Eggs may be internationally beloved, but the sheer variety of roles they play in cultures worldwide is truly amazing. One of the most iconic is the Ukrainian practice of making pysanky, or decorated Easter eggs.
Many cultures in Eastern Europe have folk art traditions of beautiful, intricate egg-dyeing techniques. But Ukraine in particular has become known worldwide for eggs decorated with vibrant, detailed designs that often make use of geometric or symbolic patterns.
History of the Pysanka
The name “pysanky” (or “pysanka,” singular) comes from the word pysaty, which means “to write.” The tradition is thought to have begun over a thousand years ago, but because eggshells are so delicate, there are no surviving examples of decorated eggs from that period of history. The earliest fragments of decorated eggs found near modern-day Ukraine date back to the 17th century.
However, the practice of making the eggs as part of Easter celebrations was popularized and developed as one way to express an evolving sense of Ukrainian national identity within the last 200 years.
Many different techniques are used to decorate the eggs, but the most popular involve using colorful dyes sometimes made from plant materials and wax resist methods to create sharply contrasting white designs against a bright background.
Within Ukraine, a town or village will often produce eggs with a design unique to that place.
Common designs include triangles, spirals and other geometric patterns, but it’s also common to see representations of animals, plants and, in a country known for its fertile soil and farming history, even agricultural tools.
Each complete egg’s design has its own rich network of symbols, thought to date back to pre-Christian religious practices.
Some of the most common symbols, such as triangles, suns, stars and fish are believed to have persisted into modern egg-decorating traditions from their earliest roots.
DYI Pysanka? You’ll need a few things…
Dyes, Dye wash, Kistka (stylus), Beeswax, Egg blower (optional), Syringe (optional) – to empty the egg!, Varnish, Eggs, White vinegar, Newspaper, Lots of tissues (for blotting), Candles for melting the wax, Spoons for dipping, Pencil, Cotton Swabs, Rubber bands, Drying Rack, a steady hand, and serious patience. Or, You could just buy this kit.
Pysanka and the 12 minioned serpent
There are many legends surrounding the tradition of decorating eggs: one of the most common and colorful is attributed to the Hutsuls, an ethnic minority from the Carpathian mountain region.
The legend describes a monster, sometimes described as a huge serpent, that has been chained to a cliff somewhere deep in the mountains. Incidentally, the monster has a staff of twelve minions that bring it news of the outside world.
The monster’s chains will hold as long as people are living harmoniously, but above all if they are remembering the tradition of making pysanky. Should this tradition be forgotten or abandoned, the monster will be freed, with understandably dire consequences.
Other legends and superstitions also credit the eggs with the ability to control the balance of good and evil in the world.
Eggs decorated with spiral designs were believed to have the ability to trap evil spirits, similar to other myths about labyrinths.
Some stories state that these eggs possess magical powers, and can be used to ward off sickness or encourage chickens to lay eggs.
However, if they fell into the wrong hands, they could be easily used for evil as well. Every element of the eggs decoration possessed symbolic potential–a commonly repeated tradition was that it was unlucky for young women to give eggs without designs on the top or bottom to their husbands or lovers, because this would mean they would eventually go bald!
Today, making pysanky is an art carried on both in Ukraine and worldwide, by members of the Ukrainian diaspora interested in exploring and developing the tradition and by anyone whose appreciation for the art form has inspired them to try their hand at it.
Tradition is combined with innovation as this iconic symbol of Ukrainian cultural identity adapts to incorporate the constantly evolving experience of modern Ukraine, and modern pysanky artists have proven adept at adapting traditions of craftsmanship and a complex language of symbols to their own artistic practices.
Pysanky are also one of the most recognizable symbols of Ukrainian identity worldwide. One of the most visible manifestations of this tradition can be found in Vegreville, a small town in Alberta, Canada, that boasts the largest pysanka in the world. Designed by Ron Resch, a professor at the University of Utah, the “egg” is made of aluminum, is over 25 feet long, and weighs about 2000 pounds!
At a time when Ukraine has found itself near the center of world attention, the power of the pysanka as a beautiful, widely known symbol of Ukrainian culture and statehood is more relevant than ever.
Pysanka: Icon of the universe, by Mary Tkachuk.