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A pysanka (Ukrainian: писанка, plural: pysanky) is a Ukrainian Easter egg, decorated with traditional Ukrainian folk designs using a wax-resist (batik) method. The word pysanka comes from the verb pysaty, "to write", as the designs are not painted on, but written with beeswax.
Many other eastern European ethnic groups decorate eggs using wax resist for Easter. These include the Belarusians (пісанка, pisanka), Bulgarians (писано яйце, pisano yaytse), Croats (pisanica), Czechs (kraslice), Hungarians (hímestojás), Lithuanians (margutis), Poles (pisanka), Romanians (ouă vopsite, incondeiate or impistrite), Russians (расписанное яйцо "rаspisannoe yaitsо"), Serbs (pisanica), Slovaks (kraslica), Slovenes (pisanica, pirhi or remenke) and Sorbs (jejka pisać).
Pysanka is often taken to mean any type of decorated egg, but it specifically refers to an egg created by the written-wax batik method and utilizing traditional folk motifs and designs. Several other types of decorated eggs are seen in Ukrainian tradition, and these vary throughout the regions of Ukraine.
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.
As in many ancient cultures, Ukrainians worshipped a sun god (Dazhboh). The sun was important - it warmed the earth and thus was a source of all life. Eggs decorated with nature symbols became an integral part of spring rituals, serving as benevolent talismans.
In pre-Christian times, Dazhboh was one of the main deities in the Slavic pantheon; 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 egg was also honored during rite-of-Spring festivals––it represented the rebirth of the earth. The long, hard winter was over; the earth burst forth and was reborn just as the egg miraculously burst forth with life. The egg, therefore, was believed to have special powers.
With the advent of Christianity, via a process of religious syncretism, the symbolism of the egg was changed to represent, not nature's rebirth, but the rebirth of man. Christians embraced the egg symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose. With the acceptance of Christianity in 988, the decorated pysanka, in time, was adapted 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.
In modern times, the art of the pysanka was carried abroad by Ukrainian emigrants to North and South America, where the custom took hold, and concurrently banished in Ukraine by the Soviet regime (as a religious practice), where it was nearly forgotten. Museum collections were destroyed both by war and by Soviet cadres. Since Ukrainian Independence in 1991, there has been a rebirth of the art in its homeland.
No actual pysanka have been found from Ukraine's prehistoric periods, as eggshells do not preserve well. Cultic ceramic eggs have been discovered in excavations near the village of Luka Vrublivets'ka, during excavations of a Trypillian site (5th to 3rd millennium BC). These eggs were ornamented, and in the form of торохкальці (torokhkal'tsi; rattles containing a small stone with which to scare evil spirits away).
Similarly, no actual pysanky from the Kievan Rus' period exist, but stone, clay and bone versions do, and have been excavated in many sites throughout Ukraine. Most common are ceramic eggs decorated with a horsetail plant (сосонка sosonka) pattern in yellow and bright green against a dark background. More than 70 such eggs have been excavated throughout Ukraine, many of them from graves of children and adults. They are thought to be representations of real decorated eggs.
These ceramic eggs were common in Kievan Rus', and had a characteristic style. They were slightly smaller than life size (2.5 by 4 cm, or 1 by 1.6 inches), and were created from reddish pink clays by the spiral method. The majolica glazed eggs had a brown, green or yellow background, and showed interwoven yellow and green stripes. The eggs made in large cities like Kiev and Chernihiv, which had workshops that produced clay tile and bricks; these tiles (and pysanky) were not only used locally, but were exported to Poland, and to several Scandinavian and Baltic countries.
The oldest "real" pysanka was excavated in L'viv in 2013, and was found in a rainwater collection system that dates to the 15th or 16th century. The pysanka was written on a goose egg, which was discovered largely intact, and the design is that of a wave pattern. The second oldest known pysanka was excavated in Baturyn in 2008, and dates to the end of the 17th century. Baturyn was Hetman Mazepa's capital, and it was razed in 1708 by the armies of Peter I. A complete (but crushed) pysanka was discovered, a chicken egg shell with geometric designs against a blue-gray background. The pysanka is currently being reconstructed; when completed, it will allow us to see what sort of ornamentation was in use in pre-1708 Ukraine.
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 serpent's 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 for yet another year.
Newer legends blended folklore and Christian beliefs and firmly attached the egg to the Easter celebration. One legend concerns the Virgin Mary. It tells of the time Mary gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross. She entreated them to be less cruel to her son and she wept. The tears of Mary fell upon the eggs, spotting them with dots of brilliant color.
Another legend tells of when Mary Magdalene went to the sepulchre to anoint the body of Jesus. She had with her a basket of eggs to serve as a repast. When she arrived at the sepulchre and uncovered the eggs, the pure white shells had miraculously taken on a rainbow of colors.
A common legend tells of Simon the peddler, who helped Jesus carry his cross on the way to Calvary. He had left his goods at the side of the road, and, when he returned, the eggs had all turned into intricately decorated pysanky.
Many superstitions were attached to pysanky. Pysanky were 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. A blessed pysanka could be used to find demons hidden in the dark corners of your house.
Pysanky held powerful magic, and had to be disposed of properly, lest a witch get a hold of one. She could use the shell to gather dew, and use the gathered dew to dry up a cow's milk. The witch could also 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.
The cloth used to dry pysanky was powerful, too, and could be used to cure skin diseases. And it was considered very bad luck to trample on a pysanka–God would punish anyone who did with a variety of illnesses.
There were superstitions regarding the colors and designs on the pysanky. One old Ukrainian myth centered on the wisdom of giving older people gifts of pysanky with darker colors and/or rich designs, for their life has already been filled. Similarly, it is appropriate to give young people pysanky with white as the predominant color because their life is still a blank page. Girls would often give pysanky to young men they fancied, and include heart motifs. It was said, though, that a girl should never give her boyfriend a pysanky that has no design on the top and bottom of the egg, as this might signify that the boyfriend would soon lose his hair.
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 from mother to daughter through generations. The custom of decorating pysanky was observed with greatest care, and a pysanka, after receiving the Easter blessing, was held to have great powers as a talisman.
Pysanky were traditionally made during the last week of Lent, Holy Week in the Orthodox and Greek (Uniate) Catholic calendars. (Both faiths are represented in Ukraine, and both still celebrate Easter by the Julian calendar.) They were made by the women of the family. During the middle of the Lenten season, women began putting aside eggs, those that were most perfectly shaped and smooth, and ideally, the first laid eggs of young hens. There had to be a rooster, as only fertilized eggs could be used. (If non-fertile eggs were used, there would be no fertility in the home.)
The dyes were prepared from dried plants, roots, bark, berries and insects (cochineal). Yellow was obtained from the flowers of the woadwaxen, and gold from onion skins. Red could be extracted from logwood or cochineal, and dark green and violet from the husks of sunflower seeds and the berries and bark of the elderberry bush. Black dye was made from walnut husks. The dyes were prepared in secret, using recipes handed down from mother to daughter. Sometimes chemical dyes (of unusual or difficult colors) were purchased from peddlers along with alum, a mordant that helped the natural dyes adhere better to eggshells.
A stylus, known as a pysachok, pysak, pysal'tse, or kystka (kistka), depending on region, was prepared. A piece of thin brass was wrapped around a needle, forming a hollow cone. This was attached to a small stick (willow was preferred) with wire or horsehair. In the Lemko regions a simple pin or nail inserted onto the end of a stick was used instead (drop-pull technique).
The pysanky were made at night, when the children were asleep. The women in the family gathered together, said the appropriate prayers, and went to work. It was done in secret––the patterns and color combinations were handed down from mother to daughter and carefully guarded.
Pysanky were made using a wax resist (batik) method. Beeswax was heated in a small bowl on the large family stove (піч), and the styluses were dipped into it. The molten wax was applied to the white egg with a writing motion; any bit of shell covered with wax would be sealed, and remain white. Then the egg was dyed yellow, and more wax applied, and then orange, red, purple, black. (The dye sequence was always light to dark). Bits of shell covered with wax remained that color. After the final color, usually red, brown or black, the wax was removed by heating the egg in the stove and gently wiping off the melted wax, or by briefly dipping the egg into boiling water.
Boiled eggs were not used, as pysanky were generally written on raw or, less commonly, baked eggs (pecharky). Boiled eggs were dyed red for Easter (red Easter eggs), using an onion skin dye, and called "krashanky". The number of colors on an egg was usually limited, as natural dyes had very long dyeing times, sometimes hours. Pysanky would be made–and dyed–in batches.
Alternatively, in ethnic Lemko areas, a pinhead was dipped into molten wax and then applied to the shell of the egg. Simple drops were made, or there was an additional pulling motion, which would create teardrop or comma shapes. These drops were used to create patterns and designs. Dyeing and wax removal proceeded as with traditional pysanky.
Pysanky continue to be made in modern times; while many traditional aspects have been preserved, new technologies are in evidence. Aniline dyes have largely replaced natural dyes. Styluses are now made with modern materials. Traditional styluses are still made from brass and wood, but those made with more modern plastic handles are gaining in popularity. An electric version of the stylus has been commercially available since the 1970s, with the cone becoming a metal reservoir which keeps the melted beeswax at a constant temperature and holds a much larger amount than a traditional stylus. These newer styluses (whether electric or not) also sport machined heads, with sizes or the opening ranging from extra-extra-fine to extra-heavy.
Pysanky are typically made to be given to family members and respected outsiders. To give a pysanka is to give a symbolic gift of life, which is why the egg must remain whole. Furthermore, each of the designs and colors on the pysanka is likely to have a deep, symbolic meaning. Traditionally, pysanky designs are chosen to match the character of the person to whom the pysanka is to be given. Typically, pysanky are displayed prominently in a public room of the house.
In a large family, by Holy Thursday, 60 or more eggs would have been completed by the women of the house. (The more daughters a family had, the more pysanky would be produced.) The eggs would then be taken to the church on Easter Sunday to be blessed, after which they were given away. Here is a partial list of how the pysanky would be used:
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.
A bowl full of pysanky was invariably kept in every home. It served not only as a colorful display, but also as protection from all dangers. Some of the eggs were emptied, and a bird’s head made of wax or dough and wings and tail-feathers of folded paper were attached. These “doves” were suspended before icons in commemoration of the birth of Christ, when a dove came down from heaven and soared over the child Jesus.
A great variety of ornamental motifs are found on pysanky. Because of the egg’s fragility, few ancient examples of pysanky have survived. However, similar design motifs occur in pottery, woodwork, metalwork, Ukrainian embroidery and other crafts , many of which have survived.
The symbols which decorated pysanky underwent a process of adaptation over time. In pre-Christian times these symbols imbued an egg with magical powers to ward off evil spirits, banish winter, guarantee a good harvest and bring a person good luck. After 988, when Christianity became the state religion of Ukraine, the interpretation of many of the symbols began to change, and the pagan marking were reinterpreted in a Christian light. In modern times, the Ukrainian diaspora has reinterpreted meanings and created their own new symbols.
The names and meaning of various symbols and design elements vary from region to region, and even from village to village. Similar symbols can have totally different interpretations in different places. There are several thousand different motifs in Ukrainian folk designs. They can be grouped into several families.
The most popular pysanka designs are geometric figures. The egg itself is most often divided by straight lines into squares, triangles and other shapes. These shapes are then filled with other forms and designs. These are also among the most ancient symbols, with the решето (resheto, sieve) motif dating back to Paleolithic times. Other ancient geometric symbols are agricultural in nature: triangles, which symbolized clouds or rain; quadrilaterals, especially those with a resheto design in them, symbolized a ploughed field; dots stood for seeds.
Geometric symbols used quite commonly on pysanky today. The triangle is said to symbolize the Holy Trinity; in ancient times it symbolized other trinities: the elements of air, fire and water, the family (man, woman and child) or the cycle of life (birth, life, and death). Diamonds, a type of quadrilateral, are sometimes said to symbolize knowledge. Curls/spirals are ancient symbols of the Zmiya/Serpent, and are said to have a meaning of defense or protection. The spiral is said to be protective against the "нечиста сила"; an evil spirit which happens to enter a house will be drawn into the spiral and trapped there. Dots, which can represent seeds, stars or cuckoo birds’ eggs (a symbol of spring), are popularly said to be the tears of the blessed Virgin. Hearts are also sometimes seen, and, as in other cultures, they represent love.
One interesting adaptation of the geometric design is not a symbol per se but a division of the egg called "forty triangles" (actually 48) or "Sorokoklyn (forty wedges)." Its ancient meaning is not known, but is often said to represent the forty days of lent, the forty martyrs, the forty days that Christ spent in the desert, or the forty life tasks of married couples.
Eternity bands or meanders are composed of waves, lines or ribbons. A line without end is said to represent immortality. Waves, however, are a water symbol, and thus a symbol of the Zmiya/Serpent, the ancient water god. Waves can also be considered an agricultural symbol, because it is rain that ensures good crops.
The only true Christian symbol, and not one adapted from an earlier pagan one, is the church. Stylized churches are often found on pysanky from western Ukraine, particularly those in the Hutsul regions and Bukovyna; a sieve motif inside symbolizes the church’s ability to separate good from evil.
Crosses are fairly common, although most of those found on traditional pysanky are not Ukrainian (Byzantine) crosses. The crosses most commonly depicted are of the "cross crosslet" type, with arms of equal lengths. In ancient times the cross was a sun symbol, an abstracted representation of the solar bird.
Other adapted religious symbols include a triangle with a circle in the center, denoting the eye of God, and one known as the "hand of god."
The most common motifs found on pysanky are those associated with plants and their parts (flowers and fruit). Women who wrote pysanky drew their inspiration from the world of nature, depicting flowers, trees, fruits, leaves and whole plants in a highly stylized (not realistic) fashion. Such ornaments symbolized the rebirth of nature after winter, and pysanky were written with plant motifs to guarantee a good harvest. A most popular floral design is a plant in a vase of standing on its own, which symbolized the tree of life and was a highly abstracted version of the berehynia (great goddess).
Pysanky created by the mountain people of the Hutsul region of Ukraine often showed a stylized fir tree branch, a symbol of youth and eternal life. Trees, in general, symbolized strength, renewal, creation, growth; as with animal motifs, the parts (leaves, branches) had the same symbolic meaning as the whole. The oak tree was a sacred to the ancient god Perun, the most powerful of the pagan Slavic pantheon, and thus oak leaves symbolized strength.
Pussy willow branches are often depicted on pysanky; in Ukraine, the pussy willow replaces the palm leaf on Palm Sunday.
Two very popular plant motifs on modern diasporan pysanky are poppies and wheat; these motifs are never seen on traditional pysanky, and are purely a modern invention.
Fruit is not a common motif on pysanky, but is sometimes represented. Apples, plums and cherries are depicted on traditional pysanky. Currants and viburnum (kalyna) berries are sometimes seen, too. These motifs are probably related to fecundity. Grapes are seen more often, as they have been transformed from an agricultural motif to a religious one, representing the Holy Communion.
Flowers are a common pysanka motif. They can be divided into two types: specific botanical types, and non-specific.
Specific botanical types include sunflowers, daisies, violets, carnations, periwinkle and lily-of the-valley. These flowers are represented with identifying features that make them recognizable. Carnations will have a serrated edge to the petals, the flowers of the lily of the valley will be arrayed along a stem, periwinkle will have three or four leaves (periwinkle is represented by its leaves, not its flowers, on pysanky).
There are also flower motifs called orchids and tulips, but these are not botanical names. They are actually the names given to fantastical flowers, as neither of these flowers was commonly found in Ukraine until modern times. The names reflected the exoticism of the designs.
Non-specific flowers are much more common, and consist of ruzhy and others. Ruzhy (or rozhy) are named after mallow flowers, and are another name given to the eight-pointed star motif. They can be full, empty, compound or even crooked. They are a sun sign. Other non-specific types often have hyphenated names: potato-flower, strawberry-flower, etc. They are usually simple arrangements of petals, six or more, and bear little resemblance to the plant they are named for.
A vinok, or garland of flowers, echoes the beautiful garlands worn by Ukrainian girls around their heads during holidays and celebrations. On the pysanka, vinky are drawn in three circles around the egg, representing the three parts of human existence: birth, marriage, and life.
Scevomorphic designs are the second-largest group of designs, and are representations of man-made agricultural objects. These symbols are very common, as Ukraine was a highly agricultural society, and drew many of its positive images from field and farm. Some of these symbols are actually related to agriculture; others have older meanings, but were renamed in more recent times based on their appearance.
Common symbols include the ladder (symbolizing prayers going up to heaven) and the sieve/resheto (a plowed field, or perhaps the separation of good and evil).
Rakes and combs are commonly depicted; both are meant to invoke a good harvest. They are rain symbols. The body of the rake (often depicted as a triangle) is the cloud, and the teeth symbolize rain drops.
Windmills, a variation on the broken cross (swastika) motif, are actually sun symbols, not agricultural symbols. The movement of the cross echoes the movement of the sun across the sky.
Although animal motifs are not as popular as plant motifs, they are nevertheless found on pysanky, especially those of the people of the Carpathian Mountains. Animal depicted on pysanky include both wild animals (deer, birds, fish) and domesticated ones (rams, horses, poultry). As with plants, animals were depicted in the abstract, highly stylized, and not with realistic detail.
Horses were popular ornaments because they symbolized strength and endurance, as well as wealth and prosperity. They also had a second meaning as a sun symbol: in some versions of pagan mythology, the sun was drawn across the sky by the steeds of Dazhboh, the sun god. Similarly, deer designs were very prevalent as they were intended to bring prosperity and long life; in other versions of the myth, it was the stag who carried the sun across the sky on his antlers. Rams are symbols of leadership, strength, dignity, and perseverance.
Sometime women simply drew parts of animals; these symbols were probably a sort of shorthand, endowed with all the attributes of the animal represented. Ducks’ necks, goose feet, rabbits’ ears, rams’ horns, wolves’ teeth, bear claws, and bulls’ eyes can all be found on pysanky. One cannot be sure, however, if the symbols were actually meant to represent animals, or were given this name centuries later because of their appearance.
Birds were considered the harbingers of spring, thus they were a commonplace pysanka motif. Birds of all kinds are the messengers of the sun and heaven. Birds are always shown perched, at rest, never flying (except for swallows and, in more recent times, white doves carrying letters). Roosters are symbols of masculinity, or the coming of dawn, and hens represent fertility.
Birds were almost always shown in full profile, stylized, but with characteristic features of the species. Partial representations of some birds––mostly domestic fowl––are often seen on pysanky. Bird parts (eyes, feet, beaks, combs, feathers) are said carry the same meaning as the entire bird. Thus hen's feet represent fertility and the rooster's comb signifies masculinity.
Insects are only rarely depicted on pysanky. Spiders and, more often, their webs are the most common, and probably symbolize perseverance. Other insects are sometimes seen on modern, diasporan pysanky, most commonly butterflies and bees, but seem to be a modern innovation. In Onyshchuk's "Symbolism of the Ukrainian Pysanka" she depicts pysanky with a butterfly motif, but the original design, recorded by Kulzhynsky in 1899, was labeled as being swallow tails.
The fish, originally a symbol of health, eventually came to symbolize Jesus Christ, the "fisher of men." In old Ukrainian fairy tales, the fish often helped the hero to win his fight with evil. In the Greek alphabet “fish” (ICHTHYS) is an acrostic of "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” and it became a secret symbol used by the early Christians. The fish represents abundance, as well as Christian interpretations of baptism, sacrifice, the powers of regeneration, and Christ himself.
Another ancient symbol is that of the змія or serpent, the ancient god of water and earth. The serpent could be depicted in several ways: as an "S" or sigma, as a curl or spiral, or as a wave. When depicted as a sigma, the zmiya often wears a crown. Depictions of the serpent can be found on Neolithic Trypillian pottery. The serpent symbol on a pysanka is said to bring protection from catastrophe. Spirals were particularly strong talismans, as an evil spirit, upon entering the house, would be drawn into the spiral and trapped there.
Among the oldest and most important symbols of pysanky is the sun, and the simplest rendering of the sun is a closed circle with or without rays. Pysanky from all regions of Ukraine depict an eight-sided star, the most common depiction of the sun. Six- or seven-sided stars can also be seen, but much less commonly.
The sun can also appear as a flower or a трилист (three leaf). The swastika, a "broken cross" or "ducks’ necks" also represented the sun in pagan times: the movement of the arms around the cross represented the movement of the sun across the sky. The Slavic pagans also believed that the sun did not rise on its own, but was carried across the sky by a stag (or, in some versions, a horse). The deer and horses often found on Hutsul pysanky are solar symbols.
Pysanky with sun motifs were said to have been especially powerful, because they could protect their owner from sickness, bad luck and the evil eye. In Christian times the sun symbol is said to represent life, warmth, and the love and the Christian God.
Other cosmomorphic symbols are less commonly seen. The moon is sometimes depicted as a circle with a cross inside it; it is begged to shed its light at night to help the traveller, and to chase away evil powers from the household. Stars are sometimes represented as dots.
It is not only motifs on pysanky which carried symbolic weight: colors also had significance. Although the earliest pysanky were often simply two-toned, and many folk designs still are, some believed that the more colors there were on a decorated egg, the more magical power it held. A multi-colored egg could thus bring its owner better luck and a better fate.
The color palette of traditional pysanky was fairly limited, and based on natural dyes. Yellow, red/orange, green, brown and black were the predominant colors. With the advent of aniline dyes in the 1800s, small amounts of blue and purple were sometimes added. It is important to note that the meanings below are generalizations; different regions interpreted colors differently.
Some color combinations had specific meanings, too:
These talismanic meanings applied to traditional pysanky with traditional designs. Since the mid-19th century, pysanky have been created more for decorative reasons than for the purposes of magic, as the belief in such practices has fallen by the wayside in a more modern, scientific era.
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