De(ve)l, m., Devla! God, God!

The term De(ve)l is probably used in all Romani dialects to mean God. The word belongs to one of the oldest linguistic groups of Romani; it has an Indian etymology. It is connected to the Sanskrit term deva. In the three thousand years of verifiable history of Indian philosophical and religious streams, the term deva has been gathering various meanings in opposition to or in synkretist coexistence with transcendental beings having other names and other definitions. These beings could denote the concept of God. In a Sanskrit dictionary, the definitions of deva are divine; God; king; priest; The Highest; representation of God.

In Slovak Roma society, the concept of God is equivalent to following proverbs, sayings and expressions.

Manuš savoreha birinel, ča le Devleha na.
"A man can master everything except God."
Aňi e prajťori pes na čalavela, te o Del na kamela.
"Not even a tiny leaf would move if God didn’t want it to."
So o Del dela, oda ela.
"What God gives will be."
So tut o Del diňa, ňiko tutar na lela.
"What God gave you, no one will take from you."
Ma rode le Devles avri, rode les andre tiro jilo.
"Do not seek God outside, seek Him in your own heart."
O Del pes sikhavel andre savoreste, aľe manuš hino koro.
"God manifests Himself in all things, but man is blind."
Manuš paťal, hoj džanel, aľe oda, ko džanel, hin ča o Del.
"Man thinks that he knows, but really only God knows."
Tu le Devles na dikhes, aľe o Del tut dikhel.
"You do not see God, but God sees you."
Anglo šingune tut šai garuves, aľe anglo Del na.
"You hide from a gendarme, but not from God."
O Del arakhwl sakones, ko pes ke leste mangel.
"God finds and protects all who summon Him (God finds and protects whoever prays to Him, calls Him, asks Him)."
Marel o Del marel, kas korkoro kamel.
"God punishes, He punishes whomever, He feels like punishing."
Savore sam le Devlestar.
"God created us all (literally, we are all from God)."
Roma ušťen le Devleha, džan te sovel le Devleha.
"Roma get up with God and go to sleep with God."
Kas o Del andro kher anďa, me les avri na čhivava.
"Whoever God brought home we will not throw out."
O Roma savoro visaren pro Del.
"Roma refer everything to God."
O Del e Romen na omukhela.
"God will not abandon the Roma."

In the fairy tales of Slovak Roma, particularly in heroic stories (vitejzika paramisa), standard formulas appear that denote both the uniqueness and the supreme position of God. Even for such apparently ordinary everyday occurrences such as the arrival of morning and evening, people pronounce the phrase o Del diňa tosara/rat ("morning/night came" – literally, "God gave morning, night")

Most of the folk tales start with a standard prase addressing God Mre gule devla čačeja bachtaleja the mek ("My sweet [God], blessed and just").

One of the standard statements expressing the strength or power of a hero is o Del hin jekh, jov hin aver pal o Del ("God is the only/first; he/the hero/ is second after God/His strength/power")

In folksongs God is omnipresent. As a rule, singers sing to Devla, Devla! (God, God!) They ask Him for advice, confess, acknowledge His majesty. As with the phrases sung in India, it is possible to think of some Roma songs as prayers.

Songs resonate with resignation to the fate that God prepared for man and sometimes also with protest or rather the need to comprehend the incomprehensibility of God’s actions.

Marel o Del marel
kas korkoro kamel
the man o Del marďa
sar korkoro kamľa
He punishes
whomever he wants to
and God punished me
as He Himself wished

The next two lines of the song have innumerable variations:

the man o Del marďa
bo na šunďom la da
God punished me
because I did not obey my mother
soske ča jov marel
miro kalo šero
because he punishes only
my black head
soske ča jov marel
mire kale čhaven
because he punishes only
my black child

Understandably God is present in expressions of courtesy such as greetings, blessings, wishing all the best, but also in curses. This is true in other languages and cultures as well.

O Del tut anďa (andre amaro čoripen) ("God brought you to our poverty") is a lovely traditional welcoming formula.

Mi del o Del bacht sasťipen
"May God give you happiness and good health."
O Del tuke te šegetinel/o Del mi ačhel paš tute.
"May God help you/May God stay with you."

When saying goodbye, the people leaving say: Ačh/ačhen Devleha ("Stay with God".) Those who remain say: Dža/Džan Devleha ("Go with God".)

The position of God toward man is also indicated by grammatical forms taken from the word De(ve)l. These forms acquire new meanings:

devleske (dative) – free of charge. Na dava tut añi devleske ("I won’t give it to you even for free.")

devlestar (ablative)

  • by chance. Gej l’om te cinkerel, devlestar man andre sklepa arakhl’om tira bibaha ("I went shopping and happened to meet your aunt in the store.")
  • fortunately, unfortunately (according to the context) O čhavoro gejľa tel motoris, devlesar pes leske ňič na ačhiľa ("A child ran in front of a car and was hit; fortunately, nothing happened to him.") Pejľa andro paňi, devlestar tašľiľa."He fell into the water; unfortunately, he drowned.")
  • talented, gifted – Jov lavutaris devlestar ("He is talented/God made him a gifted musician.")
  • good, kind – Pojekh gadži has devlestar, delas maro, pojekh gadži has bengestar, na delas, mek pre tute mukľas rikones ("One of the farmers’ wives was kind; she gave bread. One of them was bad [literally, from the devil]); she didn’t give and, besides, she turned the dog on you.")

The examples of folklore and colloquial speech in which God appears are understandably not exhaustive, but we suppose that, even so, they show the relationship of Slovak Roma to God.

Although De(ve)l is the main, supreme, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and irreplaceable transcendental power, other forces also exist that can (often) harm people or (less often) help them. Slovak Roma imagine that some of these forces are invisible and others are personified in concrete beings.

Among the personifications of supernatural forces are, for example, bosorka / čohaňi/guľi daj/guľi phen – witch. A bosorka replaces an unchristened child; she can bewitch people so they become ill or fall in or out of love; she can even inflict death. Good witches (in some dialects they are called drabarňi) can cure, predict the future, and give good advice.

Among the supernatural forces that are not personified are, for example, illnesses. A person can be protected from them if he does not use their real name and, thus avoids them. Epilepsy is called oja (the one over there). Cancer and sexual diseases are spoken of as džungalo nasva ľipen (disgusting disease), etc. In addition, a person’s aver nav (another name) - nickname - protects against illnesses. An illness looks for a child whose nickname it knows, but it does not find him because his identity is hidden beneath his real (sometimes secret) name.

A broken oath also acts as a transcendental force. This force is invoked by the person himself, that is by the fact that he has broken his oath. The expression arakhľa les (literally, "it found him") means that someone’s perjury has found and punished him, sometimes even by death.

A košiben (curse) works in a similar way.

A jakhaľiben (evil eye) is also a force that works on someone and causes him, even unwittingly, to cast an evil eye. Many times a person who looks at another (mainly a child) with love and admiration can inadvertently cast a spell on that other person.

Another supernatural force is the mamuna (nightmare). When someone is sleeping, it pribešel (clings) and tasavel (chokes). Like a fluid, it pours out of someone who may not be at all aware of it.

The most important forces are undoubtedly mule – souls of the dead. Souls of the dead return to the world either because some living person has unsettled accounts with them or because they find no peace in the other world. Most muken dar haunt, frighten, cause all kinds of harm – smother, choke, bruise. But they can also advise and warn.

The role of beng – the devil – is not entirely clear. In Slovak Romani, the word beng is usually used for a bad person. Otherwise, the generally unclean force that stands against God is termed bižužo (unclean).

What is the relation between God and the other transcendental forces that have power over people? Some Roma feel that God works through these forces; they are His instruments. He is above them. Many Roma feel this relationship but cannot verbalise it. We can expect logical verbalisation of complicated relationships from "specialists" – experts, clerics, philosophers. If we should ask some "ordinary"Gadžo Christian about the relationship between God and some other recognised transcendental Christian force (perhaps angels, fate, etc.) s/he would probably be unable to answer "logically".

It is necessary to look into history for an explanation as to actually why Roma themselves have left a description of their religious system unfinished and have not described the role played by De(ve)l.

When Roma left India, they undoubtedly took with them the same ideas about the complex existence of the Universe as those of the ethno-social group from which they had come. Also included were understandably a transcendental force – or transcendental forces – that control(s) the course of the world, the universe and human beings, forces that exceed human understanding and behaviour and with which it is necessary to communicate so that they do not harm people but rather protect them. In India, "specialists" formed distinct groups and developed their ideas into a philosophical system. These specialists belonged to several castes of the upper Brahman class. Some were priests and served members of other castes for important ceremonies.

Roma – members of various castes and sub-castes of the Dom society – were professional musicians, blacksmiths, middlemen, etc., but the profession of priest, a religious-philosophical authority, was not one of their caste dharmas (duties, obligations). Certain ritual functions were exercised by members of Roma clans (particularly old women), but the Roma had to find substitutes for religious specialists among the spiritual leaders of the religions in the lands to which they wandered to preside over the most important events of life such as birth or death. For these the Roma use the word rašaj ( priest). The term is connected to the Sanskrit word riši (rishi) – wise man, seer.

Despite the fact that, with their departure from India, Roma abandoned the services of religious-philosophical "professionals" who, in a specific way, preserved and passed down the class system of specific transcendental ideas connected with a system of ceremonies and rituals, Roma have very numerous and deep ties to transcendental dimensions incorporated into their daily life. The main authority, the representative, the term for these transcendental dimensions is De(ve)l – God.

The fact that, after their departure from India, all sorts of non-Indian rašaja (priests) served Roma on "religious" occasions rather than Indian "rishis", these priests introduced into the orginal transcendental ideas, concepts and ceremonies of other religions. Thus, beneath the superficial structure of Christianity, Islam, etc., lies a substratum of the Indian spiritual sphere and it becomes clear in all sorts of philosophical and behavioural forms which Gadže – and mainly Gadže religious leaders – often consider to be "superstitions".

The majority of Slovak Roma are officially Catholic, the reason being that Catholicism has traditionally been the dominant religion in Slovakia – and still is. Roma need Catholic priests primarily for christenings. When a child is born into this world from the other world, forces from that other world have power over him until that time when he is ritually "cleansed". Only a "professional" can perform ritual cleansing and admission to this world at a christening, and that professional is a Catholic priest. Death is the passage from one world to the other and, at the time of passing, a priest must be present. A funeral is a guarantee that the spirit of a dead person will not return. The most solemn oaths are taken before a priest, e.g. that a certain man will stop drinking alcohol or that a certain woman was not unfaithful (Hiňi žuži avrestar – literally, "she is undefiled by another"). A priest may be called upon to purge a house of a pertinacious mulo, that cannot be exorcised by laic, everyday rituals. Some priests refuse to perform the latter two services claiming they are "unchristian". Most priests charge for all their services.

How does their notion of De(ve)l compare with their Catholic conceptions of God, the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, angels and other personifications of transcendental dimensions? In her way, the Virgin Mary is the most important. Her picture hangs on the walls of traditional Roma households; sometimes a little home altar is created of a small picture of the Virgin with a candle or a little vessel of holy water. Pictures of the Virgin Mary fulfil the need to "see" – to perceive with at least one sense – a substitute likeness of the invisible God, who extends beyond man’s sensuous capacities. Why the Virgin Mary and not the cross that hangs in the homes of Catholic Gadže families? Many Roma can answer this question: Roma na kamen mules, ("Roma don’t want a dead man.") A dead man does not belong among the living, even if he is Jesus, the son of God. However, making the sign of the cross is one of the ritual practices against evil forces, especially mule. The act of crossing oneself is not connected to the picture of the suffering, dying Christ.

The Virgin Mary is, in her way, identical to Christ. More than once, we recorded the sentence, Kana mangav le Devles, džav kijo obrazis."When I ask God for something, I go to the Picture.") The picture is that of the Virgin. Oaths are taken in front of the "Picture" (of the Virgin Mary), and those who take oaths call God to witness. No member of the family changes clothes before the "Picture" (of the Virgin Mary) because that would not be decent, because doing so "would offend God" (čhinelas bi pes pat’iv le Devleske). God is invisible. The "crucified" Son does not represent Him. Only the Virgin Mary is left. Sometimes, instead of or next to the Virgin Mary’s picture, a picture of the living Jesus the Pastor hangs on the walls.

We presume that the Virgin Mary must be a metamorphosised archetype of the Goddess, the Goddess Mother who, in various forms, was (and still is) worshipped by members of various originally pre-Aryan ethnic groups in India. The pantheon of Aryans was "male". Goddesses – for the most part consorts of deities embodying some aspect of the one and only, absolute God (paramatma – supreme spirit) were incorporated into Hindu culture somewhere between the fourth and seventh century AD. At that time the Gupta dynasty subjugated the whole of India. Members of original ethnic groups that had had their small, autonomous "forest" or "village" states lost their political and ethnic status and were made society’s marginal members: pančama – the fifth class lying beyond the bounds of the four varnas that had existed until then. The "small state" of the Doms was probably such a subjugated autonomous structure. One cannot exclude the possibility that it was exactly at that time that part of the Dom community left India. Like the majority of the other pre-Aryan ethnic groups, various Dom jatis in India still honour various goddesses today. The female godly principle in the European Christian (Catholic) milieu is apparently realised in the likeness of the Virgin Mary.

Recently, Jesus on the cross has been appearing on walls of Roma households more often. Apparently Catholicism has been penetrating deeply into the original perception of transcendental dimensions. Even so, priority is always given to the simple, symbolic cross without the depiction of a dead body.

Although a number of studies and papers have been written about the religion of the Gypsies/Roma, we have not yet come across work that covers specific "Indo-European" religious-philosophic synkretism in the transcendental ideas of the Roma. Undoubtedly Roma philosophers themselves will soon undertake this task.


Hübschmannová, Milena (1995) Šaj pes dovakeras – Můžeme se domluvit. Olomouc.
Kostič, Svetislav (1995) Jak je starý Bůh Romů (etymological essay). In: Romano džaniben 4, pp. 39-41.
Mylius, Klaus (1987) Wörterbuch Sanskrit Deutsch. Leipzig.
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