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Romas, Romanians, and Romans: A Trip Down a Rabbit Hole that Led to Zamolxis

I spent this morning going down rabbit holes of unexpected learnings. It started by looking at details of the holocaust which made me curious about the “Roma” who were persecuted along side the Jews, some Slavic groups, and people with disabilities. I was initially inspired to explore this due to watching a couple of movies on Netflix yesterday about Hasidic Jews, “Unorthodox” and “One of Us”.

In English, Roma (also known as Romani) are colloquially known as Gypsies. So, at first I was thinking “Okay, so Hilter killed all the nomadic people who were not integrated into society”. Turns out, it was not that simple.

The Romani were an ethnic group that originated from Northern India, therefore have an Indo-European ancestry. Displaced from their original homeland (due to various reasons/theories), they became nomadic, hence Romani have several European “homelands”, one of which is Romania – more on this shortly.

“Did Hilter kill Romani for religious reasons?” I wandered. As it turns out, the simple answer is “No”. Just as the Jews were not killed for their religious beliefs per se, Hilter perceived the ethnicity of Romani to be inferior to native Germans or Ayrans. Hitler supported eugenics to the ninth degree, you could almost say eugenics was Hitler’s religion.

Side note: a lot of world leaders practiced eugenics, including ones in Australia, but Hilter’s genocide programs made his devotion to the ideology much more “effective” than most others who relied more upon sterilisation and other tactics designed to create “utopian” civilisations. In Australia, our eugenics legacy includes the institutionalisation of people mental health issues (and things like being poor could be considered to be a mental health disorder), the incarceration of First Nation people in reserves, and the stolen generation … Australians really have not faced the full impact of our politicians' support of eugenics. 

Interestingly, Romani don’t have a unified religion, rather groups practiced a variety of faiths ranging from Hinduism through to Christianity and Islam. Roma are, however, bound by a common language, Rromanës, albeit there are different dialects. Rromanës is a language derived from Sanskrit and is not to be confused with Romance languages that are derived by Roman (Latin) influences.

Whilst Romani groups are tight knit communities who at one point in time originated from the same location, their uniformity has been subject to adaptation to outside influences and/or pressures. Historical derivatives of “follow our religion or be killed” by both Christian and Islamic leaderships can be speculated as being contributing factors to the loss of Hinduism amongst some Roma.

I decided to explore further, in particular I wanted to know the connection between Romas, Romanians and Romans. I soon discovered I was following a typical misunderstanding; while many Romani live in Romania, despite the linguistic similarity of their names, the two groups have very different histories. For this reason, the Romanian government is actively trying to have the term Roma (which was officially instigated in 1971) replaced by the alternative, Tigan. Romanians say it is an insult to both cultures when they are confused as being one (I can understand this sentiment if I imagine Australians being confused with Austrians – there are no kangaroos in Austria, mate).

Romanians, like many European countries, generally have a low opinion of Romani because they are considered to be antisocial, uneducated, and are associated with begging, stealing, and other criminal activity. Having said that, there is currently a shift away from hatred towards more compassion and understanding being given to this persecuted population who have limited access to education, healthcare, etc. Amnesty International actively assists Roma who are subject to poverty and prejudices.

Unlike the Jews who have global representation and the capacity to speak out about their holocaust experiences, the Romani are not so well represented, therefore, they can still experience a lot of unjust discrimination.

Romani essentially have nothing to do with Romania. Further, given Roma come from India, it’s not surprising that they have no connection to Rome, unless their clan accepted Christianity as their religion, as did happen when Romani were nomadic citizens of Christian nations, like Romania. So, perhaps there is a vague connection there? I needed to investigate further.

Above: Map of European/Asia Minor counties in 1CE. Dacia is highlighted by red outline. Areas shaded in pink are Roman territories. Parts of Dacia (that held valuable gold mines) were taken over by Roman powers c.106CE. Image source: Euratlas

A link between Romania and Romans does exist, so my focus switched to this connection.

Many people have asked questions regarding Romanian’s link to Ancient Rome, and there are an abundance of theories out there so I’m not going to go into too much detail (I enough readers to Google information for themselves if they want more precise information). Putting it briefly, the Romans took control of about 30% of what is current day Romania because they wanted access to their gold mines. The existing population, the Dacians, put up heroic resistance but, alas, the Roman military was too strong. According to Quora responses, most current day Romanians have a shared sense of honour towards both their Dacian and Roman ancestors.

The Dacians have a fascinating history, and as per my norm, I wanted to explore their religious beliefs. Much to my surprise, they were mostly monotheistic. Why was I surprised by this? I guess it’s because I’m so used to being told that most religions before Christianity were polytheistic … and yet my research so often reveals elsewise – that’s a rant for another day. 

The supreme deity of the Dacians was called Zamolxis. 

Zamolxis was Lord of life and death. The Dacians (and their neighbours, the Thracians) believed their souls were immortal and that upon death they’d live on in a blissful afterlife. Death was almost celebrated, as was common in many ancient cults and cultures (the only difference between a cult and culture is the number of people involved, in both instances the terms simply refers to a group of people who have a shared set of values; both cults and cultures can be considered healthy or destructive depending on what values they support).

I’ve long noted that soldiers who are taught the afterlife is better than the physical realm are braver than those who fear death (a classic modern day example being ISIS suicide bombers). In the case of the Dacians, attitudes towards death were exemplified through ceremonial human sacrifices offered to Zamolxis every five years. (Whilst little is known about the Mithras cult which many of the Roman soldiers followed, I suspect giving one’s life in the name of Mithras was a significant component of the belief system – how else could Roman soldiers have been so ruthless? Sorry, I’m getting off track again.)

Some reports say that Zamolxis was a slave to Pythagoras (the Greek mathematician who was born of a virgin), while others say he was Pythagoras’ student. (Modern understandings of terms “slave” and “student” can differ to ancient concepts.)

Plato also had a few interesting things to say about Zamolxis, such as he was a great physician who could heal the body and mind. 

Other tidbits about Zamolxis include details of him studying with Egyptians and Babylonians (Zoroastrian priests to be exact), and his teachings revolve around the theme of light overcoming darkness. Herodotus claims Zamolxis was a real man who taught the Dacians about immortality, then disappeared into a cave for three years. When he came back to the Dacians a second time, some interpreted these events as Zamolxis dying and resurrecting.

On a hunch, I decided to look up when Zamolxis birthday was, and guess what? It is mid winter, ie., 25 December … conversely, April fools day seems to have been a popular time for virgins to become pregnant to prophets, deities, nobles, or the otherwise divine (in ancient times a virgin could simply be a reference to a young woman, an it was young women who had babies)

Ancient records are hard to decipher and/or the author’s tendencies to add personal opinions as fact makes precise information difficult to interpret actual events. Consequently, I am hesitant to claim Zamolxis is an archetype of Jesus; the theological foundations of the ancient world are not that straightforward and I’m not comfortable with contemporary definitions of the idea of archetypes. I’d prefer to reserve judgment and practice ongoing learning.

One final learning about Zamolxis that I’d like to share is that of the legend of the werewolf. According to the stories, the first werewolf was a Zamolxis priest who was dedicated to protecting the Dacian people. Ergo, werewolves are a positive symbol of protection … unless of course you are the enemy of the Dacian … What a classic example of how perspective can change everything!

As a final reflection on my morning of self education, it never ceases to amaze me that following a particular issue can lead to such fascinating paths of discovery and new knowledge. When I first started to investigate who Hilter ordered to be killed in gas chambers, I had no idea the quest would end with learnings about ancient Dacia.

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