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A Brief History, Symbols and Colors of Pysanky

The word pysanka is derived from the Ukrainian verb pysaty 'to write'; we 'write' designs on the eggs. Nearly all Slavic peoples and those in the eastern Mediterranean area practiced this art in ancient times using beeswax and dyes to create tiny masterpieces of art but Ukrainian Easter Eggs from the more modern Christian era seem to be the ones best known. In Western Ukraine, the art form was retained even though it declined because of religious suppression in most areas. Symbolism is at the root of all pysanky and it is not uncommon for a simple design full of symbolic meaning to surpass a very intricate design that is beautiful in its own right but nearly devoid of symbolic meaning and artistic expression.

The symbols used in pysanka design are a blend of ancient pagan motifs with Christian elements. As an example, pagans celebrated the high points in life and the yearly cycle. The Christian church does the same throughout the religious year with both highlighting Spring and the resurrection of Christ. The symbols used remained the same--the interpretation of them was changed to be in keeping with the acceptance of Christianity. This blend between the ancient pagan beliefs and symbols and the Christian beliefs and symbols has resulted in a richness seen in modern pysanka.

Certain designs and symbols are reserved for different rituals such as matchmaking, healing the ill, encouraging fertility in animals and childless couples, increased harvest etc. Shells were considered sacred and powerful in themselves and were saved, crushed and fed to the hens to increase fertility and also spread on roof tops to ward off evil.

The art of making a pysanka was and is a holy, ritual task for the traditional Ukrainian artist. The pysanka is believed to have power similar to a cross. Each step in the process of making a pysanka was proscribed so that they might be made with the holiest of attitudes and the strongest forces imbued in them. Beeswax is used as it comes from bees who gather it from flowers who are nourished by the sun. The wax is melted off in the heat of the oven to remove the wax in a purifying process that unites it with the life-giving sun.

A special tool called a kistka is used to melt the beeswax and write on the eggs. The kistka is the pen and the beeswax is the ink. Each successive color is waxed and dyed until the entire design is created on the surface of the egg. The wax is then removed, a protective finish applied and the contents emptied. The eggs are shared with others as an expression of friendship, good will and love.

I did not know how to pronounce the word "pysanky" (plural) or "pysanka" (singular), and spoke it as I thought it was pronounced. I was wrong! But, since I never heard it pronounced except by others who were also making the same error, it is only recently that I have found an authority that "spelled it out" in a publication. I reproduce the paragraph from the Ukrainian Gift Shop's Design Book #4:

"To pronouce the word pysanka, put the following together into one word pes un ka---- ---pes as in pest, un as in under, and ka as in call. There is no emphasis on any one syllable."

I still find myself saying "pie, sank, kee" because I have never met anyone personally that knows the correct pronunciation but everyone seems to understand the wrong one! Another misconception is that the country is called "The" Ukraine, as we say The United States. This is in error. It is Ukraine, just as it is France, not The France.

The symbols and colors have many meanings. Some are:

Symbols    drawings of symbols (will open in a new window)

Sun, circles- life, warmth and the love of God
Swastika- a common motif for happiness, blessings, good fortune and good will.
Tripod- a solar symbol known from Trypillian times meaning a trinity: birth, life, death; man, woman, child; the magical number 3
Star or rose-usually 8 pointed but also 6 and 5 pointed in ancient times signifying purity, life, the giver of light, the center of all knowledge, beauty, elegance and perfection; the eye or divine will of God, symbol of God's love for man. Today sun and cosmic symbols signify happiness, prosperity and good fortune
Triangles-a trinity; formerly air, fire, water or the heavens, earth and air. Now the Holy Trinity is meant.
Lines-unbroken to not break the thread of life
Sieve-dividing good from evil
Basket-contained knowledge, motherhood, the giver of life and gifts
Rakes-rays from the sun, reference to harvest
Spirals-divinity or immortality
Grape vine-continuity, good fellowship and strong, loyal love; as the wine of communion-the love of God and of Christ for mankind
Deer- leadership, masculinity and victory
Horse- an ancient sign for the sun, believed in ancient times to pull the sun across the sky; therefore, wealth, properity, speed and endurance
Ram- perseverence, dignity, leadership and strength
Rooster- coming good fortune, for men it predicts a rich married life with many children
Hen- fertility
Spider-patience, artistry and industry
Hen's feet-protection of the earth toward her young; guidance of the young in their search for knowledge
Horns-nobility, wisdom and triumph over problems; an implication of manhood and leadership
Wolves' teeth-loyalty, wisdom and a firm grip
Churches-appeared at the time of Christianity, used only in western Ukraine
Birds- precursors of spring
Fish- symbol for Christ and Christians
Netting- separating good from evil
Crosses-in many shapes, usually to represent Christ's suffering
Meander lines- eternal life
Ladders- prayer and rising to Heaven
Wheat- generous harvest
Pine needles- eternal life
Dots- stars and constellations
Flowers- wisdom, elegance and beauty
Leaves and flowers- life and growth


White-purity, virginity, innocence and birth
Green-renewal, spring, hope, health and victory of life over death, freedom from bondage
Yellow-light and purity, harvest, warmth, wisdom, youth
Orange-endurance, strength, ambition, the everlasting sun, the red of passion tempered by the yellow of wisdom
Red-a positive color for passion, action, fire, spiritual awakening, divine love, used especially for children and youth
Black- constancy, eternity, used with white as respect for departed souls, also fear or ignorance
Purple- fasting, faith, patience and trust
Brown- mother earth, bringing forth bountiful gifts
Blue- blue skies, life-giving air, is a talisman of good health
Pink- success, contentment
4 or more colors- family happiness, peace and love

As you can see, most design elements can mean many things and are rooted in tradition. I enjoy making all of the traditional type designs as well as contemporary ones. I explain the basic process in the How to section. Although I am not Ukrainian and not a traditional artist except in process, I do make use of some traditional motifs and greatly enjoy creating my own interpretations of traditional and geometric designs. I have many contemporary designs of my own and also would be glad to work with you on any design concepts you may have.

Want to know more?

Ukrainian Eggs by Ginny Decorated Eggs
Pysanky Showcase Decorated Eggs and Dyes, History and Explanations
The Ukrainian Gift Shop Supplies
ToDeirdre.com Free ebook on pysanky by my soul sister-excellent information also pysanky and paintings!

PYSANKA: Icon of the Universe by Mary Tkachuk, Marie Kishchuk, and Alice Nicholaichuk, 1977, Ukrainian Museum, 910 Spadina Crescent East, Saskatoon, Sask, Canada S7K 3G9

UKRAINIAN DESIGN BOOKS: 1,2,3 & 4 by Natalie Perchyshyn, Luba Perchyshyn, Johanna Luciow and Ann Kmit 1984, 1986, 1995.
Eggs Beautiful by Johanna Luciow, Ann Kmit and Loretta Luciow
Ukrainian Easter Eggs and how we make them by Ann Kmit, Loretta Luciow, Johanna Luciow and Luba Perchyshyn. Ukrainian Gift Shop, Inc., 2512 39th Avenue Northeast, St. Anthony Village, Minnesota 55421

Sixty Score of Easter Eggs by Zenon Elyjiw, Rochester, New York, 1994.

Copyright 1999 Barbara Novak