Our language is like a flock of magpies, gathering up glittering orbs of curiosity along the way,
zmrzlina, škola, Indija ..
foreign words drawn close to our hearts and sewn into the blanket of our lives. To maami Babka, words were like water – essential. Labelled a ‘witch’ for her fortune-telling abilities, she revelled in taking a few coins to tell someone what they already knew. It was easy to read them, she told me. Their eager, nervous faces, wedding rings, key chains, or smooth unruffled hands all gave her knowledge of the right words to throw down like old, dry bones.
“Magic,” she said, “is only in the words, in the naming.” In fact, in our dialect the word for magic is akhaljiben, which is related to the word akharel -to call, name, invite. Maami Babka told me that names were everything. She had a song she sang about the naming of the world and all who rode his rhythm. She told me that I had many names: a Romani or true name that none but my family should know; a use-name that was mine to wear every day; a nickname, usually based on some physical characteristic; and a non-Romani name that would be on my birth certificate and was to be used outside.
To non-Romani, “Gypsy Magick” is revered as much as “American Indian Wisdom”. Often practiced together in some kind of amalgamation of appropriation, this Neo-Pagan-Wiccan hotchpotch butchers both beliefs ruthlessly. Any Google search for Gypsy magic brings forth a tsunami of spirit animals, crystals, dream catchers, moon rites, and love potions. What people seem unable to understand is that true “Gypsy Magic” really doesn’t exist at all.
All it is, really, is a collection of words and the breaths between them …
When I was a little girl, bibi Lemija, maami Babka, and sometimes bibi Leena would take us kids up the back of the council houses to the low moor, by the “Wash Burn” (so named because it was used for washing). We’d pick mushrooms, berries, and build a small fire. It was common land back then, for anyone to use. Sometimes you’d see a couple horses and wagons, though over the years they disappeared too. Sometimes as we walked maami would stop and address a particular flower and bend low to inhale it’s breathy scent. As a young child, I’d copy her, muttering half-formed words to bent flower heads, half hoping that they’d whisper back. She told me that each flower, each tree, even each leaf had a name of it’s own and you could only talk to them if you knew who they were. As a child it was magical to hear her address the big solid oak at the end of the burn as “Baro Peřořo” (big little belly), because of the sunken, narrowed shape of his trunk and to imagine the wind creaking through his ancient branches was his gentle breath.
As for the rest? A lot of it seems like common sense to me. Walking with a horse and wagon you get used to the land and the sky as they breathe in and out, sleep and wake. You learn the cycles of the seasons, the stars, the patterns of nature that exist all around us. You learn the words of the forests as they gather their skirts for the coming winter’s chill. Bartering for food or work you learn the lay and the words of the people – who is likely to be supportive and who to steer clear of. Soon enough you know just by looking at how someone’s dressed, the way they walk, how they interact with the environment around them. You learn the words of the horses, how they breathe when they’re sad, or snicker, gently in your hand when they’re happy.
Our words embrace these multitudes like a mother swaddles a newborn child; our breath fills our words like sun ripens fruit and they fall, together, creating the world.
džal dromeha – walk down a path, breathe out or exhale
vodji – soul, being, breath
balvaj – wind, breath
zasirdlo – overcast, out of breath
Words; breath; life; magic
Words so held are indeed powerful, but magical? What is magic, anyway? A gentle word spoken at the right time? Righteous anger given unabashedly to those who deserve it? The chattering of a moorland burn? Or maybe the innocent, breathy first laugh of a baby?
I don’t know, but I can tell you what it’s not: a misguided notion of freedom, communing with nature, abstinence from comfort or absolute frugality. It’s not Wiccan or Pagan; it’s not Native or nomadic. It’s not rooted in hypnosis, psychology, or slight of hand.
To me? It’s my grandmother’s words, whispered on the wind into the gentle arms of a towering oak, called Baro Peřořo.