History of Pysanky

Pysanky and pysanka, the singular form, are derived from a Ukrainian word meaning "to write." Pysanky are whole, raw eggs which have been decorated with a wax-resist method whereby one draws (or "writes," as Ukrainians would say) those portions of the design one wishes to be white with melted wax on the plain, white egg. A small, hollow funnel attached to a stick is often used to heat the wax and write with. This tool is called a kistka. One then dips the egg in a light colored dye - yellow, for instance - and writes those designs that are intended to be yellow. Another, darker dye bath is followed by more writing, and so on till the entire design in its several colors is on the egg. One then heats the egg, often in the flame of a candle, and wipes the melted wax off it. This is the finished pysanka.

Archeologists have discovered ceramic pysanky in Ukraine dating back to 1300 B.C.  They have linked pysanky designs to those of Egyptian ceramics created in 1500 B.C., and to symbolism of the Trypilljan culture in Ukraine of 3000 B.C.   Six thousand years ago, the Trypilljan culture flourished in Ukraine.  The society existed 3000 years before biblical Abraham and long before Greek mythology and the Bronze Age.  Trypilljan people lived in the land of Ukraine at the same time as the Egyptian pyramids were built. The Trypilljans were a matriarchal society that worshipped "mother earth" and had little interest in power struggles concerning politics, taxes, money and ruling, as in patriarchal societies.  Trypilljans lived peacefully with each other and with their neighbors.  The tools people used most were hoes and sickles, not clubs and arrows.  Their homes were decorated inside and out with beautiful drawings and paintings.  Because they took time for artistic and aesthetic beauty, scientists feel they had enough food and time to spend on higher pursuits such as beauty and art.   In both design and color, Trypilljan symbolism echoed the people's close attachment to the soil and other elements of nature.  Ukrainian symbolic art is based, in large measure, on these early ideograms.  The most notable example is the Ukrainian meander or unending line, which denotes the cyclical nature of life.  Other examples include such motifs as the circle, cross, stars, dots, matriarchal symbols, wheat, fir tree, horse, stag, horns and bear's paws.

What is a symbol on "pysanka"?  It is a word picture, an ideogram, a code, containing the secrets of a culture.  More effectively than words it reveals feelings: love, happiness, hope, dread, despair, etc.  To those who understand symbolic art, it means something, and to those who cannot decipher the code, it remains a mystery.  The sense of mystery is inherent because each pysanka involves a trinity of symbolisms: the symbolism of the egg itself, the symbolism of design, and the symbolism of color.

Since the earliest of times people have sought meaning for lifeís mysteries and in the process have found the need for worship. One of the earliest objects of worship for primitive man was the sun and in Ukraine, eggs were an integral part of the ceremonial rites of sun worship. The ancient Ukrainians determined that when an egg was broken the yolk represented the sun and the white the moon.  Beeswax was considered as a magical ingredient of the writing process. This was entwined with the sun cult.  The wax was made from honey; the honey was collected from flowers; flowers grew because of the sun.  The egg became part of various ceremonies and took on a particular significance in the spring rituals. In winter Earth was dormant and appeared to have no life, just as the egg appeared to have no life. But as the seemingly dead egg hatched a living thing the earth too sprang to life in spring. Consequently, the egg became a symbol of life.

The tradition of decorating eggs, especially at Easter or in spring, was widespread through Europe. It was especially prevalent in Slavic areas. There were the Moravian eggs from Czachia and the Sorbian eggs from the Slavic tribes of eastern Germany. Nowhere, however, did the decoration of eggs become so vital a part of a societyís culture as it did in Ukraine. The people in Ukraine came to see the egg, now referred to as pysanky, as a talisman. Pysanky became part of daily life and were believed to possess power. Evil pirits were believed to be afraid of the rooster and chicken eggs. The Cossacks often took roosters with them on their travels to serve as time clocks and also to ward off evil. To the ancient people of all cultures life could not be lived without a talisman of some sort. Danger was everywhere. In the Ukraine, pysanky became needed, necessary, and cherished.

At various times of the year or at points of passage in a personís life the pysanky took on mystical meaning. Colors and designs came into being to be representative of nature and life itself. Children were given pysanky with floral designs in a usually light color. Teenagers would receive pysanky with predominantly white coloring to signify the blank page of their future. Married couples were given pysanky with the popular 40 triangles design which in Ukrainian culture symbolized the forty tasks of life. An older person of advanced age received black pysanky with belts, ladders and gates to remind them of their bridge to heaven.

This practice of giving pysanky became part of the Ukrainian tradition and also served as a means of preserving and continuing the art of pysanky itself. For centuries the designs and symbols used on pysanky were handed down from mother to daughter. The cultural heritage of the Ukrainian nation was entrusted this way.

With the acceptance of Christianity in Ukraine in the year 988 A.D. pysanky became a part of the Christian tradition of Easter and now took on the meaning of the rebirth of man and the resurrection of God. The egg symbol was likened to the tomb from which Christ arose. There is no point where we can determine where the pagan beliefs and customs of pysanky end and where the Christian symbolism begins. In reality a subtle blending of both has occurred.

In a similar way the traditional approach and the modern one has blended for pysanky artists. Pysanky used to be made at night by women only when the rest of the household was asleep. Before a Ukrainian woman could begin a pysanka she needed to be in the right spiritual frame of mind. The day prior to her beginning her pysanka she would avoid speaking ill of anyone, would exercise patience in dealing with others, and she would tenderly care for her family. No one was allowed to observe her creating her pysanka since the sole purpose of pysanky art was to ward off evil. This was a mystical expression of the Ukrainian people. The concept has evolved and now, although there are some who maintain a strict traditionalist view, pysanky has joined the ranks of other art forms as a personal expression of the individual artist. But what hasnít changed are the links to an ancient culture and all the symbolism and heritage those links imply.

P.S.  I have noticed a lot of people misspelling the word Ukrainian.  They are writing it without the first "i", like "Ukranian."  If you have accidentally misspelled it in your search, you will probably be able to find even more information about the Ukraine if you spell it "Ukrainian".

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