The art of the decorated egg, or the pysanka (from the Ukrainian verb pysaty, to write), dates back to pagan times, around 4000 B.C. Folk tales reveal that the people who lived in the region now known as Ukraine worshiped the sun. It warmed the earth and thus, was a source of all life. Eggs decorated with nature symbols were chosen for sun worship ceremonies and became an integral part of spring rituals, serving as benevolent talismans.
With the acceptance of Christianity in 988, the decorated pysanka (plural – pysanky) continued to play an important role in Ukrainian rituals of the new religion. Many symbols of the old sun worship survived and were adapted to represent Easter and Christ’s Resurrection.
A pagan legend maintains that the sun god was the most important of all the deities; birds were the sun god’s chosen creations for they were the only ones who could get near him. Humans could not catch the birds, but they did manage to obtain the eggs the birds laid Thus, the eggs were magical objects, a source of life.
The Hutsuls – Ukrainians who live in the Carpathian Mountains of Western Ukraine believe that the fate of the world depends upon the pysanka. As long as the egg decorating custom continues, the world will exist. If for any reason 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 sends out his minions to see how many pysanky have been created If the number is low, the serpents’ chains are loosened and he is free to wander the earth causing havoc and destruction. If on the other hand, the number of pysanky has increased, the chains are tightened and good triumphs over evil forget another year.
Throughout the centuries, various symbols on the pysanky took on different meanings. Symbols found on the pysanka, which is created using a batik (wax-dye) method, include wheat, which signifies health, flowers and birds, which stand for happiness and spring; the triangle, which in pagan times meant air, fire, water and in Christian times took on the meaning of the Holy Trinity. Hens and chickens symbolize fertility, roosters are identified with masculinity and strength, as are oak leaves. Deer are strength and prosperity; fish are also symbols of prosperity and Christianity, while infinite lines signify eternity.
It has been said that older people should receive pysanky with darker colors and/or rich designs, for their life has already been filled. It is appropriate to give young people pysanky with white as the predominant color because their life is still a blank page.
Girls should never give their boyfriends pysanky that have no design on the top and bottom on the egg- the baldness on either end signifies that the boyfriend will soon loose his hair.
Pysanka is often taken to mean any type of decorated egg, but it specifically refers to eggs created by the written-wax batik method. Several types of decorated eggs are seen in Ukrainian tradition, and these vary throughout the regions of Ukraine.
- Krashanky are boiled eggs dyed a single color (with vegetable dyes), and are blessed and eaten at Easter.
- Pysanky (from pysaty, “to write”) are raw eggs created with the wax-resist method (batik). The designs are “written” in hot wax with a stylus or a pin-head. Wooden eggs and beaded eggs are often referred to as “pysanky” because they mimic the decorative style of pysanky in a different medium.
- Krapanky (from krapka, “a dot”) are raw eggs decorated using the wax-resist method, but with only dots as ornamentation (no symbols or other drawings)
- Dryapanky (from dryapaty, “to scratch”) are created by scratching the surface of a dyed egg to reveal the white shell below.
- Malyovanky (from malyuvaty, “to paint”) are created by painting or coloring (e.g. with a marker) on an egg.
- Lystovanky (from lystya, “leaves”) are created by dyeing an egg to which small leaves have been attached.
All but the krashanky 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. Some of the others, most notably the krapanky, are referred to by some as “pysanky”, but that is not the correct usage of the term.