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Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling, by Charles Godfrey Leland, [1891], at

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IT would seem to all who now live that life would be really intolerably dry were it utterly deprived of mystery, marvel, or romance. This latter is the sentiment of hopeful chance allied to the beautiful. Youth is willing or eager to run great risks if the road to or through them passes by dark ravines, under castled rocks—

"o'er dewy grass
And waters wild and fleet"

—and ever has been from the beginning. Now, it is a matter of serious importance to know whether this romance is so deeply inherent in man that it can never be removed. For, rightly viewed, it means current religion, poetry, and almost all art—as art at least was once understood—and it would seem as if we had come, or are coming, to a time when science threatens to deprive

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us of it all. Such is the hidden fear of many a priest and poet—it may be worth while to consider whether it is all to pass away into earnest prose or assume new conditions. Has the world been hitherto a child, or a youth, were poetry and supernaturalism its toys, and has the time come when it is to put away childish things?

We can only argue from what we are, and what we clearly know or understand. And we know that there are in Nature, though measured by the senses alone, phenomena which awake delightful or terrible, sublime or beautiful, grave or gay feelings, or emotions, which inspire corresponding thoughts. There is for us "an elf-home glory-land," far over setting suns, mysterious beauty in night and stars in their eternal course, grandeur of God in the ocean, loveliness in woman, chiaroscuro in vapoury valleys and the spray of waterfalls by moonlight, exciting emotions which are certainly not within the domain of science—as yet—and which it is impossible for us, as we are at present constituted, to imagine as regarded entirely from the standpoint of chemical and physical analysis. To see in all this—as we are—only hydro-carbons, oxygen, silex and aluminium, atoms, molecules, and "laws"—that is to say, always the parts and combinations and no sense as regards man that he is, with his emotional sense of beauty, anywhere in the game or of any account—is going far too far. Setting teleology and theology entirely aside, Man, as the highest organism, has a right to claim that, as the highest faculties which have been as yet developed in him were caused by natural phenomena, therefore there is in the phenomena a certain beauty which is far more likely to lead to more advanced enjoyment of form, colour, or what we call the æsthetic sense, than to shrink away and disappear. And it seems to me that the most extended consideration of science leads to the result or conclusion that under its influence we shall find that the chemical and physical analyses of which I have spoken are only the dry A B C of a marvellously grand literature, or of a Romance and Poetry and Beauty—perhaps even of a wondrous "occult" philosophy, of whose beginning even we have, as yet, no idea.

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But, great as it may be, those who will make it must derive their summary of facts or bases of observation from the past, and therefore I urge the importance of every man who can write doing what he can to collect all that illustrates Humanity as it is and as it was in by-gone ages. It hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive what a Folk-lore or ethnological society in ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt might not have collected and preserved for the delight of every civilized human being of the present day. It is very true that the number of persons, as yet, who understand this—still less of those who take a real interest in it—is extremely limited, and they do not extend in England, America, or any other country, to more than a few hundreds. To the vast multitude, even of learned men, Folk-lore is only a "craze" for small literary bric-à-brac, a "fancy" which will have its run, and nothing more. To its earnest devotees it is the last great development of the art of learning and writing history, and a timely provision for future social science. It sets forth the most intimate inner life of people as they were, and the origins of our life as it is. In Folk-lore, Philology, Ethnology, and the study of Mythology or Religion find their greatest aid.

The amount of Red Indian Folk-lore which has been suffered to perish in the United States without exciting the least interest is beyond all belief. THOREAU could find in the Algonkin legends of New England nothing but matter for feeble-minded ridicule. But there are men coming, or a generation rising, to whom every record of the past will be of value, for they are beginning to perceive that while the collector is doing work of value the mere theorist, who generally undervalues if he does not actually oppose the collector, will with his rubbish be swept away "down the back-entry of time," to be utterly forgotten.

Gypsy sorcery-lore is of great value because all over the Aryan world gypsies have in ancient or modern times been, so to speak, the wandering priests of that form of popular religion which consists of a faith in fortune-telling. This is really a very important part in every cult; the most remarkable thing connected with it; as with charms, fetishes, incantations

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and protective spells, being the extraordinary success with which the more respectable magi have succeeded in convincing their followers that their own sorcery was not "magic" at all, and that the world-old heathen rites, which are substantially the same, are mere modern thieveries from the "established religion." Prediction and prophecy were the cornerstones of the classic mythology and of the Jewish law; they were equally dear to the Celtic races, and all men seem from the earliest times to have believed that coming events cast their shadows before. How this began and grew requires no deep study. Many disorders are prefaced by uneasy dreams or unaccountable melancholy, even as the greatest disaster which befel the gods of Valhalla was preceded by the troubled dreams of Balder. Sometimes the first symptom of gout is a previous irritability. But if diseases are believed to be caused by the literal occupation of the body by evil spirits these presages will be ascribed to occult spiritual influences. A man in excellent health feels gay—he goes hunting and has luck—of course his guardian spirit is believed to have inspired him to go. Then comes the priest or the gypsy to predict, and the hits are recorded and the misses are promptly forgotten.

The following instance has been related to me in good faith by a learned friend, whose books are well known to all Folk-lorists:—

"I can quote from my own experience a strange event founded on a prediction made to me by a gypsy in 1863. This was before I had learned the language of the Romany or had begun to take any interest in them. At the time of which I speak, I met one day here, in T———, one or two gypsy women bearing as usual babies on their shoulders, when the oldest as I was passing by pointed me out to the bystanders, saying in German, 'Der Herr hat viel Kummer gehabt' ('That gentleman has had much trouble '-or sorrow).

"This was true enough, as I was suffering greatly at the time from a previous bereavement, though I was no longer in mourning, nor was there at the instant any indication of gloom in my looks, for I was in a cheerful humour. So I stopped to ask her why she had made her remark. She replied, 'Ja, geben Sie mir die linke Hand und legen Sie drei Silbermünze darauf, wenn Sie weiteres hören wollen' ('Yes, give me your hand, and put three silver coins on it, if you would hear more'). I did so, when she repeated her assertion as to my sorrow, and added, 'Aber eine Gräfinn steht für Ihnen' ('But there is a countess awaiting you').

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"I laughed at myself for listening to this, and for the strange feeling of interest or faith which I felt in it, and which my common sense told me was ridiculous. And yet the prediction, strangely enough, was fulfilled, though not in the sense in which I suppose most people would have taken it. Soon after I lost another relative, and was overwhelmed with that and other troubles when providence gent me a friend in that most amiable and remarkable woman the Countess B———, who, with that noble and gracious affability which distinguishes her, as well as her husband, Sir ———, relieved my mind and cheered my depressed spirits.

"I add to this a marvellous story of a gypsy prediction which was uttered here in T——— and published last year in a small biography, but which is worth consideration because I have heard it apparently well authenticated by trustworthy people. A very great disgrace to our town—I am happy to say he was the only one—was a Mr. M———, of very good family. This man kept a mistress named R. M———-, who became acquainted with a young man who was employed as a clerk at the Credit Anstalt, and who always at night carried on his person its keys. This M———learned, and formed the following plot: The victim was to be enticed by the woman to her room, where she proposed to cut his throat, take the keys, and with the aid of M——— to rob the bank and escape. It succeeded so far as that the young man was brought to her room, but when she began to attempt to kill him he struggled, and was overpowering her when M——— entered the room and shot him dead.

"The precious pair were subsequently arrested and tried, and in the report of the proceedings there appears the following curious statement:—

"'It is a singular thing (cosa piu singolare) that to this woman (M———'s mistress, Miss R———), a gypsy woman who pretended to palmistry predicted that she would come to a bad end (ch'essa finirebbe assai male.),' Which she effectually did, being condemned to fourteen years' hard labour, and would have been hung had not her "interesting state" inclined the judge to mercy.

"There is the following addition in the pamphlet to what has been quoted: "Being begged by the said Maria R——— to look more closely into the hand, the Zingara refused to do so, and went away muttering strange or foreign words.' (Borbottanda strane parole)."

To this my informant adds:—

"I know of a more cheerful case of gypsy prediction, and of quite another kind, and which happened to a friend's friend of mine, also here in T———-. The 'subject' was a young lady, who was 'intended' or betrothed, to an Italian actor, who had gone to play at Madrid; but for two months she heard nothing from him, and, believing that he had neglected her, was in despair.

"One morning she was passing through one of the main streets, and was talking with my friend, when a dark gypsy girl going by, whispered to her in a hurried manner: 'Domani avrai una lettera e sarai felice' ('To-morrow you will receive a letter and be

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happy'). Having said this and nothing more, without asking for money, she went away. The promised letter was in fact received, all went well, and the lady is now married to the gentleman. This is all simply, true. I leave the comments on the case to investigators. Can it be that gypsies are sometimes clairvoyant?"

My own comment on the case is that, admitting that the gypsy knew beforehand all the circumstances or even the "parties" in the affair, she had divined or "intuited" a result, and risked, as some might call it, or else tittered from a real conviction, her prophecy. How the mind, without any miracle—as miracles are commonly regarded—often arrives quite unconsciously to such conclusions, I have already considered in another chapter. Making every allowance for unconscious exaggeration and the accretive power of transmission, I am willing to believe that the story is actually true.

The following is also perfectly authentic: An English lady of excellent family, meeting a gypsy, was told by the latter that in six months the most important event of her life would come to pass. At the end of the time she died. On her death-bed she said, "I thought the gypsy meant a marriage, but I feel that something far more important is coming, for death is the great end of life."

The following was told me by a Hungarian gentleman of Szegedin:—

"There was in Arad a lady who went to a ball. She had a necklace to which were attached four rings. During the evening she took this from her neck, and doubling it, wore it on her arm as a bracelet. In the house where she lived was a young gentleman who came to accompany her home from the ball. All at once, late at night, she missed her necklace and the rings, which were of great value.

"The next day she sent for a gypsy woman, who, being consulted, declared that the collar had been stolen by some one who was very intimate in her house. Her suspicions rested on the young man who had accompanied her home. He was arrested, but discharged far want of evidence.

"Three months after there came a kellner, a waiter, from some other city, to Arad. The lady, being in a café or some such place of resort, was waited on by this man, and saw one of her rings on his hand. He was arrested, and before the police declared that he held the ring in pledge, having advanced money upon it to a certain gentleman. This gentleman was the lady's betrothed, and he had stolen her necklace and rings. The gypsy had truly enough said that the articles had been taken by some one who was intimate in her house."

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The gentleman who told me this story also said that the death of his father had been foretold by a gypsy—that is, by a lady who was of half-gypsy blood.

It should be borne in mind, though few realize its truth, that in stages of society where people believe earnestly in anything—for example, in witchcraft or the evil eye—there results in time a state of mind or body in which they are actually capable of being killed with a curse, or a fear of seeing what is not before them in the body, and of many nervous conditions which are absolutely impossible and incomprehensible to the world of culture at the present day. But there are still places where witchcraft may be said to exist literally, for there the professors of the art to all intents work miracles, because they are believed in. There is abundance of such faith extant, even in England. I have heard the names of three "white" witch doctors in as many towns in the West of England, who are paid a guinea a visit, their specialty being to "unlock," or neutralize, or defeat the evil efforts of black witches. This, as is indeed true, indicates that a rather high class of patients put faith in them. In Hungary, in the country, the majority, even of the better class, are very much influenced by gypsy-witches. Witness the following, which is interesting simply because, while there is very little indeed in it, it was related to me as a most conclusive proof of magic power:—

"In a suburb of Szegedin, inhabited only by peasants, there is a school with a farm attached to it. The pay of the teacher is trifling, but he can make a comfortable living from the land. This was held by an old man, who had a young assistant. The old man died; the youth succeeded him, and as he found himself doing well, in due time he took a wife. They lived happily together for a year and had a daughter. In the spring the teacher had to work very hard, not only in school but on his farm, and so for the first time contracted the habit of going to the tavern to refresh himself, and what was worst, of concealing it from his wife under plausible tales, to which she gave no trust. She began to be very unhappy, and, naturally enough, suspected a rival.

"Of course she took advice from a gypsy woman, who heard all the story and consulted her cards. 'There is,' she said, 'no woman whatever in the way. There is no sign of one for good or evil, na latchi na misec, in the cards. But beware! for

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there is a great and unexpected misfortune coming, and more than this I cannot see.' So she took her pay and departed. Suddenly her child fell ill and died after eight days. Then the husband reformed his ways, and all went well with them. So, you see, the gypsy foretold it all, wonderfully and accurately."

It requires no sorcery to conjecture that the gypsy already knew the habits of the schoolmaster, as the Romany is generally familiar with the tavern of every town. To predict a misfortune at large is a sure card for every prophetess. What is remarkable is that a man of the world and one widely travelled, as was my informant, attached great importance to the story. It is evident that where so much of the sherris sack of faith accompanies such a small crust of miracle there must be a state of society in which miracles in their real sense are perfectly capable of being worked.


Next: Chapter XIII: Proverbs Referring to Witches, Gypsies and Fairies