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.