Since the earliest of times people have sought meaning
for lifeís mysteries and in the process have found the need for worship. One
of the earliest objects of worship for primitive man was the sun and in Ukraine
eggs were an integral part of the ceremonial rites of sun worship. The ancient
Ukrainians determined that when an egg was broken the yolk represented the sun
and the white the moon. The egg became part of various ceremonies and took on a
particular significance in the spring rituals. In winter Earth was dormant and
appeared to have no life, just as the egg appeared to have no life. But as the
seemingly dead egg hatched a living thing the earth too sprang to life in
spring. Consequently, the egg became a symbol of life.
Archeological discoveries have uncovered pysanky style
ceramics in Ukraine dating back to 1300 B.C. Pysanky designs have also been
linked to those of Egyptian ceramics created in 1500 B.C. and to symbolism used
in the Trypilljan culture in Ukraine of 3000 B.C. Many of the designs used to
decorate pysanky can be directly traced back to the Bronze Era, 5000 years ago,
when the Trypilljan culture prospered in Ukraine. These earliest designs mirror
manís close relationship to the soil and other aspects of nature. Ukrainian
folk art is based on these early symbols. Many are still seen today: stars,
dots, wheat, bearís paws, circles, fir trees.
The tradition of decorating eggs, especially at Easter
or in spring, was widespread through Europe. It was especially prevalent in
Slavic areas. There were the Moravian eggs from Czachia and the Sorbian eggs
from the Slavic tribes of eastern Germany. Nowhere, however, did the decoration
of eggs become so vital a part of a societyís culture as it did in Ukraine.
The people in Ukraine came to see the egg, now referred to as pysanky, as a
talisman. Pysanky became part of daily life and were believed to possess power.
spirits were believed to be afraid of the rooster and chicken eggs. The Cossacks
often took roosters with them on their travels to serve as time clocks and also
to ward off evil. To the ancient people of all cultures life could not be lived
without a talisman of some sort. Danger was everywhere. In Ukraine pysanky
became needed, necessary, and cherished.
At various times of the year or at points of passage in a personís life the pysanky took on mystical meaning. Colors and designs came into being to be representative of nature and life itself. Children were given pysanky with floral designs in a usually light color. Teenagers would receive pysanky with predominantly white coloring to signify the blank page of their future. Married couples were given pysanky with the popular 40 triangles design which in Ukrainian culture symbolized the forty tasks of life. An older person of advanced age received black pysanky with belts, ladders and gates to remind them of their bridge to heaven.
This practice of giving pysanky became part of the Ukrainian tradition and also served as a means of preserving and continuing the art of pysanky itself. For centuries the designs and symbols used on pysanky were handed down from mother to daughter. The cultural heritage of the Ukrainian nation was entrusted this way.
With the acceptance of Christianity in Ukraine in the year 988 A.D. pysanky became a part of the Christian tradition of Easter and now took on the meaning of the rebirth of man and the resurrection of God. The egg symbol was likened to the tomb from which Christ arose. There is no point where we can determine where the pagan beliefs and customs of pysanky end and where the Christian symbolism begins. In reality a subtle blending of both has occurred.
In a similar way the traditional approach and the modern one has blended for pysanky artists. Pysanky used to be made at night by women only when the rest of the household was asleep. Before a Ukrainian woman could begin a pysanka she needed to be in the right spiritual frame of mind. The day prior to her beginning her pysanka she would avoid speaking ill of anyone, would exercise patience in dealing with others, and she would tenderly care for her family. No one was allowed to observe her creating her pysanka since the sole purpose of pysanky art was to ward off evil. This was a mystical expression of the Ukrainian people. The concept has evolved and now, although there are some who maintain a strict traditionalist view, pysanky has joined the ranks of other art forms as a personal expression of the individual artist. But what hasnít changed are the links to an ancient culture and all the symbolism and heritage those links imply.
One would be hard pressed to find an example of where tradition and culture have been handed down so successfully as can be found in the art of pysanky. Most of what I read in books about the art has been told to me in snippets of conversations with my own grandmother. Her words are echoed by similar words of many authors of various books because all were handed down the same knowledge in those late night pysanky sessions in households all over Ukraine. Through generations the traditions were handed down just as I continue to do with my own daughters. If, as some say, our future is determined by our past than all pysanky artists, no matter if they subscribe to the traditional or modern way of thinking, hold the past in their hands each time they pick up an egg and write a design on it. And what is most important is they hold the future as well.
Prize winning artist and teacher Patty Wiszuk-De Angelo is the owner/operator of Pysanky Showcase. Read her companion piece in this issue The Pysanka Dyeing Process and check out her eggs in The Easter Egg Parade.
Mrs. Wiszuk-De Angelo has been featured in Emu's Zine in two other articles:
She has written a step by step article on etching in pysanky style for "The Pysanka" magazine. Has been featured in the March/April 2000 Eggshell Sculptor Artist's Gallery, and has had eggs displayed in the online magazine Sierra (http://www.sierra.com).
Anyone interested in taking pysanky lessons should contact her for more information via:
Patty Wiszuk-De Angelo