Pysanka. Ukrainian Easter Traditions
Arguably one of Ukraine’s most famous Easter traditions is their intricately decorated Easter eggs known as ‘pysanka’. The word pysanka comes from the verb pysaty, “to write”. Creating pysanka is an extremely complicated endeavor and they are usually created during the last week of Lent. The smoothest and best-shaped eggs are used to make pysanka. A stylus is often used to ensure and perfect the clean lines and intricate patterns on the eggs. Pysanka are given to friends and loved ones to represent the gift of life, and are usually decorated to match the personality of the receiver.
One of the most popular; and oldest, pysanky legends tells of a young woman who was on her way home from the market in town. She had with her a jug of fresh water for her journey and a basket of eggs. On her way she met a stranger sitting on a rock. Thinking he must be a tired traveler, she offered him a drink of her water. When he handed the water back to her, she was surprised to see that he had wounds on his hands. The stranger said nothing, but got up and went in the opposite direction of the young woman. When she arrived home, she uncovered her basket and discovered her eggs had been turned into beautiful pysanky The stranger, of course, had been Jesus Christ, and that was the first Easter morning.
Simply put, it is an Easter egg decorated using a wax resist (aka batik) method. Its name derives from the Ukrainian verb “pysaty,” meaning “to write.” (“Pysanka” is the singular form; “pysanky” is plural.)
But it is much more than that. Ukrainians have been decorating eggs, creating these miniature jewels, for countless generations. There is a ritualistic element involved, magical thinking, a calling out to the gods and goddesses for health, fertility, love, and wealth. There is a yearning for eternity, for the sun and stars, for whatever gods that may be.
The design motifs on pysanky date back to pre-Christian times–many date to early Slavic cultures, while some harken to the days of the Trypillians, my neolithic ancestors, others to paleolithic times. While the symbols have remained through the ages, their interpretation has changed, in an act of religious syncretism. A triangle that once spoke of the three elements, earth, fire and air, now celebrates the Christian Holy Trinity. The cross which depicted the rising sun is now the symbol of the risen Christ. Sun and star symbols once referred to Dazhboh, the sun god, and now refer to the one Christian God. And the fish, which spoke of a plentiful catch and a full stomach, now stands in for Christ, the fisher of men. Even so, under this Christian veneer, there still lurk the berehynia and the serpent, the sun and the moon, the old gods, the old ways, and the old beliefs.
In the countless centuries that Ukrainians have been creating pysanky, many traditions have grown up around their creation, sharing, and talismanic uses.
The customs described here were followed closely throughout Ukraine in the pre-Modern era, i.e. up until perhaps the mid-19th century, and continued to be practiced in some regions until after WWII. They are rarely practiced today in their original forms, although some continue to be honored in Ukrainian villages.
Why did these traditions change?
With the coming of science and technology and a more modern world, folk life began to change, as beliefs in magic and the supernatural diminished. The old ways were viewed as mere superstition, and were either forgotten, or followed in part, even as their talismanic and supernatural underpinnings were forgotten. Most people simply no longer believed in demons and evil spirits, nor in the magical properties of eggs.
Another factor pushing change was the commercialization in the 1800s of pysankarstvo in some regions of Ukraine. While most people continued to create pysanky for their own use, others began creating them for sale, not just to neighbors, but also for markets in neighboring cities and countries. Foremost among the commercial pysankary were the Hutsuls, who sold their wares in Ukraine and in nearby areas of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
In the twentieth century, in eastern and southern Ukraine, religion and national identity were suppressed as formal policy by the USSR. Pysankarstvo died out in many regions altogether, as it was viewed as a religious practice, unlike folk painting, embroidery and woodworking, which were not only allowed to continue to be practiced, but were actively commercialized and mechanized. (After WWII, when the USSR annexed western Ukraine as well, similar suppression of pysankarstvo and Ukrainian identity occurred there as well.)
And, most recently, pysankarstvo has been fully transformed into both a folk and fine art. Modern tools and dyes have taken over, and few people remember how to create traditional pysanky, much less the rituals involved with their creation. While a revival of the folk pysanka is occurring in Ukraine, many artists have taken up pysankarstvo and are creating beautiful, albeit miniature, works of pysanka art.