Mar 30, 2010 12:00 AM | By Tammy Baikie
In Ukraine, decorating eggs isn't just about amusing children but harks back to age-old traditions and superstitionsMuch like Christmas and its tree, the egg came before Easter - at least in Ukraine.
Sitting at a trestle table outside a museum-piece wooden Ukrainian cottage, I'm tracing designs with beeswax on an eggshell. Actually, I'm writing a sort of incantation, weaving the magic more strongly as the patterns on the delicate surface become more intricate.
Exactly as I am at this moment, in this place, I could be a Ukrainian peasant over 1000 years ago, creating a precursor to the Easter egg.
It's a lovely game of pretend as the air cools at the end of the day and Olga Yakovlevna Sakhno, in her traditionally embroidered top, transfers the radiant heat into the solar symbol on her demonstration egg. All the while explaining - in Russian, just to make it even more authentic - the history and symbolism of the ancient practice of creating pysanky.
That's the Ukrainian word for the decorated eggs that were already used as powerful pagan talismans, before the conversion of the Ukrainian Slavs to Christianity in 988AD.
Because of their association with life bursting forth from the silent and apparently inert shell, eggs were seen as magic charms and symbols of nature's ability to rejuvenate itself each spring.
A gift of an egg decorated with chick designs was believed to help a barren woman conceive. To protect against evil spirits and keep a family in good health, a bowl of painted eggs was kept in the home. If a wooden house caught fire, threatening a family, carrying an egg around the area of the blaze was thought to prevent its spread, and throwing shells onto the flames would extinguish them.
As the people increasingly transferred their faith in elemental forces such as the "sun" to the "Son", the old symbols were assimilated into the new belief system.
What's perhaps surprising is just how well the pagan ideograms lent themselves to Christian motifs. The triangle that had previously invoked fire, air and water came to represent the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
In turn, the eight-pointed star or rose - which signified purity, life, the sun as the giver of light, the centre of knowledge as well as beauty, elegance and perfection - became the herald of Christ's birth and symbol of God's love for humanity.
Even today, pysanky designs reveal a mix of older pagan elements and Christian additions, such as churches and fish.
Exchanged at Easter by friends and family, they offer good wishes tailored to the recipient. A farmer might receive an egg adorned with shafts of wheat, in the hope that his harvest will be good.
Often before being handed over, they are taken to church in a basket along with homemade bread and boiled eggs to be blessed by the Orthodox priest on Easter Sunday.
It's this rich seam of layered meanings, which the stylised patterns on the eggs represents, that really captured my imagination. Almost every line is significant - even the crosshatching, known as the "sieve", denotes the separating of good and evil.
It's for this reason that the Ukrainians don't talk about painting eggs but rather "writing eggs". Each one is not just a pretty, decorative knick-knack but a very beautiful, individualised message.
For me, the process of creating a pysanky is one of incrementally constructing meaning. The wax-resist method most widely employed in the Ukrainian tradition is similar to batik. A stylus called a kistka is used to write with melted beeswax. It's a small, metal funnel bound to a stick with copper wire. Once heated over a candle flame, it's easy to scoop a little beeswax with the hot funnel.
Held over the eggshell, the melted wax runs through the narrow end of the funnel allowing one to draw. These waxy lines repel the dye when the egg is submerged in the yellow colouring and thus remain white.
Further details added with the kistka to the design will stay yellow when the egg is again stained orange or red. And so it continues, working from the lighter shades to the darkest - blue, purple and black. The pysanky is then held to the candle flame for a few seconds until the wax begins to melt. Gradually wiping off the wax with paper towel as it turns to liquid reveals the finished piece.
Naturally, colour choices are also not arbitrary. Yellow conveys light, happiness, harvest, love and benevolence. In the Christian context, it represents recognition and reward. Red is the magical hue of folklore that glorifies the sun and joy of life. Pysanky with red fields or motifs are typically intended for children or youths. The religious interpretation is divine love and the passion of Christ.
A master of the art form, Sakhno, with her infinitely steady hand, gave me my first pysanky lesson at the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life, just outside Kiev. Seven little villages representing each of Ukraine's regions form this open-air museum, set on 159ha of parkland surrounded by woods.
Original 16th to 20th-century wooden churches, cottages, barns, beekeeping boxes and windmills are dotted across the meadow. Some are furnished with period pieces; others serve as craftsmen's studios - like the shed where Sakhno stores dyes and finished eggs for sale.
Much like the devotional practices of pagans or Christians, this is an art that requires a commitment. Hesitancy isn't an option. The nature of the kistka demands that you make long, uninterrupted strokes instead of the short, sketchy, broken lines often employed in pencil drawings, and there can be no erasures.
My experience was of a beautiful, contemplative activity imbued with deep significance. Sakhno decided that the theme of my egg would be love. Not my first choice, but I wasn't going to complain. Along with the self-explanatory hearts at the apex and base, the design includes the tree of life in the form of a stylised frond with three sets of leaves. Those lowest on the branch are my parents. The middle ones stand for my husband and me, with the little leaflets on top as our (future) children. Encouraging the growth of the tree of life are little solar symbols, shining their light on my family. Even the curlicues between the hearts are emblematic - serving as protection for the plant.
An old myth of the Hutzul people of the southeastern Ukrainian Carpathians elevates the value of the generosity and goodwill spread by the patterned tokens to apocalyptic proportions. It tells of a primordial creature of pure evil that is chained to a cliff. Each year, it sends its minions around the world to tally the number of pysanky created.
In years when fewer eggs are decorated and exchanged, the monster's bonds loosen and more iniquity is released into the world. If the tradition were to die out completely, the planet would be engulfed in wickedness, but while it continues to flourish, the affection and goodwill inscribed on the fragile shells brings peace and harmony to people.