Gypsies are known as a vagabond race, traveling from one place to another. Most fiction portrays them as having loose morals – thieves, lustful, and dishonest. But that is a generalization that truly only applies to a few, not the entire race. Gypsy women are actually very faithful to one man at a time. Of course some gypsies are thieves and tricksters, but you can find those in any culture.
The technical term for a gypsy is Roma. Originally the Roma came from India, which can be traced back through their language and culture. They were likely called “gypsy” first by Europeans that thought they came from Egypt. Now Romani can be found all over the world, but the majority in central and eastern Europe.
Their culture, trades, and language are passed down from one person to the next. Most do not read or write. Caravans are formed of related families. Each band is led by a kris, a tribunal leader who passes judgment based of their religious beliefs and customs.
A common feature of gypsies in fiction is their magic: fortune-telling, curses, and the like. The specific beliefs and cultures vary from group to group, as they have spread far and wide without a collective location. Most modern Roma have absorbed local religion and culture, so a modern gypsy curse would be unlikely. The traditional beliefs were centered on their Goddess Kali. Her symbol was a triangle. They believed in the power of curses, healing rituals, good luck charms, reincarnation, and purity taboos.
The gypsy wagon is traditionally called a vardo. For a great site with pictures and floor plans of a modern vardo, visit http://www.enslin.com/rae/gypsy/wagon01.htm. The wagons are horse-drawn. Some modern day gypsies have switched to trucks and trailers.
In the past, Romani typically married between the ages of 9 and 14. Marriage to an outsider was strongly discouraged. The ceremony consisted of joining hands in front of a chief or elder and promising to remain true to each other, or in other tribes simply jumping over a broomstick together in the presence of family.
Romania are well-known for their musicians, dancers, and fortune-tellers. Drabardi is the term for a fortune-teller, though they only read fortunes for non-Roma. Other traditional occupations are metalworking, horse trading, and animal training and doctoring. As these skills aren’t as needed in modern day, many Roma live in poverty.
Gypsy tales, like most traditional fairy tales, are adult-oriented rather than childish. As the rest of their culture, these stories were shared orally. Francis Hindes Groom was a folklorist who immersed himself in Roma/Gypsy life. His book, Gypsy Folk Tales, consists of the stories he gathered during his experience. You can view it online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/roma/gft/index.htm.
Mulengro, by Charles de Lint, focuses on a modern day Rom living in Canada. It’s a dark fantasy and delves deeply into Roma culture. Otherland, by Tad Williams, has gypsies in the form of nomads who disregard the borders of an advanced virtual reality cyberspace. Lloyd Alexander’s Gypsy Rizka is about a half-gypsy girl awaiting the return of her Gypsy father. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has a gyptian race who travel on boats instead of wagons.