Famed ”Ukrainian Easter eggs” pysanky have a rich religious and cultural history

Famed ”Ukrainian Easter eggs” pysanky have a rich religious and cultural history

The eggs are considered an early form of writing, and even the word pysanka (singular for pysanky) comes from the Ukrainian word pysaty which means "to write."

Lent, the Christian season of soul-searching and fasting in preparation for Easter, is two-thirds past. That may be a comfort to those faithful that give up a creature comfort for Lent in imitation of Jesus` withdrawal into the wilderness for 40 days.

But, for Ukrainian-Canadians, Lent is also the time for meditation while creating Pysanky: Ukrainian Easter eggs. Olga Lang is a second-generation Ukrainian-Canadian artist and illustrator that has a passion for pysanky. During Lent, she teaches the ancient technique.

While most people are familiar with the intricate, colourful eggs made through a batik-like process with dyes and beeswax, few realize the pysanky`s history of spiritual meditation. The practice far predates Christianity which only took solid root in the Ukraine region in the 10th century.

Lang teaches her pupils that archeologists have discovered evidence of egg dying dating from the Trypillian culture that flourished in Central Europe from 4,500 BC to 3,000 BC.

The eggs are considered an early form of writing, and even the word pysanka (singular for pysanky) comes from the Ukrainian word pysaty which means "to write." Or perhaps, said Lang, the word for writing comes from the eggs, which came first. The eggs were sort of like greeting cards in the days  before Hallmark.

People gave eggs to each other at times of celebration or mourning. There are get-well-soon eggs and wishing-you-were-here eggs. Every symbol, even every colour, has a specific meaning: blue for good health, black for respect and remembrance, red for love.

"My grandfather`s generation would have known how to read a pysanka," said Lang. "It was not really lost until communism." Communists distrusted the art because of its Christian connections. The art went underground and was maintained in the West.

"Unfortunately in the West, it was somewhat disconnected and also people introduced higher technology," said Lang. People started using electric kistkas, the tools used to paint melted beeswax onto the eggs. Formerly kistkas were a simple stick with a heated copper funnel for  melted wax.

"The lines got more thin, more even, the designs more intricate, more geometric" she said. "Unfortunately what happened is that the design became more important and the idea that it was a message of love was lost."

For Lang, the process of creating the egg is more important than the final outcome. Lang likens the process to Tibetan sand paintings, where monks meditate and pray for peace while they work. "They spend hours and hours making intricate, beautiful designs, all with prayers," she said.

"While you are doing a pysanka, you are in a state of love. And that is really tough, because this thing is not easy to do. And it is also easy to be hard on yourself, or be critical or disappointed - all these bad things are just not allowed. You have to like life and acknowledge that (bad feelings) are coming to affect you and just not let it happen."

A simple design may take four hours - a challenging amount of time to have only accepting, grateful, peaceful and loving thoughts, Lang said. It`s probably a good idea that the practice is contained to just Lent, she said, given its time-consuming nature.

Lang said the altruistic meditative aspect of the eggs probably predates Christianity, but it was a symbol that was easily adopted by Christians and the practice suited the season of Lent, with its emphasis on withdrawal from the day-to-day world. People have the eggs blessed at Easter, but will hand them out to people throughout the year.

Lang will teach a pysanka class at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre on April 9, one week before Easter. To register, call the Ukrainian Cultural Centre at 475-2585.

Olga Lang made this egg for staff photographer Sharon Tiffin (complete with an image of a camera) as an example of the types of symbols one can put on an pysanka:

periwinkle: everlasting love; spider: patience, happiness; flower: wisdom and  beauty in life; birds: messenger of good news, often spring; dove: love; butterfly: transformation; tree: good health 

Some symbols, such as the rooster, have been found on fragments of pottery south of Kiev from 3,000 years ago. Archeologists have discovered ceramic pysanky in Ukraine dating back to 1,300 BC, and suspect they were made in honour of the spring equinox.

The news was monitored by The Action Ukraine Report (AUR) Monitoring Service, Morgan Williams, Editor.

By Sheila Potter, Oak Bay News

Oak Bay, British Columbia, Canada,

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