Pysanky: What Are They?

Different Types of Pysanky (Easter Eggs)


Pysanka specifically alludes to an egg created by the written-wax batik method, incorporating traditional folk designs and symbols. Many other types of decorated eggs exist in Ukrainian tradition, varying across the regions of Ukraine.

  • Krashanky –from krasyty, “to decorate”– are boiled eggs dyed a single color (with vegetable dyes). They are blessed and eaten at Easter.
  • Pysanky –from pysaty, “to write”– are raw eggs created with the wax-resist method. The designs are “written” in hot wax with a pinhead or a special stylus called a pysachok (писачок) or a kistka (кістка) which has a small funnel attached to hold a small amount of liquid wax. The name comes from the Ukrainian verb pysaty, which means “to write”.
  • Krapanky –from krapka, “a dot”– are raw eggs decorated using the wax-resist method, but with only dots as ornamentation. They are traditionally created by dripping molten wax from a beeswax candle onto an egg. They can be considered the simplest version of a pysanka.
  • 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 a design with a brush using oil or water colour paints. It is sometimes used to refer to colouring on an egg.
  • Nakleyanky –from kleyaty, “to glue on”– are created by glueing objects to the surface.
  • Travlenky –from travlenya, “etching” – are created by waxing eggs and then etching away the unwaxed areas.
  • Biserky –from biser, “beads”– are created by coating an egg with beeswax, and then embedding beads into the wax to create geometric designs.
  • Lystovky –from lystya, “leaves”– are created by dyeing an egg to which small leaves have been attached.

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.

Pysanky: What Are They?

What Are Pysanky? (Ukrainian Easter Eggs)

A pysanka is a Ukrainian Easter Egg decorated with traditional Ukrainian designs using a wax-resistant method. The word pysanka originates from the verb pysaty, meaning “to write”, as the designs and symbols are written on the egg with beeswax.

Several other eastern European ethnic groups decorate eggs using wax for Easter, such as the Belarusians, Bulgarians, Croats, Czechs, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Poles, Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes and Sorbs.

As reported by many scholars, the art of wax egg decoration in Slavic cultures, especially in Ukraine, most likely dates back to pre-Christian times. This is based on the outspread nature of the practice as well as the symbols used. Unfortunately, there are no intact pysanka from ancient times in existence due to their fragility; only fragments of colored shells with wax decoration have been excavated in Poland.

As in many ancient cultures, Ukrainians worshipped a sun god named Dazhboh. This is because the sun warmed the earth and was considered to be a source of life. Eggs decorated with symbols of nature became an important part of spring rituals, serving as “charitable” talismans.

In pre-Christian times, birds were thought of as the sun god’s most prized creations as they were the only ones who could get close to him in flight. Humans could not catch them, but managed to obtain the eggs they laid. Therefore, the eggs were magical objects with special powers. The egg represented the rebirth of the earth. The long, hard winter was over; the earth was reborn in the same was the egg burst forth with life.

With the arrival of Christianity, the symbolism of the egg evolved to represent the rebirth of man. Christians equated the symbolism of the egg to the tomb from which Christ resurrected. With the acceptance of Christianity in 988, the decorated pysanka came to play a vital role in religious Ukrainian rituals. Countless symbols of sun worship survived and came to represent Easter as well as Jesus 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 was adapted, and simultaneously banished in Ukraine by the Soviet regime, where it was almost forgotten. Museum collections were destroyed both by war and by Soviet officers. Since Ukraine’s Independence in 1991, there has been a new surge of this art in its homeland, and a revival of interest in the preservation of traditional designs and their symbolism throughout history.

Motifs of Pysanky, Pysanky: What Are They?

Motifs & Designs in Pysanky

There is a wide variety of decorative motifs used on pysanky. In pre-Christian times these symbols infused an egg with magic to ward off evil, banish winter, bring about a good harvest as well as luck. After 988, when Christianity became the state religion of Ukraine, the interpretation of many of the symbols began to change, and the pagan motifs were reinterpreted in a Christian light.

Since the mid-19th century, pysanky have been created more for decorative and traditional purposes rather than due to a belief of magic. Furthermore, 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 meaning in different places. *Note that these meanings applied to traditional folk pysanky with designs, not to modern original creations.


“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 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.

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.

Eternity bands

Eternity bands or meanders are composed of waves, lines or ribbons; such a line is called a “bezkonechnyk.” 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 are therefore considered an agricultural symbol, because it is rain that ensures good crops.


The goddess motif is an ancient one, and most commonly found in pysanky from Polissia or Western Podillia. The berehynia was believed to be the source of life and death. On the one hand, she is a life giving mother, the creator of heaven and all living things, and the mistress of heavenly water (rain), upon which the world relies for fertility and fruitfulness. On the other hand, she was the merciless controller of destinies.

The goddess is sometimes depicted with arms upraised, and the arms vary in number but are always in pairs: 2, 4 or 6. This is similar to the appearance of the Christian Oranta. Pysanky with this motif were called “bohyn’ky” (богиньки, little goddesses) or “zhuchky” (жучки, beetles), the latter because they are similar in appearance to the Cyrillic letter Ж (zh). Sometimes the berehynia has become abstracted, and is represented by a plant—vazon—the tree of life. Her arms become the branches and flowers, and she is firmly rooted in a flowerpot.

Christian symbols

The only true traditional 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 is said to symbolize 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 simple “Greek” cross type, with arms of equal lengths. This type of cross predates Christianity, and is a sun symbol (an abstracted representation of the solar bird); it is sometimes combined with the star (ruzha) motif.

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.” Nowadays, pysanky are being written with depictions of Easter baskets on them, including a paska and candle. White doves, symbols of the Holy Spirit, are more frequently seen.

Phytomorphic (Plant) motifs

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).

Pussy willow branches are sometimes depicted on pysanky; in Ukraine, the pussy willow replaces the palm leaf on Palm Sunday. This is not a common motif, though, and may be a more recent addition.

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.

Vazon/Tree of Life

The “tree of life” motif is widely used in traditional pysanky designs. It can be represented in many ways. Sometimes it appears as two deer on either side of a pine tree. More often it manifests as a flower pot (“vazon”), filled with leaves and flowers. The pot itself is usually a rectangle, triangle or a rhomboid (symbolic of the earth), and is covered with dots (seeds) and dashes (water). Many branches grow out of it, in a symmetric fashion, with leaves and flowers. This plant is a berehynia (goddess) symbol, with the branches representing the many arms of the mother goddess.


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.

Zoomorphic (Animal) motifs

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.


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.”



Pysanky: What Are They?, Symbolism of Colours

Symbolism of Colours on Pysanky

In addition to motifs being symbolic on pysanky, colours also have various meanings. Even though some of the very early pysanky possessed only two colours, it was often believed that the more colours, the more magic the pysanka holds, bringing better fate and more luck to the owner of the pysanka!


The range of colours back in the day was fairly limited and made from natural dyes. They spanned from yellow, orange, red, to green, brown, and black. Blue and purple also slowly became incorporated in the 1800s with the advent of aniline.

Here is a very basic guide to the meanings of various colours used. *Note that the meanings below are generalizations; different regions of Ukraine interpreted colours in different ways.

  • Red – the oldest symbolic color. It represented blood (which gives life), and often appears on pysanky with nocturnal and/or heaven-like. It also represented the sun, love and joy, and the hope of marriage.
  • Black – a sacred color, and was very commonly associated with the “other world,” however not in a negative sense.
  • Yellow – symbolized the moon and stars as well as the harvest.
  • Blue – Represented skies, the air, and good health.
  • White – Signified purity, birth, light, rejoicing, virginity.
  • Green – new life in the spring. It represents the renewal of nature; the richness of vegetation.
  • Brown – the earth.

Certain colour combinations even possessed specific meanings, too:

  • Black and white – mourning, respect for the souls of the dead.
  • Black and red – perceived as “harsh and frightful” and disturbing. It is common in Podillya, where both serpent motifs and goddess motifs were written with this combination.
  • Four or more colors – the family’s happiness, prosperity, love, health and achievements.

Pysanka Legends & Superstitions, Pysanky: What Are They?

Pysanka Legends & Superstitions

“The Hutsuls––Ukrainians who live in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine––believed 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.

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.”

Source: Explore the Wikipedia “Pysanka” for more information