Roma (Gypsy) Culture’s Central Value – Marime


Marime in Gypsy Society

This article was found at

It states that  Original article published at:

However the link to NYU is no longer active.  Thus I don’t know the name of the original author.

“… the whites keep quiet about their own bad examples – yet if any Gypsy is dirty, they point to him and say to us: «That’s what you’re like, you Gypsies!»” (Guy, in Rehfisch. pg.228).

Few of us can claim any direct experience with Gypsies; they generally stay on the periphery of our society and our consciousness. My brother-in-law defended a Rom who had been arrested for filing two insurance claims on the same stolen car. I remember in particular that the Rom had been found guilty by the Gypsy court, the kris, not for having committed the crime, but for having been caught. I remember that my brother-in-law was fully expecting the man to skip the bail the firm had put up for him. I also remember my interpretation of the case, a seemingly logical interpretation, but one made without any understanding of marime, the central value in Gypsy society. This value defines the shape and boundaries of their natural and spiritual universe, social interaction, judicial functions, many of their rites, and their interactions with Gaje (non-Gypsies). In this paper, the work of Carol Miller and Anne Sutherland provided much of my information on marime.

“The one thing I always do… I’m strict… is to wash my face and take care of my razor right. If there isn’t a face towel, I use my children’s T shirt. Sometimes when the soap falls out on the floor and I don’t have any more, I look at it and it’s hard (to refrain from picking the soap up), but like the razor falling on the floor or being used for something else (than intended ritual use), I can always tell if it’s marime. I break out in a rash.” (Miller 42)

Marime is sometimes translated as ‘ritual pollution or avoidance’. In fact both its definition and its expression are complex. It can be basically divided into issues of defilement and social rejection, both of which are called marime, and which influence each other. In terms of marime as defilement, all things are classified as either wuzho (pure) or marime (impure/defiled). The wuzho/marime opposition is expressed in several ways: the upper and lower body, the inner and outer body, inner and outer territory and, by extension, Gypsy and non Gypsy (Gaje). These distinctions pervade daily habits such as washing and eating, age and sex roles, and contact both with fellow Gypsies and with Gaje. The body is the most immediate ‘map’ of the distinction of wuzho/marime. The upper body, especially the mouth because of its ability to take food into the body, is wuzho. By extension, both spit and vomit are wuzho and considered to have curative powers (especially ghost vomit-the spirit world is a very real concern). The lower body, especially the genitals, is marime. Since marime status is spread from object to object through contact, all upper-body clothes are washed separately from lower body clothing, and washed in separate containers, which are reserved exclusively for those clothes. Women’s clothes, because of women’s periodic marime status (due to menstruation), are washed separately, as are children’s clothes. An apron, interestingly, may be washed with upper body clothing because of its role in cleanliness and food preparation. Also, all cookware and tableware, since it comes into contact with food, is washed in its own container. Marime status is spread through contact, but contact is not limited to physical contact. According to Miller, actions such as yawning or looking sleepy -“because ‘it means you’re thinking about going to bed'”- or discussion of childbirth at the table are taboo. (Miller 42) Even a shadow might cast suspicion. Okely cites the case of a traveller at a Town Hall luncheon explaining why he stopped eating: “I could not finish my cheese. A shadow has fallen across it. It is one of our customs. You do not know our customs. We cannot expect you to understand.” (Okely 80) Several authors argue that marime, and the many rituals that express marime, provide boundary maintenance:

“Ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on inherently untidy experience, exaggerating difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, etc.” (Douglas, in Miller 41)

And that this is especially important in maintaining a cohesive Gypsy community in the face of Gaje persecution and attitudes toward them as pariahs. The disposal of things that are marime also reflects the inner/outer expression of boundary maintenance. Marime cannot be washed away. Things that become marime are either burned (ideally), thrown away or, if necessary, scoured with a special cleanser. Garbage is to be kept at a distance -“chucked out”- outside a camp’s periphery:

“Whereas Gorgio (Gaje) hygiene consists to some extent in containing, covering, or hiding dirt, for the Gypsies, polluting dirt can be visible, but it must be kept a clear distance from the clean… Gorgios accumulate and store their rubbish in bins in every room in their houses. A traveller woman stated, «People say we’re dirty. They don’t see the we think they’re dirty. Sometimes you go to houses and maybe the outside and the gardens look all right. But you should see what’s inside.».” (Okely 86-87)

Another reference to the inner/outer opposition that Okely mentions is that Gypsies who are accused of illicit sex are said to have “gone behind the hedge”. If fact, there is another category, melalo, which approximates Gaje notions of being dirty. A man who has gotten dirty from an activity, such as working on a car, will be melalo, someone we would say is dirty. But he will still be wuzho. What is important from the Gypsy point of view is not whether something is melalo, which is after all just dirt, but its quality, whether it is morally clean. (Anne Sutherland argues that melalo is not morally neutral but occupies a middle ground between the poles set by wuzho/marime. According to Sutherland, certain groups, for example non-Rom Gypsies (and marriages between them and Roms), Kalderasha (a middle-caste Rom nation), and certain spirits occupy this ‘questionable’ purity status. She further cites the belief that, while a dirty household is melalo, the spirit responsible for some Rom diseases may come and eat off of the dishes in a melalo household.) Hands, because of the jobs they perform, are transitional in status. They cater to lower-body needs, but are also required at times to be wuzho. Washing therefore becomes an especially important ritual for hands. They are washed, using separate soap and towels, anytime they may become marime: making the bed (because of its contact with the lower-body), putting on shoes, even adjusting one’s belt. A Rom may even wash “his face and hands whenever he feels his luck leaving him during the day”. (Miller 47) Marime distinctions also extend to age and sex roles. Children are innocent of marime. They are often forgiven for not following marime laws and rituals, because they are new, pure, don’t know any better and because a parent’s “love is largely expressed through being unable ‘to refuse anything'”. (Miller 43) Old age confers similar wuzho status as that of children. They are seen as closer to the realm of spirits, which connotes both respect and fear (spirits and ghosts are seen as wuzho and marime, respectively). (Gropper 101) Children’s status changes when they get married, which is their rite of transition into adulthood. The boy becomes a man, a Rom. The girl may go through a period of liminality, during which she becomes a lower-status member of the husband’s family. It may be only after she has had several children that she will be fully accepted as a woman, a Romni. As Rom and Romni, they become responsible for the many rites of “respect avoidance” through which men and women associate. Women particularly are subject to marime because of their connection to menstruation and childbirth. As part of “respect avoidance”, they must make sure not to touch their skirts against anything used for food. Passing in front of a man is questionable, and menstruating women are not allowed to clean religious articles or prepare important foods. They will also typically be isolated after childbirth for a period of several days to several weeks. The periodic marime status that women have provides them with a certain power in society. She is given respect for her ability to control her purity. This is a source of “added dignity and a heightened awareness of the mystery of her femininity”. (Yoors 151) At the same time, she controls the ultimate social sanction in Gypsy society – the power to make others marime. “Tossing her skirt”, an act which can mean tossing her skirt over the head of a man, makes the man permanently marime – “he’s out”. The act can also be expressed by tossing a shoe, exposing her genitals (again, physical contact is not necessary), or applying a pubic hair to the man’s face. Her ability to pollute grants her a powerful sense of security:

“There was once a fight between a young man from the Trokeshti group, who with his wife was visiting the powerful, numerous and mean Voyatesha… several of the Voyatesha banding together senselessly brutalized the outsider… having duly warned them, still without effect, the wife ripped off one of her manifold skirts and symbolically flailed them all with it. The fight stopped instantly as they realized they had become mahrime and no rom, not even their closest male relatives, would have anything to do with them until the case was brought before the kris and the burdensome onus of the mahrime lifted. Shortly after the incident… the Rom agreed to disband. They left this spot only after having overturned every bucket and pail containing river water. Kettles of food and soup were poured out, coffee was spilled… We would not be marked among the Rom by the stigma of doubt concerning our ritual cleanliness.” (Yoors 151)

This power is also reflected in “the belief that death, the final authority, is a man, but a woman can scare him away by cursing him and threatening to lift her skirts over him to make him marime.” (Sutherland 103) Although in public men and women will often practice “respect avoidance”, or “putting a face on things” by mimizing social mixing between the sexes, Sutherland comments that a husband and wife – in private – will often not observe the marime restrictions concerning the upper and lower body. The wife may walk over the man’s clothes, pass in front of him, or touch him with her skirt. Both Sutherland and Miller mention the possibility that oral sex, which would normally be extremely marime, might be practiced. Miller suggests that the marime taboo might even make the act more exciting. (42) Sutherland heard from two informants that oral sex was a popular form of intercourse. However, in one case that became public knowledge, the man became marime and “‘It has already cost him hundreds of dollars to try to clear himself, and it will cost him many more before he is pronounced uzho.'” (314) Gaje, because they are only concerned with what is melalo and do not follow marime laws, are by definition marime, as is everything in Gaje society. In effect, Gaje represent an extreme of one ‘pattern variable’ of what is marime. For this reason, any contact with Gaje is dangerous. Precautions are taken for Gaje entering Gypsy space, for example, setting aside tableware for Gaje that will be washed separately or placing an extra cloth over the Gaje’s chair in a fortune teller’s shop. Similarly, Gypsies limit their contact with Gaje as much as possible, mostly to gain some economic or political advantage. Ironically, though Gypsies see Gaje as marime, as outside their world, and restrict their contact with them, Gypsies will often use Gaje hospitals to shorten the isolation period after childbirth, since they are able to leave all of the marime articles in connection with the birthing process in the hospital. When births took place on the outskirts of their camp the period of avoidance might be several weeks. Hospital births shorten this time to as little as three days. The hospital is used as well for deaths; ghosts, a transitional and negative form of the individual after he has died, are firmly believed in and are also marime. (Gropper 101) The function of the hospital thus replaces that of the outskirts of the camp. The Gaje hospital is in this way an “outer” environment, providing a convenient site for these rites of transition. Marime is pervasive and takes on many more social meanings. In fact, wuzho/marime distinctions exist in the animal kingdom (predictably, dogs and cats -Gaje pets- are very marime because they lick themselves. Hedgehogs, be cause they can’t, are wuzho), in the spirit world, and among the different Gypsy nations (Machwaya are wuzho, Kaldersha melalo, and Kuneshti more marime, according to Sutherland). Health and wealth are also considered outward manifestations of one’s status; severe bad health or misfortune must have been caused by some marime act. Marime’s role in the Gypsy system of boundary maintenance extends to issues of social rejection. In a society as insular as Gypsy society and one viewed as a Pariah group by Gaje, group identity and commensality is vital. Commensality means all in Gypsy society. To eat together at feasts and when visiting, sharing food and dishes, is an expression of trust and solidarity. A Gypsy house is open to guest at any time of day or night. In fact, individuals who seem to live apart from the gro up (for example, the few Gypsies who do not marry) are not entirely trusted. Fonseca writes:

“Even at home, I was never allowed to be alone-not ever. The Dukas did not share the gadje notions of or need for privacy. Or for quiet. “The more and the noisier the better” was their creed-one that I found to be universal among Roma. Their concept of lone person was a Rom who for some infraction had been banished from the group. There was something wrong with you, some shame, if you had to be alone.” (89)

Rejection from the group is, in effect, a kind of social death. Although most marime judgements are not permanent, some are. These often involve a woman taking up with a Gaje. In the same way that a Gypsy might “chuck out” a marime article, the group often uses marime as a social sanction, to “chuck out” a member of the group who has polluted Gypsy society. Not just the member, but his whole family will often be subject to a marime verdict. A marime judgement defines that individual – and anyone who associates with him – as defiled, and so as a danger to the social order. This may or may not be defined officially. A Rom may find when he visits that he is offered coffee in a chipp ed cup, or not offered coffee at all (coffee seems to be especially important to Gypsies). The message – that he is not welcome, or trusted, to share in the family’s tableware – is a clear rejection. Marime may start as a rumor, but this will force the marime person to address the charge publicly, often through the Gypsy court, the kris. The functioning of the kris mirrors the social commensality that is central to the issue of a person’s being marime. A kris hearing is a ritual of both incorporation and separation, a social event, an occasion for much oral testi mony, and so an occasion for eating and drinking. The decision of the kris will likewise be reflected in the kris members’ willingness to drink, or not drink, coffee afterwards with the defendant (the defendant may also test the kris decision by visiting members of the community for coffee). The kris offers the opportunity for the marime party to face the accusation, to clear his name, but even once the marime sanction has been lifted, the family’s status may con tinue to suffer for a time. In the case of a case of “tossing the skirt”, where the woman has brought marime on the man, the only satisfactory outcome, once an agreeable settlement has been reached, is for the woman to admit that the skirt tossing really never occurred. “In fact, skirt-toss marime never happens… it’s a lie (because) if she really did it, he’s out … no one could eat with that family forever… generations.'” (Miller 52) In actions that echo the opportunistic use of Gaje hospitals, there have been cases of Gypsies who have used the Gaje legal system, turning in another Gypsy if he feels his wrongs are not being addressed. In general, though, marime is the one true sanction available to the Gypsy community:

“The Gypsy court’s decision is about 90 per cent followed. I told you about Stevan who did not, but usually the decision is abided. If I went against the Gypsy trial, I would lose my life before I would lose my name. Honour… A few of them, not very many, could be dirty. Even if I thought the decision was unjust I would go by it. You take an oath before the Gypsies.” (Sutherland 304)

In the light of an understanding of marime, the actions of my brother-in-law’s Gypsy defendant allow for an alternative interpretation. The kris had found him guilty for being caught, likely not because he was an unsuccessful thief, but because the result of this action brought Gaje attention to the community and thus danger of marime. In addition, his flight from incarceration probably reflected not simply a desire to escape punishment, but a need to escape the real danger of being confined with Gaje in a situation where everything would be marime and there would be no way to follow marime rituals. Even after such an incarceration, he, and his family, would likely have faced an extended period of marime rejection from his community. The value of marime runs through almost every aspect of Gypsy life. It gives its meaning to rites of incorporation (births and feasts), rites of transition (hand washing and marriage) and separation (marime sanctions by the kris and serving coffee in chipped cups). In its function as boundary maintenance, marime provides a strong guide for inclusion into, or rejection from, the society. It is interesting when reading these authors to consider the areas of unanimity and divergence. It is surprising to me to find such similar beliefs and rituals throughout many countries and among the several nations of the Rom and among the non-Rom Gypsies. Then again, there were tantalizing differences in how the authors understood marime beliefs and rituals (Is melalo a neutral idea or an intermediate in the wuzho/marime continuum? Is oral intercourse taboo, or is it practiced? Are dishes that Gaje have touched smashed, or scoured and reused?). There were also times when it was difficult to gauge the effect that the ethnographer’s presence had on what the Gypsies said (e.g., “You do not know our customs. We cannot expect you to understand.”) or on how they understood events (interestingly, and in keeping with Gypsy beliefs that Gaje women only can be taught proper wuzho practices, all but one author – who lived with them as a boy – are women). Finally, in a society so strongly socialized to see Gaje as marime and untouchable, it raises the question: How, and to what extent, will their values persist or change to take into account social changes such as increasing urbanization and political pressures:

“To be sure, more and more Gypsies are marrying Gadje (including most of the articulate Romany mationalists). Konferenca, kongreso, parlamento: these are some of the most recent additions to the romani language… Gypsy poets, ethnographers, and historians now publish work in Romani and in other languages. In Romania and in Macedonia, there are Romany television programs produced by Roma; there is a first generation of Gypsy editors of newspapers and magazines. All this is new, and the excitement is palpable. But one may also say, without disparagement, that beneath the surface things haven’t changed. For the time being, survival demands that the secret society continue. Its tangled underbrush of prohibitions -the Gypsy hedge- is intact.” (Fonseca 97)

Works Cited

Fonseca, Isabel. “Among the Gypsies” in The New Yorker. September 25, 1995
Gropper, Rena C. 1975. Gypsies in the city: culture patterns and survival. Princeton, N.J.; Darwin Press.
Miller, Carol. 1975. “American Rom and the Ideology of Defilement”, in Gypsies, tinkers and other travellers. Edited by Rehfisch, Farnham. London; New York; Academic Press.
Okely, Judith. 1983. The traveller-Gypsies. Cambridge; New York; Cambridge University Press.
Sutherland, Anne. 1987. Gypsies, The Hidden Americans. Prospect Heights, Ill.; Waveland Press.
Yoors, Jan.1987. The Gypsies. Prospect Heights, Ill.; Waveland Press.





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