A Misunderstood Culture

propic11_1_1This post by L.Leander, Author of Fearless Fiction

As most of you know my Inzared series is about a Gypsy Circus set in the mid-1800’s in America. I thought you might like to know a little about this often-misunderstood culture.

Gypsies, sometimes called Travelers, originated from India and emigrated to Europe around 1300. Because of their dark skin and odd language they were mostly shunned from well-populated areas. At the time, the Europeans thought they might be scouts for an Ottoman invasion and shunned them. Thus began the Gypsy nomadic journeys of moving from place to place. These people were highly trained craftspeople but those in Europe wanted nothing to do with them at first.

The Gypsy way of life was not so different as modern-day people who choose togypsygirl retire and live in a motor home, other than their beliefs and culture. Gypsies were musicians, fortune tellers, healers and skilled at household repairs, circus acts and spreading gossip from one town to the next. They were good with animals and before the onset of Veterinarians were highly sought after for animal care and healing. Grudgingly the European people accepted the Gypsies and hired them to work on farms and do other itinerant jobs. However, as Christians, the Europeans did not allow the fortune telling, even though is was part of the Gypsy religion and highly sought after within their own people.

vardoAs the Travelers roamed Europe in family caravans, they became used to the way of life. They parked their wagons (called a Vardo) outside of towns and cities. Also because of distrust, acceptance and even death, the Gypsy people had no respect for the Gaji (anyone other than a Gypsy) and stayed away from them, other than to do the jobs they were hired for.

There was (and still is) an interesting hierarchy in the clans. From 10 to two hundred families would band together and choose a kumpania to rule the tribe. This elected official was a lifetime commitment. There were many other breakdowns of the governing body but too many to write about here.

Romani, the name most used for Gypsies, had very different rules than the Gaji oldgypsywomanand they didn’t even try to fit in. For instance, they did not believe in sending their children to school and taught them within the family unit. The most popular way was to teach the children the songs and poems that had been written and passed down through the ages about their ancestors. Adults taught their offspring by doing rather than studying. This was the only accepted form of learning for the youngsters.

Marriages were only within the Gypsy culture and were arranged by the elder in the family. These marriages could begin as early as ten or twelve years old. The entire family stayed together as a unit and the young took care of the old. One of the reasons these people were shunned from mainstream society was their language, which was close to Sanskrit and had many different dialects.

Note: In my book Inzared is a white mountain girl who marries a Gypsy but since his parents were deceased and he was on his own it was acceptable (although still frowned upon) by his clan.  It took a long time for the clan to even accept Inzared because she was Gaji, but because she was a hardworking girl and learned quickly  she soon found herself riding the elephant in the circus.

Travelers had their own religion, even though it was thought they were pagan. They believed in a higher being and heaven and hell.

Because of such a long saga of persecution and misunderstanding Gypsies are still a country unto themselves, with their dark skin, unusual customs and language. Like their forbears, most still choose to travel although there are some who have actually settled in one place. Some have become con artists and they are the people who give Gypsies a bad name and make people afraid of them. This is not the norm. Most of these people are generous and caring, doing good work and are fair and honest.

orbI hope this will help you understand this interesting culture a bit. While I chose to go with Romanians who were skilled in the circus trade, as you can see there were many clans. Both men and women were involved in the circus, from creating costumes, fortune telling at shows, working with the animal acts, cooking for the troupe and making their own repairs. Many of the women were acts in the circus as were men. They were exacting about their craft, spending many long hours practicing and teaching their children the trade.

During World War II the Nazis persecuted the Romani people. They were hauled off to concentration camps or shot on sight. After the war in some countries Gypsy women were sterilized from 1973 to 1989 to “control the birth rate in the Romani culture”. In 2008 two Gypsy children drowned at a beach in Italy where beachgoers heard their screams for help and ignored them. In 2010 France began to demolish Romani camps and repatriate them to their country of origin. There has been much persecution in Europe even to this day of an unwanted, misunderstood people.

I was very fortunate to be in contact with museums in the US, Germany and Poland who were more than happy to help as I researched my books. If you’d like to find out more, here are a couple of links you may be interested in.

National Geographic: Roman Culture and Traditions


The Romani People:


And a just-for-fun flashback:



Books by L.Leander:

Inzared Queen of the Elephant Riders Video Trailer

Inzared, Queen of the Elephant Riders

INZARED Book Cover_1







Inzared, The Fortune Teller Video Trailer

Inzared, The Fortune Teller (Book Two)








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You can also find L.Leander here:

L.Leander Website

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28 thoughts on “A Misunderstood Culture

  1. Linda,

    I remember reading about these people and was fascinated from an early age. You have done a wonderful job of giving us a peek into their lives and society.

    I have always found it distasteful that we have to put down/ ignore/ persecute a people just because they are different. Thank you for a wonderful learning post. Doris


  2. I found the Gypsy culture fascinating to research. The persecution they have suffered from very early days is sad, especially since they are such a happy people. I didn’t have room to include the many famous Gypsies or delve into more of the family structure but once I decided the theme was a Gypsy circus I had a field day (s) not only talking to people of this culture but also finding a lot of other information about them on the Internet. I agree about the rejection they were subjected to just because they were different. It is indeed sad that they endured such sadness and were pretty much banned to a nomadic life with no homes except the vardos they pulled and set up camp with. Thanks for the comment Doris.


  3. They are an interesting people and not thought about as widely I don’t believe anymore. My parents remembered some gypsies coming across the prairie in the 1930’s asking for food as they passed by in their wagon in North Dakota. And the most oft associated words I heard were “gypsy fortune teller.” I also saw a group, called a “band” in another state when a gypsy queen was hospitalized where I worked.
    Interesting post of a people of whom little is really known.


    1. Thank you Cherley. The Gypsy culture is very interesting and one I really enjoyed researching. My crowning moment came when I received a short note from a woman of Gypsy heritage who read my first book. She thanked me for portraying the people as a family unit, loving and caring, which is what they are. She said she was proud of me for telling the story and staying true to the Gypsy beliefs and traditions. Apparently I got all my research right and I was thrilled!


  4. This post is great. I have a novella (that I’ve put aside for the moment) that has Romani in it. I did a bit of research to on modern day Gypsies. Fascinating culture, but apparently not as exclusive as it once was. Many Romani live in cities now and run businesses there–often still of the fortune-telling type. But they are definitely not mainstream.

    Thanks for the additional info.


    1. The culture is fascinating and you’re right about some of the clans settling into cities and other areas. But in my research I’ve found a great many of Gypsy clans prefer the nomadic existence because it’s been handed down for generations. Unfortunately, even though they have settled in many areas and fortune-telling businesses exist, the people are still virtually outcasts. Sad, isn’t it? Thanks Kate for the cmment.


  5. When I was a kid, I once heard a story of a little girl who ran away to a fair and was kidnapped by gypsies. One of the many Nancy Drew mysteries I read featured a gypsy crime ring. Thank you for clearing up the myth surrounding this culture.


    1. You’re welcome Abbie. As I said, the Gypsies have their own customs and were often portrayed as evil, crime-based and so different from others that they were not accepted into the mainstream. I’m not sure that perception will ever change. I watched a Law and Order SUV segment where a small Gypsy boy got kidnapped and was killed. While the parents grieved and tried everything the find him the police were slow to get involved because of who they were. The police thought the mother was lying and it was heartbreaking to see the love these parents had for their only son. He was finally found dead and abused and had the police gotten involved a little sooner perhaps the outcome would have been different. Of course, it’s just a television show, but it shows how the Gypsies are treated in real life.


  6. Fascinating post on gypsies, Linda. Thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the last bit when you reviewed the persecution that still takes place in Europe. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of my mom’s side of the family — Mennonite/Amish types. There’s been much misunderstanding concerning their clannish old ways. Living in NE Ohio where my grandmother and grandfather lived (Wayne County) I saw my share of horse-and-buggy Amish. Mom’s family left their Mennonite roots long ago; however, I do remember going to the County Home in the late ’50s and visiting a Great Aunt who was Mennonite (she still wore that little hat on top of her head). She was blind and felt my face to “see” how I looked. I’ve digressed. Like the gypsies, the Amish and Mennonites have been persecuted in the U.S., especially during the wars for refusing to serve in the military.


  7. You’re entirely right Mike. We live in the middle of an Amish community and I am well aware of the prejudice against them and their ways. Just because a culture dresses different, has different customs and has different beliefs than the mainstream is no reason to shun them. As far as the persecution for refusing to serve in the military it’s hard for even me to understand since they live in a country that allows them assylum, but I know of a lot of “regular” Americans who have done the very same thing and they don’t get nearly as much coverage or persecution. Glad you enjoyed the post. I grew up with Mennonites and attended their Bible schools in the summer and babysat their children and even worked on a chicken farm run by Mennonites. So I have a lot of empathy for cultures different than ours. Thanks for the reply.


  8. Fascinating post, Linda. I’ve read fiction with Romani characters but never really researched the culture. Thanks for all this wonderful information. Your research must, indeed, have been really fun. So sad though that the Romani are still treated so poorly.


    1. My research was fun and I learned a lot of things I didn’t know. It was very interesting to me to learn that there were circuses performing just prior to the Civil War. And that Gypsy circuses (the whole show including elephants and animals) were brought by ship to the US from Europe. Sadly, although the American people enjoyed the shows they kept their children away once the show was over because fortune telling was thought to be evil. This was very hard for the Romani people as fortune telling is a way of life for them. What I can’t understand is the way these people were treated in Europe and then in America – a land made up of all immigrants! Thanks for the comment Stephanie.


  9. Sadly, amongst some communities there’s still some antipathy towards Romany people who travel in Scotland, though it’s less than it used to be. However, as you’ve pointed out, Linda, many of them have settled in one place all the year round now. As a teacher, it wasn’t unusual for a handful of children to arrive at our country school for a few weeks of the year and then disappear till the following one.


    1. I find that sad Nancy, but I guess it’s like the itinerant workers whose children get education when they can because of their lifestyle. I’m sure that those who have settled in one place send their children to school but in the old days Gypsies taught their children at home, mostly through information about their culture handed down through generations. Since they were an outcast people their children were not welcomed in the school systems. That has changed now, but still only a handful of Gypsy children get the chance to go to school. There is still a lot of hatred and little acceptance of this unusual people.


  10. According to Wikipedia the largest concentration of Romani live in Oregon, followed by Maine, Washington and New Jersey, Utah and West Virginia. They can be found in large industrial cities as many immigrated to the US to find work in the car industry, carpentry, work with horses, etc. Because of the stigma their name implies, many do not tell anyone that they are Roma. They still accept their old traditions, music and way of life but they are afraid if they admit to their heritage they will be shunned from jobs, school and communties. It is an interesting culture – thanks Cherley!


    1. West Virginia, isn’t that interesting. I remember my mom (in Ohio) talking about Gypsies living close to the area I was raised in. Of course Grandma helped them, sorry to say, they were not trusted. They had bad reputations. Cher’ley


      1. It is interesting Cherley. When I lived in Florida there was a band of Gypsies who definnitely give their culture a bad name. The men would go door to door asking to fix driveways. They did the job, the driveways looked wonderful, they got paid and left. However, the work they did didn’t last and the band was far long gone so people couldn’t even prosecute them. That’s what by one band casting a bad light on all the others in their culture. Sad, isn’t it?


  11. L. great, informative post. I have to say I never thought about the origin of gypsies. Was quite surprised they came from India! Had no idea. Unfortunately, they, as you say, are often misunderstood and portrayed in a bad light. Isn’t it amazing how coming to a quick judgment about other people can be changed just by knowing the culture. What a better world we’d be for it.


    1. Thank you for commenting Sherry. I agree making judgements about people before you know their situation, culture and background is sad. You’re right that without judging before we have knowledge of the culture is often the norm and that the world would be a much better place if we accepted all people, regardless of their origins. I have learned some very interesting things about the culture in my research and I tried to portray my characters as authentically as I could. I thought it interesting that the Roma people came from India, too. I always thought they originated in Europe. A lot of Gypsies (a word coined in Egypt for nomads) refuse to reveal their background for fear of prejudice.


  12. So very interesting. I knew the Romani were persecuted during World War II, and that there’s still discrimination, but I had no idea it extended to ignoring drowning children. Sad.


    1. That research made me feel terrible. How could any Christian person, or non-Christian for that matter, sit by and watch two gypsy children drown? It turns my stomach. They were somebody’s babies, not just gypsies. But I also abhor the fact that as late as the 1950’s countries forced women to be sterilized against their will so their people couldn’t continue to procreate.


  13. In my novel Shadowlands, there is a family that work at the amusement park. They were a real, rather than fictional, and the people I spoke to who knew the Georges (their last name) said that they were “gypsies” and that Joe George was king of the gypsies and when he died he was given a “king’s” funeral. From what I’ve learned, there is some truth to that. Anyway, great post! I want to learn more. 🙂


  14. Thanks for the comment Erin. As I said in my post there is a very complicated hierarchy that I didn’t research or get into other than those of the band. The “government” goes much higher and does include a King who has the final say over all the bands so your information sounds right. Also, I seem to remember something about that funeral either in a news article or something I ran across. I’ll have to look it up again.


    1. Thank you Gayle. I certainly had fun with the research. I also enjoyed my research on performing elephants. I spent a day with the owner of an act that performs at Circus World Museum. His entire family is in the act, including his children. Watching the love between the huge elephant and the children was awesome. The owner says he has had the elephant ever since it was small and is solely responsible for training it (and his children) to perform. Obviously, this giant pet is well-loved in this circus family.


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