What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion

Legend has it that before Christ was crucified, his executioners found a blacksmith to forge the nails. There are two accounts of what happened next, the first telling how God cursed the blacksmith and his kin the Romanies to wander the earth, forever denied shelter. The second – the one I was told as a child – says that the blacksmith forged four nails but only gave the Romans three, absconding with the one meant for the heart. For sparing his son that pain, the story goes, God blessed the Romanies, permitting them to steal from those who persecuted them trying to reclaim the lost nail.

Which version you tell reveals your views about people known to their enemies as gypsies. Which one is a revision of the other I don’t know, but the two competing myths offer a clue about my ancestors’ relationship with Christianity – in some ways a historical yardstick of their status in Europe.

A couple of weeks ago – on Hallowe’en, no less – Constantine‘s second episode aired. The series, despite its comic book source, feels like a far less inspired crossbreed of Doctor Who and Apparitions (Google it), and its race issues are doing it no favours: this episode in particular featured (spoilers ahead) a greedy, dishonest, sexually aggressive Romany woman as its villain, whose husband’s violence toward her seemed not to make her killing him by supernatural means any more morally complex. At one point the series lead, a white exorcist fighting demons through Catholic prayer, even remarked disgustedly: ‘There’s nothing blacker than gypsy magic.’

Pale skinned Christianity, virtuous and pure, versus Romany witchcraft’s exotic evil – this is an opposition I know well.

I can’t remember when my mother told me she was Romany, although I know she did. Our living room always contained paintings of vardos, her wardrobe embroidered skirts that reached the floor, family stories mentioning her grandmother, a fortune teller, at regular intervals. Certainly I knew my background by the time a fair passed through town when I was nine, two slightly older friends telling me en route that if we should ‘see any gypsy kids’, they’d do the beating-up. (Later, to dissuade me from befriending someone else, one of them would resort to ‘He’s a gypsy!’) When I started secondary school aged eleven, it wasn’t long before word spread that I was one, and I remember vividly how many boys in my year group asked if I could place a curse on them, some warding me off with finger-crosses. (Given my adult line of work it can’t have bothered me too much.)

Romanies with their own arcane religion or supernatural creed, especially an un- or anti-Christian one, appear all over fiction. Without even enumerating gypsy curses, Romanies in Dracula are servants of the title character (he is, remember, repelled by crosses and communion wafers); in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, conversely, Kalderash elders perform an anti-vampire spell invoking numerous ‘Gods’, and in Sleepy Hollow, currently airing on NBC, ‘Romany Greek’ has been established as the language of dark witches aiding the forces of hell. Even on the most superficial level, pop culture has never tried to show Romany beliefs with accuracy, as showrunners would surely at least claim to in stories about (say) Muslims or Jews. As Douglas F. Warrick writes,

Consumers, by and large, don’t think of Romani people as an actual ethnic group. We think of them as fiction. We don’t think twice about negative depictions of Gypsies any more than we would negative depictions of liches or werewolves or elves. In our heads, Gypsies aren’t real. But outside of our insular media-saturated understanding of humanity’s complexion, Roma definitely do exist.

In reality there is no distinct Romany religion to speak of. There hasn’t been within cultural memory, at least: while our ancestors began in Southeast Asia, time and migration (never mind pressure to assimilate) have since done away with whatever Hindu schools of thought they followed. Particular secular superstitions – about good and bad luck, omens, fate, illness – are common among Romanies, but almost all in the west are now Christian. This is why Constantine‘s juxtaposition of dark gypsy devilry with priestly prayer is a slap in the face: my people spent the best part of the last millennium trying in vain to be Christian enough.

Discussing colour-as-godlessness in politics and public thought, Sikivu Hutchinson says:

It really does not matter how much Obama attempts to portray himself as a good über-Christian who can cosy up with homophobes . . . how much he greenlights [George W.] Bush’s faith-based initiative regime or how much he eloquently evokes scripture in his public addresse. He’ll never be Christian enough for the white heartland.

Historically and currently, the tension of Romany identity in Europe is not dissimilar. Antiziganist attitudes in Europe excluded Romanies long-term both from church pews and from what social support they provided, and newspapers serving the Christian right today – those usual suspects when minorities are bashed – enthusiastically make Romany communities the face of moral and spiritual decline, unwashed, uneducated, violent, perverted, fast-breeding and criminal as the press insists them to be. Aspiring outwardly to Christian values has always offered ethnic minorities a shot at relative safety and respectability, if at the cost of cultural distinction – in other words, whiteness. The blacksmith’s two competing legends testify to this, Romanies mythologised as Christ-killers by their enemies desperate to narrate themselves as God’s true servants.

Assimilation’s appeal is understandable. Once other eleven and twelve year olds knew of my family background, I was told – or rather, heard – I was dirty, and that socialising with me was to be avoided. Years later as my parents struggled to her front door from their car weighed down by luggage, my grandmother (a Telegraph reader who denied her heritage with supreme conviction in between comments about niggers) declared they looked ‘like a couple of gyppos‘. As a teenager, peers who noted my eastern European name and knew of my ancestry commented often, fascinated, on what dark skin I had; since changing my name and moving among in circles where my background is mostly unknown, I’ve seem to have become quite obviously white.

Nor was all the racism hostile. When my mother threw a traditional Romany dinner – I must have been about sixteen – a fawning American guest noted my ‘dark’ looks and dubbed me her ‘gypsy prince’ in a syrup-sweet tone. Only this January, someone in bed with me ran a hand through my hair, remarking ‘Mein Zigeunerjunge’ – my gypsy boy. ‘So’, my inner monologue responded. ‘That’s what being exoticised feels like.’

I wouldn’t have said so at the time, but whitening myself was part of what made me change my name. Likewise, I don’t often mention being of Romany descent – call me a coward, but it’s easier not to. These are the differences a name or omitted detail can make: consider now the difference a whole culture’s Christian conversion might make, and it’s easy to see why western Romanies became Christians just as their eastern counterparts turned to Islam. Even nomads require some acceptance, and acceptability has often meant being the godfearing blacksmith’s children.

There have been downsides, as there always are. I feel cut off in part from my descent, unable fully to identify with it – less because I grew up in one place (almost all Romanies now do) and more because I’m a queer atheist. Romany homophobia today is rampant – sometimes explicitly Christian, sometimes entirely secular but always couched in family values just as by the religious right: compulsory heterosexuality, abstinence, early marriage and machismo. The will to preserve a cut off culture plays its own part here, but that too is the product of exclusion, and it seems doubtful to me that this queerphobia travelled from Hindu India with my forebears instead of spawning in the centuries they spent aping Catholic ideals to earn a place in Europe’s societies.

It hasn’t worked. Romanies have knelt and prayed to blend in, given up their ancient beliefs and thrown their deviants under the wagon – only to be regarded to this day as dark, un-Christian creatures, foreign as ever and unworthy of respect. John Constantine declares on NBC that our magic is the blackest there is, and this is what I’m reminded of.

In my mind the blacksmith’s tale has a third version. What if our ancestor had kept one nail behind, keeping it from Christ’s executioners not so as to save him a pierced heart but in the knowledge it would be needed one day? What if the Romanies waited millennia for his return, saving that final nail to drive it home on judgement day – killing Jesus stone dead, this time for good? If anyone’s entitled to revise the text, I am.

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What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion
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6 thoughts on “What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion

  1. 1

    Thanks for the post. I’ve known a few Romani in the US and since knowing them, I’ve cringed a lot more at the portrayals in media. What I don’t get myself is that, there’s nothing to stop someone from learning a bit about the actual culture and history (I think I read one story which actually seemed fairly well researched. One.) It just seems that almost all depictions are a mess of random exotic people stereotypes and nothing much more.

  2. 2

    I was a little surprised by “nothing darker than gypsy magic” thing. I don’t necessarily expect a reasoned treatment, that would take too much effort to research, but that was clunky and pretty much racist.
    The voodoo in last weeks was a bit off as well.

  3. 3

    I love your last paragraph there. I’m sure it’s making some xtians jump with glee at (what they think is) confirmation that atheism really is about hating / rejecting a god we know to be real. But sometimes, it just feels so right to break off a heresy-flavored chunka disrespect for people who’ve had so little respect for oneself. Word.

  4. 4

    Fascinating.

    As one with zero experience in this area, I would have no way to evaluate “true” versus “untrue” ethnology about the Romany. So I suspect that I might accept as true just about anything anyone told me.

    Except the part about the nails (which I had never heard before). Pure horsehockey. Just a way to demonize a minority group.

  5. 5

    To our shame, a few years back Canada suspended visas from some central and eastern European countries in an antiziganist fervour (thanks for the new word I hadn’t known!), because (OMG!) as many as a THOUSAND ‘Gypsies’ were trying to apply. The openly racist editorials, and comments from my partner’s right-wing relatives, was shocking to me. When my family were homeless when I was an infant, it was my father’s friends among the Romany who kept us fed and sheltered til we could get back on our feet. There may well be some very problematic elements in modern Romany culture, as you outlined, but to me they’ll always be ‘the people who helped our interreligious family when we were most in need.’

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