“It is no great problem in ethnology and anthropology as to how gypsies became fortune tellers … Wherever shamanism, or the sorcery which is based on exorcising and commanding spirits, exists, its professors from leading strange lives or from solitude or wandering, become strange and wild-looking. When men have this appearance, people associate with it mysterious power.” – Charles Godfrey Leland- Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling
Adorning a long red dress and wearing a gold crown weighing half a kilogram, the “self-proclaimed” Queen of white magic Maria Campina, sits on a throne in a villa in Northern Bucharest. Royalty lines the wall to her right, with a huge picture of her posing with Queen Elizabeth II of England. This was photoshopped by her grandson as a birthday present. Queen Campina doesn’t just talk to everyone who shows up at her door and her time is precious. She even attempted to charge us for this interview, claiming that she had to cancel other appointments for us. Only after we threatened to leave, we managed to strike a bargain. Sitting on her golden throne, Queen Campina speaks without haste and stops to catch her breath once in a while. She’s almost 80 years old, although she refuses to reveal her exact age.“We are witches from mother to daughter,” she says. “This power is not for everyone. Only my daughters can inherit it.”
Monumental pictures of Queen Campina and her family adorn the walls of the entire living room. Some portray her late husband, a former judge in the stabor—an unofficial tribunal of the traditional Roma communities. However, it is Queen Campina who rules this clan.
“My grandmother is the head of this family,” her teenage grandson says with a smile, while Queen Campina keeps us waiting. “She is the most powerful witch in Romania.”
Finally, the Queen comes out of her bedroom situated at the top of a marble staircase and majestically descends to greet us. Then she rests on one of two thrones —the second one belonging to her late husband.
“Tell me what you want. Do you want me to demonstrate how I tell the future?” she urges.
Queen Campina is used to media attention, as she is a frequent guest on television shows where she predicts the fortune of local celebrities. One of the richest people in the country, she herself is a celebrity. Her daughter’s lavish wedding, or her niece Shakira’s photoshoots attract Romanian paparazzi and large audiences on tabloid television shows. Yet she hasn’t been interviewed about her job before and is reluctant to reveal where her special gift comes from.
“I inherited it from my mother and she inherited it from my grandmother, who was a descendent of the Indian maharajas.” The title “Queen of the Witches” was given to her during a TV show in the 1990s by Ion Tugui, a Romanian writer passionate about the paranormal. He called her “the official queen of white magic” in a television show at the beginning of the 1990s, saying that he had followed her predictions for 6 years and noticed they had come true. She claims she earned the title after successfully performing a ritual and winning a competition with other witches from various countries, which he witnessed.
A life-size statue of the Queen accompanied with a statue of Jesus Christ occupies a large part of her altar room. Placing orthodox icons and various “witch” dolls that represent the evil fortune tellers who use black magic on her altar table, Queen Campina takes out a huge jade presse-papier which she believes has animalic powers and represents the devil whom she prays against, as well as a large sea shell called ghioc, which Roma fortune tellers traditionally use to see the future.
Queen Campina receives many requests for fortune-telling from abroad, mostly from Romania’s huge diaspora. She doesn’t need to see her clients in person to carry out the ritual—she uses her phone. In these cases, payment is carried out electronically. Clients who are able to visit her home put the money in the sea shell, while Queen Campina recites her chants. The real rituals, however, take place at night, on the edge of her garden pond.“Only my daughters and I have access to it,” she claims.
“There are some who work with black magic, but that’s not me. We’re clean,” she declares and then grows slightly suspicious.
“Have you been to see someone else? Don’t go to others. I am the only one who does real magic.”
A country without stakes
Although witchcraft became an industry in Romania after 1989, it was also a source of privilege under Communism. In the 1990s, Queen Campina had many high profile politicians among her clients, but refused to specify every name. According to her, the feared Elena—the wife of Romania’s communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, used to consult fortune tellers like her.
“I warned her that there was danger in her future and she got upset with me.” Queen Campina recalls. “I was afraid that she would have me arrested.”
Witchcraft became a listed profession in Romania in 2011, when the Labor Ministry decided to include it in the Official Profession Registry and oblige fortune tellers, astrologers, witches and healers to register their businesses and pay taxes.
Several bills to regulate their activity failed to pass through the parliament in the previous year, after groups of self-proclaimed witches, fortune tellers and healers protested at the Parliament, cursing the MPs who had submitted the bills.
“This job is not to be done with receipts,” Queen Campina told the media in 2010.
During the XVI-XIX centuries, when civil courts across Europe sentenced women to stakes, Romania saw few witch hunts, especially in its Southern and Eastern parts, which were provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
The Romanian state and the Orthodox Church were not as consumed by the witch hunt frenzy as their Western European counterparts. Cluj Napoca-based anthropologist Ioan Pop Curseu, and the author of Magic and Witchcraft in Romanian Territories, believes that several factors contributed to this state of affairs.
One of them was the fact that the Romanian Orthodox Church had a tacit policy of integration and toleration of pre-Christian beliefs, while the population practised a relaxed, informal Christian Orthodoxy.
“That doesn’t mean that the society was not a patriarchal one, or that the orthodox dogma did not demonize witches, fortune tellers and all ‘devil worshippers’,” Ioan Pop Curseu points out. Many Romanian Orthodox Churches built during the times of the witch hunts have representations of hell, portraying women tormented in pitch boilers because they were witches, he explained. Women deemed witches or accused of witchcraft were never given harsh punishments, only spiritual ones, such as fasting, praying or being temporarily banned from the church, Pop-Curseu explains.
Another important factor was that, unlike in Western Europe where modern medicine was already developing at universities, in the Romanian speaking territories, the population was largely dependent on village healers and herbalists, some of who were surprisingly, priests.
“Those accused of witchcraft were indeed marginalized by communities, just not killed,” Ioan Pop Curseu explains. “In general, witches were very important in rural communities. They healed illnesses, helped people go through important events in their lives, whether positive or negative. The fact that witches had a precise and predetermined role that was acknowledged by the entire community, led to a very low rate of witch trials in Romania.”
Power to the witches
“Witches are the only matrilineal tribe of Roma people. All others transmit inheritance through male lineage,” points out Mihaela Dragan, 32, a Romanian Roma actress and writer. She is the founder of Roma Futurism—an art movement promoting the idea of an empowered Roma woman.
“Witches in our community are strong. It’s the only Roma clan that is named after the profession of women,” she argues.
For Roma women in Romania, education or being born into a witch clan are the only alternatives for becoming independent. A study published in 2011 by the Roma Women’s Association, shows that most women from the community (some 70%) marry young.They are usually between 16-20 years-old, and have children immediately afterwards. Due to early marriage, they also drop out of school. 67%, are later unemployed and completely dependent on the family.
According to a report, issued by the European Commission in 2018, on the implementation of the Romanian national strategy for the integration of the Roma community, not much has changed for Roma women. The majority of them are taken into consideration only by health care programs but not by development or education programs.
Moreover, they suffer double discrimination within their own patriarchal community and within the Romanian society at large.
Roma witches such as Queen Campina, on the other hand, are not only extremely rich but also respected by the community leaders and the outside world. Queen Campina’s grandson’s wedding on October 31, 2019 attracted the wealthiest members of the community and was also aired on several television stations as the “wedding of the year.” The most notorious Roma musicians in the country, such as Adi Minune and Sorinel Pustiu, performed. For Dragan, the success of the Roma witches went beyond “exotic” traditions and folklore. She saw it as an opportunity to rebrand the image of Roma women, by showing who they can become if they are left to reach their potential.
“I imagine the witches of the future, the cyber-witches,” she smiles while braiding her hair before one of her plays. Dragan’s play is the story of two women and two men—a musician, a sword-swallower, a fortune-teller and a puppeteer—who are deported to Transnistria by the fascist regime that ruled Romania in the 1940s. The play has been one of the most popular plays in the National Jewish Theatre in Bucharest for the past two years. It is largely presented through the eyes of two women characters, who share a fortune-telling scene on stage, during which they chant and throw a set of fava beans on the ground to tell the fortune of Ioan Antonescu (Romania’s fascist Prime Minister during World War II) and the fate of her own people deported to Transnistria by the Nazi allied government.
“Girl, don’t you know it’s all an act? It’s for the gadjii (outsiders in Romani language), not for us,” Dragan’s partner on stage, Zita Moldovan, tells her character.
But for Dragan performance is everything. It recounts the story of Roma women being labelled as witches for their exotic look and pushed into this business to be able to seek their independence. And through performance, she fights this stereotype.
The actress grew up with her two sisters in her grandparents’ home in Buzau, a town 108 km North of Bucharest, while Dragan’s parents moved to the Black Sea port of Constanta to work in a refinery. Her grandfather was a lautar (fiddler in Romanian) and played at weddings and funerals. This is where her dream of becoming an actress was born. But she says that though she is an actress, her activism is through performance.
Cyber-witches and the Roma Futurism
On May 25, 2019, at 6.30 am, Dragan was dressed up for some magic. The actress met with a coven of some of the most notorious Roma witches in the country to conduct a ritual in front of Romania’s colossal Parliament Palace “for European elections to run smoothly.” The head of the coven, Mihaela Minca, and her daughter Casanndra Buzea, gave their blessings to the elections after laboring the whole night performing rituals for the country.
“May we have antiracist politicians to represent us in the European Parliament!” Dragan wrote on her Facebook account, posting a picture of Minca and Buzea. According to tradition, the gift should remain in the family, which is why Minca’s famous coven is made of her own daughters.
Two weeks before the elections, she announced on Facebook that she would perform an “anti-corruption” ritual for the prosperity of the country” before the European elections. She had already started on March 30, by broadcasting prayers against the Romanian government.
“I, along with the most powerful witches, have decided to change the political world for the better. Just watch it. We are working against corruption in our country,” she claimed. The leader and her daughters use social media to reach out to clients, promote their work and keep in touch with peers abroad. Minca and Buzea are very active on Facebook, while the second daughter, Anda, takes care of the Instagram account. For Dragan, their story is not just that of a successful business. It is a fight against racism and the long history of persecution and “integration.”
The fact that Roma women are usually associated with witchcraft has become a stigma. But Dragan wants to take this further. “Inspired by Afro-futurism and Sino-futurism, I wanted a project on Roma futurism,” she explained. “People think we’re trapped in the past. Europe has an obsession with integrating us. I created the idea of a Roma cyber-witch and of techno-witchcraft to show them that we are also people of the future.”