Pysanky: The Ukranian Art of Writing on Eggs
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Photos by Johanna “Zenobia” Krynytzky “All of Eastern Europe has a long history of coloring eggs,” Johanna ‘Zenobia’ Krynytzky tells me. Krynytzky’s family is from Western Ukraine, and she is a first-generation Ukrainian American. I met her by contacting a local Ukrainian church to learn more about the elaborate pysanky eggs that are popular around Easter.
“Pysanky (plural form of pysanka) is really embraced as a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism,” Krynytzky explains. Krynytzky, who learned the skill from her grandmother and mother, would do demonstrations of the art with her sisters and friends at ethnic fairs, dressed in traditional costuming. She tells me that when the U.S.S.R. invaded, they prohibited
coloring Easter eggs in addition to prohibiting Ukraine’s native language,
culture, and religion. Her family came over to the U.S. after World War II like many Ukrainians. The diaspora took it upon themselves to continue the
tradition of pysanka.
“They think it started way back in the Bronze Age of the Trypillian culture (5,000 to 2,700 BCE). They don’t have any eggs from that era, but they have a
ceramic egg that has the same designs that are seen today.” The oldest intact
egg found in Ukraine is about 500 years old and is a goose egg, she tells me.
“Before the Christian era, the eggs were used to honor nature and all of the seasons,” Krynytzky adds. “They used the crosses for the four directions. Raindrops, gods and goddesses, goat horns, trees, and chickens were all written on eggs. A lot of these were taken over by Christianity. In the Byzantine era, they adopted those symbols as Christian symbols, so the raindrops are now Mary’s tears, and the tree of life continued to be popular. Deer and goats continued, and the stars were now the Star of Bethlehem.”
These decorative eggs were not just used for Easter. They were made over the dark nights of winter in the hopes of spring coming back. In addition to Easter egg baskets, during the Middle Ages, young women would make a
decorated egg and present it to the boy whom she liked. He would run home and bring it to his mother for approval! His mother would examine her work and then decide if she would make a good wife.
Pysanky eggs would also be used in burials. Additionally, they would be put up in the eaves of houses for good luck or crushed up for livestock. Given year-round as gifts, a bowl of them in every home meant the house was well protected.
“Today, they are blown out, but sometimes they would just dry them for preservation. A highly decorated pysanka was never meant to be eaten,” Krynytzky says. Krashanka are hard-boiled eggs that were also included in Easter egg baskets. These were colored from a single color vegetable dye and meant to be eaten, although they are certainly not as pretty as a pysanka.
The process of writing the wax on the egg is traditionally done by candlelight. Kistka is the instrument that is used to write it, historically made of a bone, with a funnel attached to it. The artist would heat up the wax over the candle. A the art evolved, the kistka were made from plastic, wood, and metal, and today there are electric kistkas!
“Each region of Ukraine has a different style,” Krynytzky says. “Some are more organic and others very geometric. In the mountains, they are more geometric; the people in the plains and steppes of Ukraine have more organic designs, are not so evenly divided, and more free form.”
Although they can be given as gifts year-round, they are now primarily used for Easter. At Ukrainian churches, you’ll see piled-up baskets stacked with embroidered clothes. The priest will bless all the baskets. “They are placed with traditional bread (paska and babka), krashanka, fresh or smoked sausage, and some other meats, cheese, and chocolate.”
Krynytzky offers a couple of different workshops in town and recommends looking up Ukrainian churches or pysanky egg classes to learn more. She says there is a whole art to how to divide the egg up in the correct way. And while some Ukrainians who live in the mountains allow their eggs to dry naturally, if you live in a warm environment, they may explode — which would be horrible after spending hours and maybe even days decorating.
“Some people decorate and then blow them out — but it is a gamble,” she warns. “I have a blank ostrich egg, but I have not yet decorated. It will take hours.
“Ukrainians are all artists,” Krynytzky says. “We pretty much all sing, dance, paint, or embroider.” When she is not creating pysanky eggs for fun, gifts, or for Pysanky for Peace, she runs and directs Hip Expressions Belly Dance Studio.
“Zenobia was the original Xena Warrior Princess, and it is also my mother’s middle name. When I became a professional belly dancer in Chicago, it was fashionable to have a stage name, so I took my stage name as my mother’s middle name.”
According to Pysanky For Peace, the Hutzuls — Ukrainians who live in the
Carpathian Mountains — believe that the fate of the world depends upon the pysanky. In that effort, they are aiming to create and collect 100,000 pysanky eggs to raise funds for the people of Ukraine and to eventually deliver them to the people of Ukraine after peace finds its way back to their homeland.
Pysanka means “to write.” Each symbol and color represents something specific. Lines and waves that circle the eggs represent eternity and the cycle of life. Consider adding these additional shapes and colors to your designs this year.
BLACK — Eterinity, darkness before the dawn
WHITE — Purity, innocence, birth
BROWN — Mother Earth, bountiful gifts
RED — Action, fire, passion, love
ORANGE — Strength, ambition
YELLOW — Light, purity, youth
GREEN — Spring, renewal, fertility, freshness
BLUE — Blue skies, good health, truth
PURPLE — Faith, patience, wisdom
PINK — Fertility, elegance, calmness
ACORN — Preparation for the future
BASKET — Motherhood, giver of life and gifts
BEES — Pollinators, good harvest
BIRDS — Never drawn in flight, always at rest. Harbingers of spring, fertility
CROSS — Pre-Christian: Symbols of Life, four directions; Christian: Symbol of Christ
DIAMONDS — Knowledge
DOTS / MARY’S TEARS — From sorrow comes unexpected blessings
EVERGREEN TREE — Health, stamina, eternal youthFLOWERPOT — Love, charity, goodwill
GRAPE VINE — Strong and loyal love
HENS FEET/CHICKEN FOOTPRINTS — Protection of the young
HONEYCOMB — Sweetness, abundance
HORNS — Nobility, wisdom, triumph
HORSE — Prosperity, endurance, speed
INSECTS — Rebirth, good harvest
RAM — Masculine, leadership, perseverance
ROOSTER’S COMB/ROOSTERS — Masculine, rich married life
SPIDER WEB — Patience, skill
STAG/DEER — Wealth, prosperity, leadership
SUN — Symbol of life, love of God
SUNFLOWER — Love of God, love of sun
TREE OF LIFE — When drawn with four seasons, represents renewal and creation
TRIANGLES — Pre-Cristian: air, fire, water Cristian: Holy Trinity
WOLF’S TEETH — Loyalty, a firm grip
KENNY COOGAN is a food, farm, and flower national columnist. He’s also part of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS and FRIENDS podcast team. He has a master’s degree in Global Sustainability and leads workshops about owning chickens, vegetable gardening, animal training, and corporate team building. His new book, Florida’s Carnivorous Plants, is available at kennycoogan.com.