The spirituality of the Roma people in the Czech Republic

  • What is…?

Spirituality: comes from the Greek ‘preunalikos’ and later from the Latin ‘spirutalis’, both of which mean ‘spiritual’. The basis of biblical spirituality, the spiritual life is the relationship with God. Spirituality is an authentic relationship which manifests itself in some way.

Revenantism: a belief in post-mortem contact with the souls of the dead and the cultural icons linked with them. In Roma literature, these revenants are referred to as ‘mulo’.

Syncretism: the convergence of religious doctrines, systems and customs into new forms of religion.

Confession: comes from the Latin verb ‘confiteri’ – to confess. In the narrower sense of the word, it indicates a public confession of faith in a legal sense.

Charismatic movement: a religious movement which came into existence in the sixties of the last century in the Anglican, Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, and which has several features in common with the Pentecostal movement. The main characteristics include a living relationship with Jesus Christ, experience of the movement of the Holy Ghost, above all the gifts of the Ghost, which include service, the ability to teach, prophecy, healing, etc. It has a missionary orientation, and concentrates on evangelism and courses on faith.

  • Topic

Like every society when it comes into contact with another culture, the Roma culture has taken over and adapted only certain phenomena. In order that it was more acceptable for the then-medieval Christian population of Europe upon its arrival, the Roma claimed to be penitent sinners who had come from Egypt. They supplemented their stories with extracts from the Old and New Testament. Despite this, they never had it easy in Europe. Their persecution began during the period around the excommunication of one Roma group by the Paris Archbishop in 1427, and lasted almost three hundred years. The continuing mistrust of the Roma has been reflected in religious questions by, for instance, the measures of the enlightened rulers Marie Teresa and Josef II, who in decrees from 1760 to 1782 ordered that Gypsies be obliged to observe Christian rites in any way possible. This mainly involved statutory church baptisms, weddings and funerals.

Most specialists agree that usually, the Roma officially take up the religion of the society in which they live. In Europe, this means Christianity, usually Roman Catholicism. Despite this, it is difficult to speak of the acceptance of the Christian doctrine without specific Roma modifications. We can thus understand religion as a flexible socio-cultural phenomenon which reacts to the current situation in society.

Even though most Roma in the Czech Republic are Roman Catholic, this does not mean that certain specific features are not present in the spiritual life of the Roma. First of all, it must be understood that the term ‘spiritual life’ or ‘spiritual world’ does not only refer to religious life inside the church, but human forms of religion or various forms of spiritual culture in general. These include ceremonies, customs, superstitions, religious songs, and the entire complex of traditions and ideas which satisfy the spiritual needs of a person. The basic finding in this field is the fact that if the Roma take over elements of majority culture, this process takes place with a certain delay. This is why various elements of the spiritual culture of the majority were, paradoxically, retained in a more archaic and conservative form in the Roma community. It would be a real mistake to imagine that life within our territory has not left its mark on their spiritual life. Many specific features of daily ritualised life and human faith, in truth represent the roots of such practices and ideas which were to be found many years ago in the majority population. Let us recall, for example, the well-known practice of a vigil over a dead person, the belief in witches, black and white magic, etc. However, this does not mean that we should investigate Roma spirituality as something from a lost world. It is undoubtedly a peculiar and original world. Its framework includes a very strong accent on revenantism, i.e. the return from the dead of the ‘mulos’, the special function of oaths and curses, the extraordinary significance of pictures and saints, etc. The alleged laxity of the Roma regarding church attendance must in this context be compared with, for instance, the amazing number of special sacred spaces in their homes.

If we are to do justice to the current spiritual world of the Roma in the most brief and general way, then such a description would have to include terms such as ‘syncretism’, ‘adaptability’ and ‘identity’. Syncretism, because Roma have an outstanding ability to link together what we usually take to be incompatible. Adaptability, because they are extraordinarily flexible in their spiritual life. They adapt to new stimuli very flexibly (from hymns to the melodies of Michael Jackson to the extraordinary success of new religious movements in Roma communities). These factors lead to hugely widespread phenomena such as mass confession, which is unusual in majority society. This type of confession is the result of trends of the last few years.

Roma are not all the same, and there exists no single model of their spiritual culture. For the sake of explanation, I shall concentrate upon the manifestations of the faith and rituals of the Roma which are most similar to European majority faith, i.e. Christianity. For the sake of comparison, I shall cite the customs linked with two universal landmarks in human life, which are assigned a special place in perhaps every society – the death and birth of a human being. We shall see that in both cases, Christianity is placed into a specific environment in which it subsequently becomes diffused with animism and magic, thereby creating a unique system of faith and rituals which are authoritative for Roma society. In sharp contrast to this fact are the charismatic and evangelical movements. Membership in these movements offers many Roma the feeling of being chosen people, which represents a new reality within the framework of their life experience. As opposed to traditional churches, which place an emphasis upon text, education and the ability to read and write, while at the same time squeezing out any practices which they call pagan, these charismatic movements look after the emotional and psychological needs of the Roma. At the same time, they offer space for communication channels other than simply verbal (e.g. they make generous use of music) and sometimes lead the Roma away from the traditional religious environment to which most gravitate.

As was said at the beginning, the Roma community is multi-level. Individual levels of the population differ from one another in the same way as the levels of majority society differ from one another; the Roma in France live according to different customs, faiths and traditions than those in Romania. Urbanisation and the process of becoming anonymous have destroyed many valuable links with the Roma community and are responsible for the swift dissolution of the significance of their original rituals. Despite this, their roots are clear even amongst contemporary Roma youth, who often declare themselves to be atheist and explain its specificities with the overarching verbal tradition.

The phenomenon of death
An aspect of all religions is faith in the existence and presence of forces which control the world and designate the place of Man upon earth. In a broader cultural social context, the Christian God has this function. He is in a certain relationship with people, and certain expectations and conduct are tied up with him. In the human imagination, God has a human form and properties, naturally those which are appropriate to his significance and power. People turn to God during a crisis, asking for strength, health, or children from him. He is a powerful saviour, a kind father and a fair judge. A person is conscious of their weakness and powerlessness before God. In human religion, ethics is more important than dogma, since ethics specifies the relationship to one’s fellow man. Each person knows of the inevitability of their death. Despite this, they are afraid of death, the dead, and everything related. Dreams place an important role in relation to death. The visible and invisible world is one and the same for a person. The dream is then the gateway to this world, the place for encountering God, the sacred spirits and ancestors. Dreams are perceived as prophecy, divination, illumination or concrete forecasts. They are composed of a broad range of signs of death. The dream is equal to reality, it is understood as reality. It offers information which has the same value as sensations in waking life, if not more value. When we have seen someone in a dream who has recently died, this means that we have really communicated with them. Dreams represent an important experience because they allow for a direct link with the invisible world, and with forces which a person sees around them all the time. The signs are interpreted spontaneously and immediately. A person does not have to think about them too much, but explain them using collective ideas given in advance. We have already encountered the idea that a person is accompanied by Death to the next world. The Christian element in the system of ideas of Death is the idea of a God who calls us to eternity. Many Roma believe that the spirits of the dead come for the dying person, or can take them to the next world as a punishment, e.g. for failure to obey an instruction or for a breach of certain norms.

Maybe an even more telling opportunity during which the specifics of the Roma religious feeling and persuasion are manifest is a death in the community. The Roma believe in the existence of a soul which leaves the human body and, at the same time, is the continuation of human life in another form. The Roma believe that after death the soul changes into spirit, the ‘mulo’, which is in the body up until burial. This spirit, which after death does not break its bonds with those still living, returns to them in the form of apparitions, dreams, etc. Death does not break up any family ties, social interaction continues. The proof of this is the vigil held over the dead person’s grave or prayers offered to the dead person. The relatives of a dead person meet several nights before the burial in the home of the dead person’s family. This phenomenon also expresses the social links, both between the living and the living and the dead. In many cases, the ‘mulo’ arrives as an anthropomorphic being which takes several forms. For instance, it does not have a face which bears the form of any concrete living person or anyone completely strange. The living can identify a dead person only by voice or minor signs. In other cases, the ‘mulo’ appears in its own special form, as it appeared in the period it was alive. Mulos can be divided into several categories according to their character or the character of their arrival. Good mulos come to say something to the rest, to offer advice. Evil mulos aim to frighten through haunting the living. Such a manifestation is often a continuation of previously hostile relations or is caused by failure to observe some duty of the living in respect of the dead, etc. Failure to comply with the rituals linked with burial means desecration of the scriptures.

This is why the Roma hold their vigils. They sit in the dead person’s home, tell happy stories from the dead person’s life, sing songs to them, drink toasts, etc. The customs linked with the funeral ceremony itself differ considerably within individual Roma sub-ethnic groups, but the concept always remains the same, that the Roma attempt to accompany the deceased to the grave in such a way that they have no reason to return to this world. They dress them in their best clothes in their coffin, they leave their favourite items with them, they sprinkle the grave with alcohol, they weep noisily and even theatrically, in order that the deceased has no reason to suspect that they did not matter to them. There is a widespread fear, not only of the spirit of a dead person but of graveyards in general amongst the Roma, who consider them haunted, even magical places.

The spirituality of the Roma has its special manifestations, but their specificity consists in the intensity, the frequency of their occurrence, their expression (e.g. emotional demonstrations of grief), the method of expressing it, and its importance in the family in question.

Magical protection of newborns
In the spiritual culture of the Roma, family traditions take dominant status. Of family customs, most traditions and magical practices relate to the death of a person, their burial, and the birth of a child. To this very day, there is a widespread belief that a non-baptised child is in danger. In an unguarded moment, a negative being could arrive and swap the newborn. If this really happens, the opinion goes about that it is not possible to receive one’s child back. In many cases, the Roma use amulets which protect the newborn against unclean beings. Such items include combs, scissors, knives, soap, a rosary, bread, salt, a prayer book, a mirror, etc. If the child is baptised, the negative force cannot maltreat it. A Roma child is also threatened after birth with other dangers, such as bewitchment. This is recognised by the degree to which the child is uneasy, does not sleep, cries, refuses to eat, etc. If they do not want the child to be bewitched, anyone who looks at him must symbolically spit three times while simultaneously blessing the child.

The most widespread method of protecting a child against being bewitched using magic is by tying a red ribbon around the child’s wrist. The child must wear this ribbon for the whole of their childhood. If the child’s problems remain, the mother resorts to preparing the jagalo paňi, harčiči. She throws red-hot coal or burnt match ends into a mug, adds water, and paints the child’s skin with the mixture. Either that, or she prepares a vessel containing water which is held over the child’s head and into which molten aluminium is thrown. Water and fire are associated with magical cleanliness in almost all cultures, and Christianity incorporated them, also.

  • Stories and examples

Irena, 56 years old
Irena’s husband, with whom she had brought up wonderful five children, died. Everyone took this family tragedy very badly. Irena, along with her daughters, immediately cut their hair as a sign of mourning and everyone wore black clothes. They put up black items in the cupboards in the apartment. The children stopped watching television and listening to songs. The deceased’s brother was delegated with the organisation of the funeral. The whole of his family plus the wider family met, in order to jointly keep vigil over the body. The family of the deceased was separated from the rest. From dusk to dawn they drank alcohol, sang songs to the dead person, and remembered him. The family met a total of three times for this purpose, and then the day of the funeral arrived. Irena dressed her husband in completely new clothes and laid him in a light coffin inlaid with red material. During the funeral ceremony, songs were sung to him and his favourite possessions were laid with him, along with pictures of the saints, his cane, money, gold, cigarettes and alcohol. After the ceremony, which was emotionally demanding for everyone, the mourners were taken home.

Milan and Eva, 25 years old
Eva and Milan had a child together, Lukáš, whom they had baptised within two weeks in the nearest church they know. But Lukáš had another name, a Roma name, Bakro, which was used exclusively within the Roma community. He received it from his godfather, also of the same name. Eva’s mother recommended that Bakro have a red ribbon tied to his wrist while being bewitched. In the church there would be a lot of people who would want to look at him. For this reason, it was important to protect him against evil forces. Eva was pleased to receive this advice from her mother, since it is one of the old customs of the Valasko Roma.

  • Sources


Davidová, E. (1988). Lidové náboženství Třebišovských Cikánů-Romů v padesátých letech 20. století před rozpadem jejich tradiční komunity (The Folk Religions of the Třebíš Roma in the Fifties of the 20th Century, Prior to the Disintegration of their Traditional Community). In: Slovenský národopis, 36, 1/1988, s. 92-103.

Haluška, V. (2003). Pal le Devleskero Sidorkus – O božím Sirotkovi. Praha: Signeta.

Horvátová, A. (2003). Pal e Bari Rama the aver paramisa – O Velké Ramě a jiné příběhy. Překlad Milena Hübschmannová a Máša Bořkovcová. Praha: Signeta.

Hübschmannová, M., Šebková, H., Žigová, A. (1991). Romsko-český a česko-romský kapesní slovník. Praha: Státní pedagogické nakladatelství.

Hübschmannová, M. (1999). Romské pohádky (Roma Fairytales). Praha: Fortuna.

Hübschmannová, M. (1973). Romské pohádky (Roma Fairytales). Praha: Odeon.

Hübschmannová, M. (2002). Šaj pes dovakeras – Můžeme se domluvit. 4. nezm. vyd. Olomouc: Univerzita Palackého.

Hübschmannová, M. (1991). Moudrá slova starých Romů: Goďaver lava phure Romendar (The Wise Words of Old Roma). 2.v. Praha: Apeiron.

Jurková, Z. (2004). Romské letniční hnutí v Čechách a na Moravě: Letmý dotyk tématu. 10 s. 3 fotografie. 1 notový záznam. Resumé v němčině. In: Romano džaniben ňilaj.

Kiliánová, G. (1993). Stará téma súčasnosti. Rozprávania o smrti v modernej spoločnosti (Old Topics of the Present. Stories of Death in Modern Society). In: Národopisné informácie 1/1993, s. 8-19.

Komorovský, J. (2000). Ľudové náboženstvo jako religionistická kategória. In: Profantová, Z. (ed.). Na prahu milénia, s. 84-89. Bratislava.

Kováč, M,, Mann, A. B. (2003). Boh všetko vidí – O Del sa dikhel. Duchovný svet Rómov na Slovensku. Romano paťiben pre Slovensko. Bratislava: Chronos.

Lacková, E. (2002). Narodila jsem se pod šťastnou hvězdou. [Podle vyprávění autorky zpracovala, do češtiny přeložila a předmluvu napsala Milena Hübschmannová] (I was Born under a Lucky Star). Vyd. 2. Praha: Triáda.

Mann, A. B. (1994). Obyčaje při narodení deťaťa u Rómov na Slovensku. In: Tradičná ľudová kultúra a výchova v Európe. Nitra: Vysoká škola pedagogická.

Mann, A.B. (1988). Obyčaje při úmrtí u Cigánov-Rómov v troch spišských obciach. In: Slovenský národopis, 36, 1/1988, s. 192-201.

Palubová, Z. (2001). Ľudové náboženstvo Rómov z Levoče a okolia na prelome 20. a 21. storočia. In: Etnologické rozpravy 2/2001, s. 80-94.

Raichová, I. a kolektiv (2001). Romové a nacionalismus (The Roma and Nationalism). Brno: Muzeum romské kultury.

Sajko, Ján (2002). Bože, dopraj im šťastie. Bratislava: Nadácia Milana Šimečku.

Zajícová, K. (2001). Ľudová nábožnosť na Slovensku. In: Etnologické rozpravy 2/2001, s. 6-17.

Zíbrt, Č. (1894). Seznam pověr a zvyklostí pohanských. Praha.

See this page in Czech