Friday, March 9, 2012

Eggs - Ukrainian pysanky

Though most people who make them are Catholics and their designs are described as Christian symbols, pysanky, the intricately decorated Easter eggs for which my Ukrainian ancestors are famous, are so blatantly Pagan in their rituals and motifs that they can be incorporated into our Ostara celebrations virtually unchanged. I thought this would be a good time to share some of those traditions and offer some suggestions how they can be incorporated into our celebration of Ostara. The eggs take a while to decorate, so you'll want to start now to have them ready for your Ostara altar.
Traditionally, Ukrainians make two kinds of Easter eggs: krashanky, hard-boiled eggs dyed a simple colour, usually red; and pysanky, raw eggs decorated with patterns of white, black and colours through a batik-like process. Both are prepared for giving as gifts and for ritual purposes, but the krashanky are eaten while the pysanky are kept and eventually dry out to hollow shells. A young woman would give a pysanka or krashanka to a boy she was interested in, children would be given krashanky as blessings and to play games with on Easter Monday. Beautifully decorated pysanky would be made for honoured friends and family members, and one would always be given to the priest. As well, both kinds of eggs were used for purely ritual purposes. Eggs blessed by the priest on Easter were kept in the home to protect it from fire, or in the barn to protect the livestock. Pysanky were thought to be so magically potent that if a blaze did break out, eggs would be thrown into the fire to extinguish it. The touch of a krashanka was believed to cure blood poisoning, and a person who was gravely ill might wear a pysanka around his neck as a healing talisman. Farmers would roll a krashanka in green oats and bury it in the fields to ensure the fertility of the crops, place one under their hives to protect the bees or bury four pysanky at the corners of the foundation when a house was being built. Pysanky were put into the coffins of loved ones to protect them on their way to heaven, or a krashanka might be placed on the grave of a dead child.

The making of pysanky was itself a ritual act, traditionally done only by women, at night after the men and children were asleep. (Though today more men take part, and some of the most beautiful pysanky I’ve seen are made by my uncle, at night after his wife goes to bed.) A beeswax candle is first lit on the work table, and a brief prayer is always spoken before beginning. Traditionally only fertilized eggs were used, and the eggs meant for the most magical purposes were taken from young hens that had only just begun to lay. Small groups of women might meet to decorate pysanky together, but more often it was done privately by one or two women in the household. The finished eggs were always kept hidden until Easter. This was women’s magic and had to be kept from the sight of men to remain potent.

Modern kystkas give very fine control
The pysanky designs are applied with a brass-tipped applicator called a kystka filled with melted beeswax. The first lines are applied to the white egg, then it's dyed yellow. Areas to remain yellow are coated with wax, and the egg is dipped in another colour, usually orange. This continues through a range of increasingly darker colours, ending with dark blue, dark red or black. When the decoration is finished, the accumulated wax is melted off to reveal the brilliant colours beneath. Eggs can either be pierced and blown out to leave the shells empty or traditionally left whole to dry out gradually over time. I won't give any detailed instructions here, because there are many much better how-to resources online, especially Ann Morash's wonderful site She includes not only detailed step-by-step instructions, but gives you designs to work from and lists sources for dyes, kystkas and other supplies. (I buy mine at a great Toronto store called Koota Ooma, but there are suppliers in many cities across Canada and the US, including many that offer online shopping.)

Traditional kystkas are easy to make.
If you can't wait to get proper materials (and you should - they're not expensive and produce a much better result), you can use ordinary Easter egg dyes (though the colours are less intense and you'll have to use something else for black) and make your own kystka. You can't substitute an ordinary wax candle for the beeswax, though - it doesn't melt at a high enough temperature to stick to the egg properly. Like painting, needlework, calligraphy and other crafts, decorating pysanky takes a steady hand, patience and practice.Your first attempts may be pretty awful (mine were) but you can improve quite quickly. (Wayne Schmidt is a pysanky novice who has a great page sharing the things he's learned and showing some of his progress.)

Two things that distinguish pysanky from other kinds of decorated eggs are the intricacy of the designs (the wax resist allows extremely fine, sharp lines that can't be duplicated with paint, felt markers or other methods) and the arrangement of colours. The resist dyeing makes it much easier to put light designs onto dark backgrounds, and there are always large areas of black, dark blue, purple and dark red to set off the patterns and bands of brilliant red, yellow, orange, green, pink or white. As well, most designs are outlined in fine white lines which act to separate the colours and make them sparkle. Because they are not meant to be eaten, the finished eggs are usually varnished or lacquered.

In spite of a thousand years of Christianity in Ukraine, very little unequivocally Christian decoration is used on pysanky today. Instead, most designs are symbols of fertility, harvest and nature. Plants, animals, birds, fish, even insects appear, but never human figures. Sun symbols are most common, both representational and highly stylized, but not the moon. The Christian Calvary cross is sometimes shown, or the three-armed cross of the Orthodox Church, but mostly it is the more ancient equal-armed cross that is used instead. Some of the images are now interpreted as representing Christian symbology, but an ancient Rus' Pagan would recognize them for what they have always been.

Here are some of the common designs and their meanings:

The most common motif on pysanky is the circle, in lines or bands of decoration that ring the egg either longitudinally or laterally. The circle represents protection, acting as a charm to keep out evil. Traditional Ukrainian and Russian shirts always have a band of embroidered decoration at each opening - neck, cuffs and hem - to similarly prevent evil from entering.

Eight-pointed stars are probably the most characteristic pysanka symbol. They may originally have honoured the sun god Atar. Now they represent success, happiness and life itself.

Similar to the star is the rose, which usually has an additional ring of petals around the outside, but it may be essentially the same as a star, distinguished only by the fact that roses usually have other floral motifs around them, while stars never do. The rose, of course, represents love.

The sun appears in many forms on pysanky, both as symbols and in slightly more representational images. It represents good fortune and growth, because nothing can grow without the life-giving power of the sun.

 Birds appear in many forms, usually fairly representational although quite stylized. They are usually hens, roosters or undifferentiated songbirds, though geese, swans and pheasants are sometimes used. Birds are almost always shown at rest, rather than flying. They represent the coming of Spring, good harvests, and a desire for wishes to come true. Like circles, bird motifs act to repel evil. The entire bird does not need to be depicted to exert its magical effect - often just a foot, an eye or a wing will be incorporated into the design.
Insects appear in the forms of butterflies, spiders or bees, often very stylized. Butterflies represent the coming of Spring, spiders good luck and prosperity, and bees the combination of hard work and pleasure that makes a good life. Regardless of what kind of insect is shown, they are always referred to as "butterflies".
Rams, cows, goats, horses and deer are all represented, often highly stylized. Like birds, sometimes the whole animal is symbolized by only a part, such as spirals representing rams' horns or two curved lines for the horns of a cow. Animals bring prosperity, wealth and good fortune, and since they are usually male animals, presumably fertility as well.

 Flowers are among the most varied designs, appearing in many forms and shapes. Often they are so stylized as to be scarcely recognizable out of context. Flowers always represent charity, love and goodwill. Sunflowers, which may be no more than a cross-hatched circle, call forth the returning warmth of the sun.
Fish are almost always recognizable although they may be very simple or quite elaborate. They have been adopted as a Christian symbol, but originally the fish was a spiritual guide, helper, and giver of wisdom.
Trees appear very often on pysanky, but they are often quite stylized and may not be recognizable. Sometimes only a leaf or a branch represents the whole tree or the forest itself. Human figures do not appear on pysanky, but they can be represented by trees: oak, maple and beech leaves are men, while birch, poplar and basswood (all quite similar-shaped) stand for women. Trees mean long life, youth, strength and good health.
Cross-hatched "nets" or "baskets" mean knowledge and motherhood. They are often triangles, which represent trinities: now the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but originally air, fire and water, mother, father and child or sun, thunder and bonfire. Eggs can sometimes be decorated with nothing but intersecting triangles.
Ribbons or meanders around the egg represent eternity and everlasting life, and the seasons and repeating cycles of nature. As well, eggs may have three bands of flowers and foliage, representing the vinok or flower garland worn by girls for festivals and celebrations. The three vinky give blessings to the three stages of human life: birth, marriage and adulthood.

This is just a small selection; there are many other traditional symbols and decorations, each having one or more meanings. And of course the different colours have meanings as well, singly or in combinations. They are combined together into designs that represent an overall wish for the recipient or protective use of the egg. Thus a woman might create a brightly-coloured pysanka with floral patterns for her sweetheart, one with animals for her father to place in the barn, a dark-coloured egg with symbols like ladders or gates (representing the path out of life) for her grandmother, and one decorated with crosses and fish for the Catholic priest. Specific eggs were decorated to ease domestic tension, to protect travellers, to help women conceive children and every other situation where magical working might be called for. In essence, pysanky are magic spells created with symbolism and intent, as you would carve a rune stave or create a talisman.

The traditional Ukrainan rituals involving decorated eggs are now part of the Christian Easter celebration, but their ancient roots are so unspoiled that they can be incorporated into Pagan practice with little alteration. A basket is always prepared containing a loaf of egg-rich paska, or Easter bread, which is usually decorated with sun-symbols and floral designs. This usually has a hole in the centre into which a tall candle is placed. Into the basket (lined with a beautifully-embroidered cloth made for this purpose) is placed a selection of traditional and symbolic foods: hard-boiled krashanky, grated beet and horseradish relish, salt, butter (usually sculpted into a shape and decorated with cloves or flowers), sausage, cheese and of course decorated pysanky. The baskets are taken to the Easter mass and placed around the church. After the mass, the candles are lit in each basket and all are individually blessed by the priest. The basket is taken home and the head of the family (when I celebrated Easter with my Ukrainian family this was always my grandmother) begins the Easter breakfast by giving each person a portion of the blessed food (at least a slice of egg or a piece of bread dipped in salt) with the greeting "Kristos Voskrese!" (Christ is Risen), to which each answers "Voistynu Voskres!" (He is Risen Indeed). Then the meal is served, each person being sure to take a small portion of each of the blessed foods, along with the perogies, cabbage rolls, ham, roast beef, turkey, vegetables, bread, pastries and sweets that make up a typical Ukrainian feast.

The blessing of the food basket can be made a part of your group's Ostara celebration, with each family bringing their own to take home, or a communal basket shared by the participants after the ritual. The act of the priestess, priest or elder giving the first portion to each participant is an import one, and of course the greeting and response can be whatever is suitable for your practice, or even a simple "Blessed Be!" This is at heart a family ritual rather than a community one, so it is very suitable for a solitary practitioner or a small family group. The head of the family can also be the one who blesses the food as well as distributing it. You can alter the choice of symbolic foods if you need to (leaving out the sausage, cheese or butter, for example), but the core items of bread, salt, eggs and some sharp-tasting or bitter condiment should be included. (I happen to love horseradish, but you can substitute any bitter vegetable, such as dandelion, which is very seasonal.) The presence of the bitter herb in the Spring Equinox ritual meal dates at least from ancient Hebrew practice, if not earlier, and should not be left out.

No matter if you only make one or two simple pysanky, or even if you use a modern Easter egg kit, make ritually-decorated eggs a part of your Ostara celebration this year.