On late winter evenings in Ukraine, women huddle in front of candle flames to recreate ancient designs on the most delicate of all canvases, a raw fertilized chicken egg. They are working to create pysanky (pee-SAHN-kee), finely decorated eggs for the celebration of Orthodox Easter, Pascha. These beautiful colored eggs have been crafted in Eastern Europe for centuries, but they reached their artistic culmination in Ukraine and are popularly referred to as Ukrainian Easter eggs.
A pysanka is created through a meticulous, time-consuming wax-resist process that is so difficult Romanians refer to pysanky as “tormented eggs.” Applying layer upon layer of melted beeswax poured through a tiny copper funnel heated by a candle flame, the artisan draws, or “writes,” traditional patterns on the shell. The egg is then dyed, first with the lightest color, then with darker and darker colors. The color that is covered by wax will remain that way in the egg’s final design. There may be as many as five or six colors, with each new color involving a separate application of wax. The last color to be used will serve as the “background” for the finished egg. When the process is complete, the wax is removed by very lightly baking the egg and wiping it clean. Only then is the final design revealed.
In the old days, the egg yolk and white were simply allowed to dry in the shell, but today special tools are used to blow them out. This prevents the possibility of an egg later exploding from a spontaneous buildup of pressure-as sometimes used to happen. The process of decorating the egg can take up to five or six hours, and it requires patient attention throughout. For the artisan, there can be a spiritual dimension to this process. The precariousness of the exercise, not to mention the fragility of the final product, cultivate a respect for the tenuousness of life and all human endeavor.
Pysanky motifs predate Christianity in Ukraine, and some of the patterns that are used have been traced to the Trypillian culture of the Bronze Age (3500-1700 BC). Clay eggs similar in design and decoration to pysanky have been dated as far back as the ninth century AD. The origin of some pysanky symbols remains murky. Many have pre-Christian associations that have come to be understood in Christian terms. For example, the “little basket,” a triangle filled with delicate cross hatching, came to symbolize the Holy Trinity. And stylized depictions of wheat, which may originally have been harvest symbols, are commonly interpreted as representing the Eucharist.
Eventually, making pysanky became a ritualized part of observing Great Lent and Pascha. Each region, locale, and family had its own traditions, patterns, and methods for making pysanky, and these were passed down from mother to daughter. In Ukraine it is still said that a pysanky maker would no sooner change a traditional regional design than she would change a prayer in the liturgy. Women traditionally prayed before working on pysanky and approached egg dyeing as a holy task. The eggs, prepared throughout Lent, were brought to church on Easter to be blessed. They were then exchanged among family and friends with the jubilant cry, “Christ is risen,” a custom that continues today.
Practiced surreptitiously during the Soviet era, the craft has since experienced a revival. Museum exhibits have now been reconstituted in Ukraine, and the craft is being taught in schools there. Pysanky is also thriving in the diaspora, particularly in Ukrainian-settled areas of Canada and the United States. Some men have begun to learn the technique, and an international convention of pysanky artists meets yearly.
The technique itself has started to undergo change, especially in the diaspora where plastic and electronic tools are being used to create the designs. In some instances, pysanky are now being sold directly to collectors. Some think these innovations indicate a lack of authenticity, but others delight in the new artistry and the wider availability of the eggs.
The Hutzul people of western Ukraine have a legend according to which the very fate of the world depends on the preservation of pysanky. As Olya Dmytriw tells the story in her book Ukranian Arts:
Should the custom cease to exist, evil, in the guise of an ancient vicious monster chained to a huge cliff, will encompass the world and destroy it. Each year the monster’s servants encircle the globe, keeping record of the number of pysanky made. When there are few, the monster’s chains loosen, and evil flows throughout the world. When they are many, the monster’s chains hold taut, allowing love to conquer evil.
Whether this particular myth predates the arrival of Christianity in Ukraine is unclear, but those who continue to practice the art find truth in it. Christianity has always embraced elements of cultures it sought to evangelize, and pysanky, passed down through generations, absorbs and emanates the shared memory of those who create it.
The future of pysanky as a religious tradition is uncertain. As more of the colorful, intricately designed eggs become available through catalogs and online stores, some wonder whether their religious significance will be lost for those who make, buy, and exchange them. On the other hand, the very nature of the technique-the patience it requires and the fragility it reminds us of-may draw people beyond the craftsmanship to the very truths the practice has traditionally sought to inculcate.