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English Gipsies and Their Language, by Charles G. Leland, [1874], at


The Old Fortune-Teller and her Brother.—The Patteran, or Gipsies’ Road-Mark .—The Christian Cross, named by Continental Gipsies Trushul, after the Trident of Siva.—Curious English-Gipsy term for the Cross.—Ashwood Fires on Christmas Day.—Our Saviour regarded with affection by the Rommany because he was like themselves and poor.—Strange ideas of the Bible.—The Oak.—Lizards renew their lives.—Snails.—Slugs.—Tobacco Pipes as old as the world.

“Duveleste; Avo. Mandy’s kaired my patteran adusta chairuses where a drum jals atut the waver,” which means in English—“God bless you, yes. Many a time I have marked my sign where the roads cross.”

I was seated in the cottage of an old Gipsy mother, one of the most noted fortune-tellers in England, when I heard this from her brother, himself an ancient wanderer, who loves far better to hear the lark sing than the mouse cheep when he wakes of a morning.

It was a very small but clean cottage, of the kind quite peculiar to the English labourer, and therefore attractive to every one who has felt the true spirit of the most original poetry and art which this country has produced. For look high or low, dear reader, you will find that nothing has ever been better done in England than the pictures of rural life, and over nothing have its gifted minds cast a deeper charm.

There were the little rough porcelain figures of which the English peasantry are so fond, and which, cheap as they are, indicate that the taste of your friends Lady --- for Worcester “porcelain,” or the Duchess of --- for Majolica, has its roots among far humbler folk. In fact there were perhaps twenty things which no English reader would have supposed were peculiar, yet which were something more than peculiar to me. The master of the house was an Anglo-Saxon—a Gorgio—and his wife, by some magic or other, the oracle before-mentioned.

And I, answering said—

“So you all call it patteran?”  24

“No; very few of us know that name. We do it without calling it anything.”

Then I took my stick and marked on the floor the following sign—

“There,” I said, “is the oldest patteran—first of all—which the Gipsies use to-day in foreign lands. In Germany, when one band of Gipsies goes by a cross road, they draw that deep in the dust, with the end of the longest line pointing in the direction in which they have gone. Then, the next who come by see the mark, and, if they choose, follow it.”

“We make it differently,” said the Gipsy. “This is our sign—the trin bongo drums, or cross.” And he drew his patteran thus—

“The long end points the way,” he added; “just as in your sign.”

“You call a cross,” I remarked, “trin bongo drums, or the three crooked roads. Do you know any such word as trúshul for it?”

“No; trushilo is thirsty, and trushni means a faggot, and also a basket.”

“I shouldn’t wonder if a faggot once got the old Rommany word for cross,” I said, “because in it every stick is crossed by the wooden withy which binds it; and in a basket, every wooden strip crosses the other.”

I did not, however, think it worth while to explain to the Gipsies that when their ancestors, centuries ago, left India, it was with the memory that Shiva, the Destroyer, bore a trident, the tri-çûla in Sanscrit, the trisūl of Mahadeva in Hindustani, and that in coming to Europe the resemblance of its shape to that of the Cross impressed them, so that they gave to the Christian symbol the name of the sacred triple spear.  26 For if you turn up a little the two arms of a cross, you change the emblem of suffering and innocence at once into one of murder—just as ever so little a deviation from goodness will lead you, my dear boy, into any amount of devilry.

And that the unfailing lucid flash of humour may not be wanting, there lightens on my mind the memory of The Mysterious Pitchfork—a German satirical play which made a sensation in its time—and Herlossohn in his romance of Der Letzte Taborit (which helped George Sand amazingly in Consuelo), makes a Gipsy chieftain appear in a wonderfully puzzling light by brandishing, in fierce midnight dignity, this agricultural parody on Neptune’s weapon, which brings me nicely around to my Gipsies again.

If I said nothing to the inmates of the cottage of all that the trushul or cross trident suggested, still less did I vex their souls with the mystic possible meaning of the antique patteran or sign which I had drawn. For it has, I opine, a deep meaning, which as one who knew Creuzer of old, I have a right to set forth. Briefly, then, and without encumbering my book with masses of authority, let me state that in all early lore, the road is a symbol of life; Christ himself having used it in this sense. Cross roads were peculiarly meaning-full as indicating the meet-of life with life, of good with evil, a faith of which abundant traces are preserved in the fact that until the present generation suicides were buried at them, and magical rites and diabolic incantations are supposed to be most successful when practised in such places. The English path, the Gipsy patteran, the Rommany-Hindu pat, a foot, and the Hindu panth, a road, all meet in the Sanscrit path, which was the original parting of the ways. Now the patteran which I have drawn, like the Koua of the Chinese or the mystical Swastika of the Buddhists, embraces the long line of life, or of the infinite and the short, or broken lines of the finite, and, therefore, as an ancient magical Eastern sign, would be most appropriately inscribed as a sikker-paskero dromescro—or hand post—to show the wandering Rommany how to proceed on their way of life.

That the ordinary Christian Cross should be called by the English Gipsies a trin bongo drum—or the three cross roads—is not remarkable when we consider that their only association with it is that of a “wayshower,” as Germans would call it. To you, reader, it may be that it points the way of eternal life; to the benighted Rommany-English-Hindoo, it indicates nothing more than the same old weary track of daily travel; of wayfare and warfare with the world, seeking food and too often finding none; living for petty joys and driven by dire need; lying down with poverty and rising with hunger, ignorant in his very wretchedness of a thousand things which he ought to want, and not knowing enough to miss them.

Just as the reader a thousand, or perhaps only a hundred, years hence—should a copy of this work be then extant—may pity the writer of these lines for his ignorance of the charming comforts, as yet unborn, which will render his physical condition so delightful. To thee, oh, future reader, I am what the Gipsy is to me! Wait, my dear boy of the Future—wait—till you get to heaven!

Which is a long way off from the Gipsies. Let us return. We had spoken of patteran, or of crosses by the way-side, and this led naturally enough to speaking of Him who died on the Cross, and of wandering. And I must confess that it was with great interest I learned that the Gipsies, from a very singular and Rommany point of view, respect, and even pay him, in common with the peasantry in some parts of England, a peculiar honour. For this reason I bade the Gipsy carefully repeat his words, and wrote them down accurately. I give them in the original, with a translation. Let me first state that my informant was not quite clear in his mind as to whether the Boro Divvus, or Great Day, was Christmas or New Year’s, nor was he by any means certain on which Christ was born. But he knew very well that when it came, the Gipsies took great pains to burn an ash-wood fire.

“Āvali—adusta cheirus I’ve had to jāl dui or trin mees of a Boro Divvus sig’ in the sāla, to lel ash-wood for the yāg. That was when I was a bitti chavo, for my dádas always would keravit.

“An’ we kairs it because foki pens our Saviour, the tikno Duvel was born apré the Boro Divvus, ’pré the puv, avree in the temm, like we Rommanis, and he was brought ’pré pash an ash yāg—(Why you can dick dovo adrée the Scriptures!).

“The ivy and holly an’ pine rukks never pookered a lav when our Saviour was gaverin’ of his kokero, an’ so they tools their jivaben saw (sār) the wen, and dicks selno saw the besh; but the ash, like the surrelo rukk, pukkered atut him, where he was gaverin, so they have to hatch mullo adrée the wen. And so we Rommany chāls always hatchers an ash yāg saw the Boro Divvuses. For the tickno duvel was chivved à wadras ’pré the puvius like a Rommany chal, and kistered apré a myla like a Rommany, an’ jālled pāle the tem a māngin his moro like a Rom. An’ he was always a pauveri choro mush, like we, till he was nashered by the Gorgios.

“An’ he kistered apré a myla? Āvali. Yeckorus he putchered the pash-grai if he might kister her, but she pookered him kek. So because the pash-grai wouldn’t rikker him, she was sovahalled againsus never to be a dye or lel tiknos. So she never lelled kek, nor any cross either.

“Then he putchered the myla to rikker him, and she penned: ‘Āvali!’ so he pet a cross apré lāki’s dumo. And to the divvus the myla has a trin bongo drum and latchers tiknos, but the pash-grai has kek. So the mylas ’longs of the Rommanis.”

(TRANSLATION.)—“Yes—many a time I’ve had to go two or three miles of a Great Day (Christmas), early in the morning, to get ash-wood for the fire. That was when I was a small boy, for my father always would do it.

“And we do it because people say our Saviour, the small God, was born on the Great Day, in the field, out in the country, like we Rommanis, and he was brought up by an ash-fire.”

Here a sudden sensation of doubt or astonishment at my ignorance seemed to occur to my informant, for he said,—

“Why, you can see that in the Scriptures!”

To which I answered, “But the Gipsies have Scripture stories different from those of the Gorgios, and different ideas about religion. Go on with your story. Why do you burn ash-wood?”

“The ivy, and holly, and pine trees, never told a word where our Saviour was hiding himself, and so they keep alive all the winter, and look green all the year. But the ash, like the oak (lit. strong tree), told of him (lit. across, against him), where he was hiding, so they have to remain dead through the winter. And so we Gipsies always burn an ash-fire every Great Day. For the Saviour was born in the open field like a Gipsy, and rode on an ass like one, and went round the land a begging his bread like a Rom. And he was always a poor wretched man like us, till he was destroyed by the Gentiles.

“And He rode on an ass? Yes. Once he asked the mule if he might ride her, but she told him no. So because the mule would not carry him, she was cursed never to be a mother or have children. So she never had any, nor any cross either.

“Then he asked the ass to carry him, and she said ‘Yes;’ so he put a cross upon her back. And to this day the ass has a cross and bears young, but the mule has none. So the asses belong to (are peculiar to) the Gipsies.”

There was a pause, when I remarked—

“That is a fino gudlo—a fine story; and all of it about an ash tree. Can you tell me anything about the súrrelo rukk—the strong tree—the oak?”

“Only what I’ve often heard our people say about its life.”

“And what is that?”

“Dui hundred besh a hatchin, dui hundred besh nasherin his chuckko, dui hundred besh ’pré he mullers, and then he nashers sār his ratt and he’s kekoomi kushto.”  30

“That is good, too. There are a great many men who would like to live as long.”

Tacho, true. But an old coat can hold out better than a man. If a man gets a hole in him he dies, but his chukko (coat) can be toofered and sivved apré (mended and sewed up) for ever. So, unless a man could get a new life every year, as they say the hepputs, the little lizards do, he needn’t hope to live like an oak.”

“Do the lizards get a new life every year?”

Āvali. A hepput only lives one year, and then he begins life over again.”

“Do snails live as long as lizards?”

“Not when I find ’em rya—if I am hungry. Snails are good eating.  32 You can find plenty on the hedges. When they’re going about in the fields or (are found) under wood, they are not good eating. The best are those which are kept, or live through (literally sleep) the winter. Take ’em and wash ’em and throw ’em into the kettle, with water and a little salt. The broth’s good for the yellow jaundice.”

“So you call a snail”—

“A bawris,” said the old fortune-teller.

“Bawris! The Hungarian Gipsies call it a bouro. But in Germany the Rommanis say stārgōli. I wonder why a snail should be a stārgōli.”

“I know,” cried the brother, eagerly. “When you put a snail on the fire it cries out and squeaks just like a little child. Stārgōli means ‘four cries.’”

I had my doubts as to the accuracy of this startling derivation, but said nothing. The same Gipsy on a subsequent occasion, being asked what he would call a roan horse in Rommany, replied promptly—

“A matchno grai”—a fish-horse.

“Why a matchno grai?”

“Because a fish has a roan (i.e., roe), hasn’t it? Leastways I can’t come no nearer to it, if it ain’t that.”

But he did better when I was puzzling my brain, as the learned Pott and Zippel had done before me, over the possible origin of churro or tchurro, “a ball, or anything round,” when he suggested—

“Ryá—I should say that as a churro is round, and a curro or cup is round, and they both sound alike and look alike, it must be all werry much the same thing.”  33

“Can you tell me anything more about snails?” I asked, reverting to a topic which, by the way, I have observed is like that of the hedgehog, a favourite one with Gipsies.

“Yes; you can cure warts with the big black kind that have no shells.”

“You mean slugs. I never knew they were fit to cure anything.”

“Why, that’s one of the things that everybody knows. When you get a wart on your hands, you go on to the road or into the field till you find a slug, one of the large kind with no shell (literally, with no house upon him), and stick it on the thorn of a blackthorn in a hedge, and as the snail dies, one day after the other, for four or five days, the wart will die away. Many a time I’ve told that to Gorgios, and Gorgios have done it, and the warts have gone away (literally, cleaned away) from their hands.”  34

Here the Gipsy began to inquire very politely if smoking were offensive to me; and as I assured him that it was not, he took out his pipe. And knowing by experience that nothing is more conducive to sociability, be it among Chippeways or Gipsies, than that smoking which is among our Indians, literally a burnt-offering,  35 I produced a small clay pipe of the time of Charles the Second, given to me by a gentleman who has the amiable taste to collect such curiosities, and give them to his friends under the express condition that they shall be smoked, and not laid away as relics of the past. If you move in etching circles, dear readers, you will at once know to whom I refer.

The quick eye of the Gipsy at once observed my pipe.

“That is a crow-swägler—a crow-pipe,” he remarked.

“Why a crow-pipe?”

“I don’t know. Some Gipsies call ’em mullos’ swäglers, or dead men’s pipes, because those who made ’em were dead long ago. There are places in England where you can find ’em by dozens in the fields. I never dicked (saw) one with so long a stem to it as yours. And they’re old, very old. What is it you call it before everything” (here he seemed puzzled for a word) “when the world was a-making?”

“The Creation.”

“Āvali—that’s it, the Creation. Well, them crow-swäglers was kaired at the same time; they’re hundreds—ávali—thousands of beshes (years) old. And sometimes we call the beng (devil) a swägler, or we calls a swägler the beng.”


“Because the devil lives in smoke.”

Next: Chapter III. The Gipsy Tinker