Animals and Symbolic Boundaries

Article excerpt

TRANSLATED FROM THE ITALIAN BY JAMES HILL from The Gypsies, the Rom: A Culture at the Borders

The gypsies are constantly pushed to assimilate into the dominant society, which imposes on them its rules and its patterns. They need to reconcile the need to modify themselves under the pressure coming from the surrounding society with the need to conserve intact their underlying identity. The Rom are a tiny population dispersed in the middle of another population hostile to them, infinitely stronger, on whom they depend for food, housing, and well-being. The gypsies must move among the non-gypsies everyday, often camouflaging their true identity, adapting themselves to the expectations of the non-gypsies in ways that contrast with their own integrity and that could, in the end, degrade and change their cultural identity. A mode of defense is necessary, an invisible cultural shield, behind which they can move in the midst of the non-gypsies with security, without being damaged. Judith Okely has demonstrated that the habits, the beliefs, and the customs of the English gypsies, in particular in regard to cleanliness, constitutes in reality a coherent system of symbolic borders to separate themselves ideologically from the non-gypsies. For the most part, this deals with customs regarding daily tasks such as the preparation of food, cleanliness, the allocation of space, customs which, if respected, guarantee the integrity of the gypsies in the midst of the alien culture. The customs and beliefs of the gypsies cannot be explained either in terms of archaic residues of an Indian past, nor as superstitions due to illiteracy, or other reasons that do not consider the surroundings into which they are inserted. Apparently habits disjointed and without meaning hide a logical system expressed in symbolic terms, capable of mediating between the gypsies and the external world. An ideology of separation expresses itself in numerous modes, powerful and invisible, thanks to which the gypsies continue to be Rom in the midst of the non-gypsies. One of these modes concerns the rapport among men, flesh, and animals.

Among the Rom there is a curse, unique in its power to control the behavior of others and for the seriousness in the reactions it causes. "Te has tre mule" (literally, "Eat your dead") are words that, as a Rom has said, "are worth your life." In order not to hear this insult, that would constrain one to revenge oneself in order to escape the vendetta of the dead, a Rom is disposed to leave the area and to face whatever sacrifices. If the curse has been pronounced when there has been a recent death, speaking the name of the dead, these words are literally worth the life of him who has spoken them. The relative of the offended deceased has no other choice; he fears the wrath of the deceased more than the consequences of his own act. Up to now in Italy there are Rom in jails accused of attempted murder because of the consequences of an offense to the dead. Naturally, through trials, lawyers, judges and tribunals that seek to disentangle a tangle of improbable lies and inexplicable complicity and reticence, no one suspects the truth. On the other hand, in these cases, only a few people come to know what has really happened. The Rom whose relative has been thus offended keeps the affair to himself, even if he has to go to jail. To reveal the offense would mean dragging his family into an obligatory vendetta.

There is, moreover, a very severe taboo that forbids the killing and consumption of whatever domestic animal, which may absolutely never be eaten, even if it had been killed accidentally. This taboo doesn't have to do with the consumption of meat in general, but only the flesh of domestic animals. It is the closeness between man and animal that creates the condition for the taboo. Why don't gypsies eat chickens and swine killed in the field?

You don't have the heart to eat it. If they eat it, they will die of evil . …

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