As every young reader of Dr. Seuss books knows, Sam-I-Am was very persistent in his attempts to get a little friend to try green eggs and ham. And this little friend stubbornly resisted until—finally—he took a tiny taste and discovered that—lo and behold—he did like green eggs and ham after all.
Most kids aren’t so pig-headed. Around this time of year, they generally love eggs of all colors—and especially the bright plastic ones filled with jelly beans and chocolates.
Colorful, decorated eggs are very much a part of the season, and Ukrainian Easter eggs, known as pysanky (pysanky is plural; the singular is pysanka) are some of the most intricately beautiful. Decorated with a wax resist (batik) method, the eggs are not painted on, but written with beeswax (the name comes from the verb pysaty, which means “to write.”)
While originally a pagan tradition, with the acceptance of Christianity in 988, the decorated pysanky came to play an important role in Ukrainian rituals of the new religion. Although forbidden for a time by the Soviet regime as a religious practice and nearly forgotten, there has been a rebirth of the art in its homeland since Ukrainian independence in 1991.
There are many superstitions attached to pysanky. As the artwork on pysanky has no visible beginning or end, it was thought that once an evil spirit got trapped in the design, it could not exit. Thus, pysanky were believed to protect households from evil spirits, catastrophe, lightning and fires.
Pysanky are typically made to be given to family members and respected outsiders. To give a pysanka is to give a symbolic gift of life, which is why the egg must remain whole. Furthermore, each of the designs and colors on the pysanka is likely to have a deep, symbolic meaning.
Older people were given gifts of pysanky with darker colors and/or rich designs because their lives had already been filled, while it was customary to give young people pysanky with white as the predominant color because their lives were still a blank page. Girls would often give pysanky to young men they fancied, and include heart motifs. It was said, however, that a girl should never give her boyfriend a pysanky that had no design on the top and bottom of the egg, as this might signify that the boyfriend would soon lose his hair.
Traditionally, pysanky designs were chosen to match the character of the person they were intended for, and after a pysanka was given, it was displayed prominently in a public room of the house.
Pysanky were traditionally made during the last week of Lent, Holy Week in the Orthodox and Greek Catholic calendars. (Both faiths are represented in Ukraine, and both still celebrate Easter by the Julian calendar).
During the middle of the Lenten season, the women would begin putting aside eggs, selecting the most perfectly shaped and smooth. There had to be a rooster, as only fertilized eggs could be used; the use of non-fertile eggs would mean no fertility in the home. (Note to young girls: don’t count on this!)
At night, when the children were asleep, the women in the family would gather together, say the appropriate prayers, and go to work. In a large family, by Holy Thursday, 60 or more eggs would have been completed. The eggs were then taken to the church on Easter Sunday to be blessed, after which they were given away.
Although the pysanky represent one of the most highly decorated forms, eggs have long served as important springtime symbols in many cultures. Often, they were symbols of the earth, the egg’s elliptical form representing the movement of heavenly bodies and of the earth itself. As eggs have an obvious association with the beginning of life, they have been at the base of many ancient creation stories, as well.
The egg also serves as a symbol of fertility, rebirth and the cycle of life. And since at no time is the whole idea of rebirth more obvious than spring, it is logical that the egg would come to be a springtime symbol.
In 17th century France, it was customary for a bride to break an egg as she stepped across the threshold of her new home so she would procreate robustly. Germans and Slavs spread a mixture of eggs, bread and flour on their plows the Thursday before Easter so the following harvest would be rich. And according to Southern Black folklore, dreaming of eggs meant good luck, riches, or a wedding.
In the Harz Mountains. ancient Germans decorated their fir trees with flowers and red and yellow eggs on Midsummer’s Eve and danced around them.
The Chinese believed the first archetypal man sprang from an egg dropped by Tien, a great bird.
The ancient Maori buried their dead with a moa’s egg in one hand. In Scandinavia and Russia, clay eggs were put in tombs to ensure life after death. A similar idea occurred in Egypt, with a winged egg often depicted floating above the mummy.
But if eggs are so important and symbolic around the world, why did Sam-I-Am’s little friend resist those green eggs (and ham) so strongly? The Ukrainian pysanky may hold a clue. Made with the resist technique, perhaps they symbolize not only the egg and rebirth associated with it—but our resistance to change, as well. Sometimes it may be as important for our minds to be fertile as our bodies (sometimes maybe more so!) And yes, we may occasionally have to wallow around in a bit of manure for awhile, as these new ideas take root and grow. But then, that’s what spring is all about, isn’t it?
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