Ukrainians have an ancient springtime tradition of intricately decorating eggs. This art form, called pysanky, has taken on special meaning and urgency this year, due to the war in Ukraine. Now, experts and newcomers are sharing this art to raise money and good wishes for the Ukrainian people.
Sarah Bachinger is from Round Lake, New York. She runs a group called Pysanky for Peace, which sends proceeds from workshops to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.
“The workshops I’ve been doing in my local area have garnered so much interest,” Bachinger says. “People have seen this type of work before, but have never really looked into how it’s done in the history and culture behind it. So there’s been a very big increased interest in how this work is done and how it relates to Ukraine and Ukrainians.”
Bachinger says that the workshops have brought people together — both folks who grew up with this tradition, as she did as a Ukrainian-American, and those who are learning for the first time.
“The community aspect that has kind of sprouted from this is just really beautiful,” she observes. “It’s just creating a space where people can come together to the table and learn from each other, focus their intention on something good, and just relax and connect.”
Bachinger is also organizing exhibitions of pysanky; the first opens at the Wenham Museum in Wenham, Mass on Apr. 16. “We’ve received pysanky from Florida to Alaska,” Bachinger enthuses.
Pysanky look like they could have come straight out of a fairy tale. These eggs are gorgeously colored, from bright pastels to regal red and black. It looks as if they’ve been meticulously painted with mesmerizing designs — swirls and curls, tiny geometric patterns, deer and flowers.
But they’re not actually painted, Ukrainian-American ethnographer and artist Sofika Zielyk explains. You write the designs on the egg, using melted beeswax and a stylus, and then dip the egg in colored dye, repeating the process over and over again to get your desired result.
“It’s a wax resisting process, batik on an egg,” Zielyk explains.
Zielyk is curating an installation of these eggs at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City. People are sending her pysanky from all over the world, as a symbol of hope against the Russian invasion. She says this tradition of decorating eggs goes back thousands of years.
“During the winter months, the days grew shorter and it was dark longer. People just assumed that the sun god was angry with them and was leaving them. So to bring him back,” she continues, “they decided to give him a gift. And each year, around springtime, they had this special spring ritual.”
Zielyk says that they believed that the egg had magical qualities.
“Number one, birds fly in the air,” she says. “They’re much closer to the sun than people are. People couldn’t catch the birds, but they could get their eggs, and people thought when they held the egg in their hands, they could harness a little bit of the power of the sun. Number two, the yolk reminded the people of the sun, and it was a way of paying tribute to him. And the third most important reason of all the rooster was the sun god’s chosen creature. He was the only creature that the sun god listened to, because when the rooster crows, the sun comes out — and very often a rooster can come out of a chicken egg.”
The people would decorate eggs with symbols — a pine branch for fertility or a deer for strength, for example — in hopes that the sun god would grant them their wishes. And when the area we now call Ukraine became Christianized in the 9th and 10th centuries, people started assigning Christian ideas to this pagan springtime tradition.
“So the ritual egg, which asked for the sun god to come back, now became the symbol of Easter and Christ’s defeat over death, rising from death,” Zielyk says.
Sarah Bachinger notes that as Ukrainians immigrated all over the world in the late 19th and early 20th century, they carried this tradition with them — which may have saved the artform.
“During the Soviet era, under Stalin, he was trying to stop and eradicate any type of religious practices,” Bachinger explains. “So pysanky were also banned because they were so deeply connected with Easter. The diaspora kept the tradition alive.”
These days, people often treasure their pysanky for years. Sofika Zielyk says that traditionally, however, they were ritually made every spring, and then used as talismans.
“They were blessed at Easter, and then there were uses for them,” she explains. “Eggshells were incorporated in cattle feed to make the cattle stronger. Eggshells were buried in the garden to have a better harvest. An egg with an eternity symbol was placed in beehives so that there would be continuous honey. If a child died during the Easter season, a pysanka would be placed in the coffin, so the child had something to play with. When a house was being built, a pysanka was put on the four corners to protect against evil spirits.”
Zielyk says that when the end of the war comes, she will bring all the decorated eggs from her installation to her ancestral homeland.
“We’re going, we’re going with hammers and nails…And these eggs are coming with us,” she says firmly. “Symbolically, they will be dug into the fields. They will be put in people’s houses as they’re being rebuilt. This will happen. This definitely will happen.”
Just as it was for her ancestors, these eggs will be part of Ukraine’s rebirth.