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Pysanka, the Decorative Ukrainian Easter Egg
Sometime back in younger days of growing up in Northeast Minneapolis I became familiar with the fact that Ukrain ian’s have rather special decorated Easter eggs . That area of town has both St. Constantine’s Ukrain ian Catholic Church and St. George Orthodox Church. The eggs used to be displayed for sale in a store window near where I used to catch the streetcar ( the bus later on)after school.
Pysanky has a number of various geometric designs, which represents a variety of things. Color is also symbolic and can vary from one region to another.
It does not apply to all wax resist methods as is sometimes thought. However Pysanka specifically refers to eggs created by the written-wax method and utilizing traditional folk-motifs and designs. In addition to these there are several other types of decorated eggs in the Ukrainian tradition and they vary in the different regions of the Ukraine.
· Krashanky are boiled eggs dyed one color with vegetable dye and blessed at Easter.
· Krapanky are raw eggs decorated using wax-resistant method. Have only dots as ornamentation. Traditionally they are made by dripping wax from a beeswax candle.
· Dryapanky are made by scratching the surface of a dyed egg to show the white shell under the dye.
· Malyovanky is a design painted with a brush using either oil or watercolor paints. Sometimes it refers to using a marker on an egg.
· Nakelyensky means to glue on. Objects are glued to the egg surface.
· Travlensky is not a traditional Ukraine method but has become popular. Eggs are waxed and then etched.
· Buserky are created by coating the egg with beeswax and creating a geometric design after coating it with beeswax.
· Lystovky are created dyeing the egg after small leaves have been attached.
Most of these are decorative, except for the Krashanky and Lystovky, not edible. The yolk and white of the egg are allowed to dry up or are removed by blowing them out through a small hole in the egg.
Legends, superstition and folk beliefs
- The Ukrainians living in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine known as the Hutsel believe the fate of the world depends on the pysanka. The world will exist as long as the egg decorating custom does. If the custom is ever abandoned a horrible serpent who is forever chained to a cliff will overrun the world. The serpent is “evil.” Each year the evil serpent sends out minions to check on how many pysanka have been created. If it is a low number the serpents chains are loosened and he can wander the world creating havoc and destruction. If the number is increased his chains are tightened and good wins for another year.
- Some newer legends blend Christianity with folklore and consider the egg as part of the Easter celebration. According to one legend the Virgin Mary gave eggs to soldiers at the cross. She asked them to be less cruel to her so and wept. Her tears fell on the eggs and they were spotted with brilliantly colored dots.
- Mary Magdalene, according to another legend went to the sepulcher to anoint Jesus. She had a basket of eggs to share with the others that were there. When she uncovered the eggs they had taken on the colors of the rainbow.
- Simon the peddler, the Simon that helped Jesus carry his cross, had left his goods at the side of the road and when he got back the eggs had all turned to intricately decorated pysanky.
A few superstitions
Pysanky were thought to protect households from evil spirits, catastrophe as well as lightning and fire. Spiral motifs were the most powerful. If the pysanky were blessed it could help find demons hiding in dark corners of the house.
Since you wouldn’t want a witch to latch on to its powerful magic you must dispose of it properly.
Skin disease could be cured using the cloth used to dry the pysanky.
Archeology and history
Since eggshells do not preserve very well there are no examples of pysanka from prehistory. There are ceramic eggs discovered from about the 5th to 3rd millennium.
The oldest pysanka was found in Baturyn in 2008 and came from the end of the 17th century. It is complete but crushed.
Ukrainians worshipped Dazhboh, the sun god, and the sun warmed the earth and was the source of life. Eggs decorated with nature symbols were part of spring rituals. Dazhboh was the main deity in pre Christian time. Birds were the sun gods chosen creations and the only ones who could get near him. Humans could not catch the birds but could get the eggs that they laid. The eggs were a source of life and they were a part of spring festivals as representing the rebirth of life.
When Christianity was established the egg represented the rebirth of man rather than the rebirth of nature. Christians likened the egg to the tomb of Christ.
While the custom of the pysanka was being banned in the soviet regime immigrants to the Americas established the custom in their new home. In 1991 Ukraine gained independence and the custom has been reestablished.