The Art of Pysanky

Ukrainian immigrants to the Coal Region brought this age-old art form with them as they settled into patch towns and began to work in the mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Decorating with bees wax and a kistka

Many descendants of immigrants here still create these beautiful pieces. You can find many families that have eggs today that were created generations ago which are lovingly stored then carefully displayed each Easter.

An article from Descent of The Holly Spirit Ukranian Catholic Church provides a great over-view of pysanky.

The art of the decorated egg, or the “pysanka” (from the Ukrainian verb “pysaty” or “to write”) dates back to pagan times.

Folk tales reveal that the people who lived in the region now known as Ukraine worshipped the sun. It warmed the earth and therefore was a source of all life. Eggs decorated with symbols of nature were chosen for sun worship ceremonies and became an integral part of spring rituals, serving as benevolent talismans.

With the acceptance of Christianity in 988, the decorated pysanka (plural – pysanky) continued to play an important role in Ukrainian rituals of the newly adopted religion.

Many symbols of the old sun worship survived and were adapted to represent Easter and Christ’s Resurrection. A pagan legend maintains that the sun god was the most important of all Ukrainian deities; birds were the god’s chosen Creations for they were the only ones who could get close to him.

Humans could not catch the birds, but they did manage to obtain the eggs laid by the birds. These eggs were magical objects, a source of life. The Hutsuls – Ukrainians who live in the Carpathian mountains of Western Ukraine – believe that the fate of the world depends upon the pysanka.

As long as the egg decorating custom continues, the world will exist. If for any reason this custom is abandoned, evil – in the form of a horrible monster who is forever chained to a mountain cliff – will overrun the world.

Each year this monster-serpent sends out his henchmen to see how many pysanky have been created. If the number is low, the serpent’s chains are loosened and he is free to wander the earth causing havoc and destruction. If, on the other hand, the number of pysanky has increased, the chains are tightened and good triumphs over evil for yet another year.

Throughout the centuries, various symbols on the pysanky took on different meanings. Symbols found on the pysanka, which is created using a batik (wax-dye) method, include wheat or pine branches, which signify health; bowers and birds which stand for happiness and spring; the triangle, which in pagan times meant air, fire and water or birth, in Christian times took on the meaning of the Holy Trinity.

Hens and chickens symbolize fertility, roosters are identified with masculinity and strength, as are oak leaves. Deer are strength and prosperity; fish are symbols of prosperity as well but also of Christianity and infinite lines signify eternity.

One post-Christian tradition has it that the first pysanky were eggs given to Mary at the foot of the cross. Her tears fell on the eggs, coloring them. These are just a couple of the many legends surrounding pysanky.

Pysanky were created by the women of the household, working at night, after the children had been put to bed, and with the men not in the house, lest their presence bring bad luck.

Designs and dye recipes were passed down secretly from mother to daughter, who sat together, prayed over their work, and wrote on the best eggs they could save. A family might produce several dozen over the course of Lent, which would then be taken to the church on Easter Sunday to be blessed by the priest, after which they would be distributed among family and friends, including the priest, and any young men in whom the young women were interested. A few were saved to be put in the graves of any loved ones who happened to die over the course of the year.

It has been said that older people should receive pysanky with darker colors and/or rich designs for their life has already been filled with experiences. It is appropriate to give young people pysanky with white as a predominant color because their life is still like a blank page.

Girls should never give their boyfriends pysanky that have no design on the top and bottom of the egg – the baldness on either end signifies that the boyfriend will soon loose his hair.

Over time, distinctive styles of pysanka have developed. The Trypillian, for example, derives from prehistoric pottery designs, full of swirls and stylized animals. These pysanky are produced in white, black, and red or brick. If the Trypillian people, a prehistoric Ukrainian tribe, ever decorated eggs, none remain

The Lemko region specializes in a style called drop-pull, in which liquefied wax
is dropped onto an eggshell with a solid-tipped kistka (the head of a pin stuck through a pencil eraser will do), and pulled quickly into shapes. An extensive explanation of styles, colors, and symbols is available HERE.

The video below explores the history and symbolism of pysanky, as well as provides an opportunity for you to get involved in the art of pysanky to create your own works of art for your family to cherish for generations.