Decorating eggs is one of my favorite spring time rituals. Every year around this time, I set out the pots of dye and the cartons of eggs, the tools and the candles and the beeswax I need to make pysanky. And for the few weeks before Easter, I spend a few hours every night or so, inscribing patterns on eggs. I can get lost for hours, totally absorbed in this process.
The art of decorating eggs may be the oldest art form. A recent find in South Africa of colored and etched ostrich shells dating back 60,000 years has scientists speculating on their meaning. Having made pysanky for years, I recognize them as ritual eggs, and the designs chosen as those that are easiest for beginning egg artists to create.
I learned how to make pysanky from a book called Ukrainian Easter Eggs written by Anne Kmit, the Luciow sisters and Luba Perchyshyn. They have written many books on this topic but also sell tools and provide instructions on their web site: Ukrainian Gift Shop. Pysanky were always made by groups of women working together, late at night, during the week before Easter. The children were in bed; the men were not invited; the eggs were always fertile eggs. The women asked for specific blessings for each egg they made and sang traditional songs as they worked.
The eggs were distributed in a ritual manner. One or two eggs were given to the priest. Eggs were placed on the graves of family members. Eggs were given to all the children and godchildren. Unmarried girls exchanged eggs with the eligible young men in the community. A few eggs were placed in coffins to be ready in case someone died. Several were kept in the home to protect from fire and storms. Two or three were placed in the trough or the stables so the animals would have many young. One egg was placed under each beehive and one was saved for each grazing animal to be taken out to the fields with the shepherds in the spring. An egg with wheat symbols was placed at the start of the first furrow plowed and another at the end of the last. A bride would take an egg to her marriage ceremony in her skirt and on returning home, drop it saying. “Let me bear the child as easily as the egg falls.” If that didn’t work, the husband might receive an egg with a rooster on it or an oak leaf.
Every aspect of making the egg was important from the colors chosen to the designs. The most ancient and widely used symbol was the sun. Certain eggs, covered with symbols of water, flowers, growing plants and little wings, were used to “call spring.” Other eggs, called “noise insect eggs” depicted birds singing, crickets and the chirping noise of the forest to invoke the sounds of spring.
Here’s a list of some symbols.
Birds: Spring, good harvest & pushing away evil
Fruits, vegetables, wheat: Good harvest
Flowers: Beauty and children
Spiders: Healing powers and good luck
Animals, especially deer: Prosperity and wealth
Ladders (given to older people): Moving to a new level of existence
40 triangles (a traditional pattern): Wishes for the many facets of family life
Thirteen years ago I finally purchased the appropriate tool for making Ukrainian eggs, a kistka (I got mine in the art department of my local university bookstore). Ever since then, I’ve been hosting egg-decorating parties for me and my women friends. Each woman brings some eggs (either raw or hard-boiled). Meanwhile I set up several tables with kistkas, blocks of beeswax, a candle for each woman and some way of holding the egg steady (paper towels are the simplest—we also use the little plastic tables that come with your delivered pizza). The same stores that sell kistkas and special beeswax (dyed a darker color so it’s easier to see) also sell lathes on which you can turn your eggs so you can achieve perfectly even lines. We’ve never used one of these. The same stores also sell electric kistkas but I’ve scorned these as too modern. I like the simple ancient process.
However, I do buy the packets of Ukrainian dyes—most of which are highly toxic—because they produce brilliant colors—turquoise, black and maroon, among others–you can’t find in ordinary Easter egg dyes. These are made with boiling water so mix them ahead of time so they can cool. I also use the regular Easter egg dyes you buy in kits at the store, particularly because I like the little wire dippers that come in these kits, handy for putting eggs in and out of the jars (I use wide-mouthed canning jars). We also use spoons for this task. I leave my dyes out, often for two or three weeks, so I can continue working on eggs. I love the way they look: the gleaming jars and the brilliant colors.
To make the design, you put a little bit of beeswax in the funnel of the kistka, then melt it over a candle flame and draw on the eggshell with the molten beeswax. Begin with a white egg and put wax on all the areas you want to stay white, then dye the egg yellow, and cover all the areas with wax which you want to remain yellow, and so forth through orange, red and a dark color (brown, black or purple). When the egg is done, place it in a low-temperature oven for a few minutes to melt the wax, which is then rubbed off to reveal the intricate designs and glowing colors of your egg. I love the delicacy of the designs, the smell of the wax and the flickering light of the candle, which combine to create a trance-like state.
If you don’t have a kistka, you can decorate eggs using a pin. Simply dip it into melted wax and drag it across the surface of the egg. It will leave a little comet-like trail. When done in concentric circles, you will have created sunbursts. The eggs, even though they are not cooked, can be kept for many years if they are stored so the air can move around them freely. I store mine in egg cartons in the basement but I have had an occasional egg go bad. Last year, I put varnish on all the eggs, hoping this would help preserve them. It’s a messy process (since there’s no way to hold an egg without getting varnish all over your own fingers) but it seems to have helped and it certainly brought out their colors. You can also blow the inside out of the eggs after they’ve been painted.
For more information on making Ukrainian eggs, you might enjoy this website created by Artist Ann Morash. For inspiration, or just amazement, check out the stunning examples of pysanky from Kolomiya Museum of Hutsul Folk Art. This web site featuring the work of Sofia Zielyk shows the way an artist might interpret this traditional craft. And then there’s Martha Stewart. She features 56 different ways to decorate eggs on her web site including marbled eggs, glittered eggs (very classy), gilded eggs, eggs dyed with natural materials, silk-dyed eggs, lace eggs, stenciled eggs and many more.
First published Mar 12, 2010