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All Things Gypsy: A Brief History & Cultural Collective

When Kitty was a little girl she dreamed of being a museum curator or archaeologist. Now she studies and writes all about history.


What is a Gypsy? defines a gypsy as being "a member of a traveling people with dark skin and hair who speak Romany and traditionally live by seasonal work, itinerant trade, and fortune-telling." But a gypsy is so much more than this...

While many people believe that the gypsies are Romani, there are gypsies or nomadic tribes from many different locations across the globe. Most of the gypsy tribes are thought to have originated in the Middle East, in places such as India, Armenia, and even East Anatolia. These are the darker skinned, darker featured wandering gypsies. This image of the gypsy is one that is commonly portrayed in movies, on television, in books, and also illustrated on published divinatory tools such as tarot cards, etc. But there are gypsies from other culture-rich regions of the world in addition to the Middle East, such as: the Irish travelers from Ireland, the Sea Gypsies from all across Southeast Asia, and the Scottish Highland Travelers from Scotland.

Whatever the image and our beliefs of what the "gypsies" are and were, there is much more to these mysterious peoples than meets the American eye. If we take a trip back through time and delve into the culture and reality of the gypsy tribes, we may be surprised as to how normal and yet still enchanting these nomadic people truly are.


A Brief History of the Gypsies

The Romani Gypsies

The Romani Tribe, perhaps the most well-known and largest gypsy tribe, was said for many hundreds of years to have originated in Egypt - hence the term "gyp- sy". An interesting tidbit of legend has it that the Romani gypsies actually were forced to become nomadic, as they were exiled from Egypt for harboring the New Testament's Messiah - Jesus of Nazareth.

As amazing and inspiring as the Egyptian Gypsy's story is, scholars now say that the gypsies, specifically the Romani tribe, came from the country of India. Apparently this has been proven by means of DNA testing. Just because these gypsies did not really come from Egypt doesn't make their history any less intriguing!

Through the centuries following the 12th century, the Romani Gypsies arrived and traveled throughout the entire continent of Europe. And guess where the Romani tribes wandered to from there? You guessed it...the good ol' U.S.! Many Romani peoples today claim that the Portuguese brought them over as slaves and dumped them in the Americas during colonial times. Helping to establish the United States, which many do not realize, the gypsies were an integral part of our country's roots.

Speeding up to the twentieth century, something revolting and unfortunate happened to the Romani gypsy tribes in Germany and other parts of Europe. The unfortunate occurrence was during the time of Hitler and his Nazis, it was the time of the Holocaust. Unbeknownst to many non-historians, the Jews weren't the only people persecuted, tortured, and killed off by Hitler and his brigades...the gypsies were also not a part of Hitler's distorted goals for the new world order, or what he referred to as the "Aryan" race. Remember, Hitler wanted everyone who wasn't blonde haired and blue eyed to go...more particularly the Jewish people, gypsies, homosexuals, and anyone with a handicap. These unique individuals made up groups of people that were threatening to his "perfect Aryan" race that he so desperately wanted for the world.

The Romani or Roma tribe is still around and going strong today, despite being ran out and depressed in many different areas of the world.

The Irish Travelers

The Irish Travelers are just of and from Ireland. They are the minority and have been the minority of Ireland for many years. The Irish Travelers maintain their own language and culture, separate from that of the majority in Ireland, and have been carrying on in their gypsy ways for at least a couple of hundred years.

The Irish Travelers roots are not fully known but definitely debated. Most say that the Irish Travelers are descended from laborers during the famine in the 1840s. Still, the Irish Travelers and others believe that their history runs much deeper than the nineteenth century famine. There is documentation that the Irish gypsies date back to the 5th century, holding their own culture, values, and dialect of language since then.

As a minority (and they are a minority) - there was a census taken back in 2006, and the population of Irish Travelers in Ireland was less than 25,000! Their population is sure to have increased since then and the Irish Travelers are also populating in the United States, mostly in the South. In the United States, many people refer to them as "rip-off" artists and thieves, and unfortunately in Ireland they are also ostracized. More professionally, they can be known as traders - traders of greyhounds and horses. The women hold a particular interest and service in healing, though it is sort of ironic that their fatality rates are generally very high compared to the rest of society both in the US and in Ireland. It was said that the Travelers don't usually live to be over 40 years old in many cases! Whatever their origins and careers now, the Irish Travelers are an intriguing tribe of gypsies and will be for quite some time to come.

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Gypsy Divination

Probably the most notorious activity that the gypsies are known for is divination (fortune-telling). When one hears the word "gypsy", one usually thinks of a dark room with a beautiful woman, with a scarf wrapped around her ebony hair and a crystal ball beneath her hands. This image is one that has emanated through time, especially due to Hollywood's effect on society's views of different cultures and people. Though it is a prominent and looming image, it is still somewhat of a correct image, as many gypsies have used the art of fortune-telling as a means to make a living.

Two of the most well-known and commonly used forms of gypsy fortune-telling is the use of tarot cards and also the use of a crystal ball. Other forms of gypsy fortune-telling included palm and face reading and also tea leaf readings. The crystal ball readings were the most popular amongst outsiders, as the gypsies were able to set up elaborate booths in order to entice and wow their clients.

In "The Giant Book of Magic" by Cassandra Eason, Gypsy Love Cards are described in full detail. Though many tarot decks are modeled after the gypsy way of life and style, most of the time the gypsy fortune-teller would use a simple deck of playing cards! To the gypsy fortune-teller, each suit of cards had a general meaning, for instance:

  • The suit of diamonds usually talked about the practical issues in a relationship
  • The suit of clubs talks about communication in love and relationships
  • Hearts pinpoint emotions involved in love and relationships (jealousy, passion, etc.)
  • Spades specifically represented challenges and fate imposed

If one particular suit popped up in a reading over the others, this could mean that one particular area of your relationship or how you love that person is bogging down the relationship in some way (or in an opposite situation uplifting it). Usually a person would seek the advice and wisdom of a gypsy for matters of the! And usually, a gypsy fortune-teller would give them a reading on the things that they needed to improve for certain things to happen for love in their lives.

Now, on a secondary level to a gypsy love card reading, the numbers in a deck also have their own particular meanings. For example:

  • The Joker - take a step into the unknown, listen to your own instincts
  • Aces - new beginnings
  • Twos - balance within a relationship
  • Threes - expansion
  • Fours - taking a chance and not letting security prevent from new experiences
  • Fives - accepting life and love for what they are
  • Sixes - harmony and idealism and reflect inner peace (or a necessity for it)
  • Sevens - dreams and spiritual searching
  • Eights - responding to setbacks and limitations in plans
  • Nines - retaining one's identity in a relationship and its importance
  • Tens - cards of completion, fulfillment and commitment

The Court Cards:

  • Jacks - a teenager or immature person involved in a relationship/threatening a relationship in some way
  • Queens - refer to a wife, female or older woman
  • Kings - husband, father, older male

Inspired by Gypsies

In modern culture, many elements have been inspired by the gypsies. Things like clothing, divinatory tools, and even music. As far as clothing goes, from where do you think Bohemian style clothing is derived? Take a peek at Dolores Monet's Bohemian Clothing Hub here: Dolores really does a beautiful job at thoroughly describing the roots of the Bohemian fashions that are so widely worn today.

As for divinatory tools, there are tarot cards based off of the gypsies' tarot decks, even titled "gypsy tarot deck"! You can also purchase crystal balls that may be titled "gypsy..."

Perhaps my all-time favorite song is Fleetwood Mac's "Gypsy", with the gorgeous and ethereal Stevie Nicks as the lead singer. This song is enchanting and will leave you wanting more and more...and may even have you wanting to join the gypsies on the road to a magical life!

Written and copyrighted © by Kitty the Dreamer (May Canfield), 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 16, 2017:

This is an interesting article. Thank you very much for sharing the information about the Irish Travelers. I've never heard of these people before.

Amber MV from Fresno, CA on August 13, 2016:

The word "Gypsy" can mean a large variety of things depending on whose listening. Here in America, it is just a romantic image. Great selection of photography for this hub, by the way! Absolutely captivating.

Karen Lovell on October 20, 2015:

Sensitive write up ~ Thank you. I too have Romanichal blood, I also married into a very old and well known Romanichal family, I am not dark, like my siblings, but my blood group is unusual within English caucasian peoples, it is mainly found in Asia ( India) or Romany folk. Our surname is also very European ... I would like to add that many Romany families adopted names from places they stayed or people who let them stay , the names we go by today may not have been those we started with... if we had surnames at all ~ Talking of famous Romany folk ~ Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin also had a Romany Mother

Anya Brodech from 130 Linden St, Oakland, California, 94607 on January 24, 2015:

Really interesting!


Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on October 31, 2013:

Danielle - Please don't take my article as the "end all be all" on the Romani gypsy people. But that being said, I'm glad you found it helpful. Blessings to you and your family.

Danielle on October 31, 2013:


Really enjoyed reading what you have to say. I have been researching the descent of Gypsies for a while.

My Great Nan, who is remarkably still alive, is a romani gypsy, yet due to her upbringing, she does not know her date of birth (for she does not bear a birth certificate), nor does she have any form of documentation (regarding her history). Therefore it is very difficult to look into my family tree, which is unfortunate.

So I am grateful for any information posted, regarding the history of the romani people. For it helps me to get a sense of my heritage.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on May 15, 2013:

Nice to meet you.

Ermina on May 14, 2013:

I'm a gypisy

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on April 06, 2012:

Jeff - I never realized that term was insulting gypsies! I won't be using that any more. Thanks for calling that to our attention. And you're right it's truly crazy how much the fear of other people is ingrained into our society. I will try my best to go against the grain and start a new open-minded way of life where I accept every culture. Thanks for sharing. :)

Jeff Berndt from Southeast Michigan on April 06, 2012:

Settled people tend to fear/distrust non-settled people all over the world, and it's not just Romany folks that get treated badly. I recently read about the Sami people of Norway, and the poor treatment they've gotten at the hands of the Norwegian government, in National Geographic. Might it be because people are generally scared of strangers? Don't know, but it's like any ethnocentrism: there's "us," and there's "them," and "us" are the "good guys." Yuck.

Interestingly, did you know that many English-speakers routinely insult Romany people without even realizing it? If you've used the term "gypped" to mean "cheated," you've done it. (I have, before I knew what I was saying.) Look at the word, and you'll see that it's short for 'Gypsy,' and makes the tacit assumption that Gypsies are not to be trusted.

It's amazing how deeply ingrained fear of other peoples can be, and more amazing still that we can overcome it if we try.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on April 05, 2012:

Garry - I can understand the hardening from being persecuted for being different...ethnically and otherwise. Though I haven't faced persecution for my ethnic group, I have found myself in quite a few circumstances where I have been persecuted for my religious beliefs. It's quite unfair and horrific to hear of people treating other people as though they are inferior just because they aren't the same. Because, as I said, break it down to our roots and our DNA, we are the same. Thank you for the engaging talk. :) Visit anytime!

Garry Collins on April 05, 2012:

Collins is of Irish origin I believe, we adopted anglo or more Christian sounding names in the past, to avoid perscution. I dont hold my race or culture as better

than any other just different,there are good and bad in all races. we should respect people for who they are and celebrate the wealth of cultures that are in the world, as for being all desending from one woman I agree with you on that we are all human, its just some people think of us as less than human, many Roma and Sinti people along with the Jews went to the gas chambers in Hitlers Germany, and many people in easten europe would like to see the same kind of thing happen to roma today. even here in England gypsy children face bullying in schools just for being Gypsy. that makes you untrusting and for gypsy magick or the belief in it. it was used as a tool to keep non gypsy people at bay for the belief that if people are afraid of you the wont attack you.not all people think the same as you mores the pity if they did i dare say the world would be a better place

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on April 05, 2012:

Jeff - Thank you for being diplomatic and you're probably right. But this is my hub, and it's okay to continue the conversation here. :)

Gary - Sorry, but is "Colling" a "Romany" last name? Sounds Anglo-Saxon to me...just saying...and again, I think it's awesome that you have such pride in your "ethnic group" as you call it; however, we all started somewhere and it wasn't in our countries & groups now. Scientifically we all stem from one woman in Africa who lived a very long time ago, so if we take it back to the beginning of human existence, we are all from the same womb. And no one group is superior to the next...even if we like to think that. That is a concept called "ethnocentrism"...and it usually leads to biases and closedmindedness. I'm one that likes to embrace the best things from each culture, and I find life is much more enriched and fulfilling to find the "magick" in each person and group, so I'll continue doing so.

Gary Colling on April 05, 2012:

Well you have as much right to your opinions and ideas as anybody else, but your idea of Gypsy life as a magical road, is not reality true you can chose to live in a world of fantasy if you wish, truth is life for the romany has always been hard. you say you found the poem a bit biased, well that's gypsy we are biased you are rom or Gorja, no grey area, sorry if that doesnot fit in with your idea of what gypsy is but that's what has kept our cuture and people together over the century's since our ancestors left India.I would not dream of trying to stop anybody taking up a gypsy lifestyle,you can dress gypsy fasion buy a vardo (caravan) and travel the road as a free spirit but that don.t make you gypsy. kushti bok ( romany for good luck)

Jeff Berndt from Southeast Michigan on April 05, 2012:

No, the ethnic group doesn't define the person, but the people do define the ethnic group. We're starting (have started) to stray from the hub's topic; perhaps the side-discussion ought to be continued in the forums? 'Cos I think it's a discussion worth having, and both Kitty and Gary make valid points.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on April 04, 2012:

I think we're getting a little bit too serious for me. For the record, I've never claimed to be a gypsy nor any other "race" or "ethnic group" other than my own; however, no matter what anyone says I don't feel race or ethnic group defines any one person. Sorry but no one can change my mind to the idea that anyone can be ANYTHING they want to be...everything is simply a state of mind. Some people live in the scientific and tangible world, I choose not to fully live there. Thank you for the input though...though to be honest I found the poem a bit biased.

Gary Collins on April 04, 2012:

in answer to your question no because life for roma is not like the romantic nosence portrayed in novels and films by non romany people, in reality Roma are one of the most hated and oppressed people in the world, for most life is a struggle just to survive especially in the gettos in Romania and eastern europe. it is out of the hundreds of years of oppression the Gypsy Spirit is born.And as Jeff said Gypsies are an ethnic group, a race with our own language and cuture, not a lifestyle,you cannot chose what race you are,Here is an Englsh romany Gypsy poem for you. not by me by the way Your not a Gypsy because you do Gypsy things, Your not a Gypsy because you wear over sized rings, your a Gypsy because of wear you call home, your not a Gypsy because you don't own a phone,Your not a Gypsy because you get into fights, your not a Gypsy you live on a site,there's only one way to know your a true Gypsy, to look at your family and say what you see, Because a Gypsy isn't about living in the mud!A Gypsy is about having the right blood. by the way Elivs was of romanical desent as was Charle Chaplin

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on April 04, 2012:

I guess I'm one to not take words and names too literally. Words are man-made...I could just make up my own words for a group of people couldn't I? I think we are all one in the same and for someone to get offended by another person claiming to be a part of their group is absurd. If anything it is a compliment. Just my thoughts again. :)

Jeff Berndt from Southeast Michigan on April 04, 2012:

Well, I obviously can't speak for the Lakota or the Romany people, but I'd imagine it'd be up to them, wouldn't it? Lots of people in history have joined various native American tribes, but it wasn't just a matter of moving in next door. They had to be accepted by the group they were joining, and it was usually pretty hard, by all accounts.

If they won't let you join, you can keep trying, I suppose, but imo it'd be kind of presumptuous to claim membership before it's been granted.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on April 04, 2012:

Jeff & Gary, I have to play the devil's advocate here and say why not? Couldn't someone capture the spirit or essence of a "gypsy" or "lakota" without having to actually have it running through their veins? Just a thought. :)

Jeff Berndt from Southeast Michigan on April 04, 2012:

Thanks for that, Gary.

A lot of us Americans use the word "Gypsy" to mean "any itinerant or nomadic person." Many of us don't realize that "Gyspy" is not a word for a lifestyle (like Goth or Hipster) but rather the name of a national/ethnic group (like Ojibwe or German).

I can go live in a teepee, but that wouldn't make me Lakota.

Gary collins on April 03, 2012:

I'am from romanical family english romany there are more than one tribe of Gypsies as you put it but none of them are Irish Travellers they are gorjas in trailers only Romany people are Gypsy Irish Travellers or Pavee as they call themsevles are celtic and have the same dna and the rest of the Irish people. you can live in a stable but it don't make you a horse

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on June 30, 2011:

Esmeowl12 - I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I am also glad to hear that you learned something. Gypsies are a fascinating culture of people.

Cindy A Johnson from Sevierville, TN on June 29, 2011:

This was a fascinating hub and I learned a lot I did not know about the gypsies. Thanks for sharing. Voted up!

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on June 20, 2011:

Jeff - thanks for keeping me on my toes! I corrected back errors...funny enough the first one was incorrect totally because I was writing another hub relating to oliver cromwell and I crossed my thought processes!

dahoglund - Thanks for your support, as always! Yes, many of the minority groups are shrugged off or put off as criminals when in fact they may be misunderstood!

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on June 19, 2011:

This was a good background about Gypsies. I think they got the kind of discrimination often given to any unfamiliar group. I recall when I was young gypsie were thought to be theives, possibly kidnappers of children etc.

Jeff Berndt from Southeast Michigan on June 17, 2011:

Kitty, I enjoyed the hub, but have to point out a couple things that were no doubt errors in editing:

1) the article says, "Most say that the Irish Travelers are descended from laborers during Oliver Cromwell's military campaign in Ireland during the famine in the 1840s." This news was very surprising to me, since I was under the impression that Oliver Cromwell died in the 1650s. Might there be a story about the time of Cromwell and another one about the famine of the 1840s?

2) "there was a consensus taken back in 2006" Surely you meant census, a counting of the population, rather than consensus, a general agreement.

Aside from those minor items, though, a well-written and informative hub.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on June 17, 2011:

Daniella - I'm so glad you love it! The pictures are very pretty...I was excited when I found them.

Daniella Lopez on June 17, 2011:

Love this hub! The pics are just so lovely and the hub is very informative. Thanks Kitty!

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on June 16, 2011:

beth - Thanks so much! I did read about the DNA testing of the Romani gypsies being that of Indian descent. Very intriguing! I love the fact that you have ancestors from Romania, too! Too cool. Thanks for voting, I'll be emailing you soon. :)

Beth Perry from Tennesee on June 16, 2011:

Fascinating! I had also read that DNA testing proved the Romany share genetic makeup with India natives. As I have ancestors from Rumania and have been interested in the country and its history for some time, I gave this one a definite Vote Up!.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on June 16, 2011: - Yes, the pictures that I found for this hub are some of my absolute favorites...they imbue a sense of mystery and beauty at the same time. Thanks for reading and voting it up. on June 15, 2011:

great hub - great information and a wonderful way of telling about different groups of people that we all should know - what marvelous pictures. The people are beautiful!


voted up


Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on June 15, 2011:

Hey, epiman! I will definitely check out Django...he must be amazing. No worries with the compliment/fan mail, you deserve it! You are a great writer yourself! Back to the gypsy that I was...

epigramman on June 15, 2011:

....well let me be the first to proudly proclaim this is a definitive hub on the subject (or at least to my learning eyes and ears as a student) ......thank you so much for your wonderful and thoughtful fan mail and coming from such an incredible writer and thinker like you it certainly means a lot - and yes I love the images here and the narrative flow - I love gypsy music myself,

particularly from the Eastern european countries like Romania - and one of the greatest guitar players of all time, Django Reinhardt, was born of a gyspy background.

Check him out on You Tube, if you can.

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