The name Gypsy, an abbreviation of Egyptian, has been
used for centuries by English-speaking people to denote a
member of a group of wanderers who traveled Europe during
the Middle Ages, and whose descendants are still found in most
Many other names, such as Saracen and Zigeuner, or
Cigan, have been applied to these people, but Egyptian is
the most widespread. It does not, however, relate to Egypt, but
to the country of Little Egypt or Lesser Egypt, whose identity
has never been clearly established. Two Transylvanian references
from the years 1417 and 1418 suggested that Palestine
is the country in question, but there is some reason to believe
that Little Egypt included other regions in the East. It is now
almost unanimously agreed that the Gypsies came into Europe
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Gypsies
There are strong resemblances between Indian and gypsy
language. Gypsies speak of themselves as Romany and of
their language as Romani-tchib (tchib=tongue). Physically they
are black-haired and brown-skinned, their appearance, like
their language, suggesting affinities with Hindustan.
In recent centuries, if not in earlier times, many of their
overlords were not of Gypsy blood, but belonged to the nobility
and petite noblesse of Europe, and were formally appointed by
the kings and governments of their respective countries to rule
over all the Gypsies resident within those countries. The title
of baron, count, or regent of the Gypsies was no proof that the
official so designated was of Gypsy race.
The appointed rulers, were empowered by Christian
princes, and under Papal approval, were necessarily Christian.
Moreover, their vassals were at least Christian by profession.
Although their behavior was often inconsistent with such a profession,
it was in the character of Christian pilgrims that they
asked and obtained hospitality from the cities and towns of Medieval
This twofold character is illustrated in connection with the
services held in the crypt of the church of Les Saintes Maries
de la Mer, in the Ile de la Camargue, Bouches-du-Rhône. In
this church many Gypsies annually celebrate the Festival of the
Holy Marys on May 25. The crypt is specially reserved for
them, because it contains the shrine of Saint Sara of Egypt,
whom they regard as their patron saint. Throughout the night
of the 24th-25th May they keep watch over her shrine, and on
the 25th they leave. Among the Gypsy votive offerings presented
in the crypt, some are believed to date back to about the
All this would appear to indicate that the Gypsies were
Christians. Another statement, however, tends to qualify such
a conclusion. The assertion that the shrine of Saint Sara rests
upon an ancient altar dedicated to Mithra, that the Gypsies of
that neighborhood who are known as Calagues, are descended
from the Iberians formerly inhabiting the Camargue, and
that their cult is really the Mithraic worship of fire and water,
upon which the veneration of Saint Sara is superimposed.
Many believe that confirmation of this view is the worship
of fire still existing among the Gypsies of Southern Hungary although
this is also characteristic of India. There are special ceremonies
observed at childbirth, in order to avert evil during
the period between birth and baptism. Prior to the birth of the
child, the Gypsies light a fire before the mothers tent, and this
fire remains until the rite of baptism has been performed. The
women who light and feed the fire recite the following chant:
Burn ye, burn ye fast, O Fire!
And guard the babe from wrathful ire
Of earthy Gnome and Water-Sprite,
Whom with thy dark smoke banish quite!
Kindly Fairies, hither fare,
And let the babe good fortune share,
Let luck attend him ever here,
Throughout his life be luck aye near!
Twigs and branches now in store,
And still of branches many more,
Give we to thy flame, O Fire!
Burn ye, burn ye, fast and high,
Hear the little baby cry!
It is noted that the spirits of the Earth and Water here are
regarded as malevolent, and only to be overcome by the superior
aid of fire. These women who are believed to have learned
their occult lore from the unseen powers of Earth and Water
are held to be the greatest magicians of the tribe.
Moreover, the water-being is not invariably regarded as inimical,
but is sometimes directly propitiated. As when a mother,
to charm away convulsive crying in her child, goes through the
prescribed ceremonial details, including casting a red thread
into the stream and repeating the following: Take this thread,
O Water-Spirit, and take with it the crying of my child! If it gets
well, I will bring thee apples and eggs!
The water-spirit appears again in a friendly character when
a man, in order to recover a stolen horse, takes his infant to a
stream, and, bending over the water, asks the invisible genius
to indicate, by means of the babys hand, the direction in which
the horse has been taken. These two instances demonstrate the
worship of water and the watery powers. Although these rites
may be ascribed to Mithraism in its later stages, they may have
an earlier origin.
Joseph Glanvilles observation of a young Gypsy inspired
Matthew Arnolds poem, The Scholar-Gypsy. In his Vanity of
Dogmatising (1661), Glanville states, There was lately a lad in
the University of Oxford who was, by his poverty, forced to
leave his studies there, and at last to join himself to a company
of vagabond Gypsies. . . . After he had been a pretty while exercised
in the trade, this scholar-gypsy chanced to meet two of
his former fellow-students, to whom he stated, that the people
he went with were not such imposters as they were taken for,
but that they had a traditional kind of learning among them,
and could do wonders by the powers of imagination, their fancy
binding that of others; that himself had learned much of their
art, and when he had compassed the whole secret, he intended,
he said, to leave their company, and give the world an account
of what he had learned.
It is believed that ancient Gypsies had knowledge and exercised
hypnotism. Even among modern Gypsies this power is
said to be exercised. Col. Eugene De Rochas stated that the
Catalan Gypsies were mesmerists and clairvoyants, and the
writer Lewis Spence supposedly experienced an attempt on
the part of a South Hungarian Gypsy to exert this influence.
The same power, under the name of glamour, was formerly
an attribute of the Scottish Gypsies. Glamour was defined
by Sir Walter Scott as the power of imposing on the eyesight
of the spectators, so that the appearance of an object shall be
totally different from the reality.
Scott in explanation of a reference to the Gypsies glamourd
gang, in one of his ballads, he remarks: Besides the
prophetic powers ascribed to the Gypsies in most European
countries, the Scottish peasants believe them possessed of the
power of throwing upon bystanders a spell to fascinate their
eyes and cause them to see the thing that is not. Thus in the old
ballad of Johnnie Faa, the elopement of the Countess of Cassillis
with a Gypsy leader is imputed to fascination
Sae soon as they saw her weel-faurd face,
They cast the glamour oer her.
Scott also relates an incident of a Gypsy who exercised his
glamour over a number of people at Haddington, to whom he
exhibited a common dunghill cock, trailing, what appeared to
the spectators, a massy oaken trunk. An old man passed with
a cart of clover, he stopped and picked out a four-leaved blade;
the eyes of the spectators were opened, and the oaken trunk appeared
to be a bulrush. Supposedly the quatrefoil, owing to its
cruciform shape, acted as an antidote to witchcraft. Moreover,
in the face of this sign of the cross, the Gypsy had to stop exercising
the unlawful art. As to the possibility of hypnotizing a
crowd, or making them to see the thing that is not, that feat
has often been ascribed to African witch doctors. What is required
is a dominant will on the one hand and a sufficiently
plastic imagination on the other.
Scott introduces these statements among his notes on the
ballad of Christies Will, in relation to the verse:
He thought the warlocks o the rosy cross,
Had fangd him in their nets sae fast;
Or that the Gypsies glamourd gang
Had laird his learning at the last.
This association of the Rosicrucians with Gypsies is not
inapt, for hypnotism appears to have been considered a Rosicrucian
art. Scott has other suggestive references including:
Gypsies Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
Saxo Grammaticus mentions a particular sect of Mathematicians,
as he is pleased to call them, who, per summam ludificandorum
oculorum peritiam, proprios alienosque vultus,
varus rerum imaginibus, adumbraie callebant; illicibusque formis
veros obscurare conspectus. Merlin, the son of Ambrose,
was particularly skilled in this art, and displays it often in the
old metrical romance of Arthour and Merlin. The jongleurs
were also great professors of this mystery, which has in some
degree descended, with their name, on the modern jugglers.
Various societies are credited with possession, of the art of
hypnotism, during the Middle Ages. Presumably, it was inherited
from one common source. How much the Gypsies were associated
with this power may be inferred from a Scottish Act of
Parliament of the year 1579, which was directed against the
idle people calling themselves Egyptians, or any other that
fancy themselves to have knowledge of prophecy, charming, or
other abused sciences. For the term charming, like glamour
and other kindred words (e.g., enchantment, bewitched,
spellbound) bore reference to the mesomeric influence.
The statement made by Glanvills scholar-gypsy would lead
one to believe that the Gypsies inhabiting England in the seventeenth
century possessed other branches of learning. They
have always been famed for their alleged prophetic power, exercised
through the medium of astrology and chiromancy or
palmistry, and also by the interpretation of dreams, this last
named phase being distinctly specified in Scotland in 1611. It
does not appear that any modern Gypsies profess a traditional
knowledge of astrology. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note
that the scholar Francis H. Groome was shown by a Welsh Gypsyman
the form of the written charm employed by his mother
in her fortune-telling, and that form was unquestionably a survival
of the horoscope. Both mother and son were obviously unaware
of that fact, and made no profession of astrology, but
they had inherited the scheme of the horoscope from ancestors
who were astrologers.
The practice of palmistry is still identified with the Gypsies,
as it has been for ages. A curious belief was current in medieval
times to the effect that the Three Kings or Magi who came to
Bethlehem were Gypsies, and in more than one religious play
they were represented as telling the fortunes of the Holy Family
by means of palmistry. This circumstance evoked the following
suggestive remarks from Charles Godfrey Leland.
As for the connection of the Three Kings with Gypsies, it
is plain enough. Gypsies were from the East; Rome and the
world abounded in wandering Chaldean magi-priests, and the
researches which I am making have led me to a firm conclusion
that the Gypsy lore of Hungary and South Slavonia has a very
original character as being, firstly, though derived from India,
not Aryan, but Shamanic, that is, of an Altaic, or Tartar, or Turanian
stock. . . . Secondly, this was the old ChaldeanAccadian
wisdom or sorcery. Thirdlyand this deserves serious
examinationit was also the old Etruscan religion whose
magic formulas were transmitted to the Romans. . . .
The Venetian witchcraft, as set forth by Bernoni, is evidently
of Slavic-Greek origin. That of the Romagna is Etruscan,
agreeing very strangely and closely with the Chaldean magic of
Lenormant, and marvelously like the Gypsies. It does not,
when carefully sifted, seem to be like that of the Aryans. . . . nor
is it Semitic. To what degree some idea of all this, and of Gypsy
connection with it, penetrated among the people and filtered
down, even into the Middle Ages, no one can say. But it is very
probable that through the centuries there came together some
report of the common origin of Gypsy and Eastern or Chaldean
lore, for since it was the same, there is no reason why a
knowledge of the truth should not have been disseminated in
a time of a traditions and earnest study in occultism.
These surmises on the part of a keen and accomplished student
of every phase of magic, written and unwritten, are deserving
of the fullest consideration. By following the line indicated
by Leland it may be possible to reach an identification of the
traditional kind of learning possessed by the Gypsies in the
Leland also identified the gypsy language Shelta (as distinct
from Romany) surviving in Ireland.
Gypsies have also been noted for their folk music, especially
for the Flamenco style surviving in Andalucia (Spain).
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Black, George F. A Gypsy Bibliography. London: Gypsy Lore
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Clébert, Jean-Paul. The Gypsies. London: Vista Books, 1963.
Reprint, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books,
Leland, Charles G. The English Gipsies and Their Language.
. Gypsy Sorcery. New York: Tower, n.d.
Starkie, Walter. Raggle Taggle; Adventures With a Fiddle in
Hungary and Roumania. London, 1933.
Trigg, E. B. Gypsy Demons and Divinities: The Magical and Supernatural
Practices of the Gypsies. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press,
1973. Reprint, London: Sheldon Press, 1975.