India a distinct tribe, which is regarded even by the Nãts and Doms and Jãts themselves, as peculiarly and distinctly gypsy. We have met in London with a poor Mohammedan Hindoo of Calcutta. This man had in his youth lived with these wanderers, and been, in fact, one of them. He had also, as is common with intelligent Mohammedan's, written his autobiography, embodying in it a vocabulary of the Indian gypsy language. This MS. had unfortunately been burned by his English wife, who informed us that she had done so "because she was tired of seeing a book lying about which she could not understand." With the assistance of an eminent Oriental scholar who is perfectly familiar with both Hindostani and Romany, this man was carefully examined. He declared that these were the real gypsies of India, "like English gypsies here." "People in India called them Trablūs or Syrians, a misapplied word, derived from a town in Syria, which in turn bears the Arabic name for Tripoli. But they were, as he was certain, pure Hindoos and not Syrian gypsies. They had a peculiar language, and called both this tongue and themselves Rom. In it bread was called manro." Manro is all over Europe the gypsy word for bread. In English Romany it is softened into mãro or morro. Captain Burton has since informed us that manro is the Afghan word for bread; but this our ex-gypsy did not know. He merely said that he did not know it in any Indian dialect except that of the Rom, and that Rom was the general slang of the road, derived, as he supposed, from the Trablūs.

These are, then, the very gypsies of gypsies in India. .They are thieves, fortune-tellers, and vagrants. But whether they have or had any connection with the migration to the West we can not establish. Their language and their name would seem to indicate it; but then it must be borne in mind that the word Rom, like Dom, is one of wide dissemination, Dūm being a Syrian gypsy word for the race. And the very great majority of even English gypsy words are Hindi, with an admixture of Persian, and not belonging to a slang of any kind—as in India, churi is a knife, nãk the nose, balia hairs, and so on, with others which would be among the first to be furnished with slang equivalents. And yet these very gypsies are Rom, and the wife is a Romni, and they use words which are not Hindoo in common with European gypsies. It is therefore not improbable that in these Trablūs, so called through popular ignorance, as they are called Tartars in Egypt and Germany, we have a portion at least of the real stock. It is to be desired that some resident in India would investigate the Trablūs.

Next to the word Rom itself, the most interesting in Romany is Zingan, or Tchenkan, which is used in twenty or thirty different forms by the people of every country, except England, to indicate the gypsy. An incredible amount of far-fetched erudition has been wasted in pursuing this philological ignis-fatuus. That there are leather-working and saddle-working gypsies in Persia who call themselves Zingan is a fair basis for an origin of the word; but then there are Tchangar gypsies of Jāt affinity in the Punjaub. Wonderful it is that, in this war of words, no philologist has paid any attention to what the gypsies themselves say about it. What they do say is sufficiently interesting, as it is told in the form of a legend which is intrinsically curious and probably ancient. It is given as follows in "The People of Turkey, by a Consul's Daughter and Wife," edited by Mr. Stanley Lane Poole, London, 1878: "Although the gypsies are not persecuted in Turkey, the antipathy and disdain felt for them evinces itself in many ways, and appears to be founded upon a strange legend current in the country. This legend says that, when the gypsy nation were driven out of their country and arrived at Mekran, they constructed a wonderful machine to which a wheel was attached." From the context of this imperfectly told story, it would appear as if the gypsies could not travel farther until this wheel should revolve: "Nobody appeared to be able to turn it, till, in the midst of their vain efforts, some evil spirit presented himself under the disguise of a sage, and informed the chief, whose name was Chen, that the wheel would be made to turn only when he had married his sister Guin. The chief accepted the advice, the wheel turned round, and the name of the tribe after this incident became that of the combined names of the brother and sister, Chenguin, the appellation of all the gypsies of Turkey at the present day," The legend goes on to state that, in consequence of this unnatural marriage, the gypsies were cursed and condemned by a Mohammedan saint to wander for ever on the face of the earth. The real meaning of the myth—for myth it is—is very apparent. Chen is a Romany word, generally pronounced Chone, meaning the moon, while Guin is almost universally rendered Gan or Kan. Kan is given by George Borrow as meaning sun, and we have ourselves heard English gypsies call it kan, although kam is usually assumed to be right. Chen-kan means, therefore, moon-sun. And it may be remarked in this connection that the Roumanian gypsies have a wild legend stating that the sun was a youth who, having fallen in love with his own sister, was condemned as the sun to wander for ever in pursuit of her turned into the moon. A similar legend exists in Greenland and the Island of Borneo, and it was known to the old Irish. It was very natural that the gypsies, observing that the sun and moon were always apparently wandering, should have identified their own nomadic life with that of these luminaries. It may be objected, by those to whom the term "solar myth" is as a red rag, that this story, to prove anything, must first be proved itself. This will probably not be far to seek. If it can be found among any of the wanderers in India, it may well be accepted, until something better turns up, as the possible origin of the greatly disputed Zingan. It is quite as plausible as Dr. Miklosich's derivation from the Acingani—Ατσίγανοι—"an unclean, heretical Christian sect, who dwelt in Phrygia and Lycaonia from the seventh till the eleventh century." The mention of Mekran indicates clearly that the moon-sun story came from India before the Romany could have obtained any Greek name. And, if the Romany call themselves Jengan, or Chenkan, or Zin-gan, in the East, it is extremely unlikely that they ever received such a name from the Gorgios in Europe.—Saturday Review.