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.

Raw Flesh, St Valentine, Forbidden Marriages, and Great Uncertainty

One of the wonderful things about the develop of technology is that facts can be checked in an instant. Today, February 14, which is known throughout the Westernised world as Valentines Day has presented such an opportunity.

While casually scrolling through Facebook, I came across a post about the Ancient Roman Festival of Lupercalia and it’s links to Christianity and Saint Valentine. The story was extraordinary, so I decided to check out the facts, and as bizarre as some of the antidotes are, the story rings true, well kind of.

Lupercalia

Lupercalia was a she-wolf Roman goddess who nurtured the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.

Capitoline Wolf (Capitoline She-Wolf), c.1200s, Louve, Paris

(Source: Public Domain)

Each year on February 15, the Romans partook in a festival that involved animal sacrifice (goat and dog to be precise), dancing, and encouragement of sensual pleasures. Part of the tradition involved two priests running around with sections of the sacrificed animals and slapping the bloody flesh on women. To be hit was an omen of fertility. You could say this was authentic Roman(ce) behaviour.

As the years progressed, and Christianity became the formal religion of Rome (313 CE), the pagan festival lost popularity. In 494 CE it was completely forbidden by Pope Gelasius I. The celebration of St Valentine on February 14 is generally considered to be a Christianised Holy Day designed to take the attention away from the pagan Lupercalia festival. Moreover, the aim was to encourage a more measured, spiritualised version of love. In other words, traditions like poetry and note writing were considered more tasteful than slapping a single women with a hunk of raw flesh. It is times like these I completely agree with Christian values.

How does St Valentine fit into the picture?

Legends says Emperor Claudius II Gothicus (reigned c.268-70) cancelled marriages so as to encourage more men to fight in battle. Apparently, males were hesitant to go out and get killed while trying to kill other men in order for the Emperor to take control of more men, lands, possessions, and everything. Why would men be hesitant? The Emperor decided it was the usual cause of all men’s problems, women. Clearly, it was the wives and girlfriends stopping men from obeying their Emperor. If the men couldn’t get engaged or married then that would surely encourage them to go to war.

If the scenario sounds a bit doggy, then you’re not alone. Concise records (if they ever existed) to confirm these events have not survived. But since when has truth got in the way of a good story?

Popular opinion declares that the Christian priest, Valentine, married couples in secret, thus spoiling Emperor Claudius’ scheme. Subsequently, Valentine was hunted down, put in prison, and killed on February 14. If true, I’m not really sure how to rate it as a romantic gesture, but is it a good example of Christians being martyred for their oppositional behaviour, not their beliefs per se.

Saint Valentine Blessing an Epileptic

(Source: Public Domain)

Several other stories are also in circulation, such as Valentine falling in love with his prison guard’s daughter and sending her a love note signed “Your Valentine”. Christian priests weren’t forbidden to marry back in those days, so it’s not impossible. Still, not to sure where it ranks on the romance score board. Personally I’d be a bit creeped out if I were that prison guard’s daughter. I mean, the guy was on dead row, was it true love or just opportunity?

There are also reports of Valentine miraculously curing a judge’s daughter of blindness. This swayed the law official into converting to Christianity, and resulted in the release of several Christians from prison. (Saints in those days seemed to be much better at performing miracles than more recent eras.)

The Catholic Online website presents a few more theories about Valentine without giving absolute credence to any of them. It does, however, concede that there is a real St Valentine whose feast day is February 14, despite the Church not really knowing who he really is or why they are honouring him.

Juno

Somewhere in the mix of Valentines Day traditions are rumours that Juno Fructifier celebrations took place on February 14. Juno, the chief Goddess of Rome, was celebrated with references to childbirth, and husbands giving wives presents. While this may be accurate, other sources indicate Juno was celebrated on March 1. The dates are close enough to speculate that Juno worship influenced St Valentine’s Day celebrations, albeit, it isn’t a perfect match.

Final Word: Uncertainty

Love is a great thing to celebrate and February 14 is as good a day as any; however, as for the reasons why it has become a tradition, I have a great level of uncertainty about the justifications. Then again, word romance itself refers to imitating the strategies Roman soldiers used to woo women, so maybe the all the legends, stories, and antidotes are appropriate?