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


Gipsies and Comteists identical as to “Religion”—Singular Manner of Mourning for the Dead, as practised by Gipsies—Illustrations from Life—Gipsy Job and the Cigars—Oaths by the Dead—Universal Gipsy Custom of never Mentioning the Names of the Dead—Burying valuable Objects with the Dead—Gipsies, Comteists, Hegelians, and Jews—The Rev. James Crabbe.

Comte, the author of the Positivist philosophy, never felt the need of a religion until he had fallen in love; and at the present day his “faith” appears to consist in a worship of the great and wise and good among the dead. I have already spoken of many Gipsies reminding me, by their entirely unconscious ungodliness, of thorough Hegelians. I may now add, that, like the Positivists, they seem to correct their irreligion through the influence of love; and by a strange custom, which is, in spirit and fact, nothing less than adoring the departed and offering to the dead a singular sacrifice.

He who has no house finds a home in family and friends, whence it results that the Gipsy, despite his ferocious quarrels in the clan, and his sharp practice even with near relations, is—all things considered—perhaps the most devoted to kith and kin of any one in the world. His very name—rom, a husband—indicates it. His children, as almost every writer on him, from Grellmann down to the present day, has observed, are more thoroughly indulged and spoiled than any non-gipsy can conceive; and despite all the apparent contradictions caused by the selfishness born of poverty, irritable Eastern blood, and the eccentricity of semi-civilisation, I doubt if any man, on the whole, in the world, is more attached to his own.

It was only three or four hours ago, as I write, on the fifth day of February 1872, that a Gipsy said to me, “It is nine years since my wife died, and I would give all Anglaterra to have her again.”

That the real religion of the Gipsies, as I have already observed, consists like that of the Comteists, in devotion to the dead, is indicated by a very extraordinary custom, which, notwithstanding the very general decay, of late years, of all their old habits, still prevails universally. This is the refraining from some usage or indulgence in honour of the departed—a sacrifice, as it were, to their manes—and I believe that, by inquiring, it will be found to exist among all Gipsies in all parts of the world. In England it is shown by observances which are maintained at great personal inconvenience, sometime for years, or during life. Thus, there are many Gipsies who, because a deceased brother was fond of spirits, have refrained, after his departure, from tasting them, or who have given up their favourite pursuits, for the reason that they were last indulged in, in company with the lost and loved one.

As a further illustration, I will give in the original Gipsy-language, as I myself took it down rapidly, but literally, the comments of a full-blooded Gipsy on this custom—the translation being annexed. I should state that the narrative which precedes his comments was a reply to my question, Why he invariably declined my offer of cigars?

“No; I never toovs cigaras, kek. I never toovs ’em kennā since my pal’s chavo Job mullered. And I’ll pooker tute how it welled.”

“It was at the boro wellgooro where the graias prasters. I was kairin the paiass of the koshters, and mandy dicked a rye an’ pookered him for a droppi levinor. ‘Āvali,’ he penned, ‘I’ll del you levinor and a kushto tuvalo too.’ ‘Parraco,’ says I, ‘rya.’ So he del mandy the levinor and a dozen cigaras. I pet em adrée my poachy an’ jailed apré the purge and latched odói my pal’s chavo, an’ he pook’d mandy, ‘Where you jāllin to, kāko?’ And I penned: ‘Job, I’ve lelled some covvas for tute.’ ‘Tácho,’ says he—so I del him the cigaras. Penned he: ‘Where did tute latcher ’em?’ ‘A rye del ’em a mandy.’ So he pet em adrée his poachy, an’ pookered mandy, ‘What’ll tu lel to pi?’ ‘A droppi levinor.’ So he penned, ‘Pauli the grais prasters, I’ll jāl atut the puvius and dick tute.’

“Eight or nine divvuses pauli, at the K’allis’s Gav, his pal welled to mandy and pookered mi Job sus naflo. And I penned, ‘Any thing dush?’ ‘Worse nor dovo.’ ‘What is the covvo?’ Says yuv, ‘Mandy kaums tute to jāl to my pal—don’t spare the gry—mukk her jāl!’ So he del mi a fino grai, and I kistered eight mee so sig that I thought I’d mored her. An’ I pet her drée the stanya, an’ I jālled a lay in the pūv and’ odói I dicked Job. ‘Thank me Duvel!’ penned he, ‘Kāko you’s welled acaï, and if mandy gets opré this bugni (for ’twas the bugni he’d lelled), I’ll del tute the kushtiest gry that you’ll beat sār the Romni chuls.’ But he mullered.

“And he pens as he was mullerin. ‘Kāko, tute jins the cigarras you del a mandy?’ ‘Avali,’ I says he, ‘I’ve got ’em acaï in my poachy.’ Mandy and my pens was by him, but his romni was avree, adrée the boro tan, bikinin covvas, for she’d never lelled the bugni, nor his chavos, so they couldn’t well a dickin, for we wouldn’t mukk em. And so he mullered.

“And when yuv’s mullo I pet my wast adrée his poachy and there mandy lastered the cigaras. And from dovo chairus, ryá, mandy never tooved a cigar.

“Āvali—there’s adusta Romni chuls that kairs dovo. And when my juvo mullered, mandy never lelled nokengro kekoomi. Some chairuses in her jivaben, she’d lel a bitti nokengro avree my mokto, and when I’d pen, ‘Deari juvo, what do you kair dovo for?’ she pooker mandy, ‘It’s kushti for my sherro.’ And so when she mullered mandy never lelled chichi sensus.

“Some mushis wont haw māss because the pal or pen that mullered was kāmmaben to it,—some wont pi levinor for panj or ten besh, some wont haw the kāmmaben matcho that the chavo hawed. Some wont haw puvengroes or pi tood, or haw pabos, and saw (sār) for the mullos.

“Some won’t kair wardos or kil the boshomengro—‘that’s mandy’s pooro chavo’s gilli’—and some won’t kel. ‘No, I can’t kel, the last time I kelled was with mandy’s poor juvo that’s been mullo this shtor besh.’

“‘Come pal, let’s jāl an’ have a drappi levinor—the boshomengri’s odói.’ ‘Kek, pal, kekoomi—I never pi’d a drappi levinor since my bibi’s jālled.’ ‘Kushto—lel some tuvalo pal?’ ‘Kek—kek—mandy never tooved since minno juvo pelled a lay in the panni, and never jālled avree kekoomi a jivaben.’ ‘Well, let’s jāl and kair paiass with the koshters—we dui’ll play you dui for a pint o’ levinor.’ ‘Kek—I never kaired the paiass of the koshters since my dádas mullered—the last chairus I ever played was with him.’

“And Léna, the juva of my pal’s chavo, Job, never hawed plums a’ter her rom mullered.”

(TRANSLATION).—“No, I never smoke cigars. No; I never smoke them now since my brother’s son Job died. And I’ll tell you how it came.

“It was at the great fair where the horses run (i.e., the races), I was keeping a cock-shy, and I saw a gentleman, and asked him for a drop of ale. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you ale, and a good smoke too.’ ‘Thank you,’ says I, ‘Sir.’ So he gave me the ale, and a dozen cigars. I put them in my pocket, and went on the road and found there my brother’s son, and he asked me, ‘Where (are) you going, uncle?’ And I said: ‘Job, I have something for you.’ ‘Good,’ says he—so I gave him the cigars. He said: ‘Where did you find them?’ ‘A gentleman gave them to me.’ So he put them in his pocket, and asked me, ‘What’ll you take to drink?’ ‘A drop of ale.’ So he said, ‘After the horses (have) run I’ll go across the field and see you.’

“Eight or nine days after, at Hampton Court,  53 his ‘pal’ came to me and told me that Job was ill. And I said, ‘Anything wrong?’ ‘Worse nor that.’ ‘What is the affair?’ Said he, ‘I want you to go to my pal,—don’t spare the horse—let her go!’ So he gave me a fine horse, and I rode eight miles so fast that I thought I’d killed her. And I put her in the stable, and I went down into the field, and there I saw Job. ‘Thank God!’ said he; ‘Uncle, you’ve come here; and if I get over this small-pox (for ’twas the smallpox he’d caught), I’ll give you the best horse that you’ll beat all the Gipsies.’ But he died.

“And he says as he was dying, ‘Uncle, you know the cigars you gave me?’ ‘Yes.’ Says he, ‘I’ve got ’em here in my pocket.’ I and my sisters were by him, but his wife was outside in the great tent, selling things, for she never had the smallpox, nor his children, so they couldn’t come to see, for we wouldn’t let them. And so he died.

“And when he was dead, I put my hand in his pocket, and there I found the cigars. And from that time, Sir, I never smoked a cigar.

“Yes! there are plenty of Gipsies who do that. And when my wife died, I never took snuff again. Sometimes in her life she’d take a bit of snuff out (from) my box; and when I’d say, ‘Dear wife, what do you do that for?’ she’d tell me, ‘It’s good for my head.’ And so when she died I never took any (none) since.

“Some men won’t eat meat because the brother or sister that died was fond of (to) it; some won’t drink ale for five or ten years; some won’t eat the favourite fish that the child ate. Some won’t eat potatoes, or drink milk, or eat apples; and all for the dead.

“Some won’t play cards or the fiddle—‘that’s my poor boy’s tune’—and some won’t dance—‘No, I can’t dance, the last time I danced was with my poor wife (or girl) that’s been dead this four years.’

“‘Come, brother, let’s go and have a drop of ale; the fiddler is there.’ ‘No, brother, I never drank a drop of ale since my aunt went (died).’ ‘Well, take some tobacco, brother?’ ‘No, no, I have not smoked since my wife fell in the water and never came out again alive.’ ‘Well, let’s go and play at cock-shy, we two’ll play you two for a pint o’ ale.’ ‘No, I never played at cock-shy since my father died; the last time I played was with him.’

“And Lena, the wife of my nephew Job, never ate plums after her husband died.”

This is a strange manner of mourning, but it is more effective than the mere wearing of black, since it is often a long-sustained and trying tribute to the dead. Its Oriental-Indian origin is apparent enough. But among the German Gipsies, who, I am firmly convinced, represent in language and customs their English brethren as the latter were three centuries ago, this reverence for the departed assumes an even deeper and more serious character. Mr Richard Liebich (Die Zigeuner, Leipzig, 1863), tells us that in his country their most sacred oath is Ap i mulende!—by the dead!—and with it may be classed the equally patriarchal imprecation, “By my father’s hand!”

Since writing the foregoing sentence a very remarkable confirmation of the existence of this oath among English Gipsies, and the sacredness with which it is observed, came under my own observation. An elderly Gipsy, during the course of a family difficulty, declared to his sister that he would leave the house. She did not believe he would until he swore by his dead wife—by his “mullo juvo.” And when he had said this, his sister promptly remarked: “Now you have sworn by her, I know you will do it.” He narrated this to me the next day, adding that he was going to put a tent up, about a mile away, and live there. I asked him if he ever swore by his dead father, to which he said: “Always, until my wife died.” This poor man was almost entirely ignorant of what was in the Bible, as I found by questioning him; but I doubt whether I know any Christian on whom a Bible oath would be more binding than was to him his own by the dead. To me there was something deeply moving in the simple earnestness and strangeness of this adjuration.

The German, like the older English Gipsies, carefully burn the clothes and bed of the deceased, and, indeed, most objects closely connected with them, and what is more extraordinary, evince their respect by carefully avoiding mentioning their names, even when they are borne by other persons or are characteristic of certain things. So that when a Gipsy maiden named Forella once died, her entire nation, among whom the trout had always been known only by its German designation, Forelle, at once changed the name, and, to this day it is called by them mulo madscho—the dead fish,—or at times lolo madscho—the red fish.

This is also the case among the English Gipsies. Wishing to have the exact words and views of a real Rommany on this subject, I made inquiry, and noted down his reply, which was literally as follows:—

“Āvali; when Rommany chals or juvos are mullos, their pals don’t kaum to shoon their navs pauli—it kairs ’em too bongo—so they’re purabend to waver navs. Saw don’t kair it—kek—but posh do, kennā. My chavo’s nav was Horfer or Horferus, but the bitti chavis penned him Wacker. Well, yeck divvus pré the wellgooro o’ the graias prasters, my juvo dicked a boro doll adrée some hev of a buttika and penned, ‘Dovo odöi dicks just like moro Wacker!’ So we penned him Wackerdoll, but a’ter my juvo mullered I rakkered him Wacker again, because Wackerdoll pet mandy in cāmmoben o’ my poor juvo.”

In English: “Yes. When Gipsy men or women die, their friends don’t care to hear their names again—it makes them too sad, so they are changed to other names. All don’t do it—no—but half of them do so still. My boy’s name was Horfer or Horferus (Orpheus), but the children called him Wacker. Well, one day at the great fair of the races, my wife saw a large doll in some window of a shop, and said, ‘That looks just like our Wacker!’ So we called him Wackerdoll, but after my wife died I called him Wacker again, because Wackerdoll put me in mind of my poor wife.”

When further interrogated on the same subject, he said:

“A’ter my juva mullered, if I dicked a waver rakli with lakis’nav, an’ mandy was a rākkerin lāki, mandy’d pen ajaw a waver geeri’s nav, an rakker her by a waver nav:—dovo’s to pen I’d lel some bongonav sar’s Polly or Sukey. An’ it was the sār covva with my dādes nav—if I dicked a mush with a nav that simmed leskers, mandy’d rākker him by a waver nav. For ’twould kair any mush wafro to shoon the navyas of the mullas a’t ’were cāmmoben to him.”

Or in English, “After my wife died, if I saw another girl with her name, and I was talking to her, I’d speak another woman’s name, and call her by another name; that’s to say, I’d take some nick-name, such as Polly or Sukey. And it was the same thing with my father’s name—if I saw a man with a name that was the same as his (literally, ‘that samed his’), I’d call him by another name. For ’twould make any man grieve (lit. ‘bad’) to hear the names of the dead that were dear to him.”

I suppose that there are very few persons, not of Gipsy blood, in England, to whom the information will not be new, that there are to be found everywhere among us, people who mourn for their lost friends in this strange and touching manner.

Another form of respect for the departed among Gipsies, is shown by their frequently burying some object of value with the corpse, as is, however, done by most wild races. On questioning the same Gipsy last alluded to, he spoke as follows on this subject, I taking down his words:—

“When Job mullered and was chivved adrée the puv, there was a nevvi kushto-dickin dui chākkas pakkered adrée the mullo mokto. Dighton penned a mandy the waver divvus, that trin thousand bars was gavvered posh yeck o’ the Chilcotts. An I’ve shooned o’ some Stanleys were buried with sonnakai wongashees apré langis wastos. ‘Do sar the Rommany chals kair adovo?’ Kek. Some chivs covvas pāsh the mullos adrée the puv, and boot adusta don’t.”

In English: “When Job died and was buried, there was a new beautiful pair of shoes put in the coffin (lit. corpse-box). Dighton told me the other day, that three thousand pounds were hidden with one of the Chilcotts. And I have heard of some Stanleys who were buried with gold rings on their fingers. ‘Do all the Gipsies do that?’ No! some put things with the dead in the earth, and many do not.”

Mr Liebich further declares, that while there is really nothing in it to sustain the belief, this extraordinary reverence and regard for the dead is the only fact at all indicating an idea of the immortality of the soul which he has ever found among the Gipsies; but, as he admits, it proves nothing. To me, however, it is grimly grotesque, when I return to the disciples of Comte—the Positivists—the most highly cultivated scholars of the most refined form of philosophy in its latest stage, and find that their ultimate and practical manifestation of la religion, is quite the same as that of those unaffected and natural Positivists, the Gipsies. With these, as with the others, our fathers find their immortality in our short-lived memories, and if among either, some one moved by deep love—as Auguste was by the eyes of Clotilda—has yearned for immortality with the dear one, and cursed in agony Annihilation, he falls upon the faith founded in ancient India, that only that soul lives for ever which has done so much good on earth, as to leave behind it in humanity, ineffaceable traces of its elevation.

Verily, the poor Gipsies would seem, to a humourist, to have been created by the devil, whose name they almost use for God, a living parody and satanic burlesque of all that human faith, doubt, or wisdom, have ever accomplished in their highest forms. Even to the weakest minded and most uninformed manufacturers of “Grellmann-diluted” pamphlets, on the Gipsies, their parallel to the Jews is most apparent. All over the world this black and God-wanting shadow dances behind the solid Theism of “The People,” affording proof that if the latter can be preserved, even in the wildest wanderings, to illustrate Holy Writ—so can gipsydom—for no apparent purpose whatever. How often have we heard that the preservation of the Jews is a phenomenon without equal? And yet they both live—the sad and sober Jew, the gay and tipsy Gipsy, Shemite and Aryan—the one so ridiculously like and unlike the other, that we may almost wonder whether Humour does not enter into the Divine purpose and have its place in the Destiny of Man. For my own part, I shall always believe that the Heathen Mythology shows a superiority to any other, in one conception—that of Loki, who into the tremendous upturnings of the Universe always inspires a grim grotesqueness; a laughter either diabolic or divine.

Judaism, which is pre-eminently the principle of religious belief:—the metaphysical emancipation and enlightenment of Germany, and the materialistic positivism of France, are then, as I have indicated, nowhere so practically and yet laughably illustrated as by the Gipsy. Free from all the trammels of faith, and, to the last degree, indifferent and rationalistic, he satisfies the demands of Feuerbach; devoted to the positive and to the memory of the dead, he is the ideal of the greatest French philosophy, while as a wanderer on the face of the earth—not neglectful of picking up things en route—he is the rather blurred facsimile of the Hebrew, the main difference in the latter parallel being that while the Jews are God’s chosen people, the poor Gipsies seem to have been selected as favourites by that darker spirit, whose name they have naïvely substituted for divinity:—Nomen et omen.

I may add, however, in due fairness, that there are in England some true Gipsies of unmixed blood, who—it may be without much reflection—have certainly adopted ideas consonant with a genial faith in immortality, and certain phases of religion. The reader will find in another chapter a curious and beautiful Gipsy custom recorded, that of burning an ash fire on Christmas-day, in honour of our Saviour, because He was born and lived like a Gipsy; and one day I was startled by bearing a Rom say “Miduvel hatch for mandy an’ kair me kushto.”—My God stand up for me and make me well. “That” he added, in an explanatory tone, “is what you say when you’re sick.” These instances, however, indicate no deep-seated conviction, though they are certainly curious, and, in their extreme simplicity, affecting. That truly good man, the Rev. James Crabb, in his touching little book, “The Gipsies’ Advocate,” gave numbers of instances of Gipsy conversions to religion and of real piety among them, which occurred after their minds and feelings had been changed by his labours; indeed, it would seem as if their lively imaginations and warm hearts render them extremely susceptible to the sufferings of Jesus. But this does not in the least affect the extraordinary truth that in their nomadic and natural condition, the Gipsies, all the world over, present the spectacle, almost without a parallel, of total indifference to, and ignorance of, religion, and that I have found true old-fashioned specimens of it in England.

I would say, in conclusion, that the Rev. James Crabb, whose unaffected and earnest little book tells its own story, did much good in his own time and way among the poor Gipsies; and the fact that he is mentioned to the present day, by them, with respect and love, proves that missionaries are not useless, nor Gipsies ungrateful—though it is almost the fashion with too many people to assume both positions as rules without exceptions.

Next: Chapter V. Gipsy Letters