by J.O. and E.S.

The Spanish Gypsies or Gitanos have, since the later part of the 15th century when they arrived, been subjected to severe persecution. The Spanish, who dismissed them as "the most despised and haughty of races", rejected the Gitanos' unique culture and practices as being heathenish. (qtd. in Yoors 17) However, the oppression felt by the Gitanos helped to influence the emotion found in thier music and dance. These aspects of thier culture became a creative form of expressing the sadness ever-present in their lives.

According to Quintana and Floyd, the persecution of the Gitanos served as a means to limit the Gypsy population and to end the existence of nomadic lifestyles.(19) Most laws were designed to be severe and many to keep the Gitanos tied to the land. For example, one law made it illegal for Gitanos to trade or sell their goods unless they had a permanent residence. (Quintana and Floyd 19) In 1539 Charles V simply ordered that any Gitano discovered within the boundries of Spain was to undergo at least six years of forced labor.

Under certain laws the Gitanos were ordered to leave the country. It was often believed that if they were to remain it would ultimatly destroy limpieza de sangre [untainted Spanish blood], therefore causing the "pollution of the race".(qtd. in Yoors 18) In 1499, under the Edict of Medina del Campo, the Gitanos were given 60 days to leave and if they were found after the deadline they were to receive 100 whiplashes before being expelled. If they were discovered after that, they were to be cast into slavery.("Patrin" 3)

Other anti-Gitano laws were especially damaging to their culture.It did not help the Gitanos any that they arrived in Spain during the height of religious oppression , seemingly arriving from nowhere, sporting peculiar clothing, and commonly practicing the art of fortune telling. Numerous laws were constructed to wipe out the Gypsy identity. During the 17th century, for example, Phillip II forbade the Gitanos to use thier name, dress or language "in order that this name and manner of life may be evermore confounded and forgotten." (qtd. in Quintana and Floyd 19) Also, during the 1560s, certain laws were ordered against the Gitano lifestyle, such as the one forbidding them to travel in groups of more than two and the one which outlawed Gitano dress. If these laws were violated it meant 18 years in the galleys for anyone over the age of 14. Later, punishment became even more severe, when all nomads were subject to death and the galleys were specifically reserved for stationary Gitanos.("Patrin" 4)

As suggested by Kenrick, the existence of repressive anti-Gypsy laws stemmed from racist European views. (18-14) The Christian idea of white representing goodness and black symbolizing evil, gave the Spanish, however unfair, a reason to hate the darker complected Gitanos. Also present was the fear of cannabalism. According to old Spanish folklore, a lost shepherd who met a band of Gypsies along his path, was invited to sit around thier fire for a meal. When the shepherd overheard one of the Gypsies telling another, 'there's a nice fat friend', he pretended to be sleepy and quickly departed. (32-33) Stories such as this one hinting at Gypsy cannabalism and other common misconceptions or stereotypes, such as the notion that Gypsies steal children, led to the belief that the Gitanos needed to be stopped.

Fortune telling, a highly discouraged practice in Spain, especially during the middle ages, for the Gitanos was a source of income and something that was never used amongst themselves. The Church viewed the practice of the arts of divination as evil.They were thought of as "important as a means of surrounding the Gypsies with an uneasy, magic aura."(Yoors "The Gypsies" 7) Women were ordinarily the only members who told fortunes. This is due to the belief that women view things with a more emotional outlook and therefore are better able to read the feelings of others.

Palmistry is one of the Gitanos' specific forms of fotune telling. The fingers have certain, separate beliefs attatched with them. Because nails, hair and teeth do not die immediatly after the body, many Gypsies believe that they have a life of thier own, with separate personalities.Since the index finger stands for good luck, a Gitano is believed to be drowned by the "water spirits" if he/she loses any blood from the finger.A child who dies without a middle finger will become a vampire. The ring finger, it is believed, can be used in cures and the pinkey finger is referred to as the magpie by the Gitanos and represents thieves. The meanings of the fingers change with certain distinguishable characteristics.

Another occult practice of the Gitanos is thier use of tarot cards. The cards are used as support for Gypsies' predictions. The crads used by the Gitanos are said to have been passed down from either the Egyptian or the Marseilles tarot. Most often the "Great Game" pattern is used to draw and set up the cards.

The divining drum is also a method of fortune telling. This drum has three black and white circles on the skin. Kidney beans are thrown on it and the Gypsy tells the future based on how the beans landed.

Another important aspect of Gitano culture is music. Music plays a major role in every Gitanos life, today as it did in the past. According to Bohme, many Gitanos used to make thier living as wandering musicians. (1) Music is used as both a way to ensure self-pride and express pain. The music also stresses the importance of traditions and not the demands of a society that is quicker to persecute than to embrace. ("Microsoft")

Flamenco is a style of singing, dancing and guitar playing that originated in in the south of Spain and contains African influences. The word, Flamenco, means Flemish.Overtime, however, the word has become synominous with Gypsy. The slow, soft songs originate from Andulasian tiranas/polos and the quick, lively songs come from Aragon jotas or Lamancha sequedillas.

Deep Song is a traditional form of Gypsy music.It is said to be "haunting, monotonous, yet also of profound dramatic rythem." (Quintana and Floyd 52) It is a style of music that contains Byzantine and Arab influences mixed with an early style of Andulasian music. Along with these elements, Gypsies added some of thier own to the Deep Song style.For example, they added to the music thier extreme repitition of notes.Deep Song is a personal type of music, usually used to make the singer feel better. Songs can be sad or scary. Gypsy singers usually sing of terrible sadness.

Every Gitano knows how to play the violin, a sacred instrument among the race. There are many legends about the creation of the violin. One of these deals with a girl named Mara who lives in a forest with her mother, father and four brothers. According to the story, Mara was in love with an outsider whose heart she could not win. So in her despair she sought the Devil for help. The Devil told her that in order for her to gain his support she would have to betray her four brothers to him. She agreed and so the Devil made four strings out of Mara's brothers, a wooden soundbox out of her father and the bow out of her mother. All of these elements combined to create the first violin. Mara learned how to play the insrument and soon stole the heart of the foreignor. However, the Devil not being satisfied, took Mara and her lover, leaving the violin. One day, a poor Gypsy girl walked by, finding the violin. From then on the girl traveled from town to town playing the new instrument for everyone.

Another similar legend takes place in a forest and tells of a married woman who could not bear children. She met an old musician who ordered her to make a hole in the ground, put milk inside, and then boil the liquid. The procedure proved successful and nine months later a boy was born to the woman. When the boy grew to the age of 25, he was by then an orphan and decided to roam the world in search of a good fortune. He came upon a big city where he heard that he could win a king's beautiful daughter if he could do what no one had ever done. The king was appalled and decided to throw the boy into the dungeon. While in the dungeon, Mautya, the protector of the poor and queen of fairies visited him. Mautya showed the man a box with a stick and told him to pick out four of her hairs and stretch them over the box. This is also said to have been the first violin.

Along with the legends, there are many songs in which Gypsies sing of their love for the violin. The following shows how music eased the pains of Gypsy life:

I. I have never known my father,
And I lack friends;
My mother is long dead,
And my loved one departed angry;
You only, oh my violin,
Accompany me in the world...
II. Let my heart break with grief,
I hear no money in my pocket,
I play a song on my violin,
And silence hunger and grief...
III. My violin has two pals,
Who eat my very marrow
Love and hunger they're called
And accompany me, a musician.(qtd.in Clebert 113)
The drum is also an essential part of Gitano music. It creates the rythem of their many dances. The pandero is particularly popular among the Gitanos. This drum may only be used by women to accompany thier dances or the bear-leaders to provide the rythem for the dances.The pandero has two sides of skin with pictures on each. On one side is a portrait of the Gitano woman's lover and on the other is a swollen heart pierced with an arrow.

The other instrument of much importance is the guitar. It is the instrument that is the most connected with Deep Song music. The guitar provides the singer with the background and enviroment to produce thier song.The guitars are made of cypress wood and are clamped across the neck to give a better sound. These clamps are usually important to the guitarist and have intriquet designs on them.

The persecution of the Gitanos, as can be seen, has had its effects on the of the people of this race.Although the Spanish, for centuries, have tried to bury thier culture through oppressive laws, many of the ways of the Gypsies have survived to this day. The most visible of these being thier unique songs and dances. Fortunatly, the Gitanos have been able to turn negative experiences into something positive.


Works Cited

  • Bohme, Lawrence. My friends, the Gypsies. http://www.xmission.com/~dderhak/monte/gypsies.htm.
  • Clebert, Jean-Paul. The Gypsies. U.S.A.: Dutton & Co.,1963.
  • Kenrick, Donald, and Grattan, Puxon. The Destiny of Europe's Gypsies. New York: Basic Books, 1972.
  • Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Redmond: Microsoft Corporation. 1993-1997.
  • Patrin Web Journal. Timeline of Romani (Gypsy) History. http://www.geocities.com/~patrin/timeline.htm 10/5/98.
  • Quintana, Bertha B., and Floyd, Lois Gray. Que Gitano! Gypsies of Southern Spain. New York: Random House, 1960.
  • Yoors, Jan. The Gypsies. New York: Simon and Schulster, Rockerfeller Center, 1967.
  • Yoors, Jan. The Gypsies of Spain. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Return to Index.

This webpage created by J.O. and E.S. on March 31, 1999 for History and Thought of the Western Man, Rich East High School, Park Forest, IL.