A pysanka (plural: pysanky) is a Ukrainian Easter egg, decorated using beeswax and dyes. The word comes from the verb pysaty, “to write”, as the designs are not painted on, but written with beeswax. Pysanka is often taken to mean any type of decorated egg, but it specifically refers to an egg created by the written-wax method and utilizing traditional folk motifs and designs. There are several other types of decorated eggs in Ukrainian tradition, including:
- Krashanky – “to decorate”– are boiled eggs dyed a single color (with vegetable dyes), and are blessed and eaten at Easter.
- Krapanky – “a dot”– are raw eggs decorated using the wax-resist method, but with only dots as ornamentation (no symbols or other drawings). They are traditionally created by dripping molten wax from a beeswax candle onto an egg.
- Malyovanky – “to paint”– are created by painting a design with a brush using oil or water color paints. It is sometimes used to refer to coloring (e.g. with a marker) on an egg.
- Nakleyanky – “to glue on”– are created by glueing objects to the surface of an egg.
- Lystovky – “leaves”– are created by dyeing an egg to which small leaves have been attached.
All but the krashanky and lystovky are usually meant to be decorative (as opposed to edible), and the egg yolk and white are either allowed to dry up over time, or removed by blowing them out through a small hole in the egg.
The art of pysanka dates back to ancient times, when eggs were decorated in the spring as a symbol of the rebirth of the earth. No actual ancient examples exist, as eggshells are fragile. Ceramic eggs from the 5th century that were ornamented in a similar style have been found. The oldest “real” pysanka was found in 2008 and dates back to the end of the 17th century. The pysanka was crushed during a war, and is currently being put back together.
LEGENDS & SUPERSTITIONS:
The Hutsuls––Ukrainians who live in the Carpathian Mountains––believe that the fate of the world depends upon the pysanka. As long as the egg decorating custom continues, the world will exist. If 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 checks how many pysanky have been created. If the number of pysanky has increased, the chains are tightened and good triumphs over evil for yet another year.
Pysanky were also thought to protect households from evil spirits, catastrophe, lightning and fires. Pysanky with spiral motifs were the most powerful, as the demons and other unholy creatures would be trapped within the spirals forever.
Pysanky held powerful magic, and had to be disposed of properly, lest a witch get a hold of one. The witch could use bits of the eggshell to poke people and sicken them. The eggshell had to be ground up very finely (and fed to chickens to make them good egg layers) or broken into pieces and tossed into a running stream.
Traditionally, each region, 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 through generations. The pysanky were made at night, when the children were asleep. It was done in secret––the patterns and color combinations were carefully guarded.
Pysanky are typically made to be given to family members and respected outsiders. Each of the designs and colors on the pysanka is likely to have a deep, symbolic meaning, and pysanky designs are chosen to match the character of the person to whom the pysanka is to be given.
In a large family, 60 or more eggs would have been made to be given away. Here is a partial list of how the pysanky would be used:
- One or two would be given to the priest.
- Three or four were taken to the cemetery and placed on graves of the family.
- Ten or fifteen were given to children or godchildren.
- Ten or twelve were exchanged by the unmarried girls with the eligible men in the community.
- Several were saved to place in the coffin of loved ones who might die during the year.
- Several were saved to keep in the home for protection from fire, lightning and storms.
- Two or three were placed in the mangers of cows and horses to ensure safe calving and colting and a good milk supply for the young.
- At least one egg was placed beneath the bee hive to insure a good harvest of honey.
- One was saved for each grazing animal to be taken out to the fields with the shepherds in the spring.
- Several pysanky were placed in the nests of hens to encourage the laying of eggs.
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. Pysanka could be decorated with geometric designs, eternity bands (lines with no beginning or end meant to trap evil spirits), plant and animal motifs, fruit, flowers, birds, insects, fish, or suns. Colors were very important, as each color symbolized something different.
Want to make your own pysanky eggs? Check out our Pysanky Egg Workshop on March 30th!