Epidemics in world cultures| Plague in traditional Roma culture – Delia Grigore

Epidemics in world cultures| Plague in traditional Roma culture – Delia Grigore

The false name given to the Roma – that of “Gypsy”, which, in the Romani language, does not exist and with which the history of negative stereotypes about the Roma begins, referred, at its first attestation, in the Byzantine Empire, to a group considered heretical by the orthodox religious system. The term comes from the Middle Greek, from “athinganos” or “athinganoy”, the meaning being that of “pagan”, “untouchable” or “impure” and designates a group of people considered sorcerers, star and palm readers, fortune tellers and connoisseurs of animal language. “The first reference regarding the presence of Roma in Constantinople comes, most likely, from the Georgian hagiographic text: The Life of Saint George the Anchor, written at the Iberon Monastery on Mount Athos, around 1068”. The opera tells how the emperor Constantine Monomachus, in the year 1050, being ill with the plague, “invoked the help of the Samaritan people, descendants of Simon the Magician, called Athingians, notorious for prophecies and sorcerers”, with the request to destroy, through witchcraft, the wild animals from Philopation Park, suspected to be responsible for his illness [1]. So, in the non-Roma collective history, the Roma are stereotypically portrayed, since the first attestations, as sorcerers, including the ability to destroy the plague.

In the traditional Romani culture there are numerous representations of the supernatural, most of them personifications of good or evil, among the representations of evil there are also diseases, against which forms of protection have been developed related to the use of their denomination in the Romani language: the linguistic euphemism ( naming the disease by a nicer name) and the linguistic taboo (naming the disease by a name other than its own). For example, cancer and sexual diseases are called “зungalo nasvalipe” (ugly/bad disease), and, after talking about the sick, one must say: Othe lesθe! (To him, there!).

The same linguistic taboo also manifests itself in relation to death, not being accepted as a topic of discussion: to say the name of death is considered a bad sign and can bring misfortune or even death, because the word is seen as a creative element, capable of shaping reality according to will, even unconsciously manifested, to the one who uses it. Euphemistically, death can be called “i phuri” (the old one), “i jungali” (the ugly one), “i bengali” (the evil), always in the form of a witch woman, most often seen as “biuji” (the unclean) or “bibahtali” (bringers of misfortune).In the same way, saying the name of a dead person can bring his undead – “o ciohano” – who will take someone from the family and carry him to “o them e mulengo” (the land of the dead), that’s why the dead person is not called by his name , but with reference to his position in the family or community (“murro kak” – my uncle; “amaro şero” – our leader) or, simply, through a pronominal substitute – “ou” (he).This vision is based on the strong belief of the Roma in luck, chance or fate – “baht” -, but also in misfortune, bad luck or bad destiny – “bibaht”, another topic that is neither easy nor good to talk about.

Avoiding talking about topics such as death or illness is a way to protect yourself, but also to protect your family and community from “bibaht”. This is because the disease has as its main cause this “bibaht”, often originating from the violation of purity rules or from a curse.

In terms of combating disease, healing/reparative/thaumaturgical magic is the main weapon, provided it is in the hands of the initiated.

An example of a magic spell is the “pain” one. Put water in a cup and use a knife to dispel the water in that cup, after which stick the knife behind the door. With this water, the area where the pain is felt is rubbed and water is drunk from the cup three times, and the knife with which it was enchanted will remain stuck behind the door. The spell, like all magical practices of this type (restorative), has three stages: purification – the dagger will be washed with water, induction – the dagger will be cut by the knife and protection – the dagger will go and stay on the door, releasing – him, thus, of pain on the sick person. What is important to note refers to the fact that the disease is urged to come out not only from the body, but also from the soul (“And of the soul of X/Don’t touch it anymore”), the evil being considered to have its origin in the spiritual space, as a result of impurity, only then transferring to the physical plane, thus exhausting all the places where this evil could hide.

In the same spirit, of the magical fight against the disease, the plague epidemic could not be absent from the Roman tradition. The story “The Plague” [2] is believed to be true through its precise historical setting: “There was a great plague in the year 1724, with Roma and other nations dying on the road”.

The feeling of the nomadic Roma towards it is fear, which leads to leaving (“When the Roma saw that it was not safe, they piled into carts to leave the village [and left]”) and, after a long and difficult reflection ( “To take him further with them, he could make them all sick, to leave him on the road, don’t let his heart…”), to the abandonment of a sick person, considered incurable, to stop the spread of the plague within the community ( “on the way, a fifteen-year-old boy fell ill. (…) Finally, they decided to take him down [from the wagon] and abandon him, because he was going to die anyway, so as not to spread the plague among them.”).The character with the potential to be initiated in the fight against the plague is the sister of the abandoned one, who demonstrates, beyond brotherly love, devotion and a deep spirit of sacrifice not so much to try to cure the brother, but to honor the funeral customs, as the last tribute to the brother dying and out of respect for the family (“I’m staying with my little brother, because if he dies, I want to bury him, clothe him and put a cross on him”).In a tense atmosphere, favorable to magic, which brings together the primordial elements and spaces (water, fire, sky and earth) – at night, in the moonlight reflected in the water, around the fire -, the Plague appears personified in an old woman, who comes out of the water and is shivering from the cold, so she needs help.

The girl’s initiation is produced through three steps: the voluntary help she offers to the Plague, calling her to the fire to warm herself, at which point the old woman reveals her demonic nature – the horse legs –; the requested help – Plague asks the girl to pass her water, and the girl, even though she realized who the old woman is, or precisely because of that, agrees to help her -; the defeat of fear and the dialogue with the plague, through which he asks her to reduce the weight, obtaining her co-interest – in the middle of the water, the Plague leans heavily on the girl’s back, but she does not get scared and asks her to ease herself, so that the water can pass her, and the Plague agrees to become light as a feather. The easing of the Plague represents a first good sign in the direction of combating the plague.

The crossing of the water symbolizes the passage to the other realm, of death, the only place where the cure for the plague can be taken, as if the girl, already initiated, must die and rise again, bringing with her the magical cure. It is the plague itself, without the girl asking for any reward for passing her water, that reveals the cure for the plague to the girl, so for it to be effective, the reward must be volunteered, just as the original aid had been given to Plague by the girl. The cure indicated by the Plague, which heals the girl’s brother, unites the power of the ascending nature, superior to all other powers (the tree) with the Christian sacred (the cross under the tree) and with that sacred as accursed or impure (the dog behind the cross), what is practiced is magic by opposition (use is made of an object that has the exact opposite attributes of those that are intended to be induced by the spell), in other words the sacralized impure that purifies or heals. Healing, however, involves coming back from the dream, so waking up from another reality or coming back, on earth, from the realm of death, so resurrection.

The girl’s devotion to her brother, but especially to the funeral customs, the girl’s purity, her freedom from fear, the courage to help the Plague to pass into the realm of death, so to free herself, in turn, from the curse of being on earth to kill people, led not only to the saving of the girl’s brother from death, but also to the saving of all mankind from the plague (“And from now on we shall have no more plague!”).In this way, through the magic practiced following the initiation of a pure girl, traditional Romani culture defeats the Plague.Article signed by lect. Delia Grigore, PhD, teaching staff at the Department of Hungarology, Judaic and Romani Studies of the Faculty of Foreign Languages ​​and Literatures of the University of Bucharest.


[1] Fraser, Angus M., 1992, The Gypsies, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, p. 46.

[2] Costică Bățălan, Rromane taxtaja. Jewels from the folklore of the Roma, Editura Kriterion, Bucharest-Cluj, 2002, p. 158.


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