Pysanky - Ukrainian Decorated Eggs
by Darlene Litchie - August, 2003
The Ukrainian decorated egg or the ‘pysanka´ has long been a part of Ukrainian tradition. Prior to the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine, the people of medieval Ukraine (Kievan Rus´) decorated pysanky with designs that represented nature and the sun. Following the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine, in 988 A.D., pysanky where also decorated with symbols which reflected the religious faith of the Ukrainian people. Today, pysanky are decorated with both pagan and Christian symbols.
The egg is a symbol of fertility. The pysanky celebrates the rebirth of nature in the spring, and the rebirth of Christ (His Resurrection from the dead) at Easter. Pysanky are decorated to be given as gifts to those whom we love. A bowl of pysanky in the home will protect the family from bad fortune or illness. Ukrainian pysanky have meaning, in a way, each pysanky tells a sort of story.
Pysanky are often decorated with richly detailed, intricate designs and complex patterns; stars, sunflowers, leaves, acorns, wheat, small deer, crosses, and so on. Each of these designs or patterns has a specific meaning. Deer, horses, and rams all mean wealth and prosperity. Oak leaves and acorns show strength. A heart symbol is commonly associated with love, warmth, and affection for others. Shapes like diamonds, triangles, circles and squares are known as geometric, they are the most ancient symbols of all. Floral designs are used in hope of a safe return of spring. The symbol of fish represent Jesus. Dots represent tears of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A cross is, of course, a Christian symbol. Subsequently, the three-barred cross is a popular symbol to be found on Ukrainian pysanky. The decoration of the pysanka often goes around the entire egg, never ending, representing eternity.
The main colours used in decorating the pysanky are white, yellow, orange, green, red, and black. Today, the dyes used for colouring pysanky can be purchased at craft stores or at specialty Ukrainian shops. Traditionally, however, these colours were extracted from nature. Yellow dye was obtained from apple bark, buckwheat husks, or lilac. Orange dye was obtained from walnut or oak bark (or by mixing yellow and red dyes). Green dye was obtained from sunflower seeds and elderberries. Red dye was obtained from deer horn, sandalwood or birch leaves. Finally, black dye was obtained from black maple leaves and dark periwinkle. White symbolizes the purity of the youth and the potential for future growth. Yellow and green symbolize rebirth and wisdom, the spring and the harvest. Orange represents the warmth of the sun and the new life it brings with each Spring season. Red represents passion, red may also represent the blood of Christ. And finally, black represents maturity.
In creating a pysanka or in ‘writing´ (pysaty) a pysanka, one would draw the designs onto a clean, raw egg using a kistka. The kistka is a wooden handle with a small brass funnel at it´s end, this brass cone is tied to the handle with a pig´s hair (traditionally) or a piece of copper wire. Beeswax is then scooped into the kistka, which is then held within the flame of a candle. When the wax is warmed and has become fairly fluid, it may then run out of the tiny open tip of the brass funnel. By applying the kistka to the egg, one may begin to write the deigns upon the egg. The area of the pysanka that has been covered by the wax will remain white, as the egg is set into the yellow dye. After a moment, the egg is removed from the dye and gently wiped down. The next design is drawn upon the pysanka using the kistka, this area will remain yellow. This process is repeated until the egg is dipped into the darkest colour of dye. In the end, the pysanka will be nearly entirely covered with wax. The wax is then removed from the egg, as the pysanka is held within the heat of the candle´s flame. One must take care not to hold the egg too closely to the flame, as this will leave a black stain. The wax is slowly melted away, the pysanka is wiped clean, and the beautiful design is revealed. The pysanka is then varnished, varnishing finishes off the pysanka and this also helps to protect the egg. Traditionally, the varnish would be applied to the pysanka using a feather. However, the beautiful decorated egg is not yet a true pysanka, it must be blessed by a priest in order to actually be a pysanka ! Although there are different types of pysanky within Ukrainian tradition, coming out of the different regions of the land, the aforementioned type of pysanky is among the best known.
The writing of a Ukrainian pysanka is truly an art form. The pysanka is a beautiful and amazing aspect of Ukrainian tradition, culture, and faith. The writing of pysanky is a very important part of Ukrainian heritage. We need to save and to pass on these traditions, so that future generations may have the opportunity to respect and to love the beauty of Ukrainian pysanky. Certainly, the skill of creating pysanky and the beauty of these Ukrainian decorated eggs can be appreciated by everyone.