The Roma or Romanies were called “Egyptians” or “Gypsies” when they arrived in the British Isles in the Fifteenth Century, because of the mistaken belief that they originated in Egypt. In fact, their homeland is Northern India. Current geneological and linguistic research shows that they are descended from a group which had existed within a single Indian caste, perhaps a military one, and that they emigrated around 1000 AD.
The largest numbers of Roma today are in Eastern Europe and Turkey, and like everywhere they have suffered centuries of discrimination and oppression. If you visit Eastern Europe today, it’s conspicuous that the shit jobs are filled by Roma. Those lucky enough to have jobs. Communist governments practised a policy of forced integration, or worse. In the Czech Republic, Roma were forcibly sterilized long after Communism had been replaced: last reported in 2004.
The Nazis also considered the Roma to be üntermenschen and murdered hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as a million, in the camps alongside the Jews.
The Roma must originally have been Hindu, but over time they adopted the religions of the countries in which they travelled. In Europe, most are Christian, covering the whole spectrum of denominations from Catholic and Orthodox to Evangelical and Seventh-Day Adventist. In Turkey, Egypt and the Balkans, they’re Moslem. Some notable Sufi Moslems have been Roma.
One of the Christian festivals especially associated with the Roma occurs in Saintes Maries de la Mer, the capital of the Camargue. The town’s modern name refers to the legend that Three Marys were washed ashore on a boat after the crucifixion. But the celebration of the Roma centres not on the Marys but on Saint Sarah, the Marys’ black servant in the Christian myth. She is represented by an ancient wooden statue of a black-skinned woman, which is carried into the sea on a flower-covered platform, and touched to the waves.
In the Romany language, Saint Sarah is “Sara e Kali”, lterally, “Sarah the Black”, but it’s exactly the same derivation as the Hindu Goddess Kali. Although Kali has come into Western culture with very negative associations, in Hinduism She is the Goddess of time and change, and it is quite normal to venerate Her. Kali is an aspect of the supreme Goddess Durga. One of the biggest Hindu festivals, the Durga Puja, features carrying the image of the Goddess into the water on a flower-covered platform, and touching it to the waves.
I like to think that the ceremony in Saintes Maries is a 1000-year-old remnant of the Roma people’s original religion. Ironically though, it may be using an icon that belongs to an even older tradition. The black statue of Saint Sarah is a Black Madonna, one of many found across Europe. Since they are always in Christian churches, they are generally interpreted as representations of the Blessed Virgin, although the black skin is theologically problematic.
Some of the Black Madonnas are very ancient, dating to the earliest years of Christianity in Europe. Or perhaps before. Some people claim (woolly, New-Age types, but they might still be right) that the black women represent an older European Goddess cult that was Christianised. Since we all have a common Indo-European origin, it might even have been Kali, Mother of the Universe.