History, myths, and rumors about gypsy fortune telling.
The word “Gypsy” is derivative of the word, “Egyptian,” which is where Gypsy’s were once mistakenly believed to have originated. In fact, Gypsy origins lie in India, but by the middle ages they had spread widely through all of Europe. They are a nomadic culture with their own language (Romany), who often adopt the religion of their country of residence.
Gypsy’s have long faced persecution throughout history. These strangers with a free-spirited lifestyle were looked upon with much suspicion by the government and churches of the towns they passed through. Their very lifestyle seemed to contradict the established order and social conventions set by political and religious leaders. They were banned from many countries in Europe from the 16th through 19th centuries. France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, England, and Spain all had laws ordering that Gypsy’s who set foot on their soil would have their belongings confiscated, be jailed, beaten, or even killed. In other countries, they were enslaved or forced into a live of serfism, and were sometimes marked as vagrants by having an ear cut off. During the holocaust, the Nazis, just as they had with the Jews, had hoped to extinguish the Gypsy race, and put thousands of Gypsy’s to death.
Even today, Gypsy’s face persecution and prejudice. Many countries enforce laws trying to force Gypsy’s to settle down by making them register as citizens, or pressuring them into putting their young into school through compulsory education requirements. On the internet as recently as 1999, rumors circulated that a Gypsy band located in southern America were wanted by the FBI for a testicle-snatching ring. The fictitious warnings that went out claimed that Gypsy women were luring in unsuspecting American men, drugging them, then cutting off and stealing their testicles.
Despite the odds against them, Gypsy’s have managed to survive and, in many cases, keep their culture intact. They can be found today on all seven continents. Gypsy’s (or Rom, as they refer to themselves) make their living by hiring themselves out as they travel, working farmers, metal dealers, horse traders, auto mechanics, entertainers, and, as they are most famous for, fortune tellers.
Gypsy fortune telling is probably why Gypsy’s are both most welcomed, and most feared, in many places to which they migrate. Fortune telling, or sorcery, has an even older origin than Gypsy’s themselves. Long before there was a belief in Heaven or Hell, there was a belief in magic. Prehistoric Shamans utilized what they believed were the natural energies abounding in nature to cure, to curse, or to predict the future.
Even though the church instilled laws prohibiting any form of witchcraft or sorcery from the dark ages, people continually sought out those skilled in the magical arts. The Gypsy culture embraced these practices as their own, and even used them to turn quite a tidy profit.
There are four main methods associated with Gypsy fortune telling: tasseography, palmistry, scrying, and cartomancy.
Tasseography, or tea-leaf reading, is the practice of divining a person’s future through examining the sludge remaining when a person drinks an unfiltered cup of steeped tea. The symbols, shapes, numbers and letters that appear in the cup are supposed to give clues into the person’s future.
Palmistry is the practice of divining a person’s destiny by examining the lines and creases on the palm. They Gypsy will gaze at the persons hand and, depending upon the appearance of certain lines and formations, or the length and spacing of other natural lines, gain insight to what is in store for the person.
Scrying is the art of inducing visions by gazing into a crystal ball. In a darkened room, the seer will go into a trance state and await these visions that will appear, either as symbols or literal pictures, in the depths of the crystal.
Cartomancy is the practice of divining the future using cards. Most commonly this is done with a tarot deck, which contains of 78 cards decorated with pictures or symbols. The reader will lay the card out and read the person’s past, present, and the course they are on for their future by analyzing which cards happen to occupy each particular position in the spread.
None of these methods of divination are exclusive to Gypsys. Tasseography, for example, is believed to have originated in the far east, and cartomancy, though its origins are questionable, are most commonly attributed to a card game of 14th century Italy. It is most likely that, in their travels, Gypsy fortune tellers picked up these different methods and adapted them as their own. They have all, however, become quite popular associations with the Gypsys. The image of the small, dark woman, draped in colorful scarves and dripping with rings, earrings, and jingling bangle bracelets sitting in a tiny booth at a fair, a deck of mysterious cards or crystal ball perched on a table top, is probably the thing that pops into mind for most people when they think of Gypsys.
Whether you believe in fortune telling or not, there is no doubt that the Gypsy’s have a long, rich, interesting history, and that their supposed powers of “the sight” can be, if of nothing else, entertainment value for those daring enough to take a chance and have their destiny foretold by a Gypsy Queen.