Newsletter of the Gypsy Lore Society, 7(1):4 (1984)

Barbara G. Walker
The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets
San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983. Pp. 1124.
$19.95 (paper)

Reviewed by Ian Hancock
The Romani Archives and Documentation Center
The University of Texas at Austin

Harper and Row, who a few years ago brought us How to Buy a Used Car Without Getting Gypped (Mann, 1976) and which published “The Gypsies Are Coming” (in their Where the Sidewalk Ends) has now brought out another work which Romani Americans are likely to find offensive. The notes on the back of this impressive volume, which is almost three inches thick, state that it is a “feminist encyclopedia, twenty five years in preparation . . . to uncover precisely what other encyclopedias leave out or misrepresent.” There has been a desperate need for just such a work for centuries, among other things to dispel the vast amount of superstition and myth which has attached itself to women, and because of which women have been victimized. This book makes it abundantly clear how deep-rooted and pervasive this victimization is, and for that Walker must be thanked; she is evidently concerned with correcting the misrepresentation and exploitation of women, and has quite clearly done an enormous amount of research towards this end. But in so doing, she has in turn misrepresented and exploited Romanies, as a result causing this reviewer at least to call into question the fidelity of her statements in areas that he is less competent to judge.

This misrepresentation is evidently not conscious, and simply reflects the quality of her sources—indeed, it is doubtful whether Walker actually perceives Gypsies to be real, contemporary people at all. Her accounts are all in the past tense, a not uncommon characteristic of non-scholarly writing on Romanies, and her sources are without exception popular, rather than academic, and all written by non-Gypsies. When non-Romanies go to other non-Romanies for their information about Romanies, some perpetuation of error is to be anticipated.

References to (uncapitalized) “gypsies” are scattered throughout the volume, but most discussion is found under the entries Gypsies (pp. 360-363), Hair (pp. 367-371) and Sara-Kali (pp. 890-892). A sample of the general tone runs

The matriarch was the center of gypsy tribal life. Everything that went on around a tribal mother resembled the old pagan sex rites” [quotation not referenced]. Her husband was a drone, whose function was to impregnate her. The tribe supported him in idleness, but looked down on him as a non-productive member. If he failed to beget perfect children, he was “accidentally” killed, and another stud-chieftain took his place. “Tribal mothers were often widowed half a dozen times over” [quotation not referenced]. The male functionary closest to a tribal mother was not her husband but “the coaxer,” a man trained from an early age . . . to know all the sensitive and erotic zones of the female body (p. 361).

A later quote reveals that the source of this information is Derlon (1977), itself a valueless piece of fiction but which, in the same paragraphs from which the compiler culled the above, equally sweepingly states that “[t]he majority of Gypsies don’t practice elaborate sexual relations,” and “[f]or the majority of Gypsies the sexual act has no other meaning than procreation” (pp. 133-134). Whether Derlon is right in these statements or not (and it is most unlikely that his informants ever discussed these matters with him), the fact that they occur in the same source indicates “selection out of context” to make a point on the part of Walker; not the most unbiased journalistic practice.

There are blatant errors almost serially, and space does not allow for them all to be dealt with here. But to illustrate, together with “Smith,” “Faa” is said to be “the most common gypsy surname,” and to mean “fay” or “fairy” (p. 361). This is in fact an old lowland Scottish surname and not Romani in origin at all, adopted by them only after their arrival in Scotland in the late 1400s. Similarly,

The popular gypsy surname Kaldera or Kalderas may have been derived from [the name of the Hindu goddess] Kali-Devi (p. 363).

The reference given for this is Esty (1969: 67) which, on being consulted, has the following:

. . . the Kalderas tribe, that huge group of Gypsies spread halfway around the world . . . governed in patriarchal fashion. There is no king or chief; all the men in the vitsa make the decisions.

No mention of Walker’s “Kaldera,” or of popularity, or of surnames. Elsewhere Walker has a footnoted reference to a G. W. Summers that does not appear in her bibliography at all. Most of her information, however, is derived from Leland’s masterpiece of Victorian occult literature Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling (1891), from Derlon’s Secrets of the Gypsies (1977) already mentioned, and Trigg’s potpourri, Gypsy Demons and Divinities (1973).

The shakiness of Walker’s scholarship, and her zeal to find sexual symbolism in almost everything, could probably be illustrated by statements taken from anywhere else in the book. Just one that this reviewer chanced upon was the suggestion that Cinderella’s glass slipper “perhaps stood for the Crystal Cave by which pagan heroes entered the uterine underworld” (p. 186). Continental versions of the Cinderella story have her wearing fur slippers, not glass ones, the English version resulting from a misinterpretation of French vair “squirrel fur” as verre “glass” (Smythe-Palmer 1883:145). Again, if such errors are evident in material one is able to judge, how reliable can we assume the rest of the book to be? It is much to be regretted that once again, like filling a tray in a cafeteria, the latest publication to deal with Romanies presents an eclectic hodgepodge of tidbits with as many different origins as the author’s equally inaccurate sources provided. It is a pity, too, because if the compiler had taken the time to undertake some serious research, and consulted any one of the growing number of scholarly works available on the subject, she would have found plenty of aspects of different Romani cultures to support the feminist cause. As it is, Gypsies have been presented in a way more suited to Chariots of the Gods or the National Enquirer, in a volume that purportedly deigned to “uncover misprepresentation.” Genuine concern for the oppression and exploitation of women must be in the context of genuine concern for the oppression and exploitation of any human beings—otherwise the motives are self-seeking and become themselves exploitative.

References cited

Derlon, Pierre, 1977. Secrets of the Gypsies. New York: Random House.
Esty, Katharine, 1969. The Gypsies, Wanderers in Time. New York: Hawthorn Books.
Leland, Charles, 1891. Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling. New York: University Books.
Mann, Peter, 1976. How To Buy a Used Car Without Getting Gypped. New York: Harper and Row.
Smythe-Palmer, A., 1883. Folk-Etymology: A Dictionary. New York: Greenwood Press.
Trigg, Elwood B., 1973. Gypsy Demons and Divinities. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press.