Pysanka (plural: pysanky, pysankas) is a Ukrainian word for an egg decorated using a wax resist (batik) method. It comes from the verb "pysaty", meaning to write, as the designs are not painted on, but written with beeswax.
Many other eastern European ethnic groups, including the Poles (Polish pisanka), Czechs and Slovaks (Kraslica), Lithuanians (margitis), and Romanians decorate eggs for Easter.
The art of the decorated egg in Ukraine, or the pysanka, dates back to ancient times. The practice originated in the prehistoric Trypillian culture. Folk tales reveal that the people who lived in the region now known as Ukraine worshipped the sun. It warmed the earth and thus, was a source of all life. Eggs decorated with nature symbols were chosen for sun worship ceremonies and became an integral part of spring rituals, serving as benevolent talismans.
In pre-Christian times, the sun god (Atar) was the most important of all the deities; birds were the sun god's chosen creations for they were the only ones who could get near him. Humans could not catch the birds, but they did manage to obtain the eggs the birds laid. Thus, the eggs were magical objects, a source of life. The egg was also honored during rite-of-Spring festivals––it represented the rebirth of the earth. The long, hard winter was over; the earth burst forth and was reborn just as the egg miraculously burst forth with life. The egg, therefore, was believed to have special powers.
With the advent of Christianity, the symbolism of the egg changed to represent, not nature's rebirth, but the rebirth of man. Christians embraced the egg symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose. With the acceptance of Christianity in 988, the decorated pysanka continued to play an important role in Ukrainian rituals of the new religion. Many symbols of the old sun worship survived and were adapted to represent Easter and Christ's Resurrection.
The Hutsuls––Ukrainians who live in the Carpathian Mountains of Western Ukraine––believe that the fate of the world depends upon the pysanka. As long as the egg decorating custom continues, the world will exist. If, for any reason, this custom is abandoned, evil––in the shape of a horrible serpent who is forever chained to a cliff–– will overrun the world. Each year the serpent sends out his minions to see how many pysanky have been created. If the number is low the serpent's chains are loosened and he is free to wander the earth causing havoc and destruction. If, on the other hand, the number of pysanky has increased, the chains are tightened and good triumphs over evil for yet another year.
Superstitions were attached to the colors and designs on the pysanky. One old Ukrainian myth centered on the wisdom of giving older people gifts of pysanky with darker colors and/or rich designs, for their life has already been filled. Similarly, it is appropriate to give young people pysanky with white as the color predominant color because their life is still a blank page.
Another Ukrainian superstition insists that girls should never give their boyfriends pysanky that have no design on the top and bottom of the egg; the baldness on either end signifies that the boyfriend will soon lose his hair.
Old legends blended folklore and Christian beliefs and firmly attached the egg to the Easter celebration. One legend concerns the Virgin Mary. It tells of the time Mary gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross. She entreated them to be less cruel and she wept. The tears of Mary fell upon the eggs, spotting them with dots of brilliant color.
Another legend tells of when Mary Magdalene went to the sepulchre to anoint the body of Jesus. She had with her a basket of eggs to serve as a repast. When she arrived at the sepulchre and uncovered the eggs, the pure white shells had miraculously taken on a rainbow of colors.
Each province, each village, and almost every family in Ukraine had its own special ritual, its own symbols, meanings and secret formulas for dyeing eggs. These customs were preserved faithfully and passed down from mother to daughter through generations. The custom of decorating pysanky was observed with greatest care, and a pysanka, after receiving the Easter blessing, was held to have great powers as a talisman.
Pysanka are traditionally made during the last week of Lent, Holy Week in the Catholic and Orthodox calendars. (Both faiths are represented in Ukraine.) They were made by the women of the family. During the middle of the Lenten season, women began putting aside eggs, those that were most perfectly shaped and smooth. If possible they should be the first laid eggs of young hens. There had to be a rooster, as only fertilized eggs could be used. (If non-fertile eggs were used, there would be no fertility in the home.)
The dyes were prepared. They were made from dried plants, roots, bark or berries. Yellow was obtained from the flowers of the woadwaxen, and gold from onion skins. Red could be extracted from logwood, and dark green and violet for the husks of sunflower seeds and the berries and bark of the elderberry bush. Black dye was made from walnuts. The dyes were prepared in secret, using methods handed down from mother to daughter to attain the necessary brilliance, clarity and lasting color. Often chemical dyes of rare colors were purchased from traders.
Styluses were prepared. A piece of thin brass was wrapped around a needle, forming a hollow cone. This was attached to a small stick (willow was preferred) with wire or horsehair.
The pysanky were made at night, when the children were asleep. The women in the family gathered together, said the appropriate prayers, and went to work. It was done in secret––the patterns and color combinations were handed down from mother to daughter, and guarded. No one was allowed to peek.
Pysanky were made using a wax resist (batik) method. Beeswax was scooped into the stylus and heated in a candle flame. The molten wax was applied to the white egg with a writing motion; any bit of shell covered with wax would be sealed, and remain white. Then the egg was dyed yellow, and more wax applied, and then orange, red, purple, black. (The dye sequence was always light to dark). Bits of shell covered with wax remained that color. After the final color, usually red, brown or black, the wax was removed by holding the egg next to the flame and gently melting it. Cooked eggs were never used, only raw ones. (Cooked eggs were dyed red for Easter, and called "krashanky").
The purpose of creating the pysanky was to transfer goodness from the household to the designs, and to push away evil. Spirals and other designs were placed which would trap evil, and thus protect the family and home from dangers and evils.
Pysanky are typically made to be given to family members and respected outsiders. To give a pysanka is to give a symbolic gift of life, which is why the egg must remain entire. Furthermore, each of the designs and colors on the pysanka is likely to have a deep, symbolic meaning. Traditionally, pysanky designs are chosen to match the character of the person to whom the pysanka is to be given. Typically, pysanky are displayed prominently in a public room of the house.
In a large family, by Holy Thursday, 60 eggs would have been completed. They would then be taken to the church on Easter Sunday to be blessed, after which they were given away. Here is a partial list of how the pysanky would be used:
1. One or two would be given to the priest. 2. Three or four were taken to the cemetery and placed on graves of the family. 3. Ten or fifteen were given to children or godchildren. 4. Ten or twelve were exchanged by the unmarried girls with the eligible men in the community. 5. Several were saved to place in the coffin of loved ones who might die during the year. 6. Several were saved to keep in the home for protection from fire and storms. 7. Two or three were placed in the trough where animals ate, so they would have many young. 8. At least one egg was placed beneath the bee hive to insure a good harvest of honey. 9. One was saved for each grazing animal to be taken out to the fields with the shepherds in the spring.
Everyone from the youngest to the oldest received a pysanka for Easter. Young people were given pysanky with bright designs; dark pysanky were given to older people.
A bowlful of pysanky was invariably kept in every home. It served not only as a colorful display, but also as protection from lightning and fire. Some of the eggs were emptied, and a bird’s head made of wax and wings and tailfeathers of folded paper attached. These “doves” were suspended before icons in commemoration of the birth of Christ, when a dove came down from heaven and soared over the child Jesus.
Symbolism in pysanka
A great variety of ornamental patterns are found on pysanky. Because of the egg’s fragility, no ancient examples of pysanky have survived. However, similar ornamental patterns in occur in pottery, metalwork, embroidery and other crafts, many of which have survived.
The symbols which decorated pysanky underwent a process of adaptation over time. In pre-Christian times these symbols imbued an egg with magical powers to ward off evil spirits, guarantee a good harvest and bring a person good luck. After 988, when Christianity became the state religion of Ukraine, the interpretation of many of the symbols change.
The names and meaning of various symbols and design elements vary from region to region, and even from village to village. Similar symbols can have totally different interpretations in different places. There are several thousand different motifs in Ukrainian folk designs. They can be grouped into several families.
GEOMETRIC The most popular pysanka designs are geometric figures. The egg itself is most often divided by straight lines into squares, triangles and other shapes. These shapes are then filled with other forms and designs. One interesting adaptation of the geometric design is the ornament called "forty triangles" (actually 48), became a symbol of the forty days of lent, the forty martyrs, the forty days that Christ spent in the desert, and the forty life tasks of married couples. Geometric symbols include the triangle (the Holy Trinity and the elements of air, fire and water), diamonds (knowledge), curls (defense or protection), tripods (man, woman and child or birth. Life, and death), and spirals (the mystery of life and death, as well as divinity and immortality).
Dots, which once represented stars or cuckoo birds’ eggs (a symbol of spring) became symbols of the tears of the blessed Virgin. Hearts are also sometimes seen, and, as in other cultures, they represent love.
CHRISTIAN symbols are fairly common, too. The cross, which in pagan times represented the four sides of the earth, now depicted the Holy Trinity. A triangle with a circle in the center denotes the eye of God. Stylized churches are often on pysanky from western Ukraine; a sieve motif inside symbolized the church’s ability to separate good from evil.
PHYTOMORPHIC DESIGNS The most common designs are those associated with plants and their parts (flowers and fruit). Women who painted pysanky drew their inspiration from the world of nature, depicting flowers, trees, fruits, leaves and whole plants in the highly stylized fashion. Such ornaments symbolized the rebirth of nature after winter; thus pysanky with plant motifs were guarantee of a good harvest. The most popular floral design is a plant in a vase of standing on its own, which symbolized the tree of life.
Pysanky created by the mountain people of the Hutsul region of Ukraine often showed a stylized fir tree branch, a symbol of youth and eternal life. Trees symbolized strength, renewal, creation, growth and eternal life, and leaves and branches symbolized immortality, eternal or pure love, strength and persistence. Oak leaves symbolized strength and energy.
Pussy willow branches are often depicted on pysanky; in Ukraine, the pussy willow replaces the palm leaf on Palm Sunday. Wheat symbolizes wishes for good health and a bountiful harvest.
FRUIT symbolizes continuity, good fellowship, strong and loyal love, and love of God. An Easter egg with an apple or plum motif was thought to bring knowledge and health. The cherry, a symbol of feminine beauty, was supposed to bring happiness and love. Grapes represented brotherhood, goodwill and long-lived and faithful love, as well as (together with wheat) the Holy Communion. Grapevines signify the good fruits of the Christian life.
FLOWERS express the female principle denoting wisdom, elegance and beauty. Among the flowers depicted on Easter eggs were rozhy (mallows), poppies, sunflowers, tulips, carnations, periwinkle and lily-of the-valley. Rozhy (mallows) are often very similar to the eight-pointed star motifs, and symbolize love and caring. Poppies are the beloved flower of Ukraine, symbolizing joy and beauty. Periwinkle represents eternal life. Sunflowers represent motherhood, life, or the love of God.
A vinok, or garland of flowers, echoes the beautiful garlands worn by Ukrainian girls around their heads during holidays and celebrations. On the pysanka, vinky are drawn in three circles around the egg, representing the tree parts of human existence: birth, marriage, and life.
SCEVOMORPHIC DESIGNS are the second-largest group of designs, which are representations of man-made objects. Agricultural symbols are very common, as Ukraine was a highly agricultural society, and drew many of its positive images from field and farm. Common symbols include the ladder (symbolizing man's search for happiness or prayers going up to heaven), a sieve (symbolizing the separation of good and evil), and the basket (symbolizing motherhood and knowledge).
Rakes (successful harvest) were commonly depicted, along with combs (putting things in order), windows (window into the heavenly world, female fertility), windmills ( a cross symbol) and the saw (fire, life-giving heat).
ZOOMORPHIC DESIGNS Although animal motifs are not as popular as plant motifs, they are nevertheless found on pysanky, especially those of the people of the Carpathian Mountains. Such symbols had a double function: they were intended to endow the owner with the best characteristics of a given animal such as health and strength; at the same time they were supposed to ensure animals with a long and productive life. Deer, rams, horses, birds and fish were depicted in the abstract. Horses were popular ornaments because they symbolized strength and endurance, as well as wealth, prosperity. Similarly, deer designs were very prevalent as they were intended to bring prosperity and long life; the stag represented leadership, victory, joy and masculinity. Rams are symbols of leadership, strength, dignity, and perseverance. Lions symbolize strength, but are a rarely used symbol
Sometime women simply drew parts of animals; these symbols were a sort of shorthand, but were endowed with all the attributes of the animal represented. Ducks’ necks, rabbits’ ears, rams’ horns (strong leadership, perseverance, and dignity), wolves’ teeth (loyalty and wisdom), bear claws (bravery, wisdom, strength and endurance, as well as a guardian spirit and the coming of spring), and bulls’ eyes. Horns of any sort represent nobility, wisdom, and triumph over problems, and imply manhood and leadership.
BIRDS were considered the harbingers of spring thus they were a commonplace pysanka motif. Birds of all kinds are the messengers of the sun and heaven, and represent the pushing away of evil; they symbolize fertility, the fulfillment of wishes, and a good harvest. The bird is always shown at rest, never flying. Roosters are symbols of good fortune, masculinity, or the coming of dawn and hens represent fertility.
Birds were almost always shown in full profile with characteristic features of the species. Partial representations of some birds––mostly domestic fowl––are often seen on pysanky. Bird parts (eyes, feet, beaks, combs, feathers) carry the same meaning as the entire bird. Hen's feet emphasize protection of young, duck and goose feet represent the spirit, and the rooster's comb signifies masculinity, and goose feet are symbols of the soul or the spirit.
Even INSECTS had their place in Ukrainian Easter egg traditions. Spiders and their webs symbolized perseverance, patience and artistic talent. The butterfly is a symbol of a carefree childhood, as well as the journey of the soul into eternal happiness. Bees were a symbol of hard work and pleasantness, and represented all the good insects which should not be killed.
The FISH, originally a symbol of health, came to symbolize Jesus Christ, the fisherman. In old Ukrainian fairy tales, the fish often helped the hero to win his fight with evil. In the Greek alphabet “fish” (ICHTHYS) is an anagram of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”; it was a secret symbol used by the early Christians. The fish represents abundance, as well as Christian interpretations of baptism, sacrifice, the powers of regeneration, and Christ himself.
The SNAKE “had”is a creature with mystical powers, and should not be confused with the snake that bites us. In folklore, the "had" was a harmless grey snake (asp) that was commonly found by every village house. (Bad people did not have a "had".) The presence of the had protected all the people living in the house. The snake symbol on a pysanka brings protection from catastrophe.
COSMOMORPHIC DESIGNS Among the oldest and most important symbols of pysanky is the sun, and the simplest rendering of the sun is a closed circle with or without rays. Pysanky with sun motifs were said to have been especially powerful, because they could protect their owner from sickness, bad luck and the evil eye. In Christian times the sun symbol has come to represent life, warmth, and the love and eternal existence of God.
The sun can also appear as a flower or a spiral. The swastika, a "broken cross" or "ducks’ necks" also represented the sun in pagan times; it can be found in ancient Sanskrit as well. (The traditional swastika had its arms pointing to the left; when Hitler appropriated this ancient symbol for his Nazi party, he changed the direction of the arms to the right. )
Pysanky from all regions of Ukraine also depict an eight-sided star, which in the past was a symbol of the sun god Atar. Six-sided stars can also be seen, and sometimes stars are represented as dots. They were believed to foretell good fortune. The moon is sometimes seen; it is begged to shed its light at night to help the traveller, and to chase away evil powers from the household.
ETERNITY BANDS and other dividing elements on pysanky are composed of meanders, waves, lines or ribbons. The so-called "meander" or eternal line motif is one of the most popular due to an interesting legend. The meander on a pysanka has no beginning and no end, and thus an evil spirit which happens to enter a house and land on the egg is trapped forever and will never bother the residents again. It symbolizes harmony, motion, infinity and immortality. Lines and ribbons represent the thread of life or eternity.
Waves stand for wealth, because it was rain that insured good crops.
Symbolism of color
It is not only ornaments on Easter eggs which carry symbolic weight; colors also make a difference. Every area of Ukraine had its specific color combination; although the oldest Easter eggs were simply two-toned, our pagan ancestors believed that the more colors on a decorated egg the more magical powers it held and could thus bring the owner a better fate.
The colors used in pysanka are rich in symbolism. Although each region of Ukraine used its own combination of patterns, designs, and colors certain meanings were associated with the following colors:
WHITE Signified purity, birth, light, rejoicing, virginity.
YELLOW The symbol of light and purity. It signified, youth, love, the harvest and perpetuation of the family. It is the color consecrated to the light deities, and the sun, stars, and moon. It the Christian symbol of reward and recognition.
GOLD Spirituality, wisdom
ORANGE The symbol of endurance, strength, and ambition. The color of a flame represented passion tempered by the yellow of wisdom. It is also the symbol of the everlasting sun.
PINK Success, contentment
GREEN The color of fertility, health, and hopefulness; of spring, breaking bondage, freshness, and wealth. In the Christian era it represents bountifulness, hope, and the victory of life over death. Green is the color of Christmas, Easter, and the Epiphany.
RED The magical color of folklore signifying action, charity, and spiritual awakening. It also represented the sun and the joy of life and love. Pysanky with red fields or motifs are often given to children. In the Christian era it represents the divine love and passion of Christ, hope, passion, blood, fire, and the ministry of the church.
BLUE Represented blue skies or the air, and good health, truth, and fidelity.
PURPLE Represented fasting, faith, trust, and patience.
BROWN Represented Mother Earth and her bountiful gifts; earth, harvest, generosity.
BLACK Represented constancy or eternity, the center of the Earth, the darkest time before dawn. Black also signified death, fear, and ignorance.
COMBINATIONS of COLORS
Black and white: mourning, respect for the souls of the dead. Black and red: ignorance arising from passions. Red and White: respect, protection from evil powers. Four or more color: family happiness, peace and love