What are pysanky?
Pysanky are raw eggs that are decorated using an ancient wax-resistance method. The word pysanky comes from the Ukrainian word pysaty (писати), "to write." Pysanka is the singular and pysanky is the plural. The art of making pysanky is called pysankarstvo (писанкарство).
The designs are "written" in hot wax with a special tool called a kistka (кістка) which has a small funnel attached to hold a small amount of liquid wax. The wax protects the pores of the shell from the dye. The artist, known as a pysankarka (писанкарка) writes parts of the design, dyes the egg one color, and writes more until the end, when all the layers of wax are melted off to reveal the final design.
Pysanky are an ancient art, made in Ukraine and other Slavic countries for centuries. Though many people call them Easter eggs, pysanky were made long before Ukraine adopted Christianity. The ancient symbols were then reinterpreted through the lens of Christianity later on.
What was used?
Pysanky were written on all types of eggs. The important thing was that the eggs were fertilized. An unfertilized egg made into a pysanka supposedly brought infertility to a house or farm.
It was important to use a live flame, which was considered the talismanic descendent of the sun.
Clean beeswax was used to write the designs, which tied to the cult of the sun. The logic was that the wax is made from honey, collected from flowers, that grew because of the sun.
The dyes were made from dried plant matter or animal products like insects or animal horns, which were collected throughout the year and boiled in rainwater.
Though people use candles today to melt the wax in the kistka, originally, candles were less common. The kistki were dipped into molten wax instead.
Who wrote pysanky?
Originally, pysankarstvo was an art only made by adult women. The art was passed from mother to daughter for generations. The art was not a children's activity since it was considered important work.
When were pysanky written?
After the children were asleep and the work of the day completed, the pysankarky in the family sat down at night to write the pysanky. More complicated designs took several nights to complete. Natural-based dyes take longer than modern dyes, and so some eggs had to be left in the dyes for hours for the color to saturate the shell to the desired pigment.
Because the dyes took so long, pysanky were made in batches instead of individually. All the white portions were written on a number of eggs and then they were placed to soak in dye, often overnight. The work continued the next evening.
Though it varies by region, most pysanky were written during the last week of Lent in the Orthodox and Byzantine calendars, known as Holy Week.
Why were pysanky made?
Pysanky were talismanic objects. In pre-Christian times, they were created to ensure the return of spring, to protect people from evil or catastrophe, and to bring fertility to livestock and crops. People also gave pysanky as gifts to family and friends. After the adoption of Christianity, people gave eggs to each other before breaking the fast on Easter morning.
Pysanky were put in mangers of cows/horses to ensure safe calving and a good milk supply. Beekeepers blessed their hives with a pysanka and left one under the first beehive. Pysanky were placed in the nests of hens to encourage laying, and the first cattle were sent to pasture with pysanky.
Some were placed placed in coffins or near graves, some put in newly plowed fields, others given as gifts, used at weddings, or displayed in peoples' homes near the icons.
Pysanky existed before the East Slavs adopted Christianity. This means that the symbols are pre-Christian, though many have been reinterpreted through the lens of Christianity. Therefore some symbols will carry two interpretations, the Pagan version and the Christian version. While many design books and online sources give specific meanings to symbols, it is important to note that the symbolism changes by region and with time and so it is difficult to name one overarching concrete meaning for any one symbol.
Pagan and Christian Symbolism
Obviously, the art predates Christianity. Therefore, the original symbolism of pysanky is Pagan. The egg began as a sun symbol, just picture an egg yolk and you’ll know why. The egg is also a widespread symbol of renewal and life. It was a symbol of spring, the rejuvenation of the earth after winter.
Pysankarstvo is a living art. Symbols develop and fade with time, and vary by region. Therefore, it is hard to give exact symbolic correlations for colors or designs.
As you might guess, pre-Christian designs featured a lot of nature motifs and symbols. Many symbols, like the egg itself, were reinterpreted with a Christian lens once Ukrainians adopted the religion in 988. For example, crosses, which previously represented the four corners of the Earth, became a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. Grapes, formerly a symbol of good harvest, were reinterpreted as a symbol of the growing church. Netting, during Pagan times represented knowledge and motherhood. With the adoption of Christianity, the image became a reference to Christ telling his followers to become “fishers of men.” The list goes on.
Specific Pysanky for Specific People
People believed the eggs had the power to help them in their daily lives. People gave pysanky as a sign of good wishes. Children received light colored pysanky, teenagers and young people received designs with a lot of white space, signifying that their lives were a blank page with much yet to be written.
Married couples (hospodari) received the 40 triangle egg design, which represented all facets of life.
The elderly received dark colored eggs with symbols like the eternity band, gates, and ladders, representing ascension to heaven. These designs and colors were also presented to the ancestors in graveyards or placed in coffins.
Color is deeply symbolic in pysankarstvo as well. In addition to determining the recipient of the egg, colors had other meanings as well.
Harmony, immortality, infinity, and motion. Evil spirits were said to land on the pysanka and be trapped inside the eternity band.
Beauty, fertility, abundance.
An 8 pointed star that is actually a flower. Large ones are sun symbols and smaller ones are star symbols. It is a symbol of the sun god Dazhboh.
Christian meaning: Holy Trinity, Pagan meaning: mother father and child, earth air and water, or birth life and death.
Ancient depiction of a snake (Pagan god of earth and water). It is a protection symbol. Evil spirits would get lost and trapped in the spiral.
Ascension, connection between heaven and earth, perfection
Protection from evil spirits. Usually fills other elements like triangles, circles, squares
Ancient solar symbol. God of the sun, sky, and thunder. Depicts movement of the sun across the sky.
Stag and Horse
Wealth and prosperity.
Though color is an important aspect of the meaning of a pysanka, it is secondary to the written symbols. Color was originally determined by the availability of natural dye materials and regional preference. Once a pattern became established, people didn't tend to deviate from the original color scheme.
Center of the earth, eternity, darkest time before dawn, absolute, belonging to the "other world" but not in a negative way.
Sky, air, good health, truth, fidelity.
Spring and the resurrection of nature, hope, freshness, wealth, breaking bondage.
Endurance, everlasting sun, ambition.
Success and contentment.
Happiness, hope, passion, blood, fire, ministry of the church
Purity, light, rejoicing, virginity.
Sun, stars, moon, harvest, warmth, perpetuation of the family.
Black and White
Mourning and respect to spirits.
Red and White
Respect, protection from evil powers
Kmit, Ann, et al. Ukrainian Easter Eggs and How We Make Them. Ukrainian Gift Shop, 1994.
Perchyshyn, Natalie and Perchyshn, Deanna . Ukrainian Easter Egg Design Book Five. Gopher State Litho. Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2006.
Tkachuk, Mary, et al. Pysanka: Icon of the Universe. Ukrainian Museum, 1977.