7 Things You Might Not Have Known About Pysanky

Everyone, at least everyone around here, is familiar with the art of Ukrainian easter eggs.  The intricate patterns created on the round canvas of an egg using wax and dye is one of the best known examples of folk art.  Still, you might find that you didn’t know some of these tidbits:

1. Pysanky, the Ukrainian word for the art, comes from the verb pysaty, meaning “to write”.   The designs are written on the egg using a stylus.  Krashanky means “to decorate”: that’s the word for Easter eggs that are dyed a single colour.

2. Traditionally, egg dyes were made from dried plants, roots, berries, insects and bark.  The best known colours are gold and red, both produced by boiling the eggs with onion skins.

3.  The tradition of writing pysanky began to fade in Ukraine during the 30s when Stalin’s purges, then World War II, rebuilding and achieving independence overshadowed traditional folk art.   Much of the history of pysanky was lost: for example, an entire collection of seven thousand written eggs in a Kyiv museum was destroyed.  However, the Slavic people who emigrated to North America carried on the tradition, preserving it for when the old countries were ready to take up writing pysanky once again.

4.  The art of creating designs on eggs predates Christianity.  As in many ancient cultures, Ukrainians worshipped a sun god (Dazhboh) as the source of all life.  Birds were particularly valued because they alone could fly up to the sun.  Eggs were representative of both the birds and rebirth, the coming of spring.  Decorated with symbols of health, fertility, prosperity and other ambitions, an egg was a precious talisman.

5.  The people who carried the egg talismans in life were buried with them – or at least reproductions of the eggs in more durable materials.  More than 70 such eggs have been found in ancient graves in Ukraine, in the graves of both children and adults.

6.  If you go visiting this Easter it’s wise to exchange pysanky with your hosts to ensure fast friendship.  Once upon a time, decorated eggs played an important role in courtship: what couldn’t be said aloud could be written on an egg and given to your sweetheart as a promise or a wish.

7.  Do you crush your Easter egg shells and throw them in the garden? Did you know that that custom is associated with the rich folklore of pysanky?  Just one of the stories about breaking egg shells and scattering them is that they must be crushed into such tiny pieces that a witch could not use them to collect dew.  If she could do that, she could then use the dew to spoil a cow.

Whether you have beeswax and a stylus, dye, stickers or sparkles, enjoy decorating, hiding, finding and eating your Easter eggs this weekend.  Remember to take a good look at any egg that is given to you, and make sure you crush those shells really well!

If you know something about local traditions, Town Spirit wants to pick your brain!  Please leave a comment or email townspirit@hotmail.com so we can all be a little bit wiser 🙂

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7 Responses to 7 Things You Might Not Have Known About Pysanky

  1. Great post! I love these coloured Easter eggs. You’ve just reminded me to get out my Easter collection. I had almost forgotten about it. Happy Easter!

    • townspirit says:

      Easter eggs can be a great memory, even a record of years gone by. Have you ever heard of Easter trees?

      • townspirit says:

        The history of the Easter tree doesn’t seem to be well recorded although it is part of Easter tradition in many countries. In Germany and Ukraine, blown eggs were hung on trees to dry before painting. They probably looked very springish on the bare branches – like early blossoms. Coloured eggs would have been even more beautiful. The indoor Easter tree might have been a practicality or more decoration. In Sweden, Easter trees have feathers at the end of each branch. That might be to sweep away winter; it might have something to do with witches’ brooms and the Swedish tradition of dressing up and going door to door collecting chocolate eggs; it may have evolved from an older custom of whipping oneself and others with twigs to commemorate the sufferings of Jesus on Good Friday. The Easter tree tradition came to America from Europe but wasn’t commonly seen until the 90s, when a children’s book popularized the idea and Easter trees could be bought everywhere, ready-made. But some people hang the eggs they’ve decorated year after year, recording the people and events present each Easter, tracing the growth of children (and their skill in writing eggs), making a blossoming Easter tree decoration to welcome spring.

      • That makes sense – drying the eggs on the trees. Very interesting, and pretty too. Thanks for the info.

  2. donationcan says:

    I’m grateful that my Baba brought over her pysanky eggs from Ukraine. It’s great to see the tradition survive. I have 4 of her eggs on my shelf.

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