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Gypsy Origin of Witchcraft, Shamanism and Sorcery

Gypsy with Mandolin

By C. G. Leland

(Editor's note - This work is presented for historical interest.  It is from a book published in 1891, and one of the first things the modern reader will find himself saying when reading this is, "Thank God our attitudes and beliefs toward gypsies (now often referred to as Roma) have progressed since this dark time."  It is probably not altogether inappropriate to remind ourselves that such prejudice toward gypsies contributed to the Gypsy Holocaust, during which Nazis practiced genocide against the Roma precisely as they did against Jews.  On a more positive note, the author was ahead of his time in stating that gypsies emigrated from India, and in his hypothesis that gypsy culture may have preserved a pre-Aryan set of Indian beliefs and customs, including those related to witchcraft, shamanism, and sorcery.)

As their peculiar perfume is the chief association with spices, so sorcery is allied in every memory to gypsies. And as it has not escaped many poets that there is something more strangely sweet and mysterious in the scent of cloves than in that of flowers, so the attribute of inherited magic power adds to the romance of these picturesque wanderers. Both the spices and the Romany come from the far East--the fatherland of divination and enchantment. The latter have been traced with tolerable accuracy, If we admit their affinity with the Indian Dom and Domar, back to the threshold of history, or well-nigh into prehistoric times, and in all ages they, or their women, have been engaged, as if by elfish instinct, in selling enchantments, peddling prophecies and palmistry, and dealing with the devil generally ill a small retail way. As it was of old so it is to-day--

      Ki shan i Romani--
      Adoi san' i chov'hani.

      (Wherever gypsies go,
      There the witches are, we know.)

It is no great problem ill ethnology or anthropology as to how gypsies became fortune-tellers. We may find a very curious illustration of it in the wren. This is apparently as humble, modest, prosaic little fowl as exists, and as far from mystery and wickedness as an old hen. But the ornithologists of the olden time, and the myth-makers, and the gypsies who lurked and lived in the forest, knew better. They saw how this bright-eyed, strange little creature in her elfish way slipped in and out of hollow trees and wood shade into sunlight, and anon was gone, no man knew whither, and so they knew that it was an uncanny creature, and told wonderful tales of its deeds in human form, and to-day it is called by gypsies in Germany, as in England, the witch-bird, or more briefly, chorihani, "the witch."

Just so the gypsies themselves, with their glittering Indian eyes, slipping like the wren in and out of the shadow of the Unknown, and anon away and invisible, won for themselves the name which now they wear. Wherever Shamanism, or the sorcery which is based on exorcising or commanding spirits, exists, its professors from leading strange lives, or from solitude or wandering, become strange and wild-looking. When men have this appearance people associate with it mysterious power. This is the case in Tartary, Africa, among the Eskimo, Lapps, or Red Indians, with all of whom the sorcerer, voodoo or medaolin, has the eye of the "fascinator," glittering and cold as that of a serpent.

So the gypsies, from the mere fact of being wanderers and out-of-doors livers in wild places, became wild-looking, and when asked if they did not associate with the devils who dwell in the desert places, admitted the soft impeachment, and being further questioned as to whether their friends the devils, fairies, elves, and goblins had not taught them how to tell the future, they pleaded guilty, and finding that it paid well, went to work in their small way to improve their "science," and particularly their pecuniary resources. It was an easy calling; it required no property or properties, neither capital nor capitol, shiners nor shrines, wherein to work the oracle. And as I believe that a company of children left entirely to themselves would form and grow up with a language which in a very few years would be spoken fluently, so I am certain that the shades of night, and fear, pain, and lightning and mystery would produce in the same time conceptions of dreaded beings, resulting first in demonology and then in the fancied art of driving devils away.

For out of my own childish experiences and memories I retain with absolute accuracy material enough to declare that without any aid from other people the youthful mind forms for itself strange and seemingly supernatural phenomena. A tree or bush waving in the night breeze by moonlight is perhaps mistaken for a great man, the mere repetition of the sight or of its memory make it a personal reality. Once when I was a child powerful doses of quinine caused a peculiar throb in my ear which I for some time believed was the sound of somebody continually walking upstairs. Very young children sometimes imagine invisible playmates or companions talk with them, and actually believe that the unseen talk to them in return. I myself knew a small boy who had, as he sincerely believed, such a companion, whom he called Bill, and when he could not understand his lessons he consulted the mysterious William, who explained them to him. There are children who, by the voluntary or involuntary exercise of visual perception or volitional eye-memory, reproduce or create images which they imagine to be real, and this faculty is much commoner than is supposed. In fact I believe that where it exists in most remarkable degrees the adults to whom the children describe their visions dismiss them as "fancies" or falsehoods.

Even in the very extraordinary cases recorded by Professor Hale, in which little children formed for themselves spontaneously a language in which they conversed fluently, neither their parents nor anybody else appears to have taken the least interest in the matter. However, the fact being that babes can form for themselves supernatural conceptions and embryo mythologies, and as they always do attribute to strange or terrible-looking persons power which the latter do not possess, it is easy, without going further, to understand why a wild Indian gypsy, with eyes like a demon when excited, and unearthly-looking at his calmest, should have been supposed to be a sorcerer by credulous child-like villagers. All of this I believe might have taken place, or really did take place, in the very dawn of man's existence as a rational creature--that as soon as "the frontal convolution of the brain which monkeys do not possess," had begun with the "genial tubercule," essential to language, to develop itself, then also certain other convolutions and tubercules, not as yet discovered, but which ad interim I will call "the ghost-making," began to act. "Genial," they certainly were not--little joy and much sorrow has man got out of his spectro-facient apparatus--perhaps if it and talk are correlative he might as well, many a time, have been better off if he were dumb.

So out of the earliest time, in the very two o'clock of a misty morning in history, man came forth believing in non-existent terrors and evils as soon as he could talk, and talking about them as fast as he formed them. Long before the conception of anything good or beneficent, or of a Heavenly Father or benevolent angels came to him, he was scared with nightmares and spirits of death and darkness, hell, hunger, torture, and terror. We all know how difficult it is for many people when some one dies out of a household to get over the involuntary feeling that we shall unexpectedly meet the departed in the usual haunts. In almost every family there is a record how some one has "heard a voice they cannot hear," or the dead speaking in the familiar tones. Hence the belief in ghosts, as soon as men began to care for death at all, or to miss those who had gone. So first of all came terrors and specters, or revenants, and from setting out food for the latter. which was the most obvious and childlike manner to please them, grew sacrifices to evil spirits, and finally the whole system of sacrifice in all its elaboration.

It may therefore be concluded that as soon as man began to think and speak and fear the mysterious, he also began to appease ghosts and bugbears by sacrifices. Then there sprung up at once--quite as early--the magus, or the cleverer man, who had the wit to do the sacrificing and eat the meats sacrificed, and explain that he had arranged it all privately with the dead and the devils. He knew all about them, and he could drive them away. This was the Shaman. He seems to have had a Tartar-Mongol-mongrel-Turanian origin, somewhere in Central Asia, and to have spread with his magic drum, and songs, and stinking smoke, exorcising his fiends all over the face of the earth, even as his descendant, General Booth, with his "devil-drivers" is doing at the present day. But the earliest authentic records of Shamanism are to be found in the Accadian, proto-Chaldean and Babylon records. According to it all diseases whatever, as well as all disasters, were directly the work of evil spirits, which were to be driven away by songs of exorcism, burning of perfumes or evil-smelling drugs, and performing ceremonies, many of which, with scraps of the exorcisms are found in familiar use here and there at the present day. Most important of all in it was the extraordinary influence of the Shaman himself on his patient, for he made the one acted on sleep or wake, freed him from many apparently dire disorders in a minute, among others of epilepsies which were believed to be caused by devils dwelling in man--the nearest and latest explanation of which magic power is given in that very remarkable book, "Psycho-Therapeutics, or Treatment by Sleep and Suggestion," by C. LLOYD TUCKEY, M.D. (London: Bailliere and Co., 1889), which I commend to all persons interested in ethnology as casting light on some of the most interesting and perplexing problems of humanity, and especially of "magic."

It would seem, at least among the Laplanders, Finns, Eskimo, and Red Indians, that the first stage of Shamanism was a very horrible witchcraft, practiced chiefly by women, in which attempts were made to conciliate the evil spirits; the means employed embracing everything which could revolt and startle barbarous men. Thus fragments of dead bodies and poison, and unheard-of terrors and crimes formed its basis. I think it very probable that this was the primitive religion among savages everywhere. An immense amount of it in its vilest conceivable forms still exists among negroes as Voodoo.

After a time this primitive witchcraft or voodoo had its reformers--probably brave and shrewd men, who conjectured that the powers of evil might be "exploited" to advantage. There is great confusion and little knowledge as yet as regards primitive man, but till we know better we may roughly assume that witch-voodoo was the religion of the people of the Paleolithic period, if they could talk at all, since language is denied to the men of the Neanderthal, Canstadt, Egnisheim, and Podhava type. All that we can declare with some certainty is that we find the advanced Shamanism the religion of the early Turanian races, among whose descendants, and other people allied to them, it exists to this day. The grandest incident in the history of humanity is the appearance of the Man of Cro-Magnon. He it was who founded what M. DE QUATREFAGES calls "a magnificent race," probably one which speedily developed a high civilization, and a refined religion. But the old Shamanism with its amulets, exorcisms, and smoke, its noises, more or less musical, of drums and enchanted bells, and its main belief that all the ills of life came from the action of evil spirits, was deeply based among the inferior races and the inferior scions of the Cro-Magnon stock clung to it in forms more or less modified. just as the earlier witchcraft, or the worship and conciliation of evil, overlapped in many places the newer Shamanism, so the latter overlapped the beautiful Nature-worship of the early Aryans, the stately monotheism of the Shemites, and the other more advanced or ingenious developments of the idea of a creative cause.

There are, in fact, even among us now, minds to whom Shamanism or even witchcraft is deeply or innately adapted by nature, and there are hundred of millions who, while professing a higher and purer doctrine, cling to its forms or essentials, believing that because the apparatus is called by a different name it is in no respect whatever the same thing. Finally there are men who, with no logical belief whatever in any kind of supernaturalism, study it, and love it, and are moved by it, owing to its endless associations, with poetry, art, and all the legends of infancy or youth. HEINE was not in his reasoning moments anything more or less than a strict Deist or Monotheist, but all the dreams and specters, fairies and goblins, whether of the Middle Ages or the Talmud, were inexpressibly dear to him, and they move like myriad motes through the sunshine of his poetry and prose, often causing long rays when there were bars at the window--like that on which the saint hung his cloak.

It is probable or certain that Shamanism (or that into which it has very naturally developed) will influence all mankind, until science, by absorbing man's love of the marvelous in stupendous discoveries shall so put to shame the old thaumaturgy, or wonder-working, that the latter will seem poor and childish. In all the "Arabian Nights" there is nothing more marvelous than the new idea that voices and sounds may be laid aside like real books, and made to speak and sing again years afterwards. And in all of that vast repertory of occult lore, "Isis Unveiled," there is nothing so wonderful as the simple truth that every child may be educated to possess an infinitely developed memory of words, sights, sounds, and ideas, allied to incredible quickness of perception and practice of the constructive faculties. These, with the vast fields of adjusting improved social relations and reforms--all of which in a certain way opens dazzling vistas of a certain kind of enchantment or brilliant hope--will go fast and far to change the old romance to a radically different state of feeling and association.

It is coming--let it come! Doubtless there was an awful romance of darkness about the old witchcraft which caused its worshippers to declare that the new lights of Shamanism could never dissipate it. just so many millions of educated people at present cannot be brought to understand that all things to which they are used are not based on immutable laws of nature, and must needs be eternal. They will find it hard to comprehend that there can ever be any kind of poetry, art, or sentiment, utterly different from that to which they and their ancestors have been accustomed. Yet it is clear and plain before them, this New Era, looking them directly in the face, about to usher in a reformation compared to which all the reformations and revolutions and new religions which the world has ever seen were as nothing; and the children are born who will see more than the beginning of it.

In the next chapter I will examine the Shamanic spells and charms still used among certain gypsies. For, be it observed, all the gypsy magic and sorcery here described is purely Shamanic--that is to say, of the most primitive Tartar type--and it is the more interesting as having preserved--from prehistoric times many of the most marked characteristics of the world's first magic or religion. It treats every disease, disorder, trouble, or affliction as the work of an evil spirit; it attempts to banish these influences by the aid of ceremonies, many of which, by the disgusting and singular nature of the ingredients employed, show the lingering influences of the black witchcraft which preceded Shamanism; and it invokes favorable supernatural agencies, such as the spirits of the air and Mashmurdalo', the giant of the forests. In addition to this there will be found to be clearly and unmistakably associated with all their usages, symbols and things nearly connected with much which is to be found in Greek, Roman, and Indian mythology or symbolism. Now whether this was drawn from "classic" sources, or whether all came from some ancient and obscure origin, cannot now be accurately determined. But it certainly cannot be denied that Folk-lore of this kind casts a great deal of light on the early history of mankind, and the gradual unfolding or evolution of religion and of mind, and that, if intelligently studied, this of the gypsies is as important as any chapter in the grand work.

The gypsies came, historically speaking, very recently from India.  It has not been so carefully observed as it might that all Indians are not of the religion of Brahma, much less of Buddha or of Mohammed, and that among the lower castes, the primeval Altaic Shamanism, with even earlier witchcraft, still holds its own. Witchcraft, or Voodoo, or Obi, relies greatly on poisoning for its magic, and the first gypsies were said to poison unscrupulously. Even to this day there is but one word with them as with many Hindus for both medicine and poison--id est drab. How exactly this form of witchcraft and Shamanism exists today in India appears from the following extract from The St. James's Gazette, September 8, 1888:--

THE HINDOO PRIEST

In India, the jadoo-wallah, or exorcist, thrives apace; and no wonder, for is not the lower-caste Hindoo community bhut, or demon-ridden? Every village, graveyard, burning-ghat, has its special bhut or bhuts; and the jadoo-wallah is the earthly mediator between their bhutships and the common folk. The exorcist is usually the spiritual adviser to the population of a low-caste village, and is known as a gooroo, or priest: that is to say, he professes to hold commune with the spirits of defunct Hindoos which have qualified for their unique position in the other world--by their iniquity in this one, perhaps. Every Hindoo has a guardian bhut that requires propitiating, and the gooroo is the medium.

Amongst the Jaiswars and other low-caste Hindoos, caste is regulated by carnal pice, and a man is distinguished amongst them by a regulated monetary scale. One person may be a 14-anna caste man while another may only be a 12-anna caste man. Does the 12-anna caste man wish to supersede the 14-anna caste man, then he consults the gooroo, who will, in consideration of a certain contribution, promote him to a higher-caste grade. A moneyed man having qualms about his future state should join the Jaiswars, where at least he would have an opportunity of utilizing his spare cash for the good of his soul. The average gooroo will be only too glad to procure him everlasting glory for a matter of a few rupees.

The gooroo, then, serves as regulator of the lower-caste Hindoo, system. But it is our intention to exhibit him in his peculiar position of exorcist-general to the people. This will perhaps be best explained by an account of the case of one Kaloo. Kaloo was a grass-cutter, and had been offended by Kasi, a brother grass-cutter. Kasi, it appears, had stolen Kaloo's quilt one night during his temporary absence at a neighbouring liquor-shop. Kaloo, on his return, finding his quilt gone, raised the hue-and-cry; and Mooloo, the village policeman, traced the robbery to Kasi's hut. Yet, in spite of this damning proof, the village panchayet, or bench of magistrates, decided that, as Kaloo could not swear to the exact colour of his lost quilt--Kaloo was colour-blind--it could not possibly be his. Anyhow, Kaloo kept Kasi in view and hit upon a plan to do him a grievous bodily injury. Scraping together a few rupees, he went to the village gooroo and promised that worthy a reward if he would only exorcise the bhuts and get them to "make Kasi's liver bad." The gooroo, in consideration of five rupees cash, promised compliance. So that night we find the gooroo busy with sandal-wood and pig's blood propitiating the neighbouring bhuts. Needless to say that Kasi had in a very short space of time all the symptoms of liver complaint. Whether the bhuts gave Kasi a bad liver or the gooroo gave him a few doses of poison is a question. Anyhow, Kasi soon died. Another case in point is that of Akuti. Akuti was a retired courtesan who had long plied a profitable trade in the city. We find her, however, at her native village of Ramghur, the wife of one Balu. Balu soon got tired of his Akuti, and longed for the contents of her strong box wherein she kept her rupees, bracelets, nose-rings, and other valuables. This was a rather awkward matter for Balu, for Akuti was still in the prime of life. Balu accordingly the gooroo and wants Akuti's liver made bad. "Nothing easier," says the gooroo: "five rupees." Balu has reckoned without his host, however: for the gooroo, as general spiritual adviser to the Ramghur community, visits Akuti and tells her of Balu's little scheme. Naturally Balu's liver is soon in a decline, for Akuti's ten rupees were put in the opposite side of the gooroo's scales.

Knaves of the gooroo genus flourish in India, and when their disposition is vicious the damage they can do is appalling. That these priests exist and do such things as I have illustrated is beyond question. Ask any native of India his views on the bhut question, and he will tell you that there are such things, and, further, that the gooroo is the only one able to lay them, so to speak. According to the low-caste Hindoo, the bhut is a spiteful creature which requires constant supplies of liquor and pork; otherwise it will wreak its vengeance on the forgetful votary who neglects the supply. A strange idea, too, is this of pork being pleasing to the bhuts; but when it is remembered that the Jaiswars, Chamars, and other low-caste Hindoos are inordinately fond of that meat themselves, they are right in supposing pig to be the favourite dish of the bhuts, who, after all, are but the departed spirits of their own people. Naturally bhai (brother) Kaloo, or bahin (sister, English gypsy pen) Muti, the quondam grass-cutter and courtesan of Ramghur village, who in this life liked nothing better than a piece of bacon and a dram of spirits, will, in their state of bhuthood hanker after those things still. Acting on these notions of the people, the gooroo lives and thrives exceedingly.

Yet of all this there is nothing "Hindu," nothing of the Vedas. It is all pre-Aryan, devil-worshipping, poisoning, and Turanian; and it is exactly like voodoo in Philadelphia or any other city in America. It is the old faith which came before all, which existed through and under Brahminism, Buddhism, and Mahommedanism, and which, as is well known, has cropped out again and flourishes vigorously under British toleration. And this is the faith which forms the basis of European gypsy sorcery, as it did of yore that of the Chaldæan and Etrurian, which still survive in the witchcraft of the Tuscan Romagna. Every gypsy who came to Europe a few centuries ago set up as a guru, and did his sorceries after the same antique fashion. Even to-day it is much the same, but with far less crime. But the bhut or malignant spirit is, under other names, still believed, in, still doctored by gypsies with herbs and smoke, and "be rhymed like an Irish rat," and conjured into holes bored in trees, and wafted away into running streams, and naively implored to "go where he is wanted," to where he was nursed, and to no longer bother honest folk who are tired of him. And for all this the confiding villager must pay the gypsy wise-woman "so much monies"--as it was in the beginning and is now in good faith among millions in Europe who are in a much better class of society.

*****

Original text by C. G. Leland, revised and edited by Dainial MacÀdhaimh © 2011.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 

 

 

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