Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Gypsies were perhaps the original bohemians. In 1423, King Sigismund of Bohemia gave a band of “outlandysshe” wanderers from “Egypt” the letter of safe conduct—and a name and reputation—that they carried all over Europe.

They had long been blacksmiths, tinkers, knife grinders, and horse traders, as well as dancers, musicians, and fortune-tellers. Black of eye and black of hair, gypsies (or Romani, as they call themselves) entered 15th-century Europe from Asia Minor just ahead of the Ottoman wave. Though they would eventually spread as far as the British Isles and then around the world, they roamed the Balkans and eastern Europe in such numbers that an 18th-century traveler to Transylvania compared them to “locusts” swarming over the land. Their clannish, secretive ways lent them an aura of superstition; they gained a reputation for being a caste apart, masters at harnessing or propitiating occult forces. And despite the widespread belief that they had come from Egypt, their original home was India.

For good reason—they once were enslaved in Romania and were nearly exterminated by the Nazis in World War II—the Romani have remained reclusive and wary. Their kris, or unwritten code, and their ever-changing Romani tongue have been constant bonds shared by widely dispersed bands. At the same time, their wanderings have accentuated the human tendency to diversify, making gypsies a challenge to linguists and anthropologists alike. Additionally, many of their customs are imbued with—perhaps contaminated by—those of the lands in which they sojourned.

The gypsy attitude toward the dead became less diluted than their other beliefs. They recognized two categories of dead people: Suuntsé were “saints” in paradise and need not be feared, whereas mulé died unnaturally, unexpectedly, or prematurely. In the animistic world of the gypsies, however, all death resulted from deliberate evil, so the latter category included just about everyone.

Never mind other people’s ghosts or vampires; gypsies could pass untroubled nights in outsiders’ graveyards. It was the mulo they feared. After a death in a gypsy camp, the tent where the corpse was laid would be carefully guarded so nothing untoward could affect it; meanwhile, the campfires outside were stoked high to scare off any ghosts. Every burial rite was observed to the letter, with the dead man’s possessions—even his money—being destroyed to rob a potential ghost of any reason to pursue its former clan members and to exact its revenge for negligence or theft. The destruction extended even to the departed’s home: The ritual of the burning wagon was once a spectacular gypsy custom.

Some say the mulo walks abroad by day; others that he moves only at night and must return to his grave by cockcrow. Either way, he can also be active precisely at noon, when nothing casts a shadow—a sort of witching hour in reverse. Not quite a reanimated corpse but not exactly a ghost either, the mulo is something in between—a kind of posthumous double that, though tethered to the grave, can nonetheless wander at will. Though the mulo is greatly feared for his often brutally sexual depredations, he is almost never a bloodsucker. In fact, his adventures are comically folkloric. Many aspects of his legend have been gathered from those of the vampire—the sharpened hawthorn stake, decapitation, and burning, to name just a few of the various methods used to well and truly dispatch him. This makes it likely that, as far as vampires are concerned, the gypsy got more than he gave.

On the other hand, there are those offerings. Yes, the mulo can wander, but he must always return to the grave—there to be propitiated with offerings of food and milk in a rite that might be as old as India. So, too, might be the belief in its universality. Vampirism, to the gypsy, is a principle of nature, as applicable to animals and plants as it is to humans. Pumpkins and melons, to name the two most famous examples, often turn into vampires.

All things, it seems, are full of more than just gods.

No comments:

Post a Comment